Movement Humanism

What makes “organized humanism” different from the humanism that evolved philosophically out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment era is that it didn’t evolve out of the Renaissance or Enlightenment era. Not really.

Anyone who has travelled through the liberal arts curriculum of a European or American university in the last century has experienced the benefits of a benign, docile, unangry form of humanism: a curriculum free from church dogma and supervision, a reverence for scientific inquiry, systematic approaches to the study of literature, history, society and an emphasis on critical thinking.

Once upon a time, theology was called queen of the sciences. That was once upon a time. If you really want to know how the liberal arts (a slightly misleading name in our historically impoverished culture since “liberal arts”–the studies that “set your free”– include mathematics and sciences), fought and dethroned theology for the title, you really only have to look at the history of the American university—not counting, of course, those private and parochial ones that are paid for and managed by religious institutions of various stripes. In general, the modern university is built from the bricks humanism provided. It’s a product of intellectual evolution and learning and constructed to focus on the things that, as humans, we can know about rather than on the things that, as humans, we can’t possibly know.

Sometimes secular humanists want to claim that their brand of humanism shares a common pedigree with the humanism of the university. But that’s not true. Its origins, while respectable are not intellectually apostolic: French salon discussion, satire and tractarianism, German political movements, especially the Left Hegelians (like Marx in economics and Baur in philosophy and theology), anti-clericalism, frontier pragmatism in America, and above all a village atheism and hardheadedness that can be traced back to Tom Paine, Darrow, Ingersoll, and a dozen lesser lights. Many, though by no means all of these bargain basement illuminati never saw the inside of an ivory tower–though it’s a credit to Oxford that the university awarded an honorary doctorate to the cantankerous Midwestern skeptic, Samuel Clemens, in 1907.

As in Britain and Europe, freethought went hand in hand with politics: in England, spinning off the free-churches movement that was allied with Unitarianism and the “chapels,” it was tied to disestablishment— the end of the prerogatives and protections given the Church of England. In the United States, it was tied to First Amendment principles, civil liberties, a certain naive belief in “democratic values” (that did not take into account that the democratic values of the masses were dominantly intermixed with and confused with the Bible), and an occasional envy of the more robust socialism and communist tremors of an evolving secular Europe.

Clarence Darrow

I have never thought of myself as a secular humanist, or a big H life-stance British Humanist Association sort of Humanist. The minute you start qualifying humanism you are no longer talking about humanism but the conditions under which you can think of yourself as a humanist. Humanism is humanism. Movement humanism can be a variety of things–like ice cream or Christian denominations.

The danger in my view is that movement humanism is not innocuous. George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.

I have no trouble with anyone calling himself a humanist of this or that colour. But for the word to retain its “denotative” sense, it’s important to distinguish between “movement-humanism” and humanism.

Movement or “organized” humanism, as the name suggests, is a hybrid of certain currents that came together in a strand in the mid twentieth century, especially driven by the frenzy of intellectual change after two world wars. The movement was never fully coherent and for that reason appealed to political liberals, people who sincerely believed that religion (equated with superstition, supernaturalism and dogmatism) was responsible for the world’s ills and others who had been injured by religion and needed catharsis and (perhaps) non-violent revenge. Some of these people were intellectuals. Some were nurses and folksingers and ex-seminarians. All were a little angry.

In terms of its constituency and mood, secular humanism was entirely compatible with atheism; in fact, many recognized that the phrase was simply a circumlocution for atheism or agnosticism, in the same way some Evangelicals equate their doctrinal stance with being “Christian.” The percentage of secular humanists in America or Humanists in Britain or India harboring any “religious” sentiments must be painfully, infinitesimally small.

Other additives of American-style movement humanism included a belief that ethics were man-made and not dictated by a supreme being or mediated by dogma. Secular humanism became wedded to this fairly obvious proposition just when the best theology in Europe and America was teaching much the same thing. The theologies of Hartshorne and Whitehead, and to a certain degree Gilkey and Tillich, with their panentheistic view of God and idealistic view of man, were fully humanistic in the proper sense of the word, but could not be acknowledged by movement humanism with its constricted view of human reality and facile equation of religion and supernaturalism. Indeed, the greatest error of the movement was the simple association of religion with superstition, and the the working assumption that, like superstition and magic, religion could simply be debunked as a system of ritualized hoaxes.


