Secular Grace

Deconversion, Humanism, Secular Grace

Secular grace is a proactive acceptance, love and caring for our fellow human beings person to person.

Secular humanism has a ways to go to catch up to religious organizations in regards to building community and facilitating deep human connection. Religion has had centuries and sometimes millennia to fine-tune their strategies. Some of their strategies have been manipulative and others have been genuine. One of the manipulative strategies is easy to induce guilt in the guise of sin against a deity. One of the more effective and genuine strategies is simply loving acceptance sometimes called grace.


Find out more about Secular Grace. Looking for Secular Humanist Graces (saying grace)?

Secular Grace is a major theme of the Graceful Atheist Podcast

When I was a Christian I was a grace junkie. I became a Christian because of grace and I stayed a Christian much longer than I would have without my understanding of grace. I understood on a deep level my need for acceptance. I saw it as equally important to give grace to other people. I still do.

Many atheists hate the term grace for a number of reasons.  For one, the implications of both substitutionary punishment and substitutionary atonement are offensive. The idea that someone can be punished for another’s crimes is heinous as are the implications of human sacrifice.  Atheists also don’t like the term because it implies people are broken in some way and are in need of fixing.  The very idea of sinfulness has dark implications about how one feels about oneself. Lastly, atheist balk at the idea that people can do anything immoral and then just repent/confess and all is forgiven. Is that really moral?

Christians will argue atheists are reacting to the “offense of the cross,” without really thinking through the implications because to them atheists are actively rebelling against God. They cannot begin to comprehend how someone would reject such a wonderful offer sometimes while simultaneously condemning atheists to hell.

So let’s remove the theological implications of grace for a moment.  At its best, grace is about being accepted and loved for who you are as you are. I believe there is a deep human need for this kind of acceptance and love. One of the great draws to religion is becoming a part of a community that cares for you. Our need for human connection does not go away when we discard belief. In fact, that may be the time of our greatest need.

So is grace about being forgiven by an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent god? Or is it at its heart people caring for people? I realized after deconverting that it is very much about the latter. And since then I have noticed more and more that religious organizations are leveraging their communities to bring people into their doors. It is the people and not a deity that provide meaning and connection.

Humanism is the idea of being good and ethical without the need for a god. I propose an addition to humanism: secular grace. Secular grace is a proactive acceptance, love and caring for our fellow human beings person to person. Humanists being human to other humans.

The concept of Secular Grace acknowledges that there is nothing more valuable, moral or ethical than people loving and accepting one another.

It is summed up succinctly in the South African term, ubuntu:

“I am because you are.”

Secular grace does not assume people are broken. It does not assume punishment is required substitutionary or otherwise. Neither does it necessarily condone peoples’ poor decisions. It does attempt to understand them. But most of all Secular Grace attempts to empathize with people without requiring them to conform to an ideal. This simple act of human kindness is quite powerful.

You do not have to look far for the opposite of secular grace. Many atheists and theist online see it as their personal mission to disabuse each other of their respective positions. I’ll admit debate and argument are a lot of fun. But it rarely actually changes someone’s mind.

I am much more interested in interacting with people who are questioning, deconstructing, on their way to deconverting or have recently deconverted. It is clear to me that this is the group of people who could benefit most from secular grace. People in these positions are in the greatest need of human connection and community.

When a person is considering giving up their belief structure, it is not just their beliefs they are losing. They may be risking relationships with family, careers and their concept of meaning. That is a fragile place to be. They need a listening ear more than cold hard logic.

I am looking for ways to create humanist community. And to help those who are doubting, deconstructing and deconverting through the process.

We need each other and each other is all we need.

You can follow my journey and further discussion of Secular Grace on the Graceful Atheist Podcast.

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Is morality objective and absolute?

Atheism, Humanism, Philosophy

Continuing with my series on presuppositions that lead to credulity or incredulity, I ask the question is morality objective and absolute? Your answer to this question will greatly influence your perspective on the existence of God.

A rock bottom foundational assumption of the theist is that morality must have an objective source. To believe otherwise is to cast oneself into the chaos of moral relativity. C. S. Lewis captures this argument in Mere Christianity. In fact, I suspect that most modern Christians have absorbed this way of thinking from C. S. Lewis if not directly, by osmosis.

Conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver. –C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis argues that because we feel like there is an objective moral ruler that we measure ourselves from it must exist and its source must be God. Now, I will grant, this perspective is understandable. Humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. The question is what is the source of that sense?

