Category Archives: Humanism

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proximity Ethics

Proximity EthicsIn our everyday lives we make ethical judgments resulting in ethical decisions all the time. So often in fact that we mostly don’t even realize that we are doing so. Often we don’t even think of these as ethical decisions but merely as practical routine judgments. These range from small personal decisions to collective national policy decisions.

In making these judgments we weigh and balance, largely subconsciously, a large number of different criteria across a number of different dimensions. One key criterion is the proximity of the individuals or organizational entities involved relative to ourselves and our own identity groups. In general, the closer the impacted group is to our own, the greater weight, priority, and consideration we give the issue.

This is perfectly understandable, natural, and sensible. For example, we give our spouse higher priority than our family which we give higher priority than our friends to whom we give higher priority than other people. Similarly, we give higher priority to our own neighborhood, followed by city, state, and country. We are more concerned over issues impacting our own gender or race or religion than others.

There is a great deal of sensible practicality in this kind of analysis. It’s fair that we organize into groups. It doesn’t say we should ONLY give consideration to groups closest to our own, but it’s fair that we give groups in close proximity to us greater consideration.

But there are a number of ways that this proximity calculation can fail us. The first is if our concern falls off too rapidly. While we should first look out for those close to us, too much emphasis on our own groups can lead us to be needlessly callous and insensitive to the needs of groups farther away. We demand the best school for our own kids, but completely ignore the needs of other kids in our own neighborhood. Orthodox Jews, as one example, might focus exclusively enriching their own enclave communities, regardless of the cost to society as a whole. We often maintain an extremely close proximity calculus even when helping those farther away from our own sphere would, in the long run, help ourselves as well.

The second problem that arises from our proximity calculation comes into play not when we are thinking about allocating benefits, but when we are assigning and assuming responsibility. In this case we often assign far too much weight to far groups and assume far too little for our own. How often do we hear “those Chinese should take action to stop climate change” or “I’m not responsible for US militarism.”

Of course we have to keep it in perspective. Of course the Chinese should do their part to alleviate climate change and we as individual citizens cannot bear the entire brunt of US aggression abroad. But we can and should affect change in our closest proximity groups first. Those are the groups we can and should make right first before we point fingers and deflect all blame and responsibility. We should step up and take every action we can on climate change first. We should appreciate that each of us are citizens with the right to vote and speak out. We all collectively share <some> blame and responsibility for American militarism and torture.

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

How do you achieve a fair, just, and healthy balance of self-interest and social consciousness? Here’s a couple good rules of thumb:

  1. If you typically care about how others can share benefits that your group desires or enjoys, you’ve probably got it pretty right.
  2. If you first ask what your group can do to improve the world for everyone before you point fingers at other groups, you’ve probably got it pretty right.

 

Godless Grace

GodlessGraceIf you believe all grace comes from god, then the phrase “godless grace” probably sounds like an oxymoron to you. Or maybe even a blasphemy. You would probably maintain that grace cannot come from anywhere except from god.

But if you know that god does not exist, the word “godless” is just a superfluous qualifier. Of course all grace is godless. Just as is all love and ethics and compassion. We don’t specify “godless gumdrops” after all.

Still, when used in the context of god, grace is certainly a Christian concept defined as divine assistance or favor. The implied threat is that there would be no grace without god. And without divine grace there would be no good will, no altruism, and no self-sacrifice for others. Therefore, many believe, there simply must be a god.

In their book “Godless Grace: How Nonbelievers are Making the World Safer, Richer and Kinder,” (see here) authors David I. Orenstein Ph.D. and Linda Ford Blaikie, L.C.S.W  reclaim the concept of grace from Christians. Grace, they say, cannot be bestowed by a god that after all does not exist. But that doesn’t mean that a purely human godless equivalent of grace is not a force for good in the world. The authors show that in fact grace does exist in the world and it is found in the good works of men and women who have no religious motivations. In the face of that reality, god becomes no more than a rain-dancer claiming credit for spring showers.

In this beautifully written love letter to secular altruists and do-gooders and sleeve-roller-uppers all around the world, Orenstein and Blaikie introduce us to dozens of actual people doing actual good works without any fear or promises from religion. These are not big name celebrity philanthropists, but regular folk from all around the world who are doing modest but important humanitarian work to benefit mankind. The authors did a magnificent job finding these unheralded pearls of humanity’s best. But they would be the first to modestly point out that their job was not all that difficult. There are far, far more “graceful” secular humanist folk than religious proponents would have us believe.