The commitment to “godless” and anti-religious ethics made good sense for an atheist program of action as a kind of self-help course for unbelievers, but could never achieve the intellectual benchmark of an ethics based on the totality of human experience and reflection.

That’s not to say that one needs to believe in God to be moral. It is to say that an ethic that is not grounded in some actually existing infinite reality, such as God is presumed to be, must first state clearly what the grounds and perimeters of values are before proposing them as normative or significant: without such a calculus, it is no more relevant to say that an action is moral because it is human than it is to say that an action is moral because it is something Jesus would have endorsed.

I drink no more than a sponge...

In the realm of ethics, especially, movement humanism became habituated to oversimplification. To make religion more depraved than it seemed to most sensible people, the movement humanists stressed that religion was the sum total of its worst parts. Christianity, a religion of Bible-believing nitwits who meddled in politics, aspired to mind-control and hated Darwin. Islam, a religion of twisted fanatics who loved violence and hated progress and the proponents, mainly western, of progress. There was no equivalent narrative for Jews or Buddhists—not really—or the irrational components of secular movements: democratic socialism, communism, and (within limits) civil libertarianism could be forgiven their excesses precisely because they had their theodicy right if sometimes they got their tactics or outcomes wrong.

While often claiming the protective cloak of science and reason as their aegis for intellectual rectitude, movement humanism was really all about creating straw-men, stereotypes and bogeymen and unfortunately came to believe in its own anti-religion discourse.

To have capitulated, at any point, to the most humane, uplifting or learned elements in religion would have been seen as surrender to the forces of ignorance and superstition. For that reason, by the early years of the twenty-first century movement humanism gave birth to a more uncompromising form of radical secularism in the form of the new atheism with its anti-God and oddly Orwellian postulate: All religion is evil. Some religions are more evil than others. Before God can be disbelieved in, as Christopher Hitchens argued in God is Not Great, he has to be roused from his slumber, bound, tried, and humiliated for his atrocities. If he is not available, his avatar, the Catholic church, will do.

God is Not Great

Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.

It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.

At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.

Unfortunately, the tactics are all wrong because they demonstrate the movement’s almost complete lack of understanding of the “total passion for the total height” that validates religion for most Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—a huge slice of the earth’s population. To read Sam Harris’s extended fallacy, The End of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’ screed, The God Delusion, or any of the clones that have appeared since 2006 is to enter a world of misapprehension and illogic that can only be compared to a child trying to fit the contents of an overstuffed toy chest into a shoebox on the premise that both are boxes that can hold toys. But the logic did not originate with the new atheists; it originated with movement humanism.

What organized humanism lacked from the beginning of its career, as a circumlocution for robust unbelief in God, is a sense of the dignity of wo/man combined with an indulgence and appreciation of human frailty, including the limits of reason. In renaissance humanism, the thought belongs to Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How Noble in
Reason? How infinite in faculty? In form and moving
how express and admirable? In Action, how like an Angel?
In apprehension, how like a god? The beauty of the
world, the Paragon of Animals.

At the beginning of the renaissance, the humanist thinker Pico della Mirandola was censured by Pope Innocent VIII for “certain propositions” contained in his Oration on the Dignity of Man—the first true humanist manifesto.

In the Oration, Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation). He gives this speech to God as an imaginary dialogue after the creation of Adam:

“We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

Innocent VIII

Innocent VIII was no fool. This was not the Genesis story. It was a re-writing of the whole creation myth. It makes Adam’s choice of the earth over his own “divine” potential all the more tragic, a squandered opportunity. But it also makes the choice free, unfettered, fully human and the consequences–which lead after all to smart people like Pico writing smart books–all the more impressive. Divine is as human does well: that was the message

An authentic humanism to be inclusive of all people has to be inclusive of all possible human outcomes, including the possibility of failure. The story of the first human being, in the religious context, is the story of a bad choice. I suspect that that is why the story of Adam has staying power and instructional weight.

Maybe the failure of movement humanism really goes back to how we read Adam’s saga. It has always struck me that the word simpleton can be used to describe both the atheist rant against the creation account in Genesis and the fundamentalist’s preposterous attempts to defend it. Beyond the Scylla and Charybdis of that divide are millions of people who think the story is really elsewhere, that it really doesn’t begin with sticking the sun and the moon in the primordial darkness but with Adam, and more particularly with the curse of reason that Pico describes in his Oration.

