The Problem with Humanism

The incoherence of contemporary humanism is usually ascribed to its free thought origins. Not so. Contemporary humanism is a mess because it doesn’t know what it believes, so much so that it doesn’t know what “it” stands for. Humanism has become the garbled message of freedom, science, democratic values, and church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules. It has ignored or rejected its renaissance origins (too religious?) in favor of a free-base approach to whatever grabs its attention on a given day: a Vatican blunder; an ignorant school board’s pronouncement on creation; a victimized child asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance; a pro-life television ad; an evangelical minister’s excoriation of atheists, and in the broadest sense (think Yul Brynner as the King of Siam) et cetera. It is betimes conservative, libertarian, progressive, socialist, apolitical, pro-gay, latitudinarian, anti-war and anti-Muslim,thus sometimes pro-war, 98% atheistic and 100% philosophically messy.

In part its recent history explains its lack of a following.

The American form of secular humanism evolved out of disparate sources and position-papers, now dubbed statements but in the grandiose social language of the 1930’s and 1970s once called manifestos.

They weren’t altogether bad as marching orders for a motley crew of liberal ministers and dissident academics who refused to walk in a straight line. Humanist Manifesto I (1933) was a modest document, chiefly concerned with redefining religion, rejecting the supernatural, and inviting men and women to look for fulfillment and emotional satisfaction in life rather than in some mythical hereafter.

Its “theology” was the Boston Unitarianism of 1911, already a bit yellow when it was implemented in the 1933 format, and probably unread south of the Mason Dixon line or West of the Mississippi (not counting California).

For example:

Seventh. Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation-all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.

Eighth: Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now. This is the explanation of the humanist’s social passion.

Ninth: In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a co-operative effort to promote social well-being.

Tenth: It follows that there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural.

Eleventh: Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability. Reasonable and manly attitudes will be fostered by education and supported by custom. We assume that humanism will take the path of social and mental hygiene and discourage sentimental and unreal hopes and wishful thinking.

For all its breadth, it was an eloquent, underwritten–or spare–and important statement of what a very few people, at the time, believed to be true, but felt they had a right to say. Its authors, Roy Wood Sellars–whose philosophical position was termed critical realism–and Raymond Bragg, a Unitarian divine, were primarily interested in containing the frontier extravagance that was suffusing most of American culture during and after the Great Depression. No matter how religiously backward religion in America looks in 2010, it was immeasurably more backward when these brave voices issued their call to a kind of commonsense idealism. One way for the necessary change to happen, Sellars believed, was to call America out of its isolationist, woodsy stupor and money-worship to an awareness of society, the world, other people’s problems (and beliefs), and the need for global cooperation. Some of the highest ideals of the gospel, the authors believed, but did not state in the document, called for the same moral compassion.

The second Humanist Manifesto (HM-II,1973), penned by philosopher Paul Kurtz and Edwin Wilson was designed to correct and supplement the earlier document. In several ways it was reflective of changes already percolating in American society, either as controversies or proposals: women’s rights, birth control, abortion, human rights and an international court of justice are endorsed; the primacy of secular education over religion-based dogma and ethics is asserted.

More problematically, for religious onlookers, the manifesto had a profoundly un-neutral stance toward religion. Where the first manifesto saw elements of religion as benignly relevant to social and moral improvement, the word used repeatedly in reference to religion in HM-II is “harmful.” Where the original Humanist Manifesto took an almost indifferent position toward religion, the 1973 document went after religion and religious adherents with crusading zeal–not coincidentally at a time when the first Christian tel-evangelists were showing up on television screens from Biloxi to San Francisco. The Preface laid down the challenge in an unmistakable way:

“Traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.”

Asserting that “no deity will save us from the perils of the modern world,” the authors went on,

“We believe…that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species. Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence; in our judgment, the dogmas and myths of traditional religions do not do so. Even at this late date in human history, certain elementary facts based upon the critical use of scientific reason have to be restated. We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural [order]; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race. As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.”

HM-II focused its attention largely on two worthy objects: the pocked and deteriorating intellectual landscape of American society, which had come to believe (and propagate the absurd idea) that education and enlightenment made no claims against how you viewed the world, lived your life, or understood the universe. And the belief that this toxic state of affairs would right itself through the magic of religion and democratic process in happy concert. HM-I had been an idealistic paean to common sense and high morality; HM-II was grittier, more engaged with the enemies of reason, wordier to be sure, but a battle cry for a more progressive stance and a deeper understanding of what humanism compels the citizen-thinker to do in an Empire of Unreason.

But there was a dark side to the second Humanist Manifesto. While HM-I did not (perhaps could not) go far enough in describing religious excess, HM-II contained sections that were merely reactionary, overblown and rhetorical. The second clause under the rubric “Religion” is a case in point:

Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices. Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the ‘separable soul.’ Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces. As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body. We continue to exist in our progeny and in the way that our lives have influenced others in our culture.

