May 2008

The Post Theological Umbrella

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group

by Craig Wilkinson, MD

David Niose is a lawyer in Massachusetts. He is a board member and the treasurer of the American Humanist Association and facilitator of Greater Worcester Humanists.

He believes that the non-theistic character of humanism is one of the biggest barriers keeping humanism from being a more prominent force in the United States. Most Americans just don’t feel good about openly rejecting belief in a divinity. A University of Minnesota survey in 2006 found atheists are the most distrusted and disliked minority group in the country. An American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) from 2001 indicates that over 13% of the population identifies as secular/nonreligious, but only 1% identify as atheist, agnostic, or humanist.

For humanist activists trying to advance their world-view in a culture that discourages open non-theism, there have traditionally been two ways of dealing with this issue. Some do so by trying to hide the non-theistic nature of humanism, avoiding discussion of non-theism with the hope that maybe nobody will notice it. This approach rarely works, however, because most discussions of humanism with non-humanists inevitably result in the question: So are humanists atheists? Another way to address the issue is to attempt to improve the public’s perception of the atheist identity. This is a worth goal, and surely it should be encouraged. Give time, the image of atheism in America might improve, as people slowly realize that atheists are more likely to be found in research labs than in prisons or drug hideouts. But this approach, even if it works, will take time, and one must consider whether other strategies might be possible.

The question of atheism, and specifically how the public’s poor image of atheists makes the advancement of humanism difficult, became a topic of discussion with a friend at a recent conference. Her response pointed to a third way to address the issue: “When people ask me about atheism,” she said, “I just tell them I consider myself “post theological”. The brilliance of this idea is that by calling oneself “post theological” you aren’t making rejection of God-belief the key ingredient in your identity. You are pointing out that, from a historical perspective, theological inquiry itself is no longer a valid means of finding truth or morality.

The historical facts confirm this as an accurate world view. Before humans reached the level of intelligence necessary for theological inquiry, our ancestors were in what might be called the “pre-theological” stage. Like other animals, our distant ancestors lacked the intelligence necessary to achieve theological thought. But at some point in our historical development humans became intelligent enough to ask deep questions about the world, such as: How did we get here? Who made this place? Why does the sun rise, and why does lightning strike? What happens to us when we die? These are big questions that can only be asked by an animal with remarkable intelligence.

Interestingly, though the human animal became smart enough to ask such deep questions, it wasn’t smart enough to answer them accurately; that’s where theology came in. Lacking true scientific knowledge to answer these deep questions, humans instead speculated, inventing myths, superstitions, and tribal doctrines to provide answers. In doing so, they left the pre-theological stage and entered the theological stage of their development.

As the human race continues to acquire knowledge and understanding of the universe, we find that we are now answering many of the these deep questions, Questions of life’s origins and evolution through science and studying the evidence of natural history all around us. We have discovered and now understand the great forces of the universe, like gravity, electricity, magnetism, nuclear energy etc. We understand what lightning is and why the sun shines. We now know that we are not the center of the universe. We have filled many of the “gaps” in our knowledge and can replace myths and stories with facts. We find more and more that the theological approach to these deep questions no longer has relevance. We are reaching the “post theological stage” of human development.

Open rejection of a divinity is very difficult for most Americans because “God” has personal characteristics that are often etched deeply into the psyche. But an indirect rejection, via the embrace of the post theological way of thinking, is less personal and perhaps allows for the psychological wiggle room that many find necessary.

The post-theological identity should be seen as an umbrella term, one that includes not only those who openly identify as atheist, agnostic, and humanist, but also many of those 13%, and possibly more, who are simply ambivalent and apathetic about religion. With these natural allies joined under the same umbrella, movement-building can only be made easier.


This information was handed out at the April General meeting of the Humanists of Utah by our speaker Jeffrey Nielsen and was prepared by Jeffrey and the Democracy House Project.

Democracy means to me both a form of government and, along with John Dewey and others, a way of public and private life.

As a form of government it means a government formed by consent of the governed and deriving its authority continuously via popular sovereignty from the people–where the ordinary citizen both directly and indirectly through their chosen representatives, exercises the powers of government. Those powers are mediated through a constitution, which both specifies the purposes, functions, division’s and limits of government as well as provides a framework for the rule of law and for basic rights which each person should have equal privilege to enjoy.

As a way of life, democracy is the recognition that the true governing class of society is the ordinary citizen. Ordinary citizens who are regularly engaged in the development of political literacy and who live with the expectation of frequent and meaningful participation in self-government at the neighborhood, local, state and national levels.

As a way of life, citizens in a democracy reject the merely “theatrical role” permitted them by those who claim political power, where citizens may get indignant and protest, while government reserves decision-making and action for itself. Democratic citizens will claim their rightful place in government.

