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Signposts for Humanism

Posted on October 28, 2007 in Agnosticism Compassion Folly Watch

square397The equalizing reality of the fires spreading across the wilderness in my neighborhood prevented me from keeping up with my science reading. As I panned over that net-landscape, two stories stood out as being very similar to each other and having something to say about the behaviors that I witnessed among those who chose to stay.

The first story told of a Duke University anthropologist who spoke of the need for magic as a tool for fending off the feelings of worthlessness and inequality:

People believe in magic for all sorts of reasons, Makhulu said, including the desire to accrue wealth or advance in life, but the belief also says something about a deep-seated human desire for equality.

“When people say they believe in magical forces, they believe in magic that can make the world equal and just in circumstances where it’s not,” Makhulu said. For some, “witchcraft is about recuperating what is ethical, just and moral.”

“We need enchantment in our lives because our world has become disenchanted,” Makhulu said. “We need faith that promises something bigger and better than what we have.”

Unfortunately, many skeptics will find in this more material to deride magical thinking and, by extension, the people who use it. What needs to be conveyed (as Paul Kurtz and others understand) is that the humanist movement considers equality central to its doctrine. And it must deliver, first by avoiding derision and second by educating. I have seen atheists, for example, say in one sentence that atheism does not stand for language which demeans others and then, in the next, crack a joke about religion. Barbs about intelligence are also frequent. This simply has to stop: the need that magic seeks to fill must be granted its own fulfillment within humanism (which is not the same as simple atheism or simple agnosticism). People must be made to feel that by joining the humanist movement that they have become brothers and sisters within a greater cosmos of belief.

Expect this story to be misunderstood and mischaracterized if it gets out to the world, both by skeptics and nonskeptics.

The second story examined “existential dread” or fear of death:

Psychologists Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University ran three experiments to study existential dread in the laboratory. They prompted volunteers to think about what happens physically as they die and to imagine what it is like to be dead. It’s the experimental equivalent of losing a loved one and ruminating about dying as a result.

Once the volunteers were preoccupied with thoughts of death and dying, they completed a series of word tests, which have been designed to tap into unconscious emotions….

The volunteers who were preoccupied with thoughts of death were not at all morose if you tapped into their emotional brains. Indeed, the opposite: they were much more likely than control subjects to summon up positive emotional associations rather than neutral or negative ones. What this suggests, the psychologists say, is that the brain is involuntarily searching out and activating pleasant, positive information from the memory banks in order to help the brain cope with an incomprehensible threat.

This helps explain why my neighbors and I turned the watching of the fire into a party. And it can explain why martyrdom is such a turn-on for many people, why there are so many positive associations among believers in divinely inspired conscience. The question is do atheists and agnostics think of death much? If they do, what positive associations do they make? Or do they simply choose not to think about the inevitable?

I’m not going to attempt an examination here: that’s for someone else to describe. But if atheism and agnosticism do not offer some kind of positive answer for the person struggling with death then they will not gain in numbers by much. Boom! You’re dead! just doesn’t cut it even if it is true.

Here’s a woman who wants to put “In God We Trust” in every California city hall. If we do trust in God, why all the cruise missiles?

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