On the Dignity of Humanism

As a humanist I have often done what humanists do: hide behind the great thoughts of significant men and women to give my own ideas heft and importance.

The possibility of doing that came to an end in 2009, when America’s oldest humanist society, the AHA, bestowed its “Humanist of the Year” award on a man named P Z Myers, someone whose simplistic views, bare-knuckle style towards his critics, and lack of literary depth embody everything I abhor about contemporary humanism and new atheism.

But I have written plenty about what I abhor.  And I have written a fair bit about why organized humanism, infused and high-jacked by the “new” atheism, has been turned into a parody of serious humanist principles and ideals.  Myers, blogger Jerry Coyne, and a few other swains who hang out at the Free Thought Ghetto, wasted no time trying to frame me as a pompous, old school, elitist, humanities-loving humanist, the sort who is soft on religion because (of course) he is (a) secretly religious himself (b) too dim to be Bright and (c) naïve enough to think that ‘humanism’ can still be separated from the religion-hating spew and tactics of Richard Dawkins and his cult.  While not every voice was as repetitive and coarse as Myers’, 2009-2012 were rough years for people accused by the court of atheist opinion of being “accommodationists.”  Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the new atheist/humanist defense of its position, given the role of Richard Dawkins in the movement, was its incipient anti-intellectualism, its impatience for words in preference for what it construed as “argument,” and its contempt for even mild dissent and criticism–characteristics we normally associate with religious apologetic.

It was only slightly amusing to watch these religion haters develop all of the essential symptoms and pathologies of a cult, traits which were less obvious to them because they had never studied religious behavior and the psychopathology of cults.

But all the markers were there: a book, or canon of four books; a savior and a few lesser avatars; the promise of intellectual salvation using a formula for separateness and difference; most of all, the certainty that they are on the straight path, the right road, that others are wrong, and its behavioral corollary: intolerance of contradiction and correction.

With a few of my friends, notably the persistently hopeful Nathan Bupp I have pleaded for the return of the remains of serious humanism from the exile into which its captors flung it in 2008– the year Paul Kurtz was dethroned from the chairmanship of CFI, and the year I stepped aside as its Vice President—to mainstream intellectual and social life.  But the infiltration of the key outposts of humanism by religion-haters makes the job of reclaiming or “restoration” one for Atlas.  Outside the halls of academe, the word humanism is today almost synonymous with the word atheism, and atheism synonymous with the lowbrow definitions of its loudest, pop science-worshiping groupies.

Paul Kurtz died in 2012 and with him disappeared one of the last links between humanism as a force grounded in history and humanism as a positive and democratic vision of the future.  The coalition of pharisaic secularists, religion debunkers, political movementeers and full-frontal atheists (who had always been at the margins of Kurtz’s movement but never the core), quickly seeped in to make up the loss of ballast after his departure.  And the effects are still being felt.

While I am skeptical that a balanced and historically situated humanism can be recovered or reclaimed, let me try once again to say what I think humanism is and what it isn’t.  I don’t do this to persuade anyone. I don’t offer these observations as yet another manifesto or creed.  Partly I am doing it to hear myself think, to remind myself of what movement humanism encourages us to forget, ignore, or alter.

First, humanism is historically grounded: it is the view that as the creators of culture and civilization we are responsible for the kind of culture we create. The first stirrings of that belief can be traced to the Renaissance, and it is an important moment in history. Before that, people tended to believe that God loaded the world with sorrow and our species with intellectual limitations as a punishment for sin.  The way out was not for us to help ourselves but for the church and the saints to help us out.  Essentially, we were broken creatures, the sons and daughters of Eve wiling away our days in a vale of tears called the world.  This world was a dark and dreary, foreign space for the bright (but dangerously lost) souls destined for heaven. The devil was there to goad and tempt us, the flesh to seduce and corrupt us further. But Renaissance humanism was that point in the history of our species when the lights went on; when the human form became delectable; when knowledge became power not arrogance, and when nature and the world became beautiful objects of study, representation and enjoyment.

Second humanism is a doctrine of responsibility. That means that we bear full responsibility for the quality and value of the things that make us human and sustain us as human beings: humanists believe in free speech but not that all speech is equally noble, or that all thoughts are really deserving of equal time. Humanism is the ability to imagine both better worlds and worse worlds, utopia and dystopia.  But it always seeks the better, the good, and thus demands the ability to recognize that there is no political formula that brings these worlds into existence.  Unlike true humanism, movement humanism is prone to sink into the quicksand of trend, fad, survey, and political ideology. It is the death of humanism when the responsibility of the individual person is collectivized as the will of a movement. That is why historically speaking the great humanist thinkers, religious and secular alike, have been individuals and apostates rather than group leaders.

The third aspect of humanism that needs to be emphasized is that humanism is aspirational.  I don’t like that word very much, but it works in this context.  The essence of humanism is to be intellectually restless and inquisitive; that is why, in practice, few humanists find a home in organized religion or conservative politics. They recognize that the way to test new ideas is not to invoke old ones; but they also know that a thing is not good merely because it is new. History is peppered with examples of new ideas that tuned out to be bad ideas, new technologies and discoveries that were subverted by selfishness and power to become destructive.  There is nothing intrinsically “good” about science just as there is nothing intrinsically good about literature. Both are capable of pornography and degradation. Humanists aspire to refine the potential of the human mind and the human spirit.  They believe that what Pico called the dignity of man must be reflected in speech, action, art and the sciences. The anti-humanism of organized humanism and atheism consists primarily in the loss of the sense of dignity and a penchant for degrading and abusing opposing ideas.