The assumption of an objective morality is so foundational that very few believers ever consider to question it. The threat of moral relativism is the specter that keeps them from evaluating its validity. Many arguments between believers and atheists spin round and round in circles because of not understanding each other’s presuppositions on this point alone.

This argument for God based on conscience that C. S. Lewis uses is called the argument from morality. It is important to understand that the assertion of moral order is taken as a given a prori.

Argument[s] from moral order are based on the asserted need for moral order to exist in the universe. — Wikipedia

The argument from objective moral truths for the existence of God goes like this

  1. If morality is objective and absolute, God must exist.
  2. Morality is objective and absolute.
  3. Therefore, God must exist (source: Wikipedia)

Now here is the thing, the second assertion is completely taken for granted. Nothing objective in nature suggests that morality is an absolute. Although differing cultures agree on some basic broad strokes of morality like “murder is bad,” they do not agree on many particulars like the treatment of women, the justification for war, etc.

What is the source of morality?

Back to my statement earlier that humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. How can this be explained without a deity? As in many things believers question atheists about evolution is the answer. Humans have evolved to have a moral conscience. We instinctively know some moral truths, cooperation over antagonism, do not mate with a sibling, murder is bad. This evolved conscience helped the human race survive against its competitors.

Culture then adds on top of these innate moral instincts. Individual cultures value certain morals above others. Some cultures value strength and honor while others value service and humility.

I argue that morality progresses. We as a the human race or even an individual culture recognize past mistakes and make improvements. In short morality itself evolves. The greatest case in point, is slavery. Who today in 2016 would make the argument that slavery is acceptable let alone based on inherent differences in the “humanness” of the races? We recognized this terrible mistake, realized that all humans have inherent worth and abolished slavery to the extent that now anyone who communicates racist attitudes is considered backward and ignorant not to mention morally repugnant.

An evolutionary morality married with progressive cultural mores explains both the similarities and differences in morality between cultures today. In fact, it explains this much better than an objective absolute morality. For if morality is objective how does one explain the change over time?

Christian morality has not remained static through history. The above example of slavery is again my prime argument. I assure you if you are a modern day Christian woman you would not want to be placed in a time machine and travel back to the first century. It would be unpleasant for you. Nor would a Christian of color wish to live in almost any time in history prior to today. Notice also the dramatic change in moral tone from the Old to the New testaments. Morality is fluid and influenced by the surrounding culture whether one acknowledges this or not.

This is why two ethical questions of our time are of great importance: the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter movement. I believe the church is on the wrong side of history on these issues. Why? Because morality progresses. We recognized our mistakes like marginalizing minority groups and we improve. Looking backwards to a 2000 year old document set in the context of first century culture and morality will not help us navigate these modern ethical questions.

On the fear of relativism, morality is relative it always has been. * We must accept that. Even within a particular faith group their are differences of opinion on morality. The very fact that we have different moral intuitions, even among similar faith groups is evidence for the non-existence of an objective moral truth.

Does this mean that we cannot argue between cultures over progress? No. We very much can and should push for progress on the ethical issues of our day. The world is shrinking by the day. We will have to cooperate and we are likely to disagree. But having the debate in the first place is already progress.

Can one be good without God?

Finally, the root of the believer’s discomfort on these issues comes from the assumption that one cannot be good without God. The believer is taught that human beings though made in the image of God are fundamentally broken by sin and incapable of good on their own.

To atheist ears the idea that Christians are moral only because God told them to be is an indictment. If the only thing holding the believer back from a murderous rampage is their belief in a non-corporeal judge, is this goodness?

I have been a Christian. I have held some of the above believer’s opinions. I then met a number of atheists who love their families, contribute to charities and give back to their communities, in short, very good people. I am now one of them. And though, I am still uncomfortable calling myself a good person due to the prior indoctrination, my morality has remained virtually the same. Just a lot less guilt.

* Update: I am entirely too flippant in this paragraph. This post is an argument against the theistic argument that morality is impossible without a god, specifically premise 1 above. It is not a complete theory of natural morality. The point I was attempting to make is that societies’ morality progresses and likely at different rates relative to one another.

I actually do think there are some objective moral truths. Not in the absolute sense but in the sense that humanity as a whole moves towards consensus like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the moral arc of history bending toward justice.” The simplest example is “The unnecessary suffering of sentient beings should be avoided.” I will be the first to admit I have an incomplete theory of natural morality. It is a work in progress for me. As a skeptic I suspect that all moral theories are incomplete.

