Essay: On being post-theological - Psychology Today

On being post-theological | Psychology Today
an essay by the President of the American Humanist Association.

"Of all the ways I've heard humanism described, one of the best was when someone referred to it as a post-theological lifestance. That is, humanism is best understood as a worldview that transcends theology altogether, as not just another alternative in the supermarket of American belief systems.

The "post-theological" concept requires a big-picture view. Since the term itself implies chronological stages, we should first take note that most animals can be accurately described as pre-theological. That is, most animals have never attained the brain capacity to contemplate deep, theological ideas. Even your pet dog, which is comparatively one of the smartest animals in the world, does not ponder many profound philosophical questions as he sits on your back porch.

The human animal, of course, unlike other animals, is not pre-theological. Since humans evolved from earlier primates, at some point in our development we left the pre-theological stage and entered the theological stage. This happened when our distant ancestors developed the brain capacity to ask and contemplate big questions. Where did I come from? What is this place, and how did it get here? What caused that thunder? Why has it not rained lately? What happens when we die? And so forth.

Importantly, we should realize that it takes a remarkably intelligent animal, with very impressive brain capabilities, to ask such deep, abstract questions. But we must also realize that, having asked such questions, our ancestors were not able to accurately answer them - and thus was born theology. (It's noteworthy that humans were not the first animal to exhibit theological thinking - there is evidence that our Neanderthal cousins had primitive beliefs and practices that we might consider religious.)

Struggling through life with such deep questions, seeing famine, disease and death all around, filled with fear and anxiety, our distant ancestors needed answers to these big questions. Therefore, lacking the scientific knowledge that could provide explanations, all human societies developed answers of their own. Though the explanations varied from one society to the next, the general notions of creation myths, supernatural entities, beliefs about death, etc., were common.

Not surprisingly, as the human animal moved from hunter-gatherer to more settled civilizations within just the last 10,000 years or so (a sliver of time on the larger scale of human development), institutions were constructed around the primitive theological ideas that had already been circulating for many millennia. And with the development of writing, those ancient myths and explanations could be more permanently memorialized. Thus was born the holy text.

So how does the concept of being post-theological fit in? Well, if humans entered the theological stage by developing the brain capacity to ask big questions, we can understand the post-theological stage as resulting from our acquiring enough knowledge to finally answer many of those questions.

Starting in just the last few hundred years (a miniscule sliver of time), the human animal has begun to answer many of the deep questions that our ancestors have been asking for many millennia. Surely we haven't answered all of them, but in the span of a few generations we have quickly filled in many of the gaps in knowledge, enough to give us a real sense of where humans fit within the space and time of the universe.

We don't need creation myths anymore, because we have a pretty good understanding of how the Earth formed and how life evolved. We also know that our planet is not the center of the universe - nor is our sun, nor is our galaxy. Though we can throw out numbers to describe the vastness and age of the universe, most of us are incapable of fully comprehending the true enormity of those numbers, yet we at least understand that each is staggering.

We know, for example, that scientists say the universe began with a Big Bang perhaps 13.7 billion years ago (give or take a few hundred million years); that our insignificant planet (more insignificant than we can imagine in the universal scheme) formed about 4.5 billion years ago; and that our species, homo sapiens, came into being little more than 200,000 years ago.

We don't know what, if anything, caused the Big Bang, but there is no evidence to suggest that it was some kind of "super-being with intent." In fact, we know that intent itself is something that comes from a brain, and that a brain is a product of (not a cause of) the natural world. Moreover, even less plausible is the notion that a "super-being with intent" has revealed Absolute Truth to ancient prophets, as many major world religions claim.

The post-theological individual is not deprived of the positive benefits that were derived from theology. From a naturalistic, post-theological standpoint, there is lots of room for awe, wonder, and profound thinking. As Carl Sagan said, each of us is stardust, so humans can be seen as a way that the universe observes itself. Little wonder that most humanists see Sagan as having more profundity and veracity than any biblical prophet.

And from this naturalistic, humanistic standpoint, there is plenty of room for a life of purpose and doing good. In fact, since this one life is our only certainty, the need to live in such a way is more compelling, certainly a better motivator than fear of eternal punishment from an angry mythological God.