In sections like this, a reductivist impulse takes hold of the document (“the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context”) and tosses out not just God and religion, but the higher self that would make any humanist program defensible and worthwhile. If HM-I was fuzzy, HM-II was didactic, at times dogmatic, and artificially pugnacious.

In its march toward the brave new world of science and reason, it clumsily trampled over the strong and sinewy root between religious developments that were socially and scientifically dictated by real changes in the global context and the beginnings of humanist thinking. It failed to see religion as a rapidly changing force whose historical record showed its ability to adapt itself to change and influence and thus change more quickly than unbelief and secularism could manage to do. Religion had changed through a mechanism of self-criticism; humanism, at least of the atheistic variety, regarded religion as a sufficient end for criticism and failed to develop its own methods for correction. Religion in the twentieth century had become introspective and discontent; humanism, extrospective and self-satisfied. HM-II confidently looked to a religionless future without glancing back at the religious past and rapidly changing present.

In short, HM-II told it like it was, or seemed to be in 1973, and in doing so put itself in a perpetually defensive position: Locked into defending claims it thought to be true, article by article, unable to acknowledge that its adversaries could sometimes be right, insightful, or forward-seeing. It did not shy away from using the word non-theists, code for those who believed in evolution and rejected supernatural as natural allies of this form of humanism. But it did not succeed (and did not perhaps envision) forms of “faith”, “belief” or religion that were equally scathing about the supernatural and equally dedicated to the ethics of commonsense and reason without God, Jesus or Muhammad at its center.

Like all critiques, HM-II had the immediate value of identifying problems and adversaries. Like all critiques, it gave those problems and adversaries a notional status which history had the power to alter or rescind. It was zealous, time-bound, and needed at the time.

But we have to ask whether we are living in a post-Manifesto world, where a truly progressive humanism will not provide–either in articles or in outline–a statement of what humanism is, or what humanists believe or should do.

Progressive humanism resides in exploration rather than definitions and statements.

I reject them in the same way Luther rejected the pope’s authority and Galileo (at least mumbled) his rejection of the Inquisition’s findings. Both humanists, according to the broadest definition, anyway–both opponents of tradition and authority.

Ultimately a progressive humanism will be the freeman’s and free woman’s dissatisfaction with the answers you are given and any suggestion that a problem (moral or mathematical) that you cannot solve can be solved by someone who knows “better,” even if they do not know more, or how, or why.

It is confidence in the self, informed by learning and imagination, that makes you a humanist. It is not an easy thing to achieve, but insofar as religion is involved in the calculation, the humanist also knows this: God will not get you there.

7 thoughts on “The Problem with Humanism

  1. Interesting. I do not have a belief or creed system. I’m not tied to the ideas of secular humanism if they end up being something beyond my conception of them.

    But I disagree with religion because of it’s top down trappings. Why wouldn’t you determine your own values and then live accordingly? Why follow pre-existing creeds at all? I’m sure even if you gave every law up, you’d find and I agree that there are universal “rules”. But you find them by challenging all the rest as well and seeing what’s left.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting read and if you’re missing a conversational opposite, as an atheist blogger, maybe we should converse.

    • Get real! Do you really think that most human beings have the time, inclination and knowledge to “determine [their] own values”? Most educated people can’t even do that without tripping themselves with logical errors, factual mistakes and manifest impracticalities. This is the “hard problem” that humanism hasn’t solved and I don’t think ever will.

      • Welcome to the conversation that happened four years ago. The idea that humanity might flub aspects of determining their own values moves the problem from the Gulf of Evaluation to the Gulf of Execution. I can live with that. Plus, I take issue with your suggestion of a solution because I view the process as a continual process that updates people’s values.

  2. Pingback: The Problem with Humanism (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  3. more relevant than ever now … and an altered riddle I think?
    “Contemporary humanism is a mess because it doesn’t know what it believes, so much so that it doesn’t know what “it” stands for. Humanism has become the garbled message of freedom, science, democratic values, and church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules.” says you – so true.

  4. Oddly enough, this admittedly deficient humanist -see my most recent comment- agrees with you, Luther and Galileo.

    And I’m reasonably sure that the oxygen so helpfully provided by the hospital is not overly affecting my judgement on this matter…

  5. I was thinking about labels – lots of labels – as well as the humanist label, and how they’re boxed and defined, when I was swimming this evening. I was thinking about why we should reject them. I was probably remembering this past post which impressed me greatly when I read it a while ago. And humanism isn’t static or simple enough to be shackled by any manifesto. It’s expressive, progressive and explorative – “It is confidence in the self, informed by learning and imagination, that makes you a humanist”.


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