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Some Varieties of Secular Humanist Experience

Book Review 
Ian Johnston

Francis Crick, Of Molecules and Men
Great Minds Series
Prometheus Books 2004

Paul Kurtz, Affirmations: Joyful and Creative Exuberance
Prometheus Books 2004

    If modern secular humanists ever set off in search of modern poster children to advance the cause, they could do far worse than select Francis Crick and Paul Kurtz, both of whom, in their different ways, have contributed so much to advancing and defending secular humanism, especially at a time when surprising and unwelcome developments have often put that approach to the world on the defensive.  If nowadays we need to rally secular humanists in the face of new challenges, then the publication of these books is indeed useful. Each one on its own offers an excellent introduction to its famous humanist author and to some challenging humanist ideas.  The two taken together also provide an interesting partial sense of the range of modern secular humanism.

Francis Crick, the foremost biologist of the twentieth-century, devoted his professional life to providing a secular, rational understanding of the mysteries of biology, an endeavour which brought him spectacular success in his own work and in the projects his discoveries prompted other scientists to undertake, many with his energetic assistance. His death (in July 2004) was followed by an outpouring of generous tributes from scientific colleagues around the world.

Of Molecules and Men, based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Washington, was first published in 1966, four years after Crick received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine (with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins), for their work culminating in the famous paper in 1953 announcing the structure of DNA, whose opening sentences, written by Crick, have become a classic of British understatement: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid. . . . This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” The context is interesting in retrospect, given that the rising humanist hopes of the mid-1960’s in places fills Crick’s prose with an optimism he might wish to qualify nowadays in these less heady times (then again, given his character, perhaps not).

The central issue of the lectures is the question “Is vitalism dead?”  Crick explores this question in three stages. First, he lays out what conditions a natural phenomenon must meet in terms of established scientific processes in order for us to consider it as something living.  For Crick, vitalism is a common but instantly confusing way of implying “that there is some special force directing the growth or the behaviour of living systems which cannot be understood by our ordinary notions of physics and chemistry.”  People are most inclined to resort to vitalism, he asserts, when they run into difficulties, especially in differentiating living from non-living phenomena, explaining the origin of life, and accounting for consciousness.

At this early stage, Crick defines his position as an enthusiastic scientific reductionist, who has no room for anything other than scientific facts (“When facts come in the door, vitalism flies out of the window”), a position he maintains with characteristically assertive confidence and an often incisive contempt for any other suggestions (there is plenty of evidence here to back up James Watson’s famous opening sentence in The Double Helix: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”).

The second stage of Crick’s argument is a review of the biology of the simplest living things, a rapid but clear and useful summary of the chemistry and physics of DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis, in order to dismiss the need for any additional vitalist causes.  And he ends the book with what is, from our perspective almost forty years later, a particularly interesting discussion of future prospects in biology, an exercise which allows him to express his thoughts on, among other things, the place of religion in education, on the debates about computers as analogies for human consciousness, and on the future of vitalism itself.  The latter question, he has no doubt, will be fairly quickly resolved in favour of the reductive scientific method he is advancing, leaving vitalism only to a “lunatic fringe” and “cranks.”

Crick’s prose is clear, fast, energetic, frequently amusing, and always interesting.  And for all the times he calls attention to how little we still know about some things (consciousness, in particular), his confidence never flags. Nature is there for us to understand. If we attack it with the right weapons and tactics (the military metaphors are prominent in places), victory will be ours.  It would be difficult to find a better example of one central feature of a good deal of modern secular humanism: its brisk, no-nonsense self-confidence in its own preferred scientific ways of understanding the world and its quick contempt for objections, particularly religious objections.

That feature of the style raises a lingering question I have, not only about Crick, but about this style of secular humanism in general.  It puzzles me sometimes why so many scientific humanists believe that the appropriate way to deal with religious belief is to assault it, to define is as something radically antagonistic to science, or to dismiss it with an airy wave and a gibe.  For it seems scientifically reasonable to me to speculate that a religious disposition might well have a significant survival value (a point central to William James’ famous lectures on religious experience), and if we assume (as some scientists have already suggested) that heritable factors are at work in making people disposed to religious belief, we have an orthodox Darwinian explanation (something at the core of the secular humanist’s understanding of the world) for the refusal to accept Darwinian theory.

Such a claim might alter the tone of the debate and perhaps encourage us to redirect our energies away from attacking religion directly towards the more important task of protecting the various safeguards (many under growing threat) we have in place for guarding our public and private spaces from invasion by religious doctrine and other forces (such a program might well involve providing friendly reminders to those proselytizing on behalf of such doctrines about why we instituted these safeguards in the first place).

