Considering the level and intensity of attacks levied against humanism by religious conservatives in the media, from the pulpit, and on the internet, one might be lead to think that there is something to all of their allegations. But is there? In an intermittent series of essays, I intend to address a variety of those allegations and examine whether or not they enjoy a solid foundation.
One common misconception which is often seen being bandied about is the idea that humanism embodies some sort of dogmatic creed. Most humanists will find this laughable, but they should not shrug it off too quickly. Enough people actually believe it that we really need to deal with it.
There are any number of documents, historical and contemporary, which attempt to communicate what humanism is all about - are these creeds? Are they dogmatic? Some definitely think that such documents "read like creeds," and then proceed to assume that if they read like creeds, then they must be creeds. Why? The simplest explanation would be that they are so used to statements of beliefs actually being creeds in their own religions, that they automatically expect that any statement of beliefs by any group is also some sort of creed. The same idea would serve to explain why they presume to say that these supposed creeds are "dogmatic in nature."
In point of fact, documents expressing humanist ideas and ideals are not "creeds" in any traditional religious sense. Instead, they list some of the principles which underlie what humanism is all about. There are very real differences between principles and religious creeds. There is a tremendous amount of difference among humanists on important political and social issues. Humanists disagree on all sorts of matters like abortion, capital punishment, and welfare. Humanist principles, like those outlined in the Humanist Manifestos, do not dictate what a person should think about those things. Instead, the principles offer guides in how to think about such weighty matters - and it is up to the individual humanist to do their own, independent reasoning. They will have to make their own decisions, with their own reasons, and answerable to themselves.
Humanist principles are optimistic ideals of freedom and liberty - freedom of the individual, liberty of conscience. Humanists believe that, contrary to the claims of religious fundamentalists, human beings are not born depraved, wicked, and sinful. Humans are capable of evil - but they are also capable of living lives full if significance and worth if they so choose and independent of any theological assumptions. Necessary for this, however, is a particular context in which we can develop our best qualities of courage and excellence. It is this context which we hope to foster through humanist principles.
It is also significant to note that, as principles instead of dogmatic creeds, they are open to alteration. Principles based upon rational reflection and inquiry are themsevles open to rational critique. Principles based upon human experience are open to critique from new experiences. Principles which are designed to help us face the challenges of today may not be sufficient for the challenges we will face tomorrow.
Humanism and Authority
People who consider themselves humanists are not asked to accept all of the principles outlined in any of the many manifestos or declarations. On the contrary, humanists are encouraged to critically examine any such statements so that if they do accept them, they accept them because they have come to the independent conclusion that they are correct or appropriate. Although the declarations are commonly signed and endorsed by scientists and other dignitaries, that is also no reason to accept them - such endorsement is more a statement of publicity than of authority.
Scientists do not normally accept the conclusion of another scientist merely because she is famous and respected - instead, they ultimately accept her ideas because those ideas have been critically examined and independently found good. Science works through such independent verification, and so should humanism, too. That a humanist statement is made by a humanist "authority" might be enough to make it worth noticing, but that statement should only be accepted on its own merits, because of what it is. Not because of who says or signs it. If we find that it is bogus, we should not hesitate to say so and explain why. We should never shy away from critically examining any humanist declaration merely because it is made by someone famous. We should not presume to have "faith" in the proclamations of any scientist of philosopher.
As we grow, learn, and live, we will almost certainly find that the information and ideas upon which we have based our principles will be added to or changed - and as a result, we may also have to change our principles. That is why they are not dogmatic, and it cannot be made any plainer than that. Dogmatism leads to social and ethical stagnation - and such stagnation will be lethal for a society constantly faced by the new challenges posed by developments like cloning and space exploration.
Such a lack of dogmatism, however, appears to frighten many people - and that fear is a likely motivation for many attacks. Freedom can be a terrible thing - as terrible as it is wonderful. By advocating moral and intellectual autonomy to individuals, humanists are advocating a degree of freedom unacceptable in most traditional worldviews. Adherents to such worldviews cannot quite understand why such autonomy should be considered good, and lash out at its proponents.
Can we humans make proper use of this autonomy? We use human, not transcendental, means for comprehending reality and for coping with the human condition. Is that enough? It certainly should be - human comprehension should be adequate for coping with human problem. We certainly do not require anything approaching infinte knowledge and comprehension, although that might be nice at times.
So, by what right could we claim that anything we say about our principle and ideals is correct? Actually, by the same right that we might claim that anything else we say is correct. To quote an old cliche, "the proof is in the pudding." If any of our principles are right and true, then their use will be beneficial for society. But if they do not prove their effecitiveness, then they will have to be altered or abandoned. Such is the way we must treat any idea - be it of a moral, social, or scientific nature.
