The Dumbing of Humanism

The New Yorker cartoon showed a man defiantly situated behind a newspaper refusing to give up his bus seat to an irate “lady shopper.” The caption was “Chivalry isn’t dead Madam. I am.”

I think it’s vintage 1950. It was included in my grandmother’s fairly slim 1950’s collection of cartoons from the publication that writers still refer to as The Magazine.

I was a subscriber when I was an impecunious undergraduate. My grandmother saw to it–and that I got a box of cherry cordials on my birthday. Now that I am an impecunious university teacher, I still subscribe. Nothing–not even Monty Python’s “Isn’t it Awfully Nice to Have a Penis”–ever made me laugh louder than New Yorker cartoons.

But this lol cartoon came to mind a day or so ago because I’ve been wondering lately whether or not to give up on humanism. It may be dead, but like the flogged dead horse, it won’t lie down.

I say this as someone who has an ardent respect for gay, women’s, minority, and various other individual rights. I support a woman’s right to choose as a matter of common sense and human decency. It is not an arguable topic. I support the right of gays and any other loving people on the planet to love each other with the blessings they choose and in the way they want. It is not an arguable topic. Stem cell research, wherever they usefully come from? For it. War? Against it. Mostly. Religious and any other kind of dogmatism and extremism. Get real. –Sorry, a man of my era.

I am not exactly a libertarian and most libertarians I meet actually annoy me and seem oddly incoherent. But I agree with what used to be a cardinal libertarian tenet: We are free to choose anything that does no harm to others except to choose not to be educated. Something libertarians no longer spotlight–at least as far as I can tell. To choose not to be educated puts us in the running for dogmatism, the opposite of liberty.

“The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle. The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth: and this without a particle of regard to the results to which the exercise of that power may lead, even though it should conduct the pupil to opinions diametrically opposite to those of his teachers. We say this, not because we think opinions unimportant, but because of the immense importance which we attach to them; for in proportion to the degree of intellectual power and love of truth which we succeed in creating, is the certainty that (whatever may happen in any one particular instance) in the aggregate of instances true opinions will be the result; and intellectual power and practical love of truth are alike impossible where the reasoner is shown his conclusions, and informed beforehand that he is expected to arrive at them.” John Stuart Mill, Civilization (1836).

Mill’s language worries me. My worry is that humanism, which (if the word still has any force) has to be concerned about rights, individuality, privacy, non-interference, and pressing social and political matters, is being reduced to the issues those principles evince. That sounds a bit fustian. It isn’t meant to.

I suppose it’s fair to say that the reason humanism, as most people know the word, has taken this turn is that it is easier to talk about issues than principles, easier to discuss hot topics than ideals. Movements and advocacy groups are “joined.” They are not the last statement in a syllogism.

But there be monsters. Religious communities are also joined, and just for the same reason. No one ever became a Presbyterian because he read his Calvin. Not recently, anyway. The danger of becoming dogmatic about anything you haven’t arrived at through a steady course of reasoning is immense. That is exactly Mill’s point.

It is proportionally easier, therefore, to confuse issues and ideals–and I think that is what is happening to humanism–with humanism. It now falls victim to the kind of reductivism to which its spacious principles have entitled it, like Adam to the succulence of forbidden fruit.

Can we blame anyone or anything for this outcome? I think so.

Chivalry died and no one noticed. It was replaced by sheer dumbness and the unprincipled assurance of male political and social dominance. That was (simplified) certainly the case during my childhood, and even remained the case during the now well-documented male-dominated protest movements of the early sixties when I came of age. Then women came of age and didn’t want to be called “babe” or “my chick” anymore, around the same time Asians at Berkeley were called Buddha heads. And then everything changed.

I’ve just read Stephanie Coontz’s new biography of

Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique. When I knew her, near the end of her life, she resisted saying outright that feminism and humanism were compatible. They were certainly not the same thing. One was not a subset of the other. They could be arrived at by different roads. Cher’s don’t-mess-with-me-looks at Sonny did more than Gloria Steinham to change things for women. And she began as a chick. Humanism had nothing to do with it.

I think humanism leads to positions that embrace freedom, justice, equality and compassion. But I see no way of maintaining those positions, practically or even argumentatively, without careful assessment of what brings them into existence.

