Over the past three months a running battle between Karen Armstrong and Sam Harris has been raging in the pages of Foreign Policy Magazine, a spirited back-and-forth questioning the value of God and religion for human beings. Harris’ response to Armstrong’s long article focuses, predictably, on the worst excesses of religion and on the negative effects it has in the world, but I want to take on another aspect of Armstrong’s argument. Armstrong claims that:
Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.
While it is certainly true that “we are meaning-seeking creatures”, Armstrong commits a colossal non-sequitur here: in saying that, because “the quest for meaning continues…God isn’t going anywhere”, she implies God is the natural and only possible route to a meaningful life.
Countering this bizarre narrative should be a major task of the New Humanism. First, the proposition is empirically false: there are multitudes of committed Humanists and Atheists who live lives rich with meaning and do not experience any semantic lack stemming from their godlessness. Second, there is no reason to believe that a life without God is inherently or necessarily less meaningful than a life with God. Depending on how you interpret the nature of God, it could help bring meaning to your life, or could mire you in despair at the senselessness of fighting against His will (as Hamlet opines, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will”). Similarly, while rejecting belief in God might lead to debilitating Nihilism, it can also give rise to a life-affirming Humanism which embraces the dignity and worth of every person. Indeed, embracing the worth of secular rituals which bring depth and significance to the process of human being is the subject of Deborah Strod’s article on TheNewHumanism.org.
Armstrong writes, in her answer to Harris’ response to her article, that
Religion is…about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe.
Exactly the same could be said of Humanism. Let’s show Armstrong the truth of this.