Humanism – What it isn’t

Jul 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Humanism News

rjh“I regard the use of the term “humanism” to mean secular humanism or atheism to be one of the greatest tragedies of twentieth century movementology, perpetrated by second-class minds and perpetuated by third-class polemicists and village atheists.

The attempt to sever humanism from the religious and the spiritual was a flatfooted, largely American way of taking on the religious right. It lacked finesse, subtlety, and the European sense of history.

While it invoked its own commonsense saints like Dewey and Santayana, it also betrayed the spirit of both, and violated the great American tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, who like their progenitor Blake could still see “a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower.”

It is really quite tragic what evisceration of humanism that secular humanism and its founders are guilty of, and in my “maturity” I think it is too late for them to change their minds.

Secular humanism is destined to die a death brought on by its own self-deception,narrowness of vision, and inability to speak to the human quest for meaning.” (R. Joseph Hoffmann)

4 Comments to “Humanism – What it isn’t”

  1. Vir Narain says:

    Dear Dwight
    I was struck by your phrase ‘… but not obnoxiously secure’.
    I copy below a piece you might like
    Humanism and Complacency

    “It is not human”, William Empson tells us, “to feel safely placed”. It is true that human beings are never satisfied. They always want more, want to be somewhere else, or someone else. But when it comes to beliefs – whether it is religion, ideology or life stance – an unshakeable complacency sets in. This is nothing like the quiet self-assurance of a person secure in his (or her) beliefs. There is an assertive insistence not only that one’s own beliefs are right, but also that the others are wrong. This is especially true of proselytising religions and reform movements. They divide the world between believers and non-believers – and the non-believers are by definition wrong. Tall claims are made for one’s own beliefs. Traditional religions may claim divine revelation; secular ideologies will claim universality, or scientific truth. Dark hints of a conspiracy among the unbelievers are put about.

    Even humanists are not entirely immune to this. Humanism acknowledges – and celebrates – the fact that there cannot be any finality about beliefs, that all questions are open. As individuals it is perhaps true that most humanists subscribe to inclusiveness and the tentative nature of their beliefs. But when presenting the collective humanist position – speaking of the Humanist movement – there is a certain change of tone. We tend to adopt the idiom of traditional religions. We carry in this issue an article by Babu Gogineni based on his lecture at the joint conference of the American Ethical Union and the American Humanist Association in June 2000. It is an excellent and inspiring article, a rousing call to humanists to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Yet, at some point in the process of getting carried away, we are assailed by doubts and questions. Are we not beginning to emulate those whose example we profess to reject? Should we really seek to “re-create the world according to our conception of the human being” (emphasis added)? Then why should not the Muslim ummah insist on recreating the world in their image of Islam? Do we not echo them when we say: “I am a believer.It is people on the other side – those who deny humanity’s ability to improve itself – who are the nonbelievers.”? Do those “on the other side” really deny humanity’s ability to improve itself? Do we really want a monolithic, monochromatic, humanism? Should a diversity of approaches – ethical, religious, secular, pragmatic – really be looked upon as a “burden”? Can we say: “our identity should be as human beings first and last” and, at the same time, declare: “a humanist organization should be open only to humanists”? Who decides who is a humanist? While we decry the baneful effects of traditional religions and narrow nationalism, the conjuring up of a “confederacy of irrationalism” reinforces the us-and-them syndrome – projecting a ‘humanists versus the rest’ situation. This naturally leads to the exhortation: “The humanism of the twenty-first century has to be an angry humanism..”

    We feel that Humanism should be large, self-confident, liberal, understanding and open-minded enough not to see itself as a beleaguered minority. It must identify itself with all of humanity and – beyond that – with the living but increasingly fragile ecosystem of this planet. The charge of anthropocentrism is only reinforced by our assertion that Humanism is the philosophy of the human being. Humanism is more than that.
    – Vir Narain

  2. Vir Narain says:

    Many thanks for your complimentary remarks. Of course, do feel free to use the material as you wish. This first appeared as the editorial in the Humanist Outlook, Summer 2007 issue. There were a lot of brickbats!

  3. admin says:

    @vir narain

    Thank you for the superb dissection of the “atheist issue” and its balanced accounting of each approach. The quotation from Bondi “You must stress the revelation, that’s where the real disagreement lies.” is a most useful arrow for any humanist’s quiver; which then allows them to continue onto positive matters suitably, but not obnoxiously, secure.

    These progressively identified islands of true humanism are slowly coming into focus, now as atheism recedes again from prominence. Secularism becomes decent and reserved. Science begins contributing new concepts like E. O. Wilson’s consilience, Craig Venter’s genetic quixotics and Life artifices, human awareness of planet stewardship – these are real grist for our mill.

    The result will not be a “newer humanism” but a gradual retaking of the classics, as we come to realize that the Confucians, Bhuddists, Greeks, Romans and Italian Renaissance thinkers are in truth our contemporaries, as much as Darwin, in terms of any time frame except our own miserable interval, and it is a matter of collecting our thoughts as a species, and continuing in our mentors’ tradition. Humanists know when they are one, we have our own ‘revelation’ that can get quick answers from within at any time.

    Again my thanks Vir,for a wonderful piece – may I reproduce here as an editorial?


