Secularism: Minnesota Atheists Responds to David Brooks

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

Photo of David Brooks speaking and gesturing.

David Brooks recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about what he views as the perils of secularism. Several media outlets, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, picked up his article. The president of Minnesota Atheists had a rebuttal published in the Sunday, February 8 edition of the Star Tribune. Two other rebuttals were also written by Minnesota Atheists board officers: Stephanie Zvan (associate president) and August Berkshire (director-at-large). All three rebuttals are printed below.

By Eric Jayne:

In his Feb. 4 column, David Brooks suggests that religions provide moral philosophies that, when combined with a love for God, motivate people to be good and experience greater fulfillment. Secularism, according to Brooks, provides no moral guidance, no sense of community, and no motivation to “compel sacrifice and service.” As a former evangelical Christian, practicing social worker, and current president of Minnesota Atheists, I have a different view.

Secularism fosters a culture of free thought and careful consideration of moral philosophies, including those from the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). Religious instruction, on the other hand, commands unwavering devotion to ideas that are commonly embedded into the minds of young and highly impressionable children.

Without a secular worldview, it would be a crime to be gay (Leviticus 18:22). We would be forbidden to wear blended fabrics (Deuteronomy 22:11), and we would physically beat disobedient children to death (Exodus 21:17). Long before the Apostle Paul preached about the immoral hazards of women teaching men (1 Timothy 2:11-12), humans have been fine-tuning all kinds of moral codes of conduct.

Nevertheless, Brooks complains that secular-based enlightenment is a perilous path to take in pursuit of moral action. But I think Mark Twain’s secularist perspective is more truthful: “If man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.

Brooks ended by suggesting that only “enchanted secularism” will motivate people to action. Organized atheist groups like Minnesota Atheists and Humanists of Minnesota have a different view. Primates, including humans, evolved traits for cooperation and compassion from a long process of Darwinian natural selection. Helping others is a natural human urge, and groups like ours provide an outlet to connect secularists with other secularists and to serve our community with a variety of volunteer service projects. You can call it enchanted secularism, but I like to call it positive atheism in action. []

 By Stephanie Zvan:

In his February 4 New York Times column, David Brooks displays a touching concern for the moral development of secularists. As one of that substantial and growing minority of people raised without religion, let me put his fears to rest. As it turns out, the landscape outside America’s churches is not a wilderness stocked only with wolves for caretakers.

My parents did not stop being parents with their decision to raise their children without religion. They still shared their values and moral thinking with their children. In fact, interestingly enough, they chose not to raise us in their childhood churches because these churches promoted moral stances intolerably in conflict with the ethics they had somehow managed to develop on their own.

Nor did my parents have to break trail to share their ethics with us. From Sesame Street to Free to Be You and Me to the children’s section of the library, it turns out that much of the media created for children concerns itself with interpersonal ethics. It’s almost as though children learning to get along fairly with other human beings is a preoccupation of society as a whole.

In addition to my parents, plenty of other adults worked hard to provide the moral framework that Brooks is concerned I might lack. It started with my kindergarten teacher and continued with every adult I encountered who hoped to reduce the amount of time they spent mediating between squabbling children. It continues now with people, both within and without the secular movement, who are working to make the world more fair.

So relax, David Brooks. Those of us without religion are in good hands. Sure, we don’t always agree on our ethical principles, but neither do religious sects. We even have the opportunity to update those principles based on better information without fighting the history and authority of a church to do so.
Don’t worry about us. We’ll be just fine. []

By August Berkshire:

The headline of David Brooks’s February 4, 2015 Opinion asks, “Can one be good (enough) without God?” A better question to ask would be, “Can we be good with God?”

While Brooks lauds religion’s prepackaged morality, he fails to point out that it is often very difficult to change a revered past. Hence we continue to have religiously motivated sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, science denialism, suicide attacks, corporal punishment for children, child brides, and other sexual abuse.

Yes, religious books also contain good morals, but since both the good and bad are believed to be handed down by a god, it must be something other than a god that decent people use to separate the good from the bad. What could that be? Why, our own evolution-supplied sense of empathy. Because what most humans share is not a “spiritual urge” but rather empathy. This is why the “Golden Rule” has arisen independently in dozens of cultures throughout history.

Imagine a mother with two children, a girl and a boy, and the girl starts hitting the boy. Does the mother say, “Stop hitting your brother because it says not to in our holy book.”? No, at that instant gods and religions are the furthest things from her mind.

Instead she might say, “Stop hitting your brother, you’re hurting him.” (Consequences.) Or, “Stop hitting your brother – how would you like it if someone hit you?” (Empathy.) These are the things that naturally occur to the mother to say. Consequences are how we should judge our actions and empathy is why we care in the first place.

Anything helpful does not need to be justified by a god-belief. Only harmful things need to be propped up by a belief in an invisible (and undetectable) being. The six most frightening words in the English language are, “God told me to do it.”

What we don’t need is for things to become “hotter” (and more irrational) spiritually. What we need is the calming, reasonable voice of atheism. []

Minnesota Atheists

Positive Atheism in Action Since 1991