The Challenge of Neohumanism

We will soon be marking the first anniversary of Paul Kurtz’s  Neo-Humanist Statement, a charter for a way forward in the study and application of human values at a global level.

My own view of the new Institute for Science and Human Values is that, given Paul Kurtz’s intellectual restlessness, it was bound to happen.

The Institute is not so much a new creation but the culmination of his assessment of where other organizations have fallen short or have been driven by short-term thinking to harp on one string. The reduction of the humanist message to an ever-narrowing vision was not just unacceptable; it was the contradiction of the full-bodied humanism he had worked for throughout his career.

For Kurtz, this vision entailed two separate steps: the rejection of parochialism, exceptionalism (“nationalisms”),  and dogmatism.  (All three ideas are laid out and laid bare in the Statement.) And second, an honest evaluation of what we can do to create individuals and institutions that promote moral excellence.  We cannot move forward until we faithfully examine where we are and where we have gone wrong–where we stand in relation to what Bacon called the “idols of the tribe.”

Kurtz was touting the inevitability of the global community and the need for a new ethical regime to support it before many academics–certainly before most politicians–knew what the word  meant.  To understand this, his own intellectual biography comes into play.

In 1977 the profoundly smart American historian, Henry Steele Commager published a book entitled The Empire of Reason.  The book grew out of the intellectual climate of Columbia University where he taught from 1936 to 1956.  Columbia had become famous for either producing or giving refuge to the gurus of liberal democracy, loosely bound together in a confederacy devoted to the liberating power of the humanities and the power of ideas to change society.  In the American Century, Jacques Barzun, Joseph Campbell, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, Mortimer Adler, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr (Union), Moses Finley, Sidney Hook, John Herman Randall,  and Lionel Trilling–to stop only for breath–walked in the shadow of Lady Columbia.  Not to know at least some of the names in that list means that you may have missed the formative debate about the role of education in American democracy, one of the greatest debates in the history of the Republic. (That debate is still going on, by the way, and the ones least able to participate in it, tragically, are our legislators.)


Paul Kurtz took away from his War experience in Europe and his graduate days at Columbia a staunch faith in the capacity of democratic institutions to make people’s lives better in a world that was changing quickly: on the one hand, bringing people closer together through communication and, especially, education, but also into strained alliances and sudden conflicts, as a result of global shrinkage.

Post-war Europe: Boy eating lunch of bread and lard

To say in 1950 that America was a “shining city upon a hill” wasn’t what it meant when Ronald Reagan was handed the phrase for the GOP in 1987 .  The expression was first used, symbolically, of “America” by John Winthrop (quoting Matthew 5:14-16) in 1648, then by John Kennedy in 1961.  It did not mean that America was better and brighter than everyone else’s city, but that it embodied vision and hope, ideals of social liberty and equality, the absence of which, from the American intellectual perspective had caused two European wars and the deaths of millions.

I remember hearing the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in Oxford in 1986, responding to an edgy question about his oft-professed love for America at a time when America’s ante was especially low in Europe and Reagan-era anti-Americanism was practically a school of philosophy in it own right. Berlin after a pause said to the youngish, smuggish interviewer, “You weren’t around then.  You can’t imagine how unbelievably dark Europe seemed to us then.  The only light there was was coming from across the sea.”  It was that kind of perception that a whole generation of Americans brought back with them from Europe: that they had done something worthy.

The phrase that had circulated widely among New York intellectuals in the 1950’s, the immediate post-War decade, was the term “practical wisdom”(phronesis, φρόνησις) a classical ideal (especially in Aristotle’s thinking) that relates to how the knowledge (sophia) we acquire is translated into the good life through thoughtful action.  Werner Jaeger had given the term and the idea currency in  a book called Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1939-44). A pragmatist by temper, Commager thought the riddle about what was good for the mind, as mind, and what is good for the soul as virtue had been solved in the early American experience, where the story of the past was not valued for its defining and enduring permanence (as in Europe) but as a cautionary tale:

“While Europe looked toward ancient, stagnant civilizations like China’s, America looked at a horizon. True, the Old World had Goethe, Priestley, Kant – but the reality was that cities were put to the torch, nobles rode heedless over the fields of peasants, the Irish cotters starved to death….”

Americans, with “no King, no Court, no aristocracy, no body of laws, no professional army, no Established Church, no history, no tradition, no usable past” were required to invent a working society from the bottom up. Thomas Jefferson is exalted as the native philosophe embodying this development–a man who knew what the philosophes knew, but did not waste his time drinking coffee in the salon after he knew it.

