Pyrrho’s skepticism and Epicurus’s fearlessness of gods and mortality fueled fascinating discussions in CoPhi yesterday. So did the latest David Brooks’ column,* which said in part:
“It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”
Brooks is right that atheism needs to do for SOME of its adherents what religion does for SOME of its, namely affirm and even “radiate.” In fact, for many of us it already does so.
Brooks is wrong (again), to suggest that secular traditions are weaker than their religious counterparts in this regard. Indeed, they have generated a historical legacy of ethical and spiritual wisdom that is arguably much stronger. Three philosophers have quickly responded in that vein. And a minister has called Brooks on his strange insinuation that there are no skeptics among conscientious religionists.
To the Editor:
Re “Building Better Secularists” (column, Feb. 3):
David Brooks says secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies, while religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.
Secularists don’t have to “build” anything; we can choose moral philosophies from what’s already well tested. If religious people think that their “faith” excuses them from evaluating the duties and taboos handed down to them, they are morally obtuse.
Does Mr. Brooks think that religious people are not “called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions”? Children may be excused for taking it on authority, but not adults.Mr. Brooks writes, “Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him.” We secularists have no need for love of any imaginary being, since there is a bounty of real things in the world to love, and to motivate us: peace, justice, freedom, learning, music, art, science, nature, love and health, for instance.
Our advice: Eliminate the middleman, and love the good stuff that we know is real.
DANIEL C. DENNETT
The writer, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is co-author of“Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.”
How presumptuous of David Brooks to instruct us “secularists” on how to live the moral life. We have to build our own moral philosophies? Nonsense. I learned mine from my atheistic parents and from teachers throughout my education (not to mention Aristotle, Kant, Mill and the many other moral philosophers I studied).
We have to reflect on spiritual matters? No, I reflect on the injustices in this world, why so many children in the United States go hungry, and why centuries of violence continue to persist in the name of religion.
In place of the religious spiritual life, we atheists may be enraptured by a Beethoven symphony, moved by the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, enchanted by a Rembrandt portrait. We have to build our own Sabbaths? No, thanks; I’ll spend my secular weekends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attending a New York Philharmonic concert or rereading “A Theory of Justice,” by John Rawls.
The writer is a professor of bioethics in the department of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
To the Editor:
David Brooks says “secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.” He overlooks the persecutions and holy wars that have resulted from communal religious fervor.
As a lifelong secularist, I doubt that the emotion-based communal moralism of religion is really something we secularists should emulate.
FELICIA NIMUE ACKERMAN
The writer is a professor of philosophy at Brown University.
To the Editor:
David Brooks nicely describes the limitations of secularism, but he falls into a common misunderstanding of religion when he says “you either believe in God or you don’t.” But religion or faith is not that simple. God is not some idea that you believe is either true or false. Faith is not so coldly rational.
Doubt is a central aspect of faith. Yes, I believe in God, but I can never be certain. By suggesting that you either believe or not, Mr. Brooks accepts a fundamentalist view of religion. Doubters need not be secularists: Religious communities welcome them — indeed, we need them.
Highland Park, Ill.
The writer is a Mennonite minister.
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