Since 2008, I’ve been a dues paying member of and a contributor to the American Humanist Association (AHA). From then until now I’ve been struggling to understand the Humanist philosophy and how that philosophy drives its mission and programs. That is to say, as a Humanist, what exactly am I, and what does it mean to be one?
In a recent issue of AHA’s flagship publication, The Humanist, I found that 39 of the magazine’s 52 pages had at least one reference to religion; most often of the monotheistic variety, and sometimes in disparaging terms. For a publication that is self-described as, “a magazine of critical inquiry and social concern,” the content seems to be heavily biased toward the negative aspects of religiosity. Previous issues of the magazine that I reviewed produced similar results.
Even as a member of the Humanist Association of Tulsa (yes, I’m a “HAT’), I have noticed that some aspect of religious belief is more often than not the topic de jour at our monthly meetings and discussion groups. To be fair though, most HAT members are also members of the local Atheists group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Secular Humanists (of which I am also a member.) Those folks tend to bring their anti-theistic, vituperative views of religion into the HAT meetings. In our discussion groups, which are often inspired by a Center for Inquiry podcast or some NPR or PBS program, we often seem overly zealous to dispatch those belief systems that rely in any way on the supernatural. Someone listening in might even say we were proselytizing for atheism – and wondering where the Humanists are.
Against this background, I tried to reflect a bit on what I wanted to get out of the Humanist Movement and whether its focus is consistent with its promise. My conclusions, though unfinished (as if any critical analysis is ever finished,) are presented herein.
Non-Theists Vs. Anti-Theists. If I could divide the world of non-believers into two parts, they would consist of the Non-Theists and the Anti-Theists. I understand Non-Theists as being characterized by the absence or rejection of theism or any belief in the supernatural, including any god or gods, personal or otherwise. They have the almost Nietzscheian worldview that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant in the same way as questioning the existence of Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster is irrelevant. For them, life goes on quite well without the need for myth or magic. In my view, Non-Theists are skeptical but not cynical, tolerant but not gullible, pragmatic but not dogmatic, altruistic but not without limits.
Anti-theists, on the other hand, are active opponents of religious institutions and are critical of those who believe in the supernatural and who claim the existence of any god or gods. The anti-theists, of course, are the atheists, which have come the be called the “New Atheists,” and are lead by the four horsemen of atheism – Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. The New Atheists vilify religion, especially the Abrahamic faiths, and blame the religionists for most of the ills of civilization. They are vehement in this cause, sometimes confrontational, often condescending, and seem to take some pleasure from their ridicule and mockery of religion. Ironically, it seems to me that such zealotry has produced the very fundamentalist mind-set that they seek to rout from the religious community!
If it is true that the New Atheists have become intolerant, cynical, judgmental, and have taken on, dare I say it, a holier-than-thou attitude, then, in my view, these should not be the attributes of Humanism, nor acceptable by those of us who call ourselves Humanists. In spite of this however, the New Atheists are becoming increasingly influential in the Humanist movement. Indeed, as these nattering nabobs of negativism become more involved, the term “Humanism” may ultimately be perceived as a euphemism for “Atheism.” In fact, based on recent news media reports, that is the case already. Clearly, it will be a challenge for the Humanists to promote the distinction.
Separation of Church and State Vs. Separation of Church and Society. At the bottom of the inside cover of The Humanist, is the following statement:
“Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. Free of theism and other supernatural beliefs, Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.”
The emphasis here seems to be on egalitarianism, humanistic naturalism, and social, cultural, and political responsibility. Concerns with religion and the supernatural are minimal. In fact, this philosophy is what attracted me to the Humanist Movement in the first place.
Even though I am a Non-Theist, I do not consider myself an atheist, much less a New Atheist, nor do I have any interest in ridding the culture of mainstream and mostly passive religious institutions; I don’t feel threatened by the Methodists, or the Mormons, or the Mennonites. (Well, OK, maybe the Mormons.) I believe Humanists should acknowledge that many religions, especially the Christians, render humanitarian aid around the world, provide health care services for the poor, have established and operate world-class hospitals, and are involved in education at all levels, thus improving literacy. Humanists should understand too that the faithful have an emotional investment in their beliefs and that the vast majority use their religion in a passive, non-threatening way to obtain comfort, peace, and joy in these troubled times.
I have found a number of references in Humanist literature praising individuals with strong ties to religion, including such notables as civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, humanitarian and biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer, the Dalai Lama, and many others. Indeed, based on the “aspirations” in Humanist Manifesto III, a strong case can be made that Jesus, absent the magic tricks and deification, was truly a Humanist at heart.