Commager, as an historian, expressed the uniqueness of the “American way” in his own hyperboles, of course: The enlightenment in Europe,  was essentially theoretical rather than practical because it did not end in social or political amelioration (almost no European scholars agreed with him). But many of his conclusions about America wanting to create “a more perfect union” and references to the “pursuit of happiness” (not merely economic prosperity) were translated into important and defining differences between old Europe and young America in the early republic. Ideas like righting injustice, affirming human worth and diginity, and seeing government as a benevolent partner rather than an overlord in helping people to find the good life were there from the beginning. For all the hyperbole, Commager had managed to capture something important about the native humanism of the American spirit, which was always threatened not by a Europe emerging out of the dust of war but by nativism and isolationism, especially in its raw, loud, religious forms.

These were affirmative and optimistic ideas, coming soon after long centuries of religious warfare in Europe.  The general sense that religion could not be trusted to secure the enlightenment of men and women whose new fundamental identity was “citizen” and not “parishioner” or “layman”  was also there from the beginning, and a general distrust of priestcraft, popery, dogma, and supernaturalism is also there from the beginning.

This little bit of history is necessary to explain the background of the Neohumanist Statement.  Most of the names mentioned above would have called themselves “humanists,” or “ethicalists.” A few flirted with, then got disillusioned by, socialism and communism. Some were Jews by family tradition, some were Christians, some would have been reluctant to call themselves anything, other than pragmatists.

They had common concerns about religion in the story of western civilization (the Durants were a special case of this almost zealous commitment), but equally too much aware of the complexities of historical narrative to think that religion was the only problem human beings were likely to face or needed to overcome.  To oversimplify a body of work and thinkers who never formed a “club” (though the New York Intellecuals came close) they seemed instinctively aware that the problems we face are human problems, and to the extent that “religion in society” (a phrase popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr) can be identified as one of those problems, it has human solutions, too.

In his previous work, Paul Kurtz as the offspring of this movement has made the same point: the philosophy he once named “secular humanism” was his way of saying that humanism will always be non-dogmatic and must be naturalistic in its approach to the world.  We are real people, living in real time, dealing with real problems.  The resort to magical thinking is never an option.  We did not “make” this world–it was given to us to explain, interpret, and make our home; and religion is one of the ways in which we have tried to explain it to ourselves.  Now that science has arisen as a better explanation, people will have to judge for themselves, in honesty and charity, what the future of religion is going to be.  Yet in the Statement, this discussion emphasizes kindness and respect rather than hostility for creeds outworn.

But the Question of God, and the matter of religion, cannot dominate our thinking as humanists. Kurtz has written repeatedly that humanism is not atheism: it does not begin there, and it cannot stop there.  If the reality of global civilization is the rapid pace of change, discovery and kaleidoscopic power and economic shift, then there is simply no time to mourn the death of God.  There is too much to do.

Kant (in the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View) once saw a defining element in human nature as its commitment to scientific discovery being out of all proportion to the lifespan, in which questions that were just being asked were not likely to find answers. This he found remarkably unlike the day-to-dayness of animals. It proved to him that even though we struggle to maintain the moral good in a nature that also bends toward “evil,” the good of knowledge drives us on–a temptation in its own right.

That fundamentally affirmative approach to discovery is essential to the neohumanist vision: it is not limited to what we can accomplish in our four score years and ten, but open to what we can begin to do and to learn.  This means that the question of God’s existence or the postulates of religious morality which dominated thought for so long, will not be at the center of the humanist project.

A narrow atheist agenda is as retardant to achieving the good life, as humanism understands that word, as a narrow theistic vision was in the twelfth century.  God no longer stands over us–this reality is not an argument.

And while it will always be important for the humanist to defend this assertion, and to remind the most ardent defenders of the religious world-view that their grip is gone, and that the age of faith is over, the real work is not in re-fighting yesterday’s battles as if they were new ones.

The real work, as Paul Kurtz has again reminded us, is always just ahead.

14 thoughts on “The Challenge of Neohumanism

  1. “A narrow atheist agenda is as retardant to achieving the good life, as humanism understands that word, as a narrow theistic vision was in the twelfth century.” RJH

    So much more than that given here in this masterpiece, such a privilege to read it…I had the temerity to slander the good name earlier, but I think I just morphed into an Oxonian.

    In Japan they have a name for guys like this. National Treasures.

  2. “A narrow atheist agenda is as retardant to achieving the good life, as humanism understands that word, as a narrow theistic vision was in the twelfth century.” RJH

    No offense, but I think this betrays a stunning ignorance of the history of religion’s crimes against humanity. To pretend like the good folks at American Atheists are uncommitted to living the good life is patronizing and obviously false. As a Humanist and an Atheist, I tell you advocacy for both are important.

    • @Jonathan: There is no better writer or scholar on the history of religion than RJH, and in this article he is leading the charge for Humanism. You can’t possibly look for more astute advocacy than that. Unless you don’t really care for the Humanist side and are satisfied with lip service to it – which is US/BHA atheism – and precisely his point.

  3. Perhaps ignorance is too strong, but willingness to overlook the fact that religious fundamentalists have resorted to violence to impose their beliefs, while atheists do not (with the obvious exception of totalitarian China, hardly a Jeffersonian Democracy…).

