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."

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