With the need for theological explanations of the natural world eliminated, many good, ethical people simply see theology itself as unnecessary. Defenders of theology will play the morality card, suggesting that without supernatural beliefs we will become immoral. But alas, observations of the natural world have demonstrated that the inclination to live by rules and standards is common in social animals, including humans. Our capacity for morality is innate. Of course, our capacity for immoral behavior is well documented as well (even in the most religious of societies), so it's important that we create a social structure that encourages ethical behavior and the positive aspects of humanity.

Because religious institutions are so ingrained in our culture, they of course still offer social benefits to many. A church, mosque, or synagogue can be a place for community and charity, a place for ceremonies like weddings and funerals. To many, religious institutions offer tradition, cultural continuity, and perhaps a place to find peace of mind through ritual, meditation, and contemplation.

But more than ever, many now achieve these ends without institutions or beliefs grounded in supernatural theology, by instead utilizing humanist organizations, secular institutions, or other means to fill such needs. These people find peace, mindfulness, goodwill, community, ethics, perspective, and culture without the assistance of theology or religious institutions. These people are post-theological, and many of them are humanists."


Lunch Lecture: Mon Feb 28, Mark Kingwell, Hart House

What if we had nothing to fear?  with Prof. Mark Kingwell
12 noon Mon Feb 28
Map Room, Hart House
7 Hart House Circle

Throughout February and March, the Multi-Faith Centre, Hart House, and Campus Chaplains Assoc presents “What if…?”,  a provocative series of prompts intended to generate conversation, ignite discussion and question our deepest values and sense of self, culture and the environment.  

”What If… ?” is modeled in part after Northwestern University's student initiative Ask Big Questions, a website launched to explore campus culture at its core through “big questions.”

FEB 28. 12-1PM: "what if there was no fear" featuring Professor Mark Kingwell


Join the LIVE WEBCAST of the launch of UN Women at the United Nations Headquarters

On 1 January 2011, The United Nations made history as UN Women, the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, began its work, led by a powerful vision— 'Gender equality must become a lived reality' .

Join the LIVE WEBCAST of the launch of UN Women at the United Nations Headquarters
Honouring the Past – Envisioning the Future for Women and Girls
Thursday, 24 February 2011, 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM, EST
Hosted by Emcee Christiane Amanpour and other distinguished speakers and performers

Secular ethics necessary for world peace: Dalai Lama

Secular ethics necessary for world peace: Dalai Lama

Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, today said that "secular ethics" and dialogue would ensure that the present century is peaceful.

"Although the development of science and technology was taking place since 18th century, the 20th century was witnessed as a century of blood. However, the 21st century will be a century of dialogues to bring world peace," the Dalai Lama said at an interactive session at the three-day convention of Academia Eurasiana Neurochirurgica on A holistic approach to the realm of Neurosurgery here.

"Use of violence will not bring peace and it has to be through dialogues in the 21st century" (that peace can be ensured), he said.

It is also important to practise "secular ethics" to restrain use of destructive power in these modern times, he said adding"all these require peace of mind." The world has to learn from the 1,000-year-old tradition of secular ethics in India, he said.

India should also play an active role in promoting non-violence and secular ethics in the world community, Dalai Lama said.  "Non-violence is not a sign of weakness but is a sign of strength."

Emphasising need to keep the mind calm, he said, too much of emotions, anger, jealousy, fear and corruption are signs of "negativity". "We must find solutions (as to) how to overcome these negativities through holistic approach without touching the religious basis," he added.


BBC - Humanist and secularist Durham students take on reason

BBC - Humanist and secularist Durham students take on reason
The last decade has seen religious observance continuing to decline in the UK, especially amongst young people. At the same time, chart-topping books by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have raised the profile of non-religious beliefs systems.

Despite this increased publicity, many people perceive non-religious stances such as Humanism as purely negative in nature, offering no alternative to the communities provided by the religious groups it criticises.

