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AHA’s “Consider Humanism” Campaign – A Critical Review

On November 9, 2010, the American Humanist Association launched its “Consider Humanism” campaign. In a press release, AHA president, Richard Speckhardt, said that the premise of the campaign is proclaim, among other things, that, “Humanist values are mainstream American values, and this campaign will help many people realize that they are already humanists and just did not know the term.” But upon inspection of the advertising materials, the message seems to be that “Humanist values” (whatever those are) are exclusive of, if not superior to, religious values (whatever those are.) For example:

Mr. Speckhardt may not be aware, but women now have the right to vote and in most cases, the word “obey” has been taken out of their marriage vows.

Mr. Speckhardt goes on to say that, “a literal reading of religious texts is completely out of touch with mainstream America.” However, from what I’ve seen, I would argue that it is the Humanists who are out of touch with mainstream America. The referenced bible quotes in the ads, like the one below, are almost completely irrelevant today.

“The Bible: ‘If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.’ Exodus 21:20-21 (New International Version)”

Here again, the AHA appears to be railing against conditions that have long since disappeared and that neither the Jews not the Christians acknowledge or enforce. In fact, mainstream religion condemns those passages as much as we non-believers. It’s as if the Humanists are trying to address the Christians and Jews as they were two or three millennia ago. This is as absurd as saying that all Indians are alcoholics, that all blacks are lazy, and that all Asians operate laundries.

Having reviewed the Consider Humanism advertising materials, press releases, and related news coverage (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politics Daily), I have come to realize that this campaign is likely to backfire, if not create embarrassment for many in the Humanist movement. My objections are as follows:

1.     Whoever came up with this advertising concept is somewhat naive. The purpose of institutional advertising, which is what the campaign is all about, is to promote the image of the institution in a positive way. But what the AHA and other freethinker groups have wrought in this little crusade is the equivalent of the divisive, trashy, and negative political ads we are exposed right before elections. At least, that’s how they come across to me.

2.     In these ads, the Humanists have committed the very unpardonable sin that they accuse the religious community of  – cherry-picking quotes from the bible to support their position. Indeed, the religionists, especially the Christians, could easily provide scripture to support their own humanist position such as the golden rule, don’t judge others, love your enemies, etc. There is really no excuse for this obvious hypocrisy.

3.     The campaign is also based on a strawman argument –  it has stereotyped and characterized all adherents of religion as ignorant, intolerant, irrational fundamentalists. In fact, members of most mainstream religions are no doubt just as offended by the bible quotes used by the Humanists as the non-believers are. If Humanists are going to present themselves as defenders of reason, then they should at least learn the rules of logic first.

4.     By making comparisons of (cherry-picked) ancient scripture to the (cherry-picked) Humanist dicta used in the ads, the effect may be to actually reinforce the animus of the believers toward us non-believers. This would have the consequence, unintended I’m sure, of turning the campaign on its head; it would be the Humanists who could be seen as self-righteous, judgmental, intolerant, and, dare I say it, “holier-than thou.”

5.     Whoever came up with this campaign idea must have been absent that day in Public Relations 101, where they were taught that more flies are attracted to honey than to vinegar. I am very disappointed that the Humanists have taken the low road here. We will now be on the defensive and have to stave off what are likely to be justifiable criticisms of these ads by the religious community and, indeed, the rest of society.

6.     The planners of this campaign also apparently overlooked the possibility of getting themselves in the position of “the pot calling the kettle black” For example, the American Atheists put a this sign on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel:

How about putting up a sign with a picture of Santa Claus that says, “You know it’s a Myth. This Season Tell The Children.” After all, a myth is a myth and reason is reason,

7.     Another contradiction I see is that the Humanists have ignored some of the rhetoric in their various Manifestos and Declarations regarding democracy. We have in this country the constitutional right of religious freedom. But, by implying that theistic religion is somehow illegitimate, if not just flat wrong, Humanists have presented themselves as undemocratic and in the doing they implicitly deny the freedom of and the right to religious belief.

8.     Humanists have also failed to demonstrate tolerance, compassion and empathy in this campaign. One supposes, for example, that they would likely support the Neo-Nazis request to have a parade in the predominately Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. (See National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43, 1977.) In this campaign, Humanists do not acknowledge the emotional investment of religious adherents. In fact, they are even seen by many in the religious community as being critical of and condescending toward those who find comfort and joy and even peace in their faith.

9.     The Humanists also come across as somewhat confused about the humanitarianism implicit in their own philosophy. Are they really so anti-religion that they would rail against the civil rights movement because it was lead by a Baptist minister who was also a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference? Would they still support the gays right to marriage if the ceremony was to be performed by a Catholic priest? Would they deny the Nobel Peace Prize to India’s Muhammad Yunus because he is Muslim, or to Elie Wiesel because he is Jewish, or to Nelson Mandela because he is a Methodist?

10.   It seems to me that Humanists have become obsessed with religion, sometimes to the point of irrationality. Indeed, this campaign seems intended as a soapbox for bashing religion. Is that really the message Humanists want to send? In case they haven’t noticed, nobody in this country is teaching Creationism in the public schools, the rack and the whip are gathering dust in the 15th century, slavery is now illegal, and there hasn’t been a witch trial here in 300 years. (Although, admittedly, pedophilia is still a problem, especially for the Catholics. On the other hand, I don’t believe pedophilia is a consequence of religious belief. )

In short, the Consider Humanism campaign seems to me to be an ill-conceived and intellectually dishonest effort that may actually drive away more potential members than it attracts. It could also damage, in my opinion, the image many Humanists such as myself would like to have as constructive members of a pluralistic society who are willing to cooperate and participate in humanitarian efforts for the common good of all people, including those who happen to be religious.

In that regard, Humanists would be well advised to take a page from the Brights, (see http://www.the-brights.net/vision/principles.html, item 8,) with my underscores added:

“There is a human penchant for creating us/them classes in which the “them” is viewed as negative or repellant. Although some individual Brights may have negative views of persons who hold supernatural beliefs, the Brights movement does not proclaim superiority or a disdain for others. What is sought is social acceptance and civic equality. This movement unequivocally rebuffs not only verbal comparisons that cast Brights as lesser citizens than the religious, but also those that cast the religious as lesser citizens than the Brights.”

 With that principle in mind, I think many would consider the Brights before they would “Consider Humanism.”

In any case, the whole thing comes across to me as somewhat quixotic; the Humanists charging the big, bad religion monsters that exist only in the windmills of their minds.

It will be interesting, though, to see how successful this campaign was. And just as interesting to see if the American Humanist Association will even provide such information.


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