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.

14 thoughts on “On the Dignity of Humanism

  1. Pingback: The Follies of the New Atheists | The Areopagus

  2. New Atheists love dealing in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. Everybody, everything is either wholly good or wholly bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly.


  3. Dr. Hoffmann, thank you for writing a wonderful post! This elegantly describes what I have been thinking for some time and I am pleased that you chose to put it in words! Your post is incisive and thoughtful, as usual.

  4. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, I find this blog much more thought-provoking than any of those by the hard-line atheists. I’ve had a link to this blog on my own (humble) blog for some time, because I think Christians could benefit from reading it.

    Mr Hoffmann is a fine humanist.

  5. Old school atheists were not really associated with Humanism. Indeed, to me, an old school atheist, it seems that the Humanist Manifesto (whether v.I, II, or III) has taken over the atheist movement, which used to have stronger opinions than today’s religious apologists of “moderation”. And that all these figureheads of the atheist movement are in fact figureheads of Humanism.
    I find it a little discouraging that in your aspiration to discuss old school Humanism, you fail to discuss that those Renaissance Humanists were Christians, believers, who wished for a better ideology, and that Secular Humanism is only the most recent incarnation of Humanism. (Notice that isn’t even such a thing as atheist Humanism, and that secular in no way means atheist… only separation between faith and public life, which is why the word secular has also become grandly corrupted through recent decades). But that is the fate of language yes? That people use words out of historical context, and forget the origins of the terms.

    As for Myers, to me, he does not at all represent Humanism, so in this I agree with you. But therein lies my only agreement on this matter. Myers is the only one of today’s atheist figureheads that I do not find ridiculous. Maybe it’s because he’s a biologist first, and a blogger second, as a biologist, I appreciate his no nonsense approach, whereas all other Humanist figureheads that have taken over the atheist movement are well trained in WASPness (like a secular Protestantism). The term WASP has mostly disappeared from our every day vocabulary, but for those who can remember old school criticisms we made of WASP ideologies, I can still make the very same criticisms of the likes of atheists’ “four horsemen”. (You’d think I’d feel like I do about Dawkins as I do about Myers, in the scientist sense, but though Dawkins adulators see Dawkins as a “great and revolutionary biologist”, the real life community of biologists do not hold the same scientific view of Dawkins. I think his main talent in life is not biology but self promotion. Myers does not have this degree of pompousness, he writes as a regular biologist, and a regular educated human.)

    As a strong atheist, I’d love to see a better separation between the atheist movement and the Secular Humanists movement, I’d also like to see Secular Humanists stop using the term Humanism alone and specify Secular Humanism. It’s actually quite odd that you’d say god fearers who are Humanist are pushed out, because Humanism is by nature originally god fearing, so believers should feel quite comfortable in it.

    • Your encouraging essay yet raises the issue of deficient Humanism: tnt666’s comment suggests a revisit to “Deficiently Humanistic” to read again Ogden’s extracts. Tnt666: “I find it a little discouraging that you fail to note that those Renaissance Humanist were Christian (Pico), believers who wished for a better ideology (recognizing Christianity’s historical deficient history); and that Secular Humanism is only the most recent incarnation of Humanism. Notice that there isn’t even such a thing as atheist Humanism, and that secular in no way means atheist.”
      This suggests the following comments.

      • Our most certain sufficient historical evidence for knowledge of Jesus, who he was and what he said, rests “solely on the basis of the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles’ (Schubert Ogden) Over against this basic fact of the history of religions, one must take account of The FATEFUL HISTORICAL MISTAKE which took place in the earliest apostolic period 30 CE-65 CE at the very beginning of post-Easter Jesus traditions (taking account of the fact that this was before Christianity, before the word Christian was coined in Antioch in the 70’s), to create the “Jesus Puzzle”. During this period there were two distinctly different movements related to the Jesus event, standing in deepest adversarial relationship. The first, the Jerusalem Jewish Jesus Movement, which began (within the first weeks of post-Easter) with the key disciples returning to Jerusalem purposing to again take up the teachings of Jesus. It was from the Jesus Movement with its collections of sayings that we have our primary NT source containing this apostolic witness. This was soon followed by a Jewish Hellenist movement interpreting the Jesus event in terms of notions suggested by their traditions of dying and rising heroes or gods inventing concepts of the salvific effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection, suggesting royal titles like Messiah, Son of God, Savior. Paul, first as persecutor, then converting to this group, adopted its notions, which became the source of his Christ of faith myth, becoming the arch enemy of the Jesus movement. In taking his kerygma to the Gentile world, meeting with ready success, it became Gentile Christianity in Antioch in 70 CE, as known above all from the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, the scriptural source for orthodox Christianity. Under these Gentile conditions some 40 years later, the writings of the NT took place, MISTAKENLY to be named the official canon, the apostolic witness to Jesus. Only since the 80’s have certain of our top NT scholars under the force of present historical methods and knowledge come to a full objective historical understanding of this mistake, not only to say none of the writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus, but to understand the how and the why of this fateful mistake. This is a human mistake, one of those ultimate mistakes related to humanities pervasive difficulty in coming to terms with Ultimate Reality, the issue of God-man relationship, which bears testimony to unknowing mankind’s pervasive fallible mistake prone history – mankind’s fateful propensity to develop “eyes that cannot see”, forming “tinted glasses” which limit “vision” to sense perceived reality – to in effect oppose cognition of Ultimate Reality

  6. Humanism, then seems to have obvious roots in both the religious and secular worlds. I find it rather hard to explain to those with whom I associate other than to start with telling them that while I am not religiously Christian, I am culturally Christian.

    The above is my starting point. With this latest essay of yours, Dr Hoffmann, I have some tools to better explain my position.

    Good on ya!

  7. Pingback: The Opposite of Religion? | The New Oxonian

  8. Your writing explains a lot to one who has thought of herself as having humanist leanings, but was completely put off by the position of the AHA. I didn’t know this history. Thanks for the beginning of an education!

  9. Pingback: How the Humanist Movement Fosters Economic Injustice » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s