Durham University Humanist and Secularist Society (DUHSS) has been holding a series of events (collectively dubbed 'Reason Week') to dispel this impression and raise money for charity in the process. A relatively new society, DUHSS has existed in various forms for a little over a year, providing a community and a platform to explore topical issues in religion, politics and science. Although targeted primarily at the non-religious, students of all convictions are made welcome and a diversity of opinions is always evident at the regular 'think and drink' discussions held in some of the quieter student bars during term time.

Although most humanists are also secularists the two terms are not synonymous. Humanism is an aesthetic philosophy which affirms the value of reason and views ethics as emerging from shared human values and experiences rather than a divine law-giver. Secularism is a political position advocating the separation of church and state.

Reason Week has been its biggest event yet, with seven days of evening events ranging from charity fiUlm evenings to talks by prominent Humanist figures such as the philosopher A C Graylin... This is believed to be the first time in the UK that a non-religious student group have gone head-to-head with one of the Christian weeks which are regularly organised on student campuses.


Film: Werner Herzog films Paleolithic Art in Chauvet caves

Werner Herzog's Cave Painting Documentary: Der Spiegel
Werner Herzog's new film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is a stunning 3D documentary about a cave in France that is home to the world's oldest known human art. Herzog has always had a fascination for extreme places. Whether it's the rainforests of 1972's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and 1982's "Fitzcarraldo," the ravaged oil fields of Kuwait in the 1992 film "Lessons of Darkness," or Antarctica as featured in the 2007 documentary "Encounters at the End of the World," the legendary German filmmaker seems happiest when he is in the kind of location that tests human endurance to the limits.
But seldom has Herzog filmed in a place as inaccessible as the location of his latest documentary. In "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which features in the official program of the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, Herzog visits the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which is home to unique examples of Paleolithic rock art. The cave was sealed off for dozens of millennia -- and even today, no one is granted access apart from a handful of scientists. The cave, discovered in 1994, is home to hundreds of pristine artworks. Over 30,000 years old, they are the oldest known pictures created by humans.


Event: Tokens4Change today on the TTC - for Youth without Shelter

A message from Project Humanity, producers of the play The Middle Place, written by youth in shelters, and currently playing in Toronto.

Today is Tokens4Change (T4C) Day on the TTC - a one-day event we've helped orchestrate to raise 5000 tokens for Youth Without Shelter. Project Humanity has been working with high school youth to create performances that will pop up on select subway platforms throughout the day, we have some professional artists busking, we've got volunteer youth in nearly every station collecting donations. When you ride today, bring a little extra change -- any and every bit can help get a shelter youth to a much-needed job interview or doctor's appointment.

For more info visit And if you're not riding the rocket today you can make a one-time donation of $5 by texting the word "tokens" to 45678. Super easy!


Event: Prof. Mark Kingwell, "The Age of Enlightenment & Human Rights"

Amnesty International Toronto and the Windermere String Quartet present:
"The Age of Enlightenment and Human Rights" An afternoon of music and ideas to benefit Amnesty International Toronto
March 27, 2011 at 3:30 pm First Unitarian Congregation
175 St. Clair West, Toronto

Featuring Prof. Mark Kingwell, philosopher and author of fifteen books including the national bestsellers Better Living (1998), The World We Want (2000), Concrete Reveries (2008), and Glenn Gould (2009), André Gombay, Descartes scholar and editor of Descartes Oeuvres Completes on CD-ROM, Windermere String Quartet on period instruments, specializing in the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries. Host: Alexa Petrenko of Classical 96.3 FM

A unique opportunity to celebrate the Age of the Enlightenment and its legacy with music, talks, and readings by actors of inspiring historical texts. Become immersed in the time of Voltaire and the Philosophes, Beaumarchais’ witty satire of the ruling classes in his daring play “The Marriage of Figaro”, the genius of Mozart and Beethoven flowering as freelance composers less dependent upon the court; and the great surge toward values of individual freedoms and human rights. Enjoy talks by philosophers / authors Mark Kingwell and AndrĂ© Gombay and music from the Golden Age of the String Quartet performed by the Windermere String Quartet on period instruments.