To be fair to Crick, of course, he is writing as a scientist debating a narrowly defined scientific issue and is not setting out to offer a wide-ranging humanist perspective on social and political issues.  Nonetheless, his prose (like that of his colleague Richard Dawkins) defines a take-no-prisoners attitude to the core issues, a reminder of the aggressive polemical commitment which led him to resign his fellowship in Churchill College in 1963 when the college accepted money for the construction of a chapel and declined Crick’s offer to fund a whore house instead.

One has to wonder, however, how far that rhetorical stance advances the humanist cause outside the university.  We might do well to remember that secular humanism is neither an easy nor an especially popular way of looking at the world.  It asks people to accept an understanding of their own lives which most of them are simply unwilling or unable to attempt for a variety of reasons, one of which is that Darwin’s narrative (for all the enthusiasm of the famous final paragraph of the Origin) appears to offer no spiritual consolation or sense of wider purpose of the sort many people clearly need.  And we are not going to counter that fact by reforming the way we educate citizens in science (something obviously dear to Crick’s heart).  After all, a great many scientists are themselves sincerely religious.

Nor, as citizens in a democracy, should we be surprised or annoyed when religious groups organize themselves to exert an influence at the ballot box.  As President Bartlett observed, decisions are made by those who show up, and elections have consequences.  That is how the system we believe in is supposed to work.  If we grow alarmed at the result, that’s a call for us to act on behalf of our own beliefs, to undertake the practical political work necessary to sustain those freedoms we cherish.  Attacking the bona fides or the sanity of those we disagree with or bleating about the Bush strikes me as inherently counterproductive, a contribution to the polarization of the electorate so much in the news these days.

Given the above observations and our general situation today, the publication of Paul Kurtz’s Affirmations is welcome and timely. Although a good deal of its contents will be familiar to those who know Kurtz’s work already, this eloquent and comprehensive summary of humanism as “joyful and creative exuberance” is a stirring and useful manifesto, both for humanists themselves and for those wondering what modern secular humanism amounts to in practice.

Central to Kurtz’s message is his well-known term eupraxsophy (“good practical wisdom”).  There’s a deliberate echo of Aristotle here (his term was eudaimonia, widely, and somewhat inaccurately, translated as happiness), and the strength of Kurtz’s affirmation rests on its central Aristotelian emphasis that the most fully realized and fulfilling human life comes, not from seeking out happiness or fulfillment or whatever or from following other people’s leads in a spirit of passive obedience or resignation, but from living up to a self-imposed standard of excellence in everything we do, from loving our partners to acting on behalf of planetary humanism or taking care of our own health.  What matters here is not conquering the mysteries of nature with the concentrated assault of modern science but conferring value on individual human existence and infusing it with joy.  These qualities emerge from the activities themselves; they cannot be sought out and seized on their own.

Kurtz sees secular humanism as the most appropriate response to however we wish to view our condition.  Yes, science is an extremely important part of that response, but it is not the essence of it.  Kurtz is prepared to concede (as Crick is not) that life may be an irresolvable, even a tragic, mystery.  We may never be able to reduce life to physics and chemistry, to neurons or junk DNA.  But that’s not the point.  The dignity and value of that life come from the way we actively respond to our fate, acting as autonomous rational moral agents, not from the extent to which we are successful at explaining that fate away.

Life, from this viewpoint, is neither an inexorable progress towards a better future nor a passive acceptance of a more or less uncomfortable status quo (with or without promises of future improvements in this life or the next).  It is a challenge best met by a commitment to the fundamental principles of secular humanism, which urge us to strive for excellence and nobility in all our actions as individuals, family members, and citizens. 

Affirmations, one should note, is not a sustained argument but a short manifesto, in many places little more than an abbreviated check list.  This style allows Kurtz to include a huge number of activities in his field of vision, but it inevitably makes the treatment of any one item extremely cursory, so that at times the book reads rather like a Dale Carnegie self-help pep rally.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, of course, provided one remembers his overall purpose, which is not so much a reasoned defence of secular humanism as a reminder to secular humanists of the value of the enterprise, a short statement of their best and brightest hopes.

In the coming years we can be certain that many of those rational ideals so cherished by secular humanists will continue to come under attack, particularly, of course, separation of church and state, privacy, free enquiry, economic justice, tolerance, human rights, and reasoned discourse with strangers.  That these developments pose a challenge to secular humanists (and others) is obvious enough.  Paul Kurtz’s manifesto is a healthy and energizing reminder of why the principles of secular humanism matter and of how we can enrich our lives and the lives of those around us by making them matter in action: “Say not the struggle naught availeth/The labour and wounds are vain. . . .”


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