Take this as a review of a review.
I liked most of Tom Flynn’s review of Greg Epstein’s Good Without God in February/March’s Free Inquiry, but some of it was hypocritical, name-calling nonsense.
First the good:
Greg M. Epstein is the humanist chaplain of Harvard University and, let’s be frank, a young man on the make. He’s an empire builder, a visionary, a charismatic ambassador.
Well that’s a great endorsement of Mr. Epstein. Let’s hear some more:
He’s on the cusp of taking religious humanism by storm, establishing himself as just the sort of driving figure this particular humanist tribe has long hungered for. (emphasis added)
Wait… religious humanism? Right from the start, Flynn starts by defining Epstein in terms of something other than Free Inquiry’s own brand of secular humanism. But let’s look at some more good stuff before we get into this discussion:
Good without God is friendly, accessible, engaging, breezy when it needs to be, and written more like a rollicking business or how-to book than a typical humanist tome. In other words, it’s the sort of thing that twenty-first-century people just growing curious about religious humanism might read.
But there he goes poisoning the well again by throwing that “religious” word in (he actually uses it once more in that paragraph and emphasizes that Epstein capitalizes the H in Humanism).
So what is Flynn talking about, he finally defines religious humanism about halfway through his review, after using the phrase ten times:
Before I go further, I should attempt to define that amorphous phrase “religious humanism.” Religious humanists are first of all humanists – they attach primary moral and aesthetic interest to human concerns as opposed to those of supposed supernatural beings. Nonetheless, in various ways that don’t always travel together, religious humanists approach their lifestance in a manner that’s distinctively religious. [sic] I have defined religion as a “life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.”
He goes on to claim that religious humanists demand faith – “assent less than fully compelled by the evidence in hand.” And while Epstein does use phrasing and is more willing to reach out to the liberal religions, he is by no means espousing blind faith in the supernatural. In regards to God, Epstein has the following to say (on pages 12 and 13-14 respectively):
Those who want to convince us that there is a God, and that a certain religion has access to eternal truth, should be expected – just as Humanists should be – to produce serious, credible, testable evidence in support of their claims.
[In response to his question, what do you believe about God?] Here is the Humanist answer: we believe that God is the most important, influential literary character human beings have ever created.
But Flynn isn’t content to pigeon-hole just the faith-based and “spiritual” humanists into his religious humanist slur, he also says,
Another branch of this tribe has no visible attachment to extra-evidential beliefs; these religious humanists are simply enthusiasts for the sort of congregational community life that many traditional believers (not only Christians) experience in more traditional church, temple, or mosque settings.
Flynn, not seeing the hypocrisy in calling declaring himself a secular humanist while participating heavily in the Centre For Inquiry and acting as editor for Free Inquiry – a Humanist organization and a Humanist magazine. He labels Epstein religious for founding communities, yet remains blind to the congregations he has surrounded himself with. CFI is no less of a church than anything that Epstein has been working toward.
Flynn also thinks many secular humanists will disagree with Epstein’s quote “myth doesn’t always need to be a dirty word for the nonreligious.” Well, I have to strongly agree with Epstein, so long as you understand the definition of myth which generally refers to a traditional story told within a community. It can be true or false, and can be seen as such. Santa Claus has become a secular myth that many atheists have no problem telling their children, who later figure out that not all stories are true.
Epstein never states that all Humanists need to attend “Humanist church” or accept “Humanist dogma.” Flynn poisons the discussion of this book, which he still highly recommends (as do I), by inventing a division between so-called religious and secular humanists.
There is a demand for a communal setting for like-minded people, it’s part of why religion has done so well over human history, even secular humanists are organizing for semi-regular meetings.
Let’s save the phrase “religious humanism” for those humanists who remain part of religious congregations, the Unitarians and some United Church members, and reject Flynn’s mischaracterization of Epstein, a man who just happened to put a friendlier, modern face on what was, until recently, a dyeing ideology.