My reaction to this was, why not embrace the term? There needs to be some name for all this activity that is not itself science but is based on science -- the active promotion of reason, secularism, crusading against nonsense, trying to figure out how science changes ethics and morality, scientists writing popular books on the meaning of it all, bioethics questions like what constitutes a person...scientism didn't sound too bad as a term. The Center for Inquiry was new to me but it seems linked to (and similar in style to) the output of other earnestly secular groups. Which is to say, they are keeping a flame of reason burning but organized religion doesn't really have too much to worry about in terms of charismatic competition.
The next day I discovered a bracing new term -- naturalism. This movement, which is based in Boston, seems to be an attempt to construct a materialist philosophy with a postive slant (as opposed to atheism, which is defined by what it is against). They have some very interesting positions on what a strongly materialist view implies. For instance, compassion -- if every human behavior has material causes then you can't judge anybody very harshly:
The causal view: From a naturalistic perspective, there are no causally privileged agents, nothing that causes without being caused in turn. Human beings act the way they do because of the various influences that shape them, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental....And this page on death looks pretty interesting as well.
Responsibility and morality: From a naturalistic perspective, behavior arises out of the interaction between individuals and their environment, not from a freely willing self that produces behavior independently of causal connections (see above). Therefore individuals don’t bear ultimate originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause....
The source of value: Because naturalism doubts the existence of ultimate purposes either inherent in nature or imposed by a creator, values derive from human desires and preferences, not supernatural absolutes. To the extent that there is a shared human nature, values are common across cultures and thus objective, but to the extent cultures differ, so might values. Although values do not have a supernatural foundation, we cannot escape having them, since they constitute us as motivated creatures.
All well and good. I was particularly excited to learn from a review on their site that Gary Drescher, a very smart guy who I know from back in the day at MIT, has published a new book, Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics, which looks like a thorough investigation of metaphysical naturalism from a physicalist and computationalist perspective. I'll have to read this, BUT -- my intuition is that none of these secular belief systems are going to do much to displace religion.
Why? Religion and naturalism are competing for roughly the same ecological niche in the human meme system -- that is, a foundational explanation for existence. But they emphasize very different areas. Religion provides answers in areas (morality, the soul, the afterlife, ultimate purpose) that are evolved to match the needs of the human psyche. Naturalism tries to address these but requires a good deal of intellectual effort and as such is only going to appeal to a small minority of people. Religion is natural, science is not.
My own tactic may be labelled anti-ismism: give up on the quest/desire for a single foundation system of understanding. Accept religion as an alternative way of knowing and find ways to interpret it that don't conflict with science. Seems right to me, but then I miss out on all the bitter fights between theists and atheists, and now even more bitter ones between hardcore and softcore atheists. Isn't anyone going to stand up for fanatical anti-fanaticism?