It should be noted too that many of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates were deeply religious, yet were honored for their contribution not only to peace, but to several of Humanism’s core principles as well — human rights, civil liberties, and service to humane ideals. In fact, none of these winners was honored for his or her contribution to or defense of religion. Surely such individuals would be recognized for their good deeds and welcomed by the Humanist community, notwithstanding their belief in the supernatural. At the end of the day, religion and Humanism share many of the same goals; not the least of which is to advocate for the Golden Rule. There should be no religious test for membership in the Humanist Movement.
Humanists need to remember that the religionists have a Constitutional right to the “free exercise” of their beliefs. The religious fundamentalists, zealots and martyrs are another matter, of course, but they are in the margins, and in any case those battles are better fought by other organizations that were established specifically to deal with them, including the U.S. military. Nonetheless, the New Atheists seem to hold that all things religious should be extricated from society and expunged from the public domain.
Disagreement is one thing, but disparagement, disdain, and intolerance, unless based on an inhumane act or acts directed by a religious organization, should be discouraged by Humanists. Playing “Got Ya” may satisfy the ego, but it only exacerbates divisiveness. It’s one thing to argue for the separation of church and State, but quite another to fight for the separation of church and society. The former is defendable, the latter, to me anyway. Is a fools’s errand.
Humanists therefore need to be more compassionate, especially in regard to the religious community. Consider, for example, this quote from the curmudgeonly and usually acerbic H.L. Mencken (from “Martyrs” by H.L. Mencken, published in the Smart Set, April, 1922, pp. 45-46.):
“The loss of faith, to many minds, involves a stupendous upset — indeed, that upset goes so far in some cases that it results in something hard to distinguish from temporary insanity. It takes a long while for a naturally trustful person to reconcile himself to the idea that after all God will not help him. He feels like a child thrown among wolves. For this reason I have always been chary about attempting to shake religious faith. It seems to me that the gain to truth that it involves is trivial when set beside the damage to the individual. To be sure, he is also improved, but he is almost wrecked in the process.”
Taking the High Road. By my count there are 34 different secular organizations in the U.S. alone. They range from the American Atheists to the Unitarian Universalist Infidels. All of them, it seems, want to sue religion out of existence, or at least out of government. One gets the feeling that the New Atheists will not be satisfied until all the religious references are sandblasted off all government buildings, and all the Crosses and Stars of David and Crescent Moons are removed from the graves in all the cemeteries owned and operated by the government, and “In God We Trust” is taken off all of our money, and all the Chaplains who work for Congress and State legislatures, plus all the Chaplains in the military, are fired, and a court order is issued to enjoin the President from ending all of his speeches with “God Bless the United States.”
Humanists should defer to the New Atheist groups, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, to pursue legal challenges to what they believe are violations of the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses in the First Amendment. I would also suggest that the American Humanist Association lawyers approach the separation of church and state issues in the context of the original intent of the Constitution and only pursue material breaches. Filing lawsuits to remove “under God” from the Presidential oath of office are petty, frivolous and a waste of resources, not to mention embarrassing to many non-theists, including yours truly. The negative publicity for such legal actions is also a major obstacle to obtaining new members. (And, lest we forget, the courts have ruled that “Humanism” is actually a religion itself pursuant to the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, and is thereby entitled to the same benefits as churches or any other religious organization. Beware, the pot and the kettle.)
Then there are the sideshows, which, if not sponsored directly by the Humanists, are certainly supported and encouraged by them. These include Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, billboard and bus signage, un-baptisms, cartoon contests, etc. You can actually buy t-shirts that say things like, “O Come Let Us Ignore him,” “In God We Doubt,” “Religion – All Nonsense All the Time,” and “Imagine No Religion” written across a picture of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center.” These are flat-out insults to 85% of the U.S. population who say they believe in a higher power. I would say that these slogans are at about the maturity level of eighth-graders, but that would be an insult to eighth-graders.
How many religious organizations offer t-shirts that say things like, “Satan Loves Atheists,” or, “Atheists Can’t Prove a Negative,” or, “April 1st is International Atheist Day,” or, “God Loves Atheists, Too” or “A dyslectic atheist has to prove that there is no dog.”
As if that isn’t bad enough, the slogans, many of them anyway, contain a number of fallacies in reasoning. They include “straw man,” “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” “sweeping generalization,” “false dilemma,” “appeal to ignorance,” and “begging the question,” among others. (Interestingly, these are the very same fallacies that trap religious doctrine.) Such fallacies should be more than a little embarrassing to an organization that promotes “reason.”