As a way of life, democracy is an important aspect of human life–where we exercise our talents and energies with a healthy sense of power and responsibility.

As a way of life, democracy is acceptance of the following truths:

  • Only in community can we live meaningful lives and achieve human flourishing.
  • Only in democratic communities can we achieve the security and freedom required for each person to possess the equal liberty to enjoy human flourishing.
  • The moral meaning of democratic community is that ordinary citizens are wise enough and good enough for self-government.
  • The moral foundation of democratic community is the peer principle that states, “We each possess the equal privilege and liberty to speak and we each share the equal and reciprocal obligation to listen.”

To begin to create such democratic communities within our country and a democratic community of our country will require three things:

  1. Education in political literacy;
  2. Creation of new and innovative paths to more direct participation by ordinary citizens;
  3. Patient persuasiveness.

Democratic Thinking consists of:

  • Understanding the peer principle along with the moral meaning and foundation of democracy.
  • Understanding the democratic attitudes and values required for successful self-government (Attitudes of Respect, Sincere Listening, Truthful Speaking, Commitment to Dialogue and Values of Openness, Transparency, Participation, and Shared Competence).
  • Understanding the basic terms of democratic community – liberty, equality, rights, law, and authority – and their right relation in a just society.

Democratic Relating consists of:

  • Conscience–where we understand and recognize our own cognitive biases and fallibility.
  • Sincerity–so we can learn to listen across differences of opinion and values.
  • Integrity–develop consistency between our thoughts, words, and deeds and learn how to articulate values in a fair and persuasive manner

Democratic Deliberating means there must be:

  • Respectful conflict resolution.
  • Basic critical thinking skills (how to evaluate arguments, evidence, and information sources including the media and political speech).
  • Peer-based deliberation skills to be able to form consensus in groups and arrive at well-reasoned decisions.

Democratic Engaging has five basic points:

  • The basic forms of democratic governments and constitutions: direct democracy and indirect democracy (representative democracy): presidential/congress and parliamentarian, along with an understanding of the nature and functions of the separate branches of government; such as, executive, legislative, and judicial.
  • The institutions of democracy: Free press; market economy, public education, etc.
  • The levels of government from the local community level all the way u to the federal level and how law and regulation are made, and how together they form the public policy of the various governing institutions; and how to be engaged as a citizen lobbyist to demand real participation in the creation of public policy.
  • How to network and get involved with local community groups in order to participate actively in public life and find new ways to be engaged at the grassroots level.
  • Create your own “living room democracy.”

For further information and discussion of this vital and interesting topic you can visit the KETTERING FOUNDATION Kettering collaborates with community groups, government agencies, scholars, and activists around the world, much of their work centers around public deliberation and the work of weighing the costs and benefits of various approaches for action against the things people hold most dear.

Also the NATIONAL ISSUES FORUM is a network of civic, educational, and other organizations, and individuals, whose common interest is to promote public deliberation in America.

–Bob Mayhew

President’s Message

Summer is rapidly approaching, and Humanists of Utah will be heading into our recess for June and July. We will not be having a general meeting or a Discussion Group during these two months. While we call it a recess, many of us have a hard time giving up our activities, so we have in the past had a “Movie Night.” This year we plan to have two movie nights on the same night that our regular meeting would be on. Suggestions are welcome, and so far we have a few movies in mind, Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and Waking Ned Devine. The movie choices and time and place will be announced in the June Utah Humanist. I’ll be bringing my decadent popcorn (plenty of salt and butter) and we’ll have some other treats–you can’t have movies without goodies. Please join us for a relaxing get together.

Although activities are cut back, the Darwin Day committee members will be getting busy with planning and working on the 2009 bicentennial Darwin Day event. Again I ask that you consider helping us with the many tasks that are part of making this event a success. Please contact any board member if you can assist. Also, it is my pleasure to announce that the AHA Chapter assembly approved our grant application and sent us a check for $2000.00 to use for our “Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah.” This will be very helpful to our efforts, but hosting an event of this kind requires considerable financial resources, so we also ask that you consider a donation to help with our efforts.

I don’t often get much feedback from you folks out there, so I was happy when I did get a couple of emails and a call or two in favor of the suggestion that we have a “Thomas Paine Day” as our other special yearly event. Setting the record straight about the founding fathers and their activities in our history is important. This event will be smaller in scope than Darwin Day and is still preliminary in planning.

Several people have asked about a dramatization of Thomas Paine they saw on KUED a few years ago. I found and purchased a copy of the KUED production “Thomas Paine” which was done by Hans Petersen. Perhaps a showing of this can be part of a Forum about the Constitution. In January 1995 Hans presented a version of this one-man-play to Humanists of Utah. A report is available on our website. Go to the Site Map, choose 1995 index and you will find it under January.

I’m looking forward to the summer and the events we are planning and hope to see you soon.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU