Environment and the New Humanism

*Adapted from an address given on April 22, 2007, as part of “The New Humanism” conference held at Harvard University.

I want to begin by paying two personal tributes, first to Paul Kurtz, one of the global champions of this freedom movement we call humanism, and second to Tom Ferrick, Harvard University’s recently retired humanist chaplain and our local champion and pioneer. Both led us through the period in which humanism was not so easily defined and its enduring merit not so easily discerned in the sea of religious belief surrounding us. Now the atmosphere is changing. America better understands secularism, but it has a long way to go to fully accept it.

According to the extensive 2006 Gallup poll sponsored by Baylor University, 25 percent of Americans are at least mildly secularist. Most of these have a view that could be called deistic or agnostic; they concede at least the remotely possible existence of a deity or deity-like creator, but they believe that this entity has no connection with us. It may have started the universe–it’s a kind of cosmological god, as I call it in my 1978 book, On Human Nature, as opposed to a biological god, one that intervenes in our affairs at a personal or species level. Three to 4 percent of the total population is atheistic (that’s within the 25 percent) and the rest are part of what we usually call the “faith community.” An AOL poll, also taken in 2006, revealed that 51 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution, and probably almost all for religious reasons. Something like 15 percent more have doubts about it. A 2004 Newsweek poll found that 55 percent of Americans, 83 percent of whom identified as evangelical Protestants, believe the Bible to be literally accurate.

Gazing out at this metaphysical landscape where America sits, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss what a few others and I like to call the “new humanism.” It contrasts with the assertive and well-argued brief for atheism recently advanced, for example, by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They say what has been heard before, at least in fragments, but they say it boldly and confidently. They respond to the contemporary intrusion of militant religious dogma into our political and private lives as something to be combated frontally and aggressively. It isn’t my style, but I salute this newly influential military wing of secularism and humanism.

This new atheism, as it’s been dubbed, is more than a defense line. It’s a bold movement forward that will help validate humanism and give it a place at the table of public discourse. But what I’m interested in is the new humanism. It’s an approach no less skeptical than militant atheism, but is, at least as I have conceived and practiced it, based on finding common ground. Call it the diplomacy wing if you will. The common ground comprises issues that transcend religion and personal beliefs, are vital to human welfare, and for which indisputable fact can be made manifest. The religious faithful, including fundamentalist evangelicals, can’t simply be dismissed as stupid people. Like everyone else, they are human and therefore are more likely to listen if an argument is given with courtesy and respect, and accompanied with a request for help. Likewise, they are more likely to consider reading about a different worldview if it is linked to a transcendent issue, offered in a spirit of friendship and collaboration. The great issue of our time, the environment, is such a transcendent issue.

It is also, as you know, the topic of my 2006 book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, for which I took a decidedly new humanist approach. To the believers I said, let us talk. Let us try to be friends and, without proselytizing, find common ground.

Since publishing The Creation, I have in fact formed many new friends within the faith community, including evangelical leaders and laity, and in other Judeo-Christian denominations. I’ve lectured at one Baptist university, and I’ve met leaders of the Mormon Church, at their invitation, in Salt Lake City. I’ve also helped organize an ongoing collaboration between evangelical leaders with leaders in environmental science and activism to address issues of the environment jointly.

One reason I put a lot of hope into forming this alliance was because I was reared in the Southern Baptist Church and know the culture. But equally, I had in mind what I call “the New York effect.” If you can make it in New York, the song goes, you can make it anywhere. So I thought of the evangelicals as the place to start. (Not with those doctrinally easygoing and quasisecular Unitarian Universalists!) The evangelicals have a strong ethic but one farthest removed from secularism. We may not like what it’s based on or where it leads them on many social issues, but it is a passion ideally independent of ordinary ambitions and economic greed. It is one group you can count on, once they’re committed to an ethical position, for intense and sincerely felt and expressed support.

In the course of this venture, I’ve been enormously impressed by the variety of religious opinion, even across what one considers conservative groups, and the fluctuation, stopping short of course of the fundamental dogmas of religious faith. There is wiggle room, for example, in the split now occurring in the evangelical community between hard-right conservatives versus centrists and liberals (of course the latter must be relatively defined). The split is against some of the leaders, a relatively small group of rigidly dogmatic evangelicals who have acquired a lot of power through megachurches and radio and television talk shows. But I don’t believe they are typical of the evangelical movement as a whole.

Although its positive impact was much wider than I had expected, I’ll admit that my primary purpose in writing The Creation wasn’t to promote humanism. I had an entirely different ambition: to save biodiversity by bringing people of all beliefs into the environmental movement; to get them to pay particular attention to the rest of life on Earth. Speeches and books even by the “greenest” of our spokesmen in this country are usually directed to climate change, to shortages of water, and to other looming crises for humankind. They have relatively little to say about the rest of life, a large part of which is vanishing before our eyes.

I have felt an urgent need to help correct this imbalance. I thought conservationists ought to be able to recruit the faith community in doing so, sidestepping or at least postponing the differences that have led to the culture wars. After all, Judeo-Christians have every reason–it’s written right there in the Bible–to regard stewardship of the living world as part of their magisterium. They just haven’t paid much attention to it. So I spoke to them about biology and conservation. Then I held my breath, so to speak, and waited. The effort has proved successful for the most part. The response from much of the religious community has been strong and encouraging. Among humanists, Paul Kurtz, to my relief, gave The Creation a wonderful review (the closest equivalent we might expect to a papal imprimatur), and I’ve had no objection at all yet from fellow scientists, most of whom are secularists.