Curse? Yes, I think so. The “gift” of reason (no, I do not really believe that we are endowed with reason by a divine being) is both the gift to be curious and the ability to make choices, to act. The tension we experience, like Adam, is that natural curiosity sometimes outdistances a third element—reflection.

The humanist understanding of reason doesn’t magic it into a faculty that, used correctly and with the best application of science, will protect us from error. Religion had such a faculty once: it was called faith and it got you saved from sin.

To be blunt, movement humanism with its straw men and reductive techniques, its stereotyping and bogeymen, is not just stuck in the past but stuck in a religious past of its own making. It is a past that an authentic and fully inclusive humanism would want to reject. It is a past that many religious thinkers have already rejected.

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21 thoughts on “Movement Humanism

  1. A superb piece of writing, a definitive perspective on true Humanism. Classical erudition at its best.

    FWIW, as a Humanist I regard “ethics” as “mob morality”, no matter their promoter. A true Humanist relies on character.

    I think this distinction is important, because every wo/man has a Humanist layer beneath their “belief” layer, and when we begin to call that forth from the species, then shall the harmony we seek come into evidence.


  2. Thanks, Dwight. I am grateful for what you are espousing on your site as well, which everyone should visit: I hope we’ll be able to join forces and work together in concrete ways.


  3. That’s very illusive Dwight. It sounds like what the classicists taught: character is the basis of morals and the point of education is supposed to be to form your character. I like the observation that everyone is a humanist in essence.

    I still think Joe’s piece the most beautiful writing I have ever read and I especially like how often the writer seems to clarify my own feelings simultaneously dropping in the most interesting and entertaining facts. Like the manifesto of a 15th century philosopher, Pico della Mirandola, who I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. And I even more especially like the careful distinction between the essential and inclusive humanism which restarted in the renaissance, from the virulent anti religious ‘movements’ not just in America, but Britain as well, which have become so bullying and prominent. My own father, when I began studying religions, was reluctant to identify as a humanist because of the atheist connotations at the time, although he was a humanist really, when he was sincerely searching for like minded thinkers.

  4. Steph writ: “My own father…was sincerely searching for like minded thinkers.” and that is indicative, as we might say that Humanism was even more obscure then than now.

    Your Dad was wondering where the party was, and today we have one, albeit one crashed by loud, atheist lager louts. Now, if we could find a quiet spot in the garden…

    Joe’s writing is a resource on a number of levels, very inspirational, learning is such a pleasure. Another writer I value for his knowledge of sophisticated world causes is Larry Kazdan, whom I use as my next lily pad in the pond of world governance.

    Revive your blog, Steph, and give up linguistic analysis instead.. 🙂

    • I wish my dad was still here – he would have enjoyed a quiet spot in the garden… and I’m optimistically hoping we can find one soon 🙂

      Ha – bloggling – other people do it better! I’m supposed to be finishing a rather dull thesis on something particularly unimportant and completely wrong called ‘Q’. I’ve got another basket load of really good excuses 🙂

      • thanks for that – I’ve been browsing around (procrasinating with more interesting things than a mythical Q). It’s a shame your novel ‘The Humanist’ isn’t available as an old fashioned book – pages to dogear and print that doesn’t move on the page – I’d read it if it was 🙂

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  8. In Chile we have a Humanist Party.

    I voted for one of their candidates once, because of her stance on legalizing abortion, among other things.

    They are on the left, but don’t fit in with the traditional left, the Communists and the Socialists. At times, however, they form alliances with the Communists.

    They are extraordinarily earnest and politically correct, so earnest and politically correct that I feel a bit uncomfortable with them. It’s an one-dimensional earnestnesss, a salesman’s earnestness, not a visceral earnestness; an earnestness
    learned by the book.

    My son thinks that politicians (and everyone except true saints) need a touch of malice. The humanists in Chile lack malice, which does not make them truly good. In fact, I would trust them more if there were a bit of malice to them.

      • My problem with the Humanist Party (or rather their public spokespeople) isn’t that they are or are not milquetoasts (I had to look that word up).

        They are Flaubert’s Monsieur Homais.

        We all know people who dedicate themselves 100 % to good causes, with almost total purity and commitment: the saints.

        I’m not a saint, but I respect them.

        I don’t respect Monsieur Homais.

  9. Ethos=character, therefore I would still choose ethics as individual assessments of value; morals as group assessments of value. Both can be problematic and difficult, but are necessary for healthy individuals and society.

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