Beyond just identifying these great people, Orenstein and Blaikie help you to get to know them in easy yet pointed prose that make you feel not only that you know these people after only a mere page or two, but that you WANT to know these people. The authors were insightful in learning what motivates each one, non-religious motivations as varied as the people themselves, and are adept at effortlessly sharing those insights with the reader.

About these people overall, the authors conclude:

“… they see themselves as servants to and for humanity – people who do their good work not to please any gods, but to benefit all humans and other beings on the planet.”

Godless Grace is a splendidly crafted book that blends meticulous research and insightful observations into positive and inspiring tones that never sound mushy. It’s not too hot, nor too cold. Godless Grace is just right and you will feel better about your fellow humans and about the world after reading it. Godless Grace is exactly what the atheist/humanist movement needs at this stage. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t debate, it doesn’t argue, it doesn’t play logic games. It simply shows us, in a positive and sincere way, just a bit of the good that real people do every day without god.

Indeterminism

FreeWill

Free-will and determinism are concepts that religious and non-religious thinkers alike love to debate about. Unfortunately both exist largely in the realm of fantasy and any discussion of these concepts only serves to strengthen religion and mysticism. We atheists should be very careful about when and how we discuss these concepts.

First let’s consider free-will. Regardless of any non-religious discussions one might like to engage in about free-will, this term has become inextricably synonymous with religion. It was popularized largely by theologians to counter the problem of evil in the world. How can a good god allow evil? Well he gave us free-will of course! Since the universe cares not, God alone can define good and evil and give us the magical ability to choose between them. Free-will unavoidably suggests something outside of science, something divine, bestowed by god to humans only. Any discussion about free-will is to enter into a logical discussion about an illogical construction.

In direct opposition to free-will is determinism. Although it comes in many varieties, determinism is essentially the idea that we actually have no free-will at all. Everything in the universe is determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. You could predict every feeling and thought you are experiencing right now if you calculated forward correctly from the Big Bang. You may think you have a choice about what you do next, but that’s an illusion. Your every movement, thought, and choice was predetermined when the cosmic cue ball broke the table and the universe was set into motion.

Such discussions about determinism, while stimulating, only ultimately encourage religious thinking. If the universe is deterministic then there can be no good or evil, right or wrong. Most people refuse to accept such a universe or the idea that we have no choice. After all, we all feel something we perceive as choices between right and wrong. So any discussion of determinism quickly sends most people flocking in droves to the religious side. Their reasoning and their emotional reaction to determinism may be arguably flawed, but that is the result nevertheless. Secular philosophers may think they can logic our way out of this recoil into the arms of religion, but their logic is insufficient for most people.

Part of the problem here is that free-will and determinism are both extreme conceptual constructs, like positive and negative infinity. On one extreme, there is no right or wrong or choice. On the other extreme, right and wrong are defined by god and choice is bestowed by him and everyone is wholly responsible for everything they do. If good and evil and defined clearly by god, there can be no room for “situationalism.”

But reality is the continuum between these theoretical extremes. We live in the grey regions of choice and responsibility. We certainly perceive that we have choices and that we make choices. So choice is real to us at least. And regardless of whether those choices are ultimately predetermined in some sense, we as individuals and collectively as a society have no alternative but to judge and to respond to the choices we make.

To resolve the apparent contradiction between living in a “clockwork” universe that can only operate according to the mechanics of its particular gears and coils, and our perception of choice, consider randomness. One might argue that in a predetermined universe there is no such thing as a truly random number. You could in theory predict every random number in advance if you knew the state of the universe at any point in time and understood all the rules of physics sufficiently. However, according to every practical test we could perform and every objective purpose to which we could apply them, random numbers are demonstrably random to us. It would be silly to base our technology on the idea that there are actually no random numbers. And it is equally silly to base our beliefs or our society on the notion that choice does not exist.

But we should also recognize that in the grey area we live in, choice and responsibility are mitigated by a large number of deterministic factors. We recognize that if you look far enough back everyone is a victim of deterministic influences. At the same time, we must acknowledge that everything is to some extent a choice as well. We have to draw a line somewhere to decide when and how to hold people accountable for their actions. The extent to which people actually have a choice and the extent to which we hold them accountable for their choices is a judgment mitigated by many factors. These factors include age, state of mind, delusion or drug influence, intentions, ignorance, upbringing, circumstance, coercion, whether this behavior is treatable, how dangerous it is, and whether it is likely to repeat.

