Marie Curie
Twice a winner of
     the Nobel Prize)











Jean-Paul Sartre

Life without Religion:
Twentieth-Century Skeptical Humanisms

Early Attacks on Traditional Religion
A New Way of Understanding Reality
   The Scientific Method
   The End of Dogmatism in Science
   Is Science Based on Faith?
A New Way of Understanding the Self
Two Skeptical Philosophies
   American Pragmatism
   Atheistic Existentialism
   The Deepest Challenge to Basic Faith

The twentieth century was marked by a large-scale increase in doubts that there is any ultimate intelligibility to human existence.  Though proponents of this doubt have been traced to the axial age, the development of religious skepticism is a very recent phenomenon.

Some thinkers went beyond skepticism to claim that religion is not only mistaken but also dangerous.  Much of this criticism came from scientific thinkers who challenged the authority of religion to explain the natural world.  Science also encouraged the free exchange of ideas, which some religious leaders saw as a threat to traditional authority.  Skeptics also charge religion with superstition, as in the seventeenth century witch-hunts, or of irrationality in the general willingness to believe things without adequate evidence.

The birth of modern science marked the beginning of a transition into an empirical worldview in which every truth-claim requires evidence in its support.  The scientific method requires public testing and retesting of theories.  When a theory is supported by years of testing and application, it probably contains reliable truth.  Early science was sometimes rather dogmatic.  Some scientists have been called reductionists because they "reduce"  everything to physical events.  But 20th century science is more open to challenge and more appreciative of the complexity of life and consciousness. 

Is Science Based on Faith?
Some argue that the scientific method relies a great deal on faith.  Scientists express implicit faith in the intelligibility of the world and in the scientific method to reliably discern some of that intelligibility.  But it is a faith that has been successfully tested by the ongoing practices of science.

Humans are capable of making their own decisions and taking responsibility for the actions and ideas of their lives, a potential called inner freedom or autonomy.  Following socially conditioned rules does not constitute autonomy; true autonomy requires the conscious selection of which moral standards to follow.  A fully autonomous person accepts full responsibility for his or her moral standards and decisions.

American Pragmatism

American pragmatism is a generally agnostic, humanistic school of thought.  This philosophy, exemplified by John Dewey, claims that reality is too vast and complex for us to achieve final answers about it all.  The best course of action is to learn what we can and make the best possible use of this knowledge, seeking to make life better for all people.


Atheistic Existentialism
Existentialists in general take questions of ultimate reality very seriously in their search to define who we humans are.  Atheistic existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre believe that the universe is ultimately purposeless, but humans are free, autonomous beings, with a need for purpose in their lives.  Therefore we must courageously choose to affirm our selfhood as free beings, even as we recognize there is no ultimate meaning to it all..

The Deepest Challenge to Basic Faith
Questions about the ultimate meaning of reality can shake the foundations of faith and belief.  The possibility that the universe is meaningless fits with scientific theories of a random universe.  We can ignore these questions. Or we can have religious trust there is ultimate meaningfulness anyway. 

End of notes to Chapter 13

This page last changed Sunday November 16, 2003

In The Presence of Mystery













   John Dewey