Secular Humanism 2.0

by Kevin S. Baldwin

I recently found myself in the unusual position of almost agreeing with Michele Bachmann. Wait: Before you stop reading this or welcome me to the fold, let me explain. I was reading a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about Bachmann's enthusiasm for the ideas of Presbyterian Pastor Francis Schaeffer and his disciple, Nancy Pearcey (The LA Times article was informed by a New Yorker piece ). Basically, they all believe that the secular humanistic values that developed during the Renaissance and Enlightenment were bad because they turned people away from the inerrant truth of the Bible. If only we could turn back the clock to the Middle Ages (cue Monty Python's “bring out your dead”)!

Bachmann “How could I agree with this?” you may ask. I didn't really, but it got me to thinking that maybe what's wrong with secular humanism is not secularism nor humanism, but that its humanism as practiced, is to the exclusion of other species and a disregard for the biogeochemical processes upon which we all depend. No, I am not suggesting eating crunchy granola, while holding hands, singing “Kumbayah,” and celebrating Gaia. Looking backward to the Middle Ages or even to pagan times isn't the solution to what ails us: Looking forward to a more inclusive, humble, secular humanism may be.

To the extent that reductionistic science has allowed us to focus on components and variables that we can understand and manipulate to our benefit, and economics has allowed us to ignore the resulting negative externalities, we have dramatically improved some aspects of our lives at the cost of decreased biodiversity and altered biogeochemical processes. When the blind spots of science and economics have reinforced one another, the result has not always been good. When science and economics have hybridized in a complementary manner, the results have been more productive, e.g., environmental economics and biomimicry.

We are pretty successful at isolating individual variables, and manipulating them to see how they affect a simple system. We are not so great at understanding how multiple interacting variables can affect an outcome in a complex system (see Thalidomide). Another example of our shortcomings might be failing to predict rare but serious drug interactions. Yet another example is the story of the World Health Organization parachuting cats into Borneo to reestablish ecological order after DDT spraying led to a rat & caterpillar population explosions through a complex chain of events.

To avoid the kind of cultural solipsism that is so easy to slip into in the early 21st century, I keep the following quote from David Abram's (1996) “The Spell of the Sensuous” (Vintage Books) close at hand: “Many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or ‘mind’, not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of along with the other animals and plants, the mountains and the clouds.” Can this broader conception of awareness be rehabilitated and updated for our own time? Can we make decisions while acknowledging we are embedded in a landscape of other creatures and entities?

Science and Economics (with its step-sister, Business) are two of the more prominent areas of inquiry that emerged from the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Many of the things that we consider to be progress over the last few centuries have happened as a result of their contributions. Unfortunately, many unintended consequences (e.g., overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, peak oil, and global warming) have also resulted. These could be considered the bitter fruits of Secular Humanism 1.0.

Bringing the best science and business practices together could help us to continue to maximize progress while minimizing its consequences for future generations and other species: A kind of Secular Humanism 2.0. Entrepreneurial spirit tempered by an appreciation of the strengths and the weaknesses of both industrial capitalism and the scientific method, a more wholistic accounting that avoids externalities, and a system of ethics that extends to other species may serve future generations better than what we are currently doing. Innovators and decision-makers who take into account a triple bottom line of “Ecology Equity Economy” or “People Profit Planet” instead of strictly thinking in terms of shareholder value and quarterly earnings statements may give us a fighting chance against the challenges that lie ahead: Certainly better odds than a return to medieval theocracy.