For example, one of the fundamental principles of humanism is that of democratic liberty. This principle has been tried and tested in many countries, in paritcular in America over the last 200+ years. How has it fared? Quite well, I think. As a matter of fact, most of the principles of humanism are already inherent in free societies like America and in basic scientific inquiry. Both have gone a long way to proving themselves good and true - and I think that they warrant expansion. Moreover, any one of those principles are always open to any sort of critique anyone may wish to offer - and if their critique proves successful, then the principle must be reconsidered. That is the nature of a free society based upon rational foundations.
Humanism, like science, must be self-correcting. We will make errors, but our tools of reason, experience, and empathy will allow us to correct those errors. Nothing is beyond doubt or examination, but all doubt and examination must itself have a rational basis. We cannot question an idea or principle merely because it might be incorrect. Contextless doubt is irrational doubt - all rational doubt must have a specific context with specific arguments. There is no room for unsupported "faith" in science or humanism - they must always prove themselves.
Humanism and Science
In such ways, humanism is a philosophy which is "in tune" with modern science. This is not to say that humanist philosophy is wedded to any particular scientific idea or technology - assumptions to the contrary are little more than foolishness. Instead, humanism attempts to take the same attitude as science towards understanding life and reality. Scientific attitudes of skepticism and critical inquiry have proven themselves as having tremendous value and power for humanity. Naturally our use of these tools is never perfect, but imperfection does not mean worthlessness. I may at times misuse my hammer - but that does not mean that my hammer is without value.
Science as a methodology and attitude is, in fact, the most powerful tool humans have ever developed for understanding ourselves and our world. It has allowed us to expand our powers and understanding far beyond the limitations given by nature and have enabled us to make vast gains in improving human life which would have been considered unimaginable even a century ago.
None of that is to say, of course, that a scientific idea or theory might not be incorrect. Every theory is tentative and subject to critique, and it is through such critiques that they are gradually improved. Current scientific understandings of nature are as good as they are because older ideas were critiqued, improved upon and, if necessary, rejected. Neither humanism nor science is totally dependent upon any one theory. Science is more of a process than a product. The only result that matters is an accurate one.
Humanism and Religion
Religionists would claim that their ancient holy texts and/or their miraculous personal insights are they keys to understanding our universe and our place in it - rejecting the principles of using current knowledge and critical investigation. They imagine that they already have the answers, and are more interested in finding some justification for those answers, regardless of how they were found. What's important is that they agree with tradition or authority, or that they fulfill some emotional or psychological needs. For them, all such questions must be "religious" questions, but they have no right to appropriate them in such a way. Those questions exist for everyone to explore as they best can - and the answers are there for everyone to discover or create.
It is religion which is dogmatically tied to certain answers and ideas about life. Those religionists cognizant of this and dimly aware that there is something fundamentally wrong with such dogmatism attempt to paint non-religious beliefs with the same brush which has marred their own worldview. How often have religionists attempted to project unpleasant aspects of their own beliefs onto anyone who does not share their faith? How often have nonbelievers heard the ignorant refrain that atheism or secular humanism are religions? are dogmatic? Too often, but I despair that the ignorance and even outright lies will stop any time soon.
Dogmatism will always accompany human beings and their beliefs - that attitude is a part of who we are, and sometimes can be useful in the face of adversity. It is unlikely that such strong propensity would have evolved if it had no value or use. However, this is not to say that we should not work against our inclinations towards dogmatism. We have certainly learned how dogmatism is often not in our best interests - and it *is in our best interests to be less dogmatic whenever possible. As stated earlier, dogmatism is highly undesirable in a society which is constanly in flux. In order to face the coming challenges, expected and unexpected, we will have to have the courage to face them without uncritical reliance on ancient codes. We will need to face them as human beings, with human values. And as new challenges arise, we'll have to be willing to examine our values in the light of new information - and possibly create new values.
Such possibilities scare people - and understandably. As Erich Fromm notes in Escape from Freedom, liberty can be a frightening thing. If you've lived your life under the comforting assumption that a benevolent father figure as informed you of the "right" way to do things, it can be paralyzing to think that you are now on your own, responsible to yourself for figuring out what to do. It's not easy. But we will not be able to avoid the challenges ahead, and we will have to accept that ancient ideologies will ill prepare us for the questions which approach us.
Let us not give in to fear and dogmatism. Instead, we should encourage the qualities of reason and empathy which will help us.
But what do you think? Do you think that humanism is a set of principles or a dogma? Do you think that humanism offers a positive alternative to traditional, superstitious religions? Why or why not?-->