it is also a strand of the liberal intellectual tradition that attempts to answer the canard that godlessness means immorality.
It’s no secret that nonbelievers still grapple with social stigma.
By focusing on a “100 percent celebration of life” and being “radically inclusive,” according to Sunday Assembly’s non-creedal creed. They’d rather befriend a Christian than argue about faith and reason. “When it comes to daily life, ideas are not the thing that matters; human connection matters,” said Nichelle Reed, who helped found Chapel Hill’s Sunday Assembly.
Sam Harris’s 2004 best-seller, “The End of Faith,” compared religion to mental illness and dismissed even religious moderates as dupes of a “dilution of Iron Age philosophy.” More recently he’s gotten interested in promoting science as a universal moral guide.
Morality depends on “the totality of facts that relate to human well-being, and our knowledge of it grows the more we learn about ourselves, in fields ranging from molecular biology to economics,” Mr. Harris told me. He has stressed the special role of his own field, cognitive science. Every discovery about the brain’s experience of pleasure and suffering has implications for how we should treat other humans. Moral philosophy is really an “undeveloped branch of science” whose laws apply in Peoria just as they do in the Punjab.
Pragmatist philosophers like Philip Kitcher offer a different approach to the question of atheist morality, one based on “the sense that ethical life grows out of our origins, the circumstances under which our ancestors lived, and it’s a work in progress,” he said. In the pragmatist tradition, science is useful, but ethical claims are not objective scientific facts. They are only “true” if they seem to “work” in real life.
“Successful experiments” — the trial and error of weighing self-interest against the needs of the community — “built the human conscience,” Mr. Kitcher wrote in his 2014 book, “Life After Faith.”
But nonbelievers should pay attention. Atheism, like any ideological position, has political and moral consequences. As nonbelievers become a more self-conscious subculture, as they seek to elect their own to high office and refute the fear that a post-Christian America will slide into moral anarchy, they will need every idea their tradition offers them.
Yet modern secular humanism is also a species of 21st-century liberalism, and many of its adherents have absorbed the modern liberal tendency to shy away from ideology in favor of a message of nonjudgmental inclusion. Mr. Harris worries about any secular humanist who upholds “tolerance, above all, as the master value,” he told me. “What that person doesn’t see is that these irrational beliefs he’s refusing to criticize are of huge consequence geopolitically and personally — and are themselves sources of intolerance.”