The best kind of humanist vision creates liberating (not necessarily liberal) positions; but I do not think these positions lead inevitably to a humanist vision. There are ample “proofs” of this, but reflect on the fact that Christian principles, as represented in the Black Church of the 1950’s and 1960’s and ideas of self-worth that were rooted in the Gospel, issued in the Civil Rights movement. Liberal Christian ministers like William Sloane Coffin climbed on board quickly. They were also there at the head of the civil disobedience phase of the anti-war movement. I know because I was there too. A small, core peace movement had long existed in the United States, largely based in Quaker and Unitarian beliefs, but failed to gain popular currency until the Cold War era. The escalating nuclear arms race of the late 1950s led Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, along with Clarence Pickett of the American Society of Friends (Quakers), to found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. The list goes on, but except for the atheist orientation of certain radical groups, the list of effective activism–activism that made a difference–was at least implicitly religious.

Humanism, meantime, of a quieter, calmer and even religious disposition was being dumbed in the growth of secular humanism [Humanist Manifesto II, 1973]

It was the purest reduction of humanist principles to easy targets that America had ever seen, an accelerated Berlitz-scheme to make America more like Europe. Fundamentalists, political yahoos, believers in the paranormal, weird science, and assorted other “issues” that smart people might have settled with a little classroom time and careful thought, were put forward as a program (a joinable cause) in an age when self-help was just coming of age. It bought a variety of causes, more or less, wholesale, as its agenda, failing to see that religion was changing and offering its screed against religion in the form of a new scientific morality as a substitute for “faith”:

…Traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage. More recently they have generated concerned social action, with many signs of relevance appearing in the wake of the “God Is Dead” theologies. But we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.

I am an unbeliever who doesn’t like the word atheist very much–too fraught with unarguable curves. Secular humanism embraced atheism as its non-negotiable starting point. There were other kinds of “humanism,” the founders of secular humanism acknowledged, but they were primarily of antiquarian value. Hardly worth notice in a democratic (10 across) and secular (7 down) society.

There was nothing especially wicked in any of this. Secular humanism was a vision for the early-late twentieth century. Its attention to the secular origins of American democracy was important, though not unique and not philosophically grounded in a deep sense of history. One of its early saints, Corliss Lamont, and many of its attaches, were simply repentant and fairly ignorant Marxists. Humanism was a badge of respectability when other loves dare not be spoken.

It was not a vision or a way forward. The threat it posed to itself was the threat of the phoenix. Ultimately it would self-destruct before the twin spawn of its birth: issues of individual rights, which it shared with a dozen other advocacy groups, and the atheist mind-set that it taught was required for the implementation of any meaningful approach to the issues. It did not imagine that one day its hedginess would be its undoing and that the soft bottom of humanism would not be strong enough to support it.

As the creation of an era, secular humanism was between Scylla and Charybdis. It preached nonsense under the banner of “reason” and “science” since no self-respecting individualist who is also a non-believer would dare to challenge the icons of the Post-Darwinian world.

Mainly, traditional humanists shut up. First because they were (that word again) chivalrous where secular humanism was loud and bluff, though not as loud as organized atheism. Partly because they had grown diffident about their usefulness in an issue-dominated society that was also being driven in new directions by a hundred social and intellectual currents. They–the liberal and vaguely religious humanists–were quaint, classical, church-friendly, even a bit priggishly old fashioned in their moral and intellectual stances.

Secular humanism seemed, at the time, aggressive, issue-sensitive, purposeful. The extent to which it had become servant rather than master of its issues was never, really, cataloged.

The propounders were scarcely aware of the prior history of denominationalism. They aspired to a European version of society without really ever “getting” Europe, as if they married into it rather than being born to the manor. They needed to have read a little more Niebhur, maybe even a little Augustine, a little less C.S. Peirce.

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism

If they had, they would have been aware that the qualification of anything is the beginning of its fracture, its breaking into bits, wings, factions–or to use the ecclesiological jargon, denominations. Once humanism began calling itself names, like so many Baptists, the end was near. It is hard to get back to basics–principles and ideals, origins–once issues, movements, and mind-sets have replaced them in energy, flow and focus. That is what happened. And it is entirely describable, in a historicist kind of way.

Humanism doesn’t need to be defined anymore. It is as it does. Like language, it’s the talk we talk, not the speech described in nineteenth century grammars. I have no illusions that a philosophy opposed to the soul is prepared for soul-searching. I am not even sure it’s desirable. Smart people will always draw inspiration from historical models and form unspoken principles from example and “great” ideas. They don’t really need a name, a map, a manifesto, or a banner in front of it.