The thrust of the post is to say that the source of morality is us, human beings, and not a theistic god. We will get it wrong at times but through the process of error correction morality will progress.

 

Watershed Presuppositions

Atheism, Humanism, Philosophy

When I was a Christian I wondered often why many of my peers who were atheists did not believe. And more importantly I questioned why I did believe. We were of similar intellect, social and economic background so why the difference?

I theorized there was some watershed idea, experience or environmental variable that caused one person to believe and another to reject faith.

Now after having a deconversion experience and becoming an atheist myself, I think I have some insight into why intelligent people of good faith believe and others do not.

Culture

Our culture encapsulates us completely. Like a fish that is unaware that it is wet, we are blind to the culture that surrounds us. It influences us in benign and insidious ways. For the purposes of this discussion, let me just point out that the surrounding culture dramatically influences our thinking and perspective sometimes in imperceptible ways.

For me and my likely readers we are a part of Western culture. Western culture has been heavily influenced by ancient Greek thinking. We have many great cultural artifacts from our Greek past including democracy, the Socratic method and geometry.

Dualism

One of the Greek ideas that we could do without is dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the physical and the non-physical exist and may or may not be seen as in opposition to one another. The two major philosophical influences that lead us to dualism are the Platonic ideals and Gnosticism.

In The analogy of the cave Plato argues that the reality we experience is a mere shadow of the true reality. We are like cave dwellers who are looking at shadows on the wall rather than going out into the light and witnessing the reality that causes the shadows. Plato is suggesting that the perfect ideals are the real reality and that the physical reality we experience is crude facsimile of the perfect forms.

From Platonism we get the idea that the non-physical ideals (or forms) are more real than the physical world we experience around us. Let that sink in.

Soon after came Gnosticism which took dualism to the next level. They taught the dichotomy that the material physical world was evil and that the spiritual non-physical world was good.  The flesh is to be despised while the things of the spiritual world were holy.

Relevant to our discussion, the early Christian fathers argued with and against the Gnostics. Much of the early doctrinal creeds had to do with arguing against Gnosticism. Many of the rejected books of the apocrypha are Gnostic books. In spite of this effort, early Christianity was deeply influenced by the Gnostics. The Gnostic influence on Christianity is seen in the ascetic sects which taught the need to flagellate the flesh into submission.

This dualistic perspective has permeated what we call Western thinking throughout history. Dualism to one degree or another has continued to influence our thinking to this day.

It is in the sea of unexamined cultural dualism that most people view spirituality. The non-physical exists and it in some mystical way is more real than the physical reality around them. It is holy. Through the prism of dualism theism is not a huge leap.

To those who reject dualism either intuitively or analytically the physical, that which can be experienced, tested and examined is all there is. For these people theism is a very huge leap indeed.

Presuppositions

The point I am trying to make is that we have a number of presuppositions that lead us either to credulity or incredulity. One’s perspective on theism or atheism does not happen in a vacuum.

It wasn’t so much my rejection of Christianity itself that lead to my deconversion but the eroding of these underlying beliefs. I held on to faith in the resurrection for dear life up until the bitter end knowing that it was a binary choice. Once I admitted to myself I did not believe in the resurrection it was all over. This did not come from a rejection of the “evidence” in the bible because that was all of a piece, a closed system. It came by examining the assumptions that the closed system rested on.

To further make the point, given a certain set of presuppositions it might even be reasonable to have faith in a theistic god. This is why Christian apologists almost always use the same arguments. They are arguing within the closed system that makes assumptions about reality. The atheists who debate with them are speaking an entirely different language based upon an orthogonal set of assumptions.

You may note that I have not shied away from using the term assumption. At some level we must make assumptions. I think math is beautiful in that it conveys rock solid truth. 1+1=2 is True with a capital T. But even mathematics makes some assumptions about reality. For even the concept of twoness is abstract, not two sheep or two apples but two as a concept. It took humanity a while to understand numbers as abstract ideas. It is very easy to fall into an epistemological black hole when discussing assumptions, a hole which I would like to avoid.

Therefore, I would like to posit a number of presuppositions that act as watersheds separating those who believe and those who reject belief. My plan is to write a blog post about each of these in the coming months. We have already talked about dualism here,  and I have written about the soul. I’ll be adding to the list as time goes on. Let me know what you would add to the list.