Clearly it’s not practical to consider everyone an innocent victim of the big bang and hold no one accountable for their actions. We have to hold people accountable for their choices. But it’s just as impractical to fail to consider the many physiological and social factors that determine behavior and effectively give people little or no choice in their choices. As individuals we have to draw our own lines and as a society we have to draw a collective line with treatment and help on one side and prevention and punishment on the other. Understanding, however, can span the entire spectrum. It is not inconsistent to understand the determinants of choice and still punish those who make those choices.

For example, even a suicide bomber may ultimately have no real choice given the horrific situation that we have created in their country. If we had not bombed their home into the stone age and taken away every other course of action, they likely would never have strapped a bomb to their chest. We may actually be more responsible then them, and yet still we must prevent and punish their behavior. We can understand the causal factors that forced that behavior and to the extent that we can and change those conditions we should. Understanding that every decision is neither completely a choice nor completely excusable, is to live in the very messy real world lying somewhere between the theoretical extremes of free-will and determinism.

 

 

 

 

 

Yosemite Sam on Target

Gun-related murders, particularly mass murders, continue to rise in America (see here).

yosemitesamBut gun spokesperson Yosemite Sam reminds us that guns don’t kill people. After all, as hunting enthusiast Elmer Fudd points out, even if there were no guns those kwazy wabbits would just murder you with carrots. Wile E. Coyote, acknowledged expert on absurdly dangerous weapons, adds that even without guns some deranged Tasmanian Devil could run amok hacking preschoolers up with an Acme™ turbocharged meat cleaver. The entire cast of Looney Tunes agrees that the obvious and best solution to the plague of too many guns is yet more guns in the hands of animated characters who really, really love to shoot them. They maintain that in their cartoon-view, guns are not actually the problem anyway. Mental illness is the real problem.

I could not agree more with our Looney Tune friends! Mental illness is the real problem and we should focus our attention on that. Even though so-called real-world “scientific” studies have shown that there is no correlation whatsoever between violence and a history of mental illness (see here), anyone who shoots up a school or movie theater must obviously be mentally ill. And what does “correlation” really mean anyway? No, clearly mental illness is the problem, not guns. Case closed!

So then the only real question is how to identify these mentally ill people BEFORE they rip through an abortion clinic using their legally-purchased semi-automatic weapons supercharged with Brownells™ high-capacity magazines. Hmm. Let me think a second… could there be some factor, some objectively measurable indicator, that clearly flags individuals as mental health risks to society? Anything at all?

I know! How about we red-flag people who buy semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines as dangerous risks by virtue of mental illness? Clearly, people who are so paranoid, pathologically fearful, and sociopathic that they feel compelled to buy semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity clips – especially if they buy many of them – are mentally ill and need help. Maybe we should “register” them somehow so we can “monitor” their activities and administer appropriate mental health services.

hunterWe should be reasonable about this of course so that those few non-crazy gun owners, or at least those few crazy but harmless gun owners, are not unduly monitored thereby wasting our surveillance capacity. We should restrict our high-risk group of crazy gun owners to those who buy more than, say four mass-murder machines. High capacity clips should earn them a double-red flag status.

How many people would this high risk group include? I took the liberty of doing some back-of-napkin calculations. Roughly 24% of American adults say they own at least one of the estimated 310 million guns in circulation in our country. So, out of a total 245 million adults that means that 59 million of us are gun-crazy. Of those, 48% own 4 or more guns. That means that roughly 12% (30 million) of Americans are profoundly gun-crazy. That list would be whittled down to the subset of those that own four or more high-capacity modern non-hunting weaponry who are therefore profoundly and dangerously gun-crazy.

This “registration” and “monitoring” of high-risk mentally ill individuals is clearly quite doable. Not only are these mentally ill gun owners readily identifiable simply by tracking their gun purchases, but the numbers are manageable too. The terrorist watch list monitors over a million people. Amazon manages upwards of 300 million customer accounts. We routinely issue and manage hundreds of millions of driver’s licenses without breaking much of a sweat. So clearly monitoring our population of profoundly and dangerously mentally ill gun owners is well within our capability.