    • @Jonathan: Do you really think the field (there is one) of history of religion (which includes sociology, psychology and anthropology of religion) overlooks religious fundamentalists’ “crimes against humanity” and that the critique was written by atheists (some of whom teach history of religion)? In my view the serious study of religion has been key in working out why religions turn violent–or for that matter exist at all. That is not a question that is addressed in other religion-specific fields like philosophy of religion, and not something movements like atheism help us much to understand. To call it ignorant just betrays a lack of information.

  4. ‘A narrow atheist agenda is as retardant to achieving the good life, as humanism understands that word, as a narrow theistic vision was in the twelfth century. God no longer stands over us–this reality is not an argument.’ RJH

    I am inclined to agree in part, but not entirely. I see atheism as a necessary first step, almost a purification of the mind, removing the tribalism and dogmas of religion so that a truly global humanist project can begin.

    However, the fact that ‘God no longer stands over us’ is not self-evident to many people. Indeed, many in positions of political power and social influence do believe that God stands over us, and base their social policies on religious proscriptions against (for instance) homosexuality, or base their environmental policies on the view that Jesus will return soon and the world will end, so we don’t need to save the planet.

    As long as these beliefs are held by people in power, we do need a ‘narrow atheist agenda’ to confront and challenge them, just as much as we need a wider humanism. The two are not contradictory but in essence, two sides to the same coin.

    • on the political level, we need to get supernaturalism out of politics. It is dangerous for democracy, which is built on “reason”, to be affected by supernaturalism, which is not “reason” based. Once one tells you that their gods want X, “reasoning” is over.

      So I agree with much of what you are saying. In fact, I would say, that the political importance is #1. It might be nice for intellectuals to hope that people will become more leaned, and perhaps learn about history, or theology, etc… But, that is a far less importance to me, that the work of making sure that political decisions are not affected by the gods.

      So I am for putting the majority of the effort in getting people to abandon supernaturalism, and honestly, I don’t care if they do it for good or bad reasons. I simply want supernaturalism taken completely out of politics however that can be done.

      Cheers! RichGriese.NET

      • Nationalism, militarism, corruption, and our neglect of the UN – Democracy suffers under them as much as from supernaturalism, I would think. If the idea is to educate politicians, then no tradition equals Humanism for preparing citizens for public office. My own approach is to consider religion a private matter, and to address issues around our species’ governance directly.

      • I agree with you Dwight. Religion should be, and is, for some people, a private matter, while government and education should be, and is down under, completely free of religion. In an ideal world everyone will lose their theisms and religious rituals. But in the meantime you cannot realistically demolish all these without replacing them with something. I think only secular (humanistic) education in the sciences and logic as well as the arts including histories of atheism, humanism and religious beliefs, can encourage people to adopt reason and find spiritual, or life fulfilment in things like nature, the arts, and human relationships. In a humanist society, I don’t think individual private beliefs need matter so much and education in a secular humanist state will probably eventually dissolve them.

        I agree also, that society suffers as much from Nationalism, militarism, and corruption. As you know, George Bernard Shaw said ‘You will never have a quiet world until you knock the patriotism out of the human race.’ I like that.

  5. Absolutely brilliantly eloquent and incisive post, thank you. So many reasons to feel inspired. As a fellow bohemian Kiwi, Katherine Mansfield said: “To work — to work! It is such infinite delight to know that we still have the best things to do… Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.” Throughout his career Paul has consistently recognised the individuality of human beings within societies as well as the complexities of religious beliefs. It is important to distinguish between the multiplicity and variety of faiths with the horrors of fundamentalisms. This is something that does not seem to be clarified in education. Encouraged by a predominantly fundamentalist religious environment with religiously saturated politics, it is generally not acknowledged by american atheists however learned they might be in other disciplines. The history of religions is sadly not understood.

    I like our patron saint of Nottingham, St D.H. Lawrence’s beautifully optimistic and hopeful zest for Zoe: “What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolated salvation of his “soul.” Man wants his physical fulfillment first and foremost, since now, once and once only, he is in the flesh and potent. For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human soul, as my spirit is part of my nation. In my own very self, I am part of my family. There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.” (Apocalypse 1930)

    And finally, from the immortal W. H. Auden: “[We] must either fall in love with Someone or Something or fall ill”. I intend to dedicate my faith to humanistic philosophy and the ISHV and help build a better future for humankind and the planet. He also said “nothing can be loved too much, but all things can be loved in the wrong way.”


  6. In my thinking I don’t really see a large difference between humanism and religion; both want what’s best for human beings: humanism proceeds from reason, observation and experience, whereas religion proceeds from belief and faith in a higher being. The goal is the same, but choose a different fork in the road.

    • And I think many religious people would endorse your view of the charitable and philanthropic work of religion as well.

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