Furthermore, painting all religions with the same brush does not fare well on Main Street; ridicule doesn’t win friends or influence enemies. If the Humanist Movement wants credibility and respectability, then it will have to stop trying to make points by using negative ads and/or supporting those who do. (It may also help if their signs and slogans were critiqued for errors in reasoning before they are released!)
For example, the Non-Theists, this one anyway, would prefer signs that read “Be Good for Goodness Sake” as opposed to signs that say “Be Good Without God.” The former appeals to common sense, the latter to intolerance.
Follow the Humanist Philosophy. As stated on the American Humanist Association website:
“The mission of the American Humanist Association is to promote the spread of Humanism, raise public awareness and acceptance of Humanism, and encourage the continued refinement of the Humanist philosophy.”
I see nothing there to indicate that the Humanist Movement is anti-theistic, or non-theistic for that matter, except by implication. But, surely the Humanist philosophy includes the belief in a pluralistic society where harmonious co-existence of peoples of differing backgrounds, and ethnicity and races, as well as religions, is desirable. Cooperation between highly social animals like humans has been a successful survival strategy for as long as we’ve been around. The Humanist Movement should embrace and promote this biological mandate.
In his essay, “A New Humanism: Naturalism, Democracy, and the Principle of Humanity” (Volume 17 of Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, p. 34,) Barry Seidman offers his view of “new humanism:”
“A new humanism . . . would not be about atheism or secularism or other tiny components on which the greater philosophy is partly based. Humanists ought not to make it their goal to debase or dismiss religious people or their ideas, even when those ideas include elements of supernaturalism. Instead, humanists would better serve society by addressing the elements of religion that can be dangerous by addressing the sociopolitical economic reasons for these elements when they are found in society.”
However, as argued herein, the expression of the Humanist goals should not be tilted toward the negativism of the Anti-theists. In his essay “Is Atheist a Humanist Value,” R. Joseph Hoffmann, who serves as an advisor to the American Humanist Association’s Kochhar Humanist Education Center, writes,
“Atheism does not make you good, in a practical sense, and by its very nature it does not make you wise. It may be a position against a certain kind of wisdom, traditionally associated with metaphysics, ontology and theology in favor of a strictly scientific, falsifiable understanding of human reality as squeezed through the grate of naturalism. That is to say, atheism may be a specific category of skepticism applied to a specific object (God). But in rejecting a very big idea like God, it must also reject a very big metaphysical idea like wisdom.”
I believe Messrs. Seidman and Hoffmann offer some enlightenment that the Humanist Movement would do well to adopt. Through its diversity of principles regarding the human condition as expressed in its Manifestos, but with a disproportional stress on the negative side of religion in its literature and its programs, together with a bias favoring the New Atheists, it seems that the Humanist philosophy, like the proverbial baby, may have been tossed out with the proverbial bathwater.
Given these difficulties, your humble scrivener believes that the Humanist Movement may want to address the ambiguities and the inherent contradictions in its message so as to distinguish itself from the American Atheists, the Brights, the Freethinkers, the American Ethical Union, even the Secular Humanists, and other related organizations. Plowing the same ground as those entities that were created for the specific purpose of taking on the religious establishment puts the Humanist Movement on the wrong path in my opinion, making it, in the long run perhaps, superfluous, or worse, irrelevant. The Humanist Movement should establish its own unique identity.
The Moral Imperative of the Humanist Movement. By any measure, we humans have come a long way since the dawn of civilization. But only in the last few hundred years or so have we come to better understand our world, and indeed reality itself, through the application of reason and the discipline of science. Yet, sadly, we have made very little progress in our capacity for tolerance, compassion, and fairness. It seems to me that this deficiency presents an opportunity for the Humanist Movement.
If Humanism follows its implicit moral imperative of emancipating people from irrational dogma of all kinds by helping to assuage the existential angst that goes with living in a complex and diverse society, then it can facilitate an awareness of other, more rational, more ethical, more humane possibilities. I see this battle for hearts and minds carried out not just in churches, mosques, and synagogues, but in our educational institutions, our economic systems, our families and communities, our courts, our legislatures, our health care systems, our communication networks, our workplaces, and our liberal democracy.
Therefore, in respect of the foregoing, I believe the focus of the Humanist Movement should be on reason, compassion, ethics, justice, scientific inquiry, and the promise of human fulfillment in the natural world. It should leave the attacks on religion to those groups created specifically for that purpose – the Anti-Theists – and emphasize a need for the Humanist philosophy in all of our social institutions. Humanists should strive to become uniters, not dividers. Or, in the words of the late, great songwriter, Johnny Mercer: “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
So, my challenge to the Humanist Movement is to put the “human” back in Humanism. Then perhaps it can move on to the more important task of helping to put the “civil” back in civilization.