So let’s start a movement. We don’t want to unfairly blame guns when mental illness is the real problem. So let’s focus on that and provide the mental help needed to all those individuals flagged as mentally ill by virtue of their insane gun ownership. Maybe we could start a White House Petition. Let’s force the government to help these mentally ill gun owners to get the help they need and the intervention they require.

Pro-gun is pro-murder.

Harris’ Science Fiction

sam-harrisIn his 2011 book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (see here), Sam Harris put forth the assertion that “science can determine human values.” It even says that right in the tagline of the title. He has also explained his thesis in his well-watched Ted Talk (see here) and defended it in various forums.

If Harris had elaborated on how science can inform human values, his might have been an interesting and even provocative enough thesis. But to claim that science can determine human values is a huge overreach that Harris completely fails to justify. And in failing so completely I fear he has done more harm than good.

According to Harris, happiness for the greatest number is the greatest good. Since we can measure happiness, we can use scientific methods to predict the best ways to maximize it. Those then become our ethical and moral goals. Simple right?

But competing desires for happiness cannot usually be fully weighed and resolved analytically. And to the extent they are, they are weighted against very fuzzy and subjective criteria where there are often only bad alternatives. And what about merit? Is everyone’s happiness equally important? Yet according to Harris, all these problems are just technical challenges to be solved by acquiring better happiness data and developing improved optimization algorithms.

More importantly, the very starting premise of happiness maximization is itself an ethical presumption produced not by science but by humans – namely Sam Harris. There are many competing values and there is no agreement that maximizing happiness should be our highest ethical principle. As just one example, it is my sincere opinion that ensuring the long-term habitability of our planet is more important than immediate human happiness.

But I am pretty sure Harris would respond to this by simply claiming that ensuring the habitability of our planet makes us happy and is consistent with his theory.  One need only include future generations in the overall happiness calculus. What Harris consistently attempts to do is to subsume every competing and often exclusive value under an ever-widening definition of happiness. This quickly degrades into absurdity with no help from me.

And this is just one example of how quickly Harris’ thesis breaks down or becomes irrelevant. That Mr. Harris failed utterly to make his case is not just my conclusion, but the apparent consensus of the academic ethical philosophy community. A number of academic papers and commentaries have stated this in no uncertain terms. Whitley Kaufman from the University of Massachusetts published a 2010 review paper in Neuroethics (see here) that strongly challenged essentially every one of Harris’ key arguments. Below is a synopsis of some of the main criticisms I consolidated from various academic sources. I include them for completeness but feel free to skim to get the gist.

  1. In general his arguments are full of fallacious logic including but not limited to: internal contradictions, false assumptions, straw-men, appeals to emotion (including the Islamophobia which he cannot seem to suppress), promissory arguments, and circular reasoning.
  2. He circumvents many flaws in his reasoning by simply redefining terms. He avoids others by claiming that science and philosophy are really just the same thing. Both of these machinations are quite similar to the techniques that Ken Ham uses to avoid glaring flaws in his creationism case (see here).
  3. Many of his arguments are theoretical and predicated upon some imagined future-state capabilities of science.
  4. He presents extreme positions that pose no real ethical dilemma at all as proofs of his thesis, and then contends that science can similarly answer all the infinitely more nuanced and complex questions in-between.
  5. He begins his logical progression with a moral judgment as a given, then follows with scientific evidence to support it. Thus he avoids science having to actually answer the very fundamental questions or morality he purports that science can address.
  6. His own views are essentially indistinguishable from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism which says that our moral imperative should be the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, just like Mills, Harris fails to recognize that that itself is a non-scientific moral judgment. Even if one grants him that as a moral imperative, he still fails completely, again as did Mill, to explain how science would allow one to choose between a large number of conflicting happinesses, or moreover how to factor in other intangibles like justice.
  7. He fails completely in his effort to address the “is/ought” divide and show how science can answer the “ought” questions. He seems not to even fully understand the dilemma. In fact, he explicitly claims that it is a virtue that he is not familiar with cornerstone principles of ethical philosophy – principles that he claims are incorrect or substantially different from his own. He rather puts forth worn arguments that have been definitively refuted for centuries.
  8. In his desperation to find a science of ethics, he has adopted a simplistic utilitarian starting point that makes a science of ethics possible. And in completely circular logic, he concludes that therefore utilitarianism must be true and sufficient to provide a moral basis for all ethical questions.

Let’s be clear. Harris’ main goal is to take god out of the ethics and morality equation. That’s a good thing, so why bash him for trying?