Yet there may be hope. I think that there is a new generation of idealists (and I could name names, and maybe I will at some point) who care as ardently as I do about first principles, virtue, and goodness as the starting point for any meaningful experience of humanism.

They certainly exist in Boston (and perhaps elsewhere?) and they recognize that individual freedom begins from the principles–the ideas–not the issues. They are not reductivists. They are not antiquarians. They are not dumb. And they are far from dead.

18 thoughts on “The Dumbing of Humanism

  1. Pingback: Cherry Cordials

  2. “Humanism doesn’t need defining anymore” – I’m not even sure it needs a name. Names always demand interpretation and become things to hijack and misunderstand. Names are prone to be prefixed with an epiteth. I’ve never found the focus of the humanism that calls itself secular, particularly helpful. It’s not ‘about’ secularism (or God) at all. Humanism needs to be lived, demonstrated, and reflected, in a sense – not named and defined. And a little more gently, quietly, thoughtfully and considerately. I agree and empathise with every word you’ve written – you’ve saved it if it needed to be saved. Beautifully expressed it. I also believe that I know quite a few people who are concerned with these principles – but they don’t necessarily call themselves humanists, or anything at all. My own father was definitely one of them.

    I found the New Yorker diary for 2011. It’s hilarious – The New Yorker Cat Diary. But I like it so much I can’t write a word in it. But that’s OK – I have an impeccable memory for dates, times, numbers and lists…


    • actually I alter that – it does need to be saved, with passion, from mutilation. For the past few decades, it has suffered from definitions and humanists don’t call themselves humanists. But you have expressed the ideas perfectly, I believe.


      • Following further consideration (or googling) I think these principles very urgently need to be rescued, with cooperative effort, from this:

        “The clarion call of the New Atheism’s rise has filled us with celebration, and has encouraged us to answer reason’s call. At this summer’s Midwest Humanist Conference, renown FreeThought activist August Berkshire has called “atheism the medicine.” August brilliantly completed the thought calling Humanism the “bedside manner.” As Humanists we realize our role and obligation as members of the human race.” (Southern California Secular Humanism Conference … Beyond disbelief, Secular Humanism fills us with the energy to look forward and progress ourselves to a brighter future by our own hands, unencumbered by fanciful beliefs in the supernatural”

        I don’t recognise any essence of humanism in this statement. I just find it depressing.

  3. If you can get through the verbosity, the postings on my blog,, go a long way to underscore your points. Here, for example, is a quote from my very first post, “Becoming Kinder Gentler Humanists:”

    “By any measure, we humans have come a long way since the dawn of civilization. But only in the last few hundred years or so have we come to better understand our world, and indeed reality itself, through the application of reason and the discipline of science. Yet, sadly, we have made very little progress in our capacity for tolerance, compassion, and fairness. It seems to me that this deficiency presents an opportunity for the Humanist Movement.

    “If Humanism follows its implicit moral imperative of emancipating people from irrational dogma of all kinds by helping to assuage the existential angst that goes with living in a complex and diverse society, then it can facilitate an awareness of other, more rational, more ethical, more humane possibilities. I see this battle for hearts and minds carried out not just in churches, mosques, and synagogues, but in our educational institutions, our economic systems, our families and communities, our courts, our legislatures, our health care systems, our communication networks, our workplaces, and our liberal democracy.

    “Therefore, in respect of the foregoing, I believe the focus of the Humanist Movement should be on reason, compassion, ethics, justice, scientific inquiry, and the promise of human fulfillment in the natural world. It should leave the attacks on religion to those groups created specifically for that purpose – the Anti-Theists – and emphasize a need for the Humanist philosophy in all of our social institutions. Humanists should strive to become uniters, not dividers.”

    • Brilliant, Herb, I just read it: could not agree more. What we need to to is unite the humanists who have this vision and not a “partial” one based on elements that may or may not be essential to humanist philosophy. And I don’t think it’s verbose at all.

    • Hello Herb, Your incisive summary, becoming a gentler kinder humanist, contains exactly the essential principles of humanism I recognise, with perfect clarity. Inspiring vision – and promising for an exciting revival. Thank you Herb, beautifully expressed. And exactly – uniters not dividers (and there are quite a few rational theists who empathise with these principles). I love it.

