We need better morals, not better labels
BY ‘Victor Onrust’
The author, who is based in the Netherlands, responds
to Jeff T Haley’s featured article, ‘We Need a Better Label ….’
LET’S start out with approving the fact that we should have a better label. But not before examining what should be the contents of this new label. If it is the same message that goes around with the old labels of “atheism”, “skepticism”, “brightness” or “the church of virus” it will meet with the same kind of success.
The problem with these labels is that morally they all stand for the same value system that I would call some variant of liberal humanism. In my reading of his essay, Haley suggests nothing else. Now what is wrong with (liberal) humanism? Aren’t we all humans? The answer is that morally seen, we’re not. “We” are Christians, Muslims, humanists, socialists, libertarians, “primitives” or whatever.
It is an illusion that we are one of these because we have freely chosen to be so. We were raised in one, and if we are now not a part of it anymore, we had reasons to change. It is not impossible to change from one “we” to another, but in order to do so there are two important conditions to be met.
The first is that one’s present social environment of which one’s belief system is a part (or better: one’s belief-system makes you a part) is open enough to allow such a change. The second is that this other belief system should offer you advantages over your present one.
For this, the fact that a belief system is “rationally more true” is, by far, not enough. There are circumstances that encourage a change, such as real life not being as it should be according to the Book. But in such a situation it remains to be seen whether a secular outlook is the more attractive alternative. Many people are going for some vague spirituality, with an extreme emphasis on individual well being.
Before we can go on we will have to critically examine the notion of a belief system. The strands of humanism assigned by the terms “atheist” and others see themselves as holding a more or less absolute truth. Strange as it may seem, this claim is exactly the one that any belief-system makes. The only difference is that atheists (and socialists) claim their truth is based on scientific knowledge and that theists base their absolute truth on the existence of God. The atheist claim is too bold. Our belief systems, seen as a set of moral instructions, are the result of our culture, our history. They do not flow from raw nature itself but are man-made over a long period and, as such, are fallible.
The first conclusion is that any belief system is just that: a belief. It takes an act of faith to be with it. There is no objective guarantee in “science” that can make this an absolute claim. We can, however, claim that on the scale of scientific truth the humanist belief system scores better than any theist one. However, on the whole I would say the humanist belief system scores pretty weak in relation to the realities of this world.
The main problem is precisely the idea that “we are all humans” and “born equal”. This is in flagrant conflict to the reality of the situation in the world we occupy.
You can tell that without much science. You could say that it is a desirable goal to have equality. But apart from the fact the world could become a rather boring place if this were achieved, this goal could probably never be reached, and in any case it would not provide a good moral foundation for the here and now.
So one of the objectives of a good secular belief system would be that it copes with inequality as a fact of life and perhaps leads us to actions that in the long run bridges the gaps, or makes them smaller. This is a tricky business, because it could easily lead to the justification of Nazism, racism or slavery.
The second shortcoming in liberal humanism is its stress on individualism. It sees the matter of finding and upholding moral standards as a private business, where everybody is responsible for his own interpretation of the “Golden Rule”. No serious movement can exist where members do not share some common mores and hold each other accountable for it.
These shortcomings do not only affect the position of atheists and the like but are the main cause of the deterioration of our democracy, the immorality in financial sectors and the increasing weakness of the West on the world stage.
Since about 2004 I have tried to tackle these problems and find a beginning of a solution to them. The last two years I have done so with a small number of others. I have even thought up a nice label and started a website. During my struggles with these problems I have come to the conclusion that it’s a bad idea to drop another label into some website, make some public noise and wait for the enthusiasts to flock to it. This kind of movement must rely on personal contact and slow growth, especially in the beginning. Websites and public media can only play a supporting role.
A second thought is that, in as far you make public statements these should be pseudonymously. The media have an insatiable appetite for the “person” which will mostly cloud the message or it will not transmit the message at all because the person is not sexy or interesting enough.
Second, pseudonymity should somewhat curb personal interests, from the leaders or writers as well as from the readers or followers. In some situations it might be better to do this in non-public communications as well. Third, it offers some protection against non-verbal opposition. Some ideas could be seen as controversial.
It is for this reason that I have chosen to pen this article under a pseudonym. “Onrust” is Dutch for unrest.
If you are seriously interested in sharing your views on this issue, you can mail me at:
• “Victor Onrust” is a blogger based in Amsterdam, occasionally writing in English (http://onrust.2fd.eu/2013/11/
His Twitter address is @VictorOnrust.