So now let me present the opening paragraphs of the book, The Creation, published in September 2006. It’s intended to abate the culture wars, including perhaps even the contentious issues surrounding evolution. To recall an old evangelical hymn, let us meet at the river.

Dear Pastor,We haven’t met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. As a boy in Alabama and Florida, I too answered the altar call; I went under the water. Although I no longer belong to that faith, I’m confident that if we met and spoke privately of our deepest beliefs, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and goodwill. I know we share many precepts of moral behavior. I write to you now for your counsel and help.

[Let me break here to say, parenthetically, that if you want to enter a discourse with the religious majority and really make them listen to biology and the fact of evolution, you don’t say, “You poor, ignorant fools, you’re harming America!”]

Of course, in doing so, I see no way to avoid the fundamental differences in our respective worldviews. You are a strict interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture. I am a secular humanist. For you, the glory of an unseen divinity; for me, the glory of the universe revealed at last. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You found your final truth, I’m still searching. I may be wrong, you may be wrong, we may be both partly right.Does this difference in worldviews separate us in all things? It does not. You and I and every other human being strive for the same imperatives of security, freedom of choice, personal dignity, and a cause to believe in larger than ourselves.Let’s see then, if we can, and you are willing, to meet on the near side of metaphysics and declare a truce in the culture wars in order to deal with the real world we share. I put it this way because you have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope that you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living Nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or political dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity.Pastor, we need your help. The Creation–living Nature–is in deep trouble. Scientists estimate that if habitat conversion and other destructive human activities continue at their present rates, half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century. A full quarter will drop out to this level during the next half-century as a result of climate change alone.

Surely we can agree that each species, however inconspicuous and humble it may seem to us at this moment, is a masterpiece of biology, and well worth saving. Each species possesses a unique combination of genetic traits that fits it more or less precisely to a particular part of the environment. Prudence alone dictates that we act quickly to prevent the extinction of species and, with it, the pauperization of Earth’s ecosystems–hence, of the Creation.

You may well ask at this point, Why me? Because religion and science are the two most powerful social forces in the world today, including especially the United States. If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved. If there is any moral precept shared by people of all beliefs, it is that we owe ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthful environment.

Well, having spoken thus to the pastor as the book opens, I then invite him (and the general reader as well) to examine the full panoply of biology, including evolution. Will this work? It already has in ways I find more than a little encouraging.

Shortly after the book came out my friend Eric Chivian, a cofounder of the Nobel prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility, thought it might be a good idea to carry the message directly and physically to the evangelicals. So he got together with his friend, Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, to discuss this approach to the environment. He and Cizik then invited me for lunch at the Cosmos Club in Washington to discuss the issues. We soon agreed, “Let’s have a retreat with a larger group.” And so in late 2006 a dozen of the principal evangelical leaders in this country and a dozen scientists, including Jim Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of Conservation International; and Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, met at Melhana Plantation near Thomasville, Georgia, for two days of intense discussion.

We were all nervous at first, but soon located the common ground we sought. Friendships were made. And I helped write a covenant–yes, we call it that–with a brilliant young Baptist professor of theology from Union College in Jackson, Tennessee whose name is David Gushee. That was edited and signed by everyone present. We next held a press conference in Washington, DC, on December 17, 2006, to launch a joint environmental initiative. Meanwhile the volume of mail I’ve received from the faith community has been large and almost completely favorable. I’ve been invited to speak at special events within the evangelical world and at conferences that are bringing scientists and evangelicals together. This personal response, I knew, amplified efforts already underway among some evangelicals and members of other Judeo-Christian denominations, to promote environmental activism.

In particular, during the year following the publication of The Creation, I visited Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, which has been called Ivy League of the Southern Baptist Conference. It is, in fact, a strongly sectarian college based upon the faith, just as Notre Dame and Holy Cross were based upon Catholicism, and Harvard University was long ago based upon a strict puritan doctrine. They all have evolved. Even Samford is said to be less tied nowadays to fundamentalist Baptist doctrine than in its early days. For several years previously, as a native son, my name had come up to give a principal lecture at Samford, but I was turned down as “too controversial an atheist.” With The Creation, however, I was welcomed. It was marvelous to see this happen. We stayed away from doctrinal differences and talked about what the religious can do, what Southern Baptists can do, what scientists can do, and what both might accomplish together. As at the Melhana conference, we discussed what needs to be added to the evangelical activities and teachings of denominations like Southern Baptism to help save the living environment. The moral argument for saving the creation might be added to the ordinary agenda for regular sermons at all churches, a step that has rarely occurred until now.

Consider this: once you put on the table that you don’t agree with evangelicals in many basic beliefs but that you have something deeply in common with them on which we should all be working together, the mood changes entirely. I’ve found it wonderful to form friendships with people that I thought would otherwise stiffen up when I got close to them.

We can all evolve, and now with added impetus perhaps we can also coevolve.

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