Humanism’s Moral Depths: An Abraham and Isaac Story for Nonbelievers

The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac poses a crucial test for believers.  If God commanded you, as he did Abraham, to slaughter your own son, would you do it? If, like Abraham, you’d plunge a knife into his chest, then congratulations!  You’ve passed the test! Your faith is true, your priorities correct, and you understand the kind of unquestioning devotion that God demands of us. That, presumably, is the moral of the story: unthinking obedience above all.

The story pits devotion to God against basic moral decency and celebrates the subjugation of the latter to the former. This speaks volumes about the value system at the heart of the so-called “Abrahamic” faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So what if you have to traumatize your son, or even kill him, to win God’s favor? The former is temporary, the latter is forever. What’s a child’s life worth, next to eternal salvation? The Bible’s answer is clear: not much.

In fairness to the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths, most would fail God’s test. They don’t allow the official priorities of their faith to derange their value systems so completely. For this, we can thank goodness. (No, really: copycat expressions of Abrahamic devotion would presumably be much more common were it not for our innate, and evolved, sense of goodness.) Of course, those of us with a functioning moral compass are apt to regard Abraham as having failed a basic test of moral decency. Celebrate Abraham for traumatizing his son? Now that’s crazy, not to mention morally abhorrent! The Abraham story is a litmus test for us, too.

The story of Abraham and Isaac compels believers to reflect on the relative importance of two cherished values—care for family and obedience to God. Which value, it implicitly asks, is more fundamental? The Bible itself clearly celebrates Abraham’s priorities, urging believers to adopt a similar ordering of values.

Can a comparable story shed light on the priorities of humanists? Imagine the following actually taking place: one fine day, the clouds open up, and God appears, manifestly there for all to see. He (assuming he’s male) descends to earth, speaks to us, and apologizes for being hard to reach. He performs miracles at will and cheerfully submits to a battery of scientific experiments. Incredulous scientists come up with ingenious ways of testing his supernatural credentials, and again and again, the results come back positive: God’s properties turn out to be utterly unlike those of the natural entities we’ve come to know. Science and Nature publish articles detailing the findings, and God’s existence becomes a matter of scientific consensus. The ranks of believers swell dramatically. Imagine, however, that controversy still rages on the atheist blogs.  Lifelong atheists are split, some renouncing what they now regard as the “failed hypothesis” of atheism. A small minority issues frantic calls for atheists to stand their ground.

The story, of course, brings core humanist convictions into conflict. Suppose you had to choose between your commitment to atheism and your commitment to open-mindedness (or if you prefer, your commitment to being responsive to the evidence)? Which, it implicitly asks, is the more fundamental conviction?

What would you do? I know what I’d do: I’d believe. I dislike being proved wrong, but I’d get over it. I’d swallow my pride and do the epistemically responsible thing. Why? Because I’m a humanist; evidence persuades us.

I don’t think I’d be alone. We can say, with utter confidence, that the overwhelming majority of humanists and atheists would do the same. Why? Because our commitment to open-mindedness runs deeper than our atheism. Impassioned “new atheists” are often accused of being as dogmatic in their unbelief as believers are in their belief. Atheism, some say, is just another religion. But is this true? The accusation’s absurdity can be dramatized by imagining how truly dogmatic atheists would respond to the situation.

Suppose that a band of hell-bent atheists rally to defend their worldview. “True atheists,” they tell themselves, do not lose their resolve in the face of evidence. Their commitment can withstand such shocks. These (imaginary) “true atheists” take pride in their tenacious conviction, and compile a set of stories honoring the strength of their heroes. One of these tells the story of Skepticus, the father of true atheism. Skepticus was there when God descended from the clouds. He examined God personally, and replicated all the relevant tests. The evidence became overwhelming, but heroically, Skepticus held out. He refused to believe, always demanding more proof. Imagine Skepticus being revered for his heroic closed-mindedness, as Abraham is celebrated for his heroic obedience. Perhaps the story of Skepticus becomes a litmus test for inclusion in the ranks of the “true atheists.” If you can’t show similarly skeptical resolve, say the true atheists, we don’t want you in our club.

If atheism were a religious stance, this is what it would look like. But of course, this is not how atheists respond to evidence. In fact, the scenario is patently absurd. This testifies, I think, to the injustice of the “dogmatic atheism” charge.

We humanists, then, are unlikely to face the question of whether doctrinaire atheists belong in our club. But we can pose the hypothetical question: If we did have to make such a decision, what would it be? I advocate an inclusive humanism, and generally urge humanists not to exclude anyone who is open to being persuaded.   But I would, somewhat reluctantly, exclude our imaginary doctrinaire atheists.  Why? Because they’re resolutely unpersuadable. You can have a productive conversation with someone who is open-minded, but you can’t with someone who isn’t. Far better, in other words, to flip the “true atheist”’s litmus test on its head, the same way we inverted the Abraham-and-Isaac test. Skepticus didn’t pass a test for true atheism, he failed a basic test of humanism.

This thought experiment shows us what I think is important about humanism: atheism is not central to who we are. Open-mindedness, on the other hand—the willingness to be persuaded—is essential. Our primary commitments are to open-mindedness, inquiry and evidence. Our atheism, where it exists, is secondary.

Commitment to open-mindedness is a curious thing, for openness appears to be the very opposite of commitment. The two seem to be in zero-sum tension: more of one looks to necessitate less of the other. What does it mean, anyway, to be committed to openness? That we’re resolutely irresolute? That we tolerate even intolerance? That we avoid commitment? That we avoid unconditional commitments? And what of our commitment to open-mindedness? Is it conditional or unconditional? Does a conditional commitment even count as a commitment?

There is a profound puzzle here, and humanist integrity—and humanist courage—demand its solution. How can we be resolutely open-minded, and still have the courage of our convictions? In coming installments of Brainstormin,’ I’ll take a closer look at the nature of humanist conviction, and explain how it differs from theistic faith. For in this difference lies humanism’s signature contribution to human civilization. Civilization desperately needs humanism’s solution to this puzzle, for it is the key to a sustainable future. We humanists must learn to regard it with justifiable pride, and champion it without apology.