“Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything, and so popular that it will include everybody.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
In various magazines and websites dedicated to philosophical humanism, there has been an important, if outdated debate on the core nature of humanism. I say outdated because, although humanism has been (and should always be) a philosophy in flux—being that it is an “ism” which depends on our ever evolving understanding of the human experience—a clear understanding of the core of humanism ought not be up for debate so late in the game.
Modern humanism, though reconceived many times over, can be said to have been crystallized in 1933 with the Humanist Manifesto I. When we talk today about humanism—at least in the United States—we are more than likely referring to that which has resulted from that radical document drafted over 70 years ago. We can also refer back to the work of Corliss Lamont (The Philosophy of Humanism), Paul Kurtz, and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Felix Adler, as well as those organizations which they helped bring into existence – The American Humanist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Ethical Culture Society respectfully.
Though it is clear to me that all participants in this debate all have legitimately argued their concerns regarding the state humanism finds itself in today – internally fractured and ineffective in changing minds - I feel that before we can talk about how to make humanism more appealing to “moderate” religious folks (the majority of our fellow citizens), we must first decide what the heck humanism means to those of us who claim the word as our own.
The word is out, “atheistic” humanism has failed. This is most evident in the United States as we witness via organized humanism’s ineffectual response to the religious Right’s worldview, and via the general attitude of Americans toward religion, superstition and science. Why has this happened to humanism when other “movements,” such as those championing African-Americans or Jews or Gays, have made significant progress, and have done so despite the secular and religious Right’s thirty-year affront to progressive ideals? Could humanism’s failure as a worldview, to some extent, be because so many humanists see their worldview as an alternative to religion rather than a self-contained one of its own? How many times do we humanists find ourselves describing our beliefs by calling out a litany of ideas and faiths we don’t happen to subscribe to? It is at times as if humanism would not exist if it were not for religion. It is no wonder that organized humanism, cautious about becoming a religious alternative tend to follow a big tent model, wrapping as much as they can into their message – secularism, science advocacy, atheism, skepticism, and somewhere in the mess, humanism – while boosting their revenues even if that means diluting their original message.
There may be another reason as well; one which may explain why humanism has been promoted as an alternative to religion. The term “atheistic humanism” was chosen for a reason. Humanism, as will be described more later on, is a sociopolitical philosophy “informed” by scientific naturalism (which includes atheism), but has been promoted as a “philosophy for non-believers or atheists.” Thus the emphasis has not been on the full picture, but on one part of the whole. Humanism, as a vibrant and widespread ideology (one protected from dogmatism by its reliance on naturalism, by the way), has failed because it has been promoted not as naturalistic humanism – or just plain humanism – but as “atheistic” humanism. In other words, humanism (as a movement or re individuals), has pushed ‘atheism as philosophy’ (which it is not), rather than ‘humanism as sociopolitical philosophy’ (which it is). In this way, humanism has failed.
Individual humanists, or even big tent humanist organizations, struggle to describe what there is unique to their message. Science advocacy, skepticism and secularism are not unique to humanism, that much is clear. And without a concrete understanding of what humanism actually means to our lives, atheism begins to take on that roll of unique difference. This is not very surprising in a country such as America where religion is so much a part of the fabric of what it means to be American. But atheism is not a worldview.
That deserves repeating. Atheism is not a worldview. When we decide to focus on atheism to express what it is about our worldview which we feel has the best chance of creating a better society, we are missing the point (of humanism).
Even in times such as these, where religious fundamentalists are waging war on each other, we mustn’t take the easy route and merely bash religion. But this is what today’s spokespersons for atheism, from Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to Christopher Hitchens and Ibn Warraq are doing. The problem with this is not that there are people willing to do battle with the irrationality of supernaturalism; there should always be such warriors on “our” side willing to take on what is the most dangerous aspect of religion. The problem instead is that these same people often either self-identify as humanists, or are identified as such by organized humanism.
Once humanism is tainted with the “us vs. them” mentality, which characterizes the battle between theism and atheism, it has forfeited its ability to bring naturalism into the marketplace of ideas… Where all folks, religious or not, can partake in the human endeavor toward better means and ends.