May 29, 2011

Secularism, Theism And The Emergence Of A Global Morality And Civilization

UPDATE:  See Postscript, below.

Currently there are approximately 6.9 billion people on earth.  A conservative estimate of 4.71 billion, approximately 67%, believe in supernatural beings and forces.  Here's a breakdown by religious belief:

Hinduism:  .95 billion
Judaism: .13 billion
Islam:  1.3 billion
Christianity:  1.9 billion
Animism:  .23 billion
Other Theisms:  .2 billion

The remaining 2.19 billion, or 33%, include Buddhists and secularists such as atheists, humanists and agnostics.

Belief in supernatural beings and forces most likely began after our ancestors had invented symbolic speech and language, approximately 100,000BP.  Our ancestors may have begun to think symbolically before this in that there is compelling evidence that other animals - the great apes, dogs, dolphins, and others - also think symbolically though to a lesser degree and effect than humans.

With the advent of symbolic speech and language came the attendant ability to think of and comment in detail on events in the past and present, and possible events in the future.  The ability to consider and discuss these events and their possible causes and effects gave rise to numerous explanations for the origin and workings of the forces of Nature and the objects of the day and night sky.  Among these explanations were the invention of supernatural forces and human-like and nonhuman-like gods.

These notions of events and causes served the adaptive purpose of providing explanations for all that was not immediately and practically comprehensible.  Speculating about the actions of Nature's agents and causes was comforting for the vulnerability and unpredictability of Life.  It was also an effective means for the clever and powerful to more effectively influence and control the behavior of individuals in the group.  It was not a great leap for Humankind to come to believe that perhaps these agents and forces of Nature and the Cosmos could be favorably influenced by human action in the form of appeals and appeasements.

Beginning about 10,000BP such understandings of the agents and processes of Nature and the Cosmos became formalized by religious practitioners.  Buddhism appeared about 7,000BP and Hinduism at approximately 4,000BP.  These were followed by Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others.

The most notable movement away from a total dependence upon and adherence to these beliefs in supernatural deities and powers has been the willingness among many adherents to embrace certain scientific understandings of matter and Life.  Yet even among such semi-freethinking individuals their belief in God and supernatural forces is firmly retained.

Nevertheless, this is a good sign.  For if two-thirds of Humankind, the religious, had continued to believe that absolute truth was solely in the possession of God as described in His holy texts to the total discredit of science, we would be doomed to extinction much sooner rather than later.

The ability of religious believers to embrace large amounts of scientific truth is attributable to a very deep-seated human characteristic - the will to learn and a primal respect for evidence and personal experience.  We, like all other social mammals, are by nature learners and a very large part of that learning is based on the evidence of experience.  In prehistoric times there was insufficient evidence to believe that something other than supernatural agents and forces were driving Nature and the cosmos.  With time and the accumulation of evidence based on observation, trial and error, and experiment, the objects and events of Nature and the Cosmos, explanations that were more closely consistent with our personal experience as social mammals than beliefs that tried to connect us to supernatural deities and forces, have become more and more convincing to ever increasing numbers of people.  The growth of secularism we see in the world today is a continuation of this trend.

The acceptance of certain scientific truths by the religious can also be linked to the efforts of scientists and secularists who have and continue to pursue evidence-based truths despite threats, challenges and acts of persecution and ostracism from religious believers and those wielding political power who receive support from the religious.

The one-third of Humankind who see secularism and human behavior based on scientific knowledge as our best hope to create a sustainable global morality and civilization, our survival as a species and the preservation of the biosphere as a viable habitat are faced with a great challenge - to persuade theists that our future is in our hands, here and now, and not under the control of supernatural Gods and forces created in our prehistoric and ancient past.

To scoff and ridicule all religious leaders as hucksters and all believers as ignorant and stupid is not an effective means of persuading them to incorporate more and more scientific truths into their beliefs and daily lives, something many are already willing to do.  Intransigent religious fundamentalism and zealotry will remain a part of religion for some time.  However, since the mid-19th Century more and more members of the religious mainstream have proven to be willing and capable of embracing more and more of the truths of science and secularism.  It is these billions of mainstream individuals that must be the focus of contemporary scientific, secularistic and Humanistic educational efforts.  With time, as the number of mainstream religious adherents decreases, so too will the ideological cover and direct and tacit support provided to fundamentalists and zealots become weaker.