Finally, humanism is not the opposite of religion.  There are certainly things it opposes—injustice, oppression, poverty, enforced ignorance, the uglification of human life and predations on the environment or the freedoms we enjoy.  But it opposes these things because they are attacks on our humanity—on the principle of the dignity of mankind.  As a matter of fact, it does not matter too much whether one thinks this dignity comes from God or simply is: Both attributions are metaphors for the best that is in us, images of what we are when viewed in terms of our intelligence and ability. No one should be afraid to call herself a humanist simply because she believes in God, because belief in God is not self-evidently a denial of the dignity of man.

Serious humanism is not historically misinformed.  It knows that religion has had a major role to play in the fight for justice, the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of education.  It is easy enough for an atheist to see the building of schools and hospitals or the central role of the Exodus narrative in the Civil rights movement as the way religion self-promotes and propagandizes the ignorant masses.

But the simpler view, that religion reflects the gentler side of religion–the spirit of the man who said feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked–won’t be missed by any humanist worthy of the name.  A serious humanism knows that religion is its grandfather: you can hate him, of course, or be embarrassed by him and keep him in his room. Or you can recognize that without the sometimes mistaken thoughts he thought you wouldn’t have much to build on.  It is a cloying trait of modern humanism and atheism to blame religions and their books for being old, and to miss the dialectic whereby reflection on religious ideas—even religious excess– gave us newer ideas and better visions of the world.

Renaissance humanism knew this.  The humanism of the age of reason respected it, even if more abstractly and more critically in its broadsides against credulity and superstition.  Twentieth century humanism while more fretful in the guise of people like Sartre and Huxley and Russell, was nonetheless aware of the debt and the loss, the need not only for a moral but an emotional alternative to religion’s stubborn hold on the human imagination.  That the God of the Bible does not exist ceased to be big news by the beginning of the twentieth century; what has been surprising is that so few twenty first century atheists got word of the vast post-mortem in art, literature and music.

“We have killed God” Nietzsche’s madman moans, “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder.”

Humanism, as the philosopher Paul Kurtz said, does not become desperate and pessimistic over the death of God, but feels certain exhilaration in the opportunities this new reality proposes to us.

And yet humanism is not always exuberant: it has the right to be pessimistic, critical, and skeptical because it knows that being a humanist is not a stopping point.  In a BBC interview last year the composer Philip Glass was asked how he defined music.  He answered by saying that “Music is a place, and you will know when you are there.” Perhaps the key problem with movement humanists is that they are in the wrong place and their leaders don’t mind. It is reckoned to be enough that you can carry a membership card “worth 10% off the price of admission to all scheduled events.”  Become a donor, a subscriber a friend of the center. I have been to humanist gatherings where the bilking of a credulous audience would have put anything Tetzel offered German peasants to shame.

This modern indulgence-selling has the same purpose it had in the sixteenth century of course: to keep an organization afloat and pay the bills.  But it is particularly noxious for what it really is—an offer of salvation and community to men and women seeking to escape the clutches of superstition and dogma by embracing an alternative system of superstition.

Serious humanism will be at odds with movement humanism, precisely because the latter leaves almost no room for the private conscience and individualism, for a critique of the critique, for the possibility of spiritual truth, for the existence of other systems of knowledge and discovery—ones within which even the idea of God might not be absurd.

Canto II: Umm ul-Banin

Reprinted from R Joseph Hoffmann, A Writing Tablet  (r)




When Dante visited the moon
Beatrice explained about vows.
“A vow’s a pact,” she said “between man and God,
but moons come and go, so don’t swear by them.”

Maybe he laughed at that, because she was young,
and had no right lecturing him in his dreams,
a spirit torn from his side. What can a girl know about vows?

When he first saw her, she was trembling like a dove.
She said “You’ll have to go through strange gates and dark alleys
into cities wet with spilled excuses.

You’ve got to pass this way. There’s no short cut.
You’ll see whatever you want to see.
“On the other side, there is a mountain
and from the top ledge you can see God.
It’s worth it, though–the crossing: He is beautiful,
and the best thing is, no one who sees him remembers
anything they’ve seen before,
not the crying, not being stung by wasps.
Not the smell of the Florentine women–
Donne, ch’avete intelletto d’Amore’–
Ladies who know all about love.’

“You’ll forget having your eyelids pierced
and weighted with leaden pendants so that you can can’t  see truth
staring you in the face.  It’s rumour of course,
but God’s more beautiful than the moon.”

So they walked towards the river and for the first hundred yards
she held his hand.  Then he stumbled.
It was dark when he climbed into the rotting boat
that smelled like all the sins he had committed as a child.
He wasn’t sure, in the dark, in the cloak,
But he thought it was her. He wanted it to be her.

He rode  the yellow sadness of Acheron, filled with naked men,
eyes alight with flaming  coals. He saw starved falcons overhead,
thick as mosquitoes over a dead lake.
He saw Charon lobbing his oar against bodies clutching the sides of the
boat, turning the way forward into a slow trawl.
He saw pale arms rising and falling back into the black torpor,
drowning in waltz time, in little circles.

“It’s too much.” he said: “Here’s an extra five dollars,
I don’t care how beautiful God is. Take me back.”
He turned to her, but he saw instead the shadow of a poet
who said,  “I’ll take you farther. You must go farther, because

As She said, there is a mountain you’re meant  to climb.
She wants it for you.”
“I have no legs, for mountains,” he said, “I do not want
To be a poet.  I do not want to drown.”

But by then the boat had forked upriver:
Charon grinned as the water widened.
She stood on the other side, a firelight on the shore
fading like the glow of the moon behind a broken cloud.

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