touchstone archives


Piquant excerpts lifted from Touchstone editors' own reading & listening.

Callum Brown's remarkable book Becoming Atheist is an oral history of modern unbelief, based on interviews with eighty-five adult atheists across Europe and North America. It is impossible to read his account and deny that religiosity in the Western world has undergone an epochal shift during his interviewees' lifetimes.

Brown's people and their stories are enormously varied, but he observes that they share a remarkably consistent ethical code. That code has two key elements. First is the so-called "golden rule" of treating others as you would like to be treated. . . . The other is a linked set of principles about human equality and bodily and sexual autonomy. Brown calls this ethical framework "humanism". . . .

So where does this diffuse, ubiquitous ethic come from? If Brown's humanists did not even consciously adopt their ethics, how did they reach such a consistently shared position? Brown—a proud humanist himself—suggests that it may arise from "within human experience," indeed that "reason alone may construct humanism". . . . It is an appealing idea, but it is demonstrably false. Modern humanism is, perhaps unfortunately, in no sense an expression of universal human values. Its ethical markers—gender and racial equality, sexual freedom, a strong doctrine of individual human rights, a sharp distinction between the human and non-human realms—are, in a long historical perspective, very unusual indeed. Nor do they stand on a very firm logical base, as anyone who has ever tried philosophically to prove the existence of human rights knows. The fact that those values appear intuitively obvious to Brown, and indeed to me, is not an answer. It is the problem.

Alec Ryrie
Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (2019)

Culture Commonplaces #74 March/April 2021

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