  4. Vir Narain says:

    Humanists and the Trap of Atheism
    It is perhaps not surprising that the worldwide rise in religious antipathies – particularly among the Abrahamic religions: Zionism and evangelical Christianity versus radical Islam – is now being reflected in a growing stridency in the West among atheists and rationalists. On 5 November 2006, what is regarded as the first New Atheist conference, ‘Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival’, was held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. In April 2007, possibly as a counterpoint to the conference in California, a New Humanism Conference was held at Harvard. According to Doug Muder, who reported on the conference (Does humanism need to be new?, UU World Magazine, 6 Apr 2007), New Humanism sought to project itself as different from the new atheism: “Positive. Friendlier. Less threatening.” “New atheism, of course, is its own new product.” he says “ It rejects the meekness and tolerance of old atheism, which was content to let the advance of science whittle God down to size. Having witnessed the rise of fundamentalism, new atheists see religion as a dragon to be slain, not a senile giant they can allow to die in peace. In old atheist books, the quintessence of religion was the superstitious peasant or the charlatan cleric. In new atheist books it’s the suicide bomber.” Writers like Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”), Daniel Dennett of Tufts University (“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”), and Sam Harris (“The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”) are popularising a provocative and militant form of anti-theism and porutraying religion as an unmitigated evil.

    Humanist position on atheism
    Although it is perhaps true that a large proportion of humanists would describe themselves as atheists, the Humanist movement has never considered atheism (construed as a rejection of all concepts of God) as a necessary part of the humanist outlook. According to the Minimum Statement adopted by the IHEU: “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape tho their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free enquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic. It does not accept a supernatural view of reality.” The sentence “It is not theistic.” needs elaboration, and it has been suggested that it should be recast thus: “It is not theistic, in the sense that it ignores the various claims about the existence of God as having no relevance to the practical conduct of human affairs, except that it categorically rejects the idea of a rewarding and punishing God who intervenes in human affairs.” In other words, the Humanist movement, as such, rejects the God of the moralists, while it ignores the God of of the philosophers as having no relevance to the conduct of human affairs. As declared in the Manifesto of the Indian Humanist Union in 1966, “Belief in an anthropomorphic God, who listens to prayers, grants boons and gives rewards and punishments; and belief in revelation, prophets and incarnations are inconsistent with the Humanist outlook. Theism not accompanied by such beliefs, as well as atheism and agnosticism, are consistent with Humanism.”

    Hermann Bondi’s advice
    In an interview in 2002, Bondi cautioned against making atheism a: central issue: “I think in this country we are too impressed by the concept of God. Many religions, like Buddhism and Confucianism, don’t have a God at all. On the other hand, Communism in its heyday had a ‘sacred text’ which were the writings of Marx and Lenin, and you justified an argument by referring to these writings. So it seems to me that the important thing is not the concept of God – indeed we cannot quarrel with an undefined God, for how can we disagree with a concept that is undefined. No, what makes a religion is a “revelation”. And it is the belief in a revealed truth that is the source of religious problems – that the Koran is the word of God, or the Holy Bible is the judge of everything. So in arguments with Christians, when you come to the word God you have already lost the battle. You must stress the revelation, that’s where the real disagreement lies, because if you are driven to a position where you have to deny the existence of an undefined quantity you are in a logical absurdity.” (Sir Hermann Bondi, talking to BHA News in Spring 2002. Emphasis added.) Surprisingly this sensible advice has largely been ignored.

    Some advocates of atheism have devised elaborate arguments and definitions to avoid (perhaps not deliberately) falling into the trap mentioned by Bondi. For example, Ramendra quotes Hiorth as saying : “Atheism is characterized by a deliberate (that is, chosen) absence of belief in the existence of gods. Some atheists go further, and believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the “weak atheist” position. Believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as “strong atheism”. ” The distinction here is clearly between the absence of belief and the denial (or rejection) of a belief. There can be no question of a logical inconsistency where the absence of belief is involved; and what has been described as ‘weak atheism’ is better described as non-theism. The so-called ‘strong atheism’ which involves the proposition: “I do not know, or care, what your concept of God is, I hold it to be false.”, apart from getting into the logical absurdity against which Bondi had warned us, smacks of a dogmatism quite alien to the humanist ethos. As Williams wrote in Wired magazine: “Unfortunately, the New Atheism seems to illustrate the adage that we are in danger of becoming what we hate, with an attention-grabbing rhetorical superstructure that far outstrips the scholarship and philosophical substance of its intellectual foundations.” This can perhaps best be described as aggressive atheism.

    Pragmatic approach
    It is perhaps true that the most influential thinkers in the Humanist movement are also modernist philosophers; making it difficult for them not to take issue with the God of the philosophers. There is an element of truth in Roger Scruton’s observation: “Modern people are frequently puzzled by the idea of God; and for the modernist this puzzlement becomes a god. (Hence the barely-concealed passion of the modernist when he addresses those questions which were once pre-empted by religion. It is this cryptoreligious passion that draws people to modernism: let us at least believe in our unbelief!)”

    Pragmatic Humanism is concerned with only those beliefs and attitudes which have a bearing on the conduct of human affairs. Belief in the existence of an anthropomorphic God who rewards and punishes, and responds to prayers (a RAP God), strikes at the very roots of the Humanist worldview, which is based on the autonomous nature of morality. The God of Spinoza, Whitehead or Einstein is of no interest to Humanists qua humanists. A total rejection of all concepts of God, being advocated so fervently by the ‘new atheists’, is not only logically untenable, but also unnecessary – and essentially counter-productive – from the humanist point of view.

    – Vir Narain

Leave a Comment

Get Adobe Flash player