  4. Well, blah blah blah, and more blah. Too wordy withourt much to say except one does not have to read between the lines when reading anything Humanist to see all the” shoulds “and “oughts” in the rhetoric. Much too moralistic for us Atheists who tell it like it is without fanfare. Give me that old time Atheism anytime all the rest is riding on our backs!

    • Intriguing comment, Pat. One of the reasons I avoid “that old time atheism”–whatever that is. Kind of in your face or up yer bum is it?

      • Yes thats it , and if it wasn’t it, you humanists would still be wondering what exactly it is! Let me remind you of what IT is not =it is not about being nice, it is not about being tolerant, it is not about being polite , it is not about compromising , it is not about agreeing to disagree. And it really is hard to get excited about something that rides on the coattails of IT.

      • I’m excited anticipating a future helping to create a more ideal and meaningful humanism – as it’s expressed with much eloquence, wit and clarity above. But then many of us not in your cultural context do not follow your brand of “IT”. In fact your “IT” is nothing to do with humanism at all. I happen to be atheist but I’ve never been obsessed about the differences between me and those with mistaken beliefs. I’ve always been more interested in education and building futures with a variety of different people sharing basic principles and values, building relationships – not creating enemies. I am also not under any illusion that I am a better person than people with a belief in any defined or indefinable God concept or concept of ‘God’ as ‘goodness’. Quite various really, beliefs of religious people.

        Mind you I’ve never believed so I’ve never had any faith to leave and consequently resent, but I know plenty of others who have become atheists and left some form of ‘faith’ and don’t demonstrate antagonism towards religious people or religions as your “IT” does. Often they never identify as ‘atheists’ because of the “IT” you represent. In fact Michael Goulder specifically identified himself as “a non-aggressive atheist” after he left his faith, precisely because of the “IT” you represent. I didn’t come across your “IT” until I came across it on the internet, and it appears to be a predominantly American phenomenon. I’ve never had a first hand encounter with “IT” of your brand. Perhaps it’s because so much of religion in America is categorically fundamentalist. Your perception of religion may be intensely flavoured or poisoned by your impressions of fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is fundamentally, quite similar in certain characteristics to “IT”. But once again, I haven’t had much first hand experience with fundamentalists either. Religious beliefs are probably far more diverse in the rest of the world. Religious people don’t always feel beholden to dogmatic or biblical beliefs or “society’s religion”, but view their religion with more freedom and initiative. And alot of religious people have very humanistic views on life. So best of luck to you and your “IT” friends in building a future together.

    • I agree pat. In the 80s Humanists were trying to dominate the Green parties, now they’ve successfully managed to dominate online atheists (recent informal polls suggests online atheists are 85% self described Humanists. I find the moralisism and anthropocentrism of Humanism very annoying. In addition to the constant crying of “treating humans better”. If modern humanity had not been doing ONLY that for the past 5000 years, our numbers would not have increased so. Frankly, it is time for humans to do a little less navel gazing and admit that we’re already done too much for “humans”.

  5. The “IT” is not theists or relligious or christians or believers , or fundamentalists IT is refered to as Humanists. Stick to the subject and quit prattling on!

  6. Check your spelling and punctuation, and stop whining. The “IT” you described as ‘old time atheism’, has nothing to do with humanism. In fact, the “IT” you described bears a distinct resemblance to new atheism. New atheists are not humanists Pat. They do not behave like humanists. You see Pat, humanism is not really about religion or atheism. Humanism definitely doesn’t ‘ride[] on the coattails’ of atheism, whether the atheism is old, new or unqualified. If anything, it emanates from belief. Perhaps you haven’t quite cottoned onto the subject. Maybe you’re just a bit to cross to comprehend, eh.

  7. RJH writ: “My worry is that humanism, which (if the word still has any force) has to be concerned about rights, individuality, privacy, non-interference, and pressing social and political matters, is being reduced to the issues those principles evince.”

    Those issues are standalone, and may overlap to be fair. Perhaps what’s missing is their lack of linkage to Humanism. There’s no pingback.

    Example: Humanists at some point would be expected to decry a new generation of Trident missile subs as anti-human, a monument to human failure. Or do we ask the Quakers to do that for us? Are we hijacking the Quakers to do our duty, while we sit by in our ten gallon hats, sneering at Dawson?

  8. Pingback: The Incompleat Atheist Woman? A Little History and Less Context « The New Oxonian

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