MyNotes: Exploring Humanism, Chapters 3


Here are my notes on Greg Epstein's book, Good Without God. It's only Chapter 3. Wow, this is heavy stuff to work through and my notes don't capture all the ideas shared or the journey the author took to get to them. However, there are some powerful takeaways for the reader, believer or otherwise.

  1. Humanism is an acknowledgement that a meaningful life is by definition a moral life, and a moral life is by definition a meaningful  life.
  2. Morality is not about sinners and saints, heaven and hell, damnation and punishment.
  3. Morality IS about alleviating unnecessary suffering and promoting human flourishing, or dignity.
  4. ...if you believe God is nature, or love, or the universe, do you really think there to be any difference in your belief system and Humanism?
  5. There are those who are truly motivated to be good by terror of God's supernatural punishment and hope for his miraculous rewards. But maybe if you are among the many millions who don't literally believe in heaven or hell, then you too are a will have to choose a purpose based mainly on how you as a human being should relate to other humans beings in this world, for the sake of this world. Just as Humanists do. [compelling argument]
  6. Many people claim that Humanism or atheism is nihilism and vice versa. This assertion is either unconscionable, incredibly ignorant, or both.
  7. Types of nihilism:
    1. Russian nihilism: act by virtue of what we recognize as beneficial. Beneficial is defined as to deny and negate...everything. (think The Joker from the Batman)
    2. Schopenhauer's Nihilism: It is summed up as "Life's a bitch, and then you die." (think Eeyore)
    3. The Noble Lie: there are no true values worth living by, but that if we lie to ourselves and say there are, in fact creating entire elaborate moral and social systems based on these lies, things will go much better for us.
  8. The largest denomination of people is people who say they believe in God, but not driven by faith (nominal Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.) who are religious in name only but do not take the tenets of their religion seriously. These are people who consider themselves religious but have been secularized.
  9. This largest denomination are not Humanists. You may be close to it but you still have to take responsibility and decide what you are.
  10. A secular culture is not the same as a Humanist culture. The former sometimes falls short of the latter.
  11. What are we striving for?
    1. Much of religion has been about trying to find a solution to this constant, ever-imperfect hunger for companionship
    2. Jonathan Haidt describes the "happiness formula." It is H = S+C+V
      1. H=happiness
      2. S=the extent to which our brains are wired to allow for feelings of happiness, uplift, and joy
      3. C=conditions of our lives (love and work are the single biggest elements)
      4. V=voluntary activities
    3. Happiness as the standard for a meaningful life is too egocentric, too nebulous or both
    4. "Although there is no single over-arching purpose to life, self-actualization for every human being gives life purpose...[Humanists] believe that the most important purpose of human life is for every individual to strive for and attain self-fulfillment--to become what each is capable of and to help others do the same" (Source: Eva Goldfinger, Basic Ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism).
    5. U.S. Army version? "Be all you can be."
    6. The entire idea of self-fulfillment amounts to little more than a psychologically dressed-up version of happiness, potentially solipsistic and menacing as well.
    7. Be of service...when we explain why we ought to give and help others, we must begin with our individual needs, and then move to others' needs, not vice versa.
  12. Cultivating dignity by Sherwin Wine:
    1. Four Qualities:
      1. The first is high self-awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality.
      2. A willingness to assume responsibility for one's own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution.
      3. The third is a refusal to find one's identity in any possession.
      4. The fourth is the sense that one's behavior is worthy of imitation by others
    2. Moral Obligations
      1. I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life.
      2. I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy.
      3. I have a moral obligation to be generous.
  13. "Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of the conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of meaning and purpose will emerge" (adapted from Erich Fromm by Greg Epstein)
  14. There is a state in which you're aware of your own humanity, and you're also aware of others' humanity, and you're aware that all human beings are human. There's a state in which you're aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There's a state in which you don't have too much clingy connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term--good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there.
  15. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? - Rabbi Hillel [The Golden Rule, but negative version]

Quick Reflection

Sherwin Wine's four qualities and three obligations that compose human dignity and human being's ongoing quest to personify them are quite impressive. In fact, they are common to many belief systems and capture the essence of dignity. I definitely think anyone could adopt these for their own, regardless of belief.

I remember the first time I read about Rabbi Hillel in my college years. The assertion made at the time was that Jesus was the only one to phrase The Golden Rule in positive terms. That is, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." 

Rabbi Hillel's version is reported as the following:

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