The approach of patronizing condemnation does not work in the education of children or the training of adults.  What works best is a clear presentation of facts and problems, followed by coherent practical discussions and explanations that fit the facts and help solve the problems.  Evidence and reason will continue to be more compatible with our mammalian and primate inheritance of practical thinking and experiential learning and problem-solving than will supernaturalism.

The current trend toward greater secularism and greater respect for science in the domains of physics, chemistry, biology and human behavior, including morality, will surely continue.  This will go hand in hand with more and more believers embracing science as a means of solving the world's problems of international and inter-cultural conflict, human suffering and indignity, and the degradation of the biosphere.

There are a number of ways we can address and persuade those who believe in the supernatural and thereby more likely achieve a global morality and civilization sooner:
  1. We must continue to trust that the growing wisdom and effectiveness of the United Nations and other transnational bodies will, through binding conventions, protocols and laws, continue to bring the nations and cultures of the world closer together in support of the causes of universal human dignity and democracy.
  2. We must continue the support all ethical scientific research and the technological extension of its findings.
  3. We must continue to vigorously promote improved scientific education, particularly at the secondary school level, and within the global community as a whole.
  4. We must begin insisting that basic courses in comparative cultures and religions be taught as mandatory subjects at all secondary schools.
  5. We must vigorously defend the rights and efforts of freethinking secularists and scientists when they are challenged by religious fundamentalists and zealots using legal ploys, subterfuge, pseudoscience or violence, particularly in the public domains of governance, education, and the treatment of children.
A Class 1 Civilization, according to Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, is one that controls all the energy on its planet.  A Class 2 Civilization controls all the energy of its sun.  Finally, a Class 3 Civilization is one that controls all the energy in its galaxy.  Current estimates of the collective efforts of Humankind so far rate us at 0.72 in our movement toward a Class 1 Civilization.  This is up from the 0.7 estimate of 1973.  [This growth is logarithmic not linear so we still have a long way to go to reach 1.0.]

But the Kardashev Scale is only an estimate of our species' ability to control energy resources.  The concept of "civilization" must entail more than harnessing energy, writes science historian and creator of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer.  Political and economic systems must also evolve, he says:

Fossil fuels won't get us there. Renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal are a good start, and coupled to nuclear power could eventually get us to Type 1.

Yet the hurdles are not solely -- or even primarily -- technological ones. We have a proven track record of achieving remarkable scientific solutions to survival problems -- as long as there is the political will and economic opportunities that allow the solutions to flourish. In other words, we need a Type 1 polity and economy, along with the technology, in order to become a Type 1 civilization.

We are close. If we use the Kardashevian scale to plot humankind's progress, it shows how far we've come in the long history of our species from Type 0, and it leads us to see what a Type 1 civilization might be like:

Type 0.1: Fluid groups of hominids living in Africa. Technology consists of primitive stone tools. Intra-group conflicts are resolved through dominance hierarchy, and between-group violence is common.

Type 0.2: Bands of roaming hunter-gatherers that form kinship groups, with a mostly horizontal political system and egalitarian economy.

In addition to controlling energy and an evolved politics and economics we also need a consensus on a global morality and civilization - one that is forged not only by politicians and economists and informed by secular science, but one that also involves the broadest possible participation of Humankind.  Finding common ground among all nations and cultures on which to build a global morality and civilization and preserve the biosphere will, for now and the foreseeable future, require all of our efforts, that of secularists and the religious.

The idea of "the broadest possible participation of Humankind" in forging a global morality is commonly discussed under the topic of "pluralism."  Twentieth century British social and political theorist Isaiah Berlin addressed this idea very comprehensively and elegantly.  An extract of his last essay where he wrote on the subject in the New York Book Review can be found here.  I see no conflict between Berlin's call for a respect for and acknowledge of the values of all cultures and the idea that a global morality can be forged from them.  He is no relativist.  I also share his rejection of monism, a monolith of authority, whether it be religious or secular, for such absolute authorities on truth restrict human freedom in all its forms, most drastically in terms of freedom of political expression and participation, and the pursuit of knowledge.  A secular global morality and civilization, if we ever achieve one, must be based on the demonstrated merits of the provisional truths of scientific secularism, and must be arrived at, constantly challenged and, hopefully, sustained by the pluralistic participation of all Humankind.

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