$50 (or $100 with $50 tax receipt) , $30 for students/seniors
For tickets, more information

Tufts University (US) considers Humanist Chaplains

(excerpt from an essay in the Tufts daily from the Tufts Freethought Society )
Update:  Please note the AUTHOR of this article is Walker Bristol  ( who welcomes any comments and correspondence)

Where the secular and the devout come together

"...Tufts College was founded on a doctrine of illumination. When Charles Tufts declared that he would "put a light on" Walnut Hill, he was likely referring not only to improving nighttime vision, but improving vision in all walks of life, dispelling ignorance and intolerance, and upholding inclusivity and diversity.
The light of religious and spiritual inclusion shines from Goddard Chapel. Now, the students supporting the establishment of a humanist chaplaincy at Tufts are certainly not arguing that it shines particularly dim, only that it could shine even brighter. Humanism is a movement dedicated in large part to encouraging cooperation and compassion among individuals from all backgrounds, whether they espouse passionate religious beliefs or none at all. A humanist chaplain, and the community he or she inherits, would be invested in both approaching the world's problems from a secular perspective, as well as in hearing out the perspectives of his or her religious and spiritual peers...
...Protestantism and humanism face many of the same congregational challenges: When a community lacks a central body from which to derive its values, as Catholicism has with the Vatican, it isn't always easy to come together as a community. Humanism also shares the Buddhist value of ongoing teaching and education as well as the characteristic skepticism and questioning often present in Jewish tradition. In this regard, a humanist chaplain could well serve as the glue with which to bring and hold various other traditions together, thus making it a prime perspective from which to encourage interfaith work.
What sets humanism apart from religious traditions is the belief that one's power lies not in heaven above, but within oneself and others. Despite our differences, we all are so similar and thus responsible for the betterment of ourselves and our community. We shine in this world without reliance on holy illumination; Let us contribute this light to the many that already glimmer from the chapel atop the hill."


Event: PEN Canada, Freedom to Read Week, Feb 25 Panel on Censorship

Event: What We Talk About When We  Talk About Hate
panel discussion about hate speech, censorship, and  free expression.
Moderated by Steve Paikin of TVO's The Agenda.
Date:  February 25, 7pm Tickets $10 at the door.
Location:  Toronto Reference Library Atrium, 789 Yonge St.Event:
"PEN CANADA assists writers around the world who are persecuted for the peaceful expression of their ideas". 

What is Stephen Harper Reading project ends with 100th book

The Saskatoon author Yann Martel, who was sending the prime minister a new book every two weeks is ending the project dubbed “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” 
;In the four years of his campaign he had shipped 100 books for Harper to read, and he said that was a good number to end on. …
Mr. Martel paid for the books and the shipping himself.  He wrote and enclosed a personal letter with each book. Stephen Harper did not respond to him even once. You can see the list of books and all the letters on Mr. Martel's website - and it might make a good reading list project!


EVENT: Religion, Sexuality and Schooling: Forum, OISE Feb 10

Thursday February 10, 2011, 5 - 7pm OISE, 252 Bloor Street W, UT Library
Refreshments Provided, Wheelchair Accessible

This forum aims to address the ongoing tensions surrounding religion and LGBTQ sexualities in schools and society. The need for such a forum has been magnified by the tragic suicides and increased bullying of queer youth as well as the debates over establishing gay student organizations and offering sex education curriculum in schools. These events have prompted many to look at the ways in which institutions of education and faith can play a stronger role in creating more supportive and affirming spaces for LGBTQ youth, adults, and families.

Confirmed Panelists:
Paul Marai - Trustee, Halton Catholic District School Board
Jen Gilbert - Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, York University
Tyler Pennock - Aboriginal Recruitment Officer, University of Toronto
Suhail Abualsameed - Coordinator, Salaam, Queer Muslim Community
Scott McGrath - Chair, Annex Shul

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
- Office of the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies
- Office of the Associate Dean of Teacher Education
- Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education
- Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies
- Centre for Urban Schooling
Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies
Multi-Faith Centre for Spiritual Study and Development
Sexual and Gender Diversity Office
Qu(e)erying Religion