It is a good goal, but to accomplish it we don’t need to replace the god of Biblical fantasy with a god of science fantasy. I fear that Harris’ overreach (so like the hubris of Icarus) only proves the religious case better than his own. His arguments are so flawed and impractical that they may cause many people to reconsider their trust in science more skeptically than their trust in religion. His arguments may sound so implausible as to cause many to conclude that the clarity of religion is in fact essential to point science in the right direction – which is exactly the same claim the Vatican has long maintained.

And the unfortunate thing is that this is a completely unnecessary overreach. We are already directed by our better natures as guided by evolution and informed by sound objective science. Trying to establish a science of morality is not visionary and before its time. In this attempt at least it is deeply flawed and probably counterproductive.

The Atheist Monster in Penny Dreadful

Vanessa speaks with John

Vanessa speaks with John

I’d like to share a powerful scene from a recent episode of Penny Dreadful, aired on Showtime on Mother’s Day.

Seeking a measure of solace from her struggles, Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) has come to volunteer in a cavernous underground serving as a makeshift cholera ward “in the shadow of so much wealth such suffering” of 19th century London.

There she encounters a horrendously scarred man named John Clare (played by Rory Kinnear). Not incidentally but as yet unknown to Vanessa, John is also the sensitive and articulate “monster” reanimated by the Doctor Frankenstein character in the show.

She notices John reading off in an alcove by himself. Intrigued, she approaches him. After an offer of soup and some preliminary introductions, Vanessa sits next to him.

“They make me nervous,” she confides, nodding toward a woman in a habit. “The nuns.”

“Why?” he asks.

“I was raised in the faith,” she admits. “It was arduous for me.”

“Have you religion?” she asks, changing the subject tangentially.

“Are you offering it?” John counters.

“Do you require it?” she answers with another question, smiling warmly.

“I never have,” he replies.

“Then I shan’t offer,” she reassures him. “And I would be a poor advocate. The Almighty and I have a challenging past. I’m not sure we’re speaking these days.”

A laugh comes awkwardly upon John as he returns a confidence. “I read the Bible when I was younger. But then I discovered Wordsworth. And then the old platitudes and parables seemed anemic, even unnecessary.”

“Mr. Wordsworth has a lot to answer for then,” she teases.

Summoning up deeply considered but rarely spoken words, John elaborates. “The glory of life surmounts the fear of death. Good Christians fear hellfire. So to avoid it, they are kind to their fellow man. Good pagans do not have this fear, so they can be who they are. Good or ill, as their nature dictates. We have no fear of God, so we’re accountable to no one but each other.”

“That’s a profound responsibility,” Miss Ives replies.

“And why you do this, no doubt” he asks, “helping those in need?”

“I came here for selfish reasons,” she confesses. “Do you truly not believe in heaven?”

John’s shy self-consciousness is replaced by a joyful radiance. “I believe in this world. And those creatures that fill it. That’s always been enough for me. Look around you – sacred mysteries at every turn.”

“But no exaltation in life beyond this?” Vanessa challenges, seeking confirmation.

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour,” John responds, paraphrasing William Blake’s “To See A World…”

Vanessa looks a bit sad, “With respect to Blake, I see no wildflowers here, only pain and suffering.”

“Then you need to look closer,” John tells her with compelling certainty.

The conversation is interrupted when Vanessa is called away by a nun who casts a disapproving glance at John.

“Thank you for the soup,” he says.

“Thank you for the conversation,” she answers as she takes her leave. And then, pausing to look back, she adds, “You have beautiful eyes.”

I will not attempt to do a deep analysis of this scene. It is so rich with poetic humanist themes that it is best to let every reader take from it what they will. But I will point out how notable this treatment of humanist ideas is, not only in today’s mass media, but in the context of a show in which demons and by inference god are undeniable realities. It suggests that “even if” god were real, there would still be merit in a purely humanist worldview.

It is certainly not an accident that John, shunned as a monster by his society, was chosen to represent the atheist-humanist character in the show. Of more subtle symbolism is that he is undeniably the product of purely human manufacture. Certainly he was not endowed with a soul by his human creator. Yet he is uniquely passionate and thoughtful with an incredibly “soulful” sense of awe and empathy.

On the other side, Vanessa’s deep faith and powerful mysticism have only left her in desperate need of the comfort and inspiring humanist perspectives offered by this apparent monster.