Surely one of the biggest barriers keeping humanism from being a more prominent force in the United States is its nontheistic character. Two relevant surveys provide compelling proof that Americans just don’t feel good about openly rejecting belief in a divinity:
- A University of Minnesota survey in 2006 found atheists are the most distrusted and disliked minority group in the country.
- An American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) from 2001 indicates that over 13 percent of the population identifies as secular/nonreligious, but only 1 percent identify as atheist, agnostic, or humanist.
The University of Minnesota results no doubt help to explain the results of the ARIS survey. That is, the fact that atheists are so vilified explains why only less than 1 percent of the population will identify as atheist, even though over 13 percent will identify as secular/nonreligious.
For humanist activists trying to advance their worldview in a culture that discourages open nontheism, there have traditionally been two ways of dealing with this issue. Some do so by trying to hide the nontheistic nature of humanism, avoiding discussion of nontheism with the hope that maybe nobody will notice it. This approach rarely works, however, because most discussions of humanism with nonhumanists inevitably result in the question: So are humanists atheists?
Another way to address the issue is to attempt to improve the public’s perception of the atheist identity. This is a worthy goal, and surely it should be encouraged. Given time, the image of atheism in America might improve, as people slowly realize that atheists are more likely to be found in research labs than in prisons or drug hideouts. But this approach, even if it works, will take time, and one must consider whether other strategies might be possible.
This question of atheism, and specifically how the public’s poor image of atheists makes the advancement of humanism difficult, became a topic of discussion with a friend at a recent conference. Her response pointed to a third way to address the issue: “When people ask me about atheism,” she said, “I just tell them I consider myself post-theological.”
How brilliant, I thought. Rather than discuss and debate the existence of God, she focuses attention on the concept of theology itself. She dismisses not God, but the entire notion of theology as an area of inquiry that is worthy of consideration. By calling herself post-theological, she isn’t making the rejection of God-belief the key ingredient in her identity; she is pointing out that, from a historical perspective, theological inquiry itself is no longer a valid means of finding truth or morality.
In fact, my friend’s historical view of theology is accurate. Before humans reached the level of intelligence necessary for theological inquiry, our ancestors were in what might be called the “pre-theological” stage. Like other animals, our distant ancestors lacked the intelligence necessary to achieve theological thought. But at some point in our historical development humans became intelligent enough to ask deep questions about the world, such as: How did we get here? Who made this place? Why does the sun rise, and why does lightning strike? What happens to us when we die? These are big questions that can only be asked by an animal with remarkable intelligence.
Interestingly, though the human animal became smart enough to ask such deep questions, it wasn’t smart enough to answer them accurately. And that’s where theology came in. Lacking true scientific knowledge to answer these deep questions, humans instead speculated, inventing myths, superstitions, and tribal doctrines to provide answers. In doing so, they left the pre-theological stage and entered the theological stage of their development.
It’s noteworthy that humans aren’t the first animals to reach the theological stage. Scientists tell us that our older cousins, the Neanderthals, buried their dead and had religious relics that suggest that they also asked deep questions that required theological answers. Hence, we can see that theological speculation is a natural stage in the development of extremely advanced animals.
It’s also noteworthy that theology, once invented, had significant survival value as a human institution. That is, the religious rituals and beliefs of a clan or tribe became imbedded in its culture, helping to bind the in-group together and separate it from out-groups that had different beliefs and rituals. And as human organization and civilization changed, becoming more complex, theological concepts have been able to adapt and change as well, always serving numerous social and political purposes. This process continues even today.
From pre-theological to theological, the human species still faces another stage in its development. As it continues to acquire knowledge and understanding of the universe, the human animal finds that it is answering many of the deep questions that were once left to religious speculation–questions of universal origins, natural history, the development of life, and the explanation of natural phenomena. In fact, having filled many of the gaps in knowledge that were once explained by religion, and having confidence that the remaining gaps can be explained without religious superstition as well, some humans now conclude that the entire theological approach no longer has relevance. Such humans are reaching the post-theological stage.
From the standpoint of a humanist activist, it’s important to recognize that the post-theological view is one that focuses on the big picture, not the singular issue of the existence or nonexistence of a divinity. In fact, the post-theological view can even acknowledge the psychological inclinations that are common in a still-theological society, where religious belief has traditionally been widespread. Since the vast majority of us grew up in households that were theological, we recognize that the transition from the theological mindset to the post-theological mindset isn’t easily made, at a personal level or societal level.
Because of this recognition, and because the post-theological view is not one that must overtly attack the notion of God itself, the umbrella of post-theological identity can be a big one. As the 2001 ARIS survey showed, very few who were raised in our theologically inclined society will openly accept the “atheist” identity, even though over 13 percent will identify as not religious. But it’s likely that many who aren’t religious would gladly accept the term post-theological as a less threatening alternative.
In fact, one can even have a post-theological outlook while acknowledging a personal psychological tendency to sympathize with theistic notions. So long as one recognizes those notions for what they are–psychological leftovers from the recent past–one can associate with the post-theological movement without a feeling of inconsistency.
Open rejection of a divinity is very difficult for most Americans because “God” has personal characteristics that are often etched deeply into the psyche. To some who were raised in a religious environment, there can be a feeling that the concept of God, and even more specific concepts such as Jesus as the son of God and the Virgin Mary, are an integral part of one’s being, making the direct rejection of them possible only for the most disciplined and rational.
But an indirect rejection, via the embrace of the post-theological way of thinking, is less personal and perhaps allows for the psychological wiggle room that many find necessary. If that’s difficult to grasp, consider the following alternatives. It’s relatively rare that one hears a typical American state: “I’m a lapsed Catholic–I consider myself an atheist” because the label “atheist” is so scorned. But that same person saying: “I’m a lapsed Catholic–I consider myself post-theological” might not be so hard to imagine.
The post-theological identity should be seen as an umbrella term, one that includes not only those who openly identify as atheist, agnostic, and humanist, but also many of those 13 percent, and possibly more, who are simply ambivalent and apathetic about religion. With these natural allies joined under the same umbrella, movement-building can only be made easier.
David Niose, a lawyer in Massachusetts, is a board member and the treasurer of the American Humanist Association and facilitator of Greater Worcester Humanists.