THE HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF HUMANISM
AND ITS ROLE IN UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM
Steven D. Schafersman AN ADDRESS TO THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST
CONGREGATION OF BUTLER COUNTRY
September 24, 1995
[Updated in December, 1998]
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you this morning about the history and philosophy of Humanism and its role in Unitarian Universalism. I am very happy to be here.
First let me establish my credentials to speak about Humanism and its relation to Unitarian-Universalism. I am a card-carrying Humanist; I currently belong to the various national Humanist organizations; I have held a number of local and regional offices in these national organizations; I have published articles in the major humanist national publications; I personally know the major Humanist leaders in the United States; and I have spoken about Humanism to audiences before--including a number of UUA congregations. I have debated anti-Humanists and have even testified in state courts on behalf of Humanism in first amendment litigation. I was active in Unitarian-Universalism for a number of years as a humanist-UU, and I served as vice-president and president of the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston in the late 1980s. While there, I taught and advocated humanism to a congregation that was largely humanist and, while I was president, we sought and hired a minister who was an explicit religious humanist. Since that time, however, I have concentrated on educational issues and have not been as active in promoting Humanism; also, while I have been an explicit naturalistic humanist since 1978 (and an atheist since about 1964), I have become increasingly alienated from religious humanism and have identified myself as a secular humanist since 1990. I welcome the opportunity this morning to bring both you and myself up to date about humanism. My address will be primarily informative rather than motivational, but if you become excited or disturbed enough by my remarks this morning, there will be an opportunity at the conclusion for you to comment or ask questions.
Humanists exist. Explicit, practicing Humanists live in the United States and other countries throughout the world. They have national and international organizations, local associations, newsletters, magazines, full-time paid employees, and now--World Wide Websites. There is an immense Humanist literature in the form of books, pamphlets, and magazines. Humanism is, although small, a dynamic and thriving endeavor. But much confusion about Humanism exists which I hope to dispel here. I will primarily tell you the accepted, general, informed substantive facts about Humanism, but I also will tell you my personal views about a few things, and if I do, I will clearly state that. I am a Humanist advocate and I can speak knowledgeably and authoritatively about Humanism, but I cannot speak for any specific Humanist organization or for all Humanists, as indeed few can or will. I will also speak about some specific religious concepts and philosophies in a disparaging manner, a viewpoint not usually presented, I'm sure, from this pulpit. But I won't apologize for this; in fact, you need to hear it.
Definition of Humanism
What is Humanism? For many reasons, this is not an easy question to answer, but I will attempt to answer it in a number of steps. The word "humanism" has a number of distinct meanings, all legitimate, so let's briefly discuss them all and narrow in on my type of humanism. First, humanism means the study of the humanities--literature, history, philosophy, and so forth. Professors and students of history, philosophy, and literature are humanists, and are perfectly legitimately so described.
A second definition of humanism is the European Renaissance revival of interest and critical inquiry in Western classical literature, which as you know, was pervasively secular and oriented to human, rather than theological, concerns, unlike that other great literary source of Western thought, the Bible. Individual scholars of such classical letters, such as Thomas More of England and Erasmus of Holland, were orthodox believers in an age of encompassing Christianity, but they are widely and correctly described as humanists, because they translated and commented upon the great literature of Aristotle, Plato, and other ancient classical, pagan writers.
A third definition of humanism is "humanitarianism." This is one of the trickiest and most confusing definitions, because while I would claim that my type of humanists are humanitarians, not all humanitarians are my type of humanist. In particular, some religious theists claim that they are humanists--for example, Christian humanists or Catholic humanists--because they claim that their religions are humanitarian, that they are therefore humanitarians and, thus, that they are therefore humanists. While I would argue about how humanitarian such religions really are, I must admit that if such individuals are truly humanitarian, they can refer to themselves as humanists under this definition.
But obviously academic humanism, Renaissance humanism, and Christian "humanitarian" humanism is not the type of humanism I wish to discuss this morning. My type of humanism is correctly known as "naturalistic humanism." Naturalistic humanism, or Humanism (with a capital H) as I will speak of it from now on, is the type of humanism in the news, the type of humanism opposed to supernaturalism and theistic religion, the type of humanism that claims that humans are as much responsible for formulating their values, morals, and ideals as for following them.
I will define Humanism, although I hesitate to do so, because--as I like to tell audiences--there are thousands of definitions of Humanism, one for every Humanist. Yes, Humanists are individualists; more so than even Unitarian Universalists, they reject dogma, creed, conformity, and authoritarianism. But obviously we have to have definitions. I have heard Humanism explicitly equated by naturalistic Humanists with humanitarianism, environmentalism, secularism, naturalism, and so forth. All good beliefs, of course, but not specifically Humanism. A good and widely acceptable definition of Humanism is this:Humanism is the naturalistic philosophy or way of life centered on human concerns and values that asserts the dignity and worth of humans and their capacity for self-actualization through the use of reason and scientific inquiry.
[My preferred definition today is this: Humanism is a philosophy, world view, or life stance based on naturalism--the conviction that the universe or nature is all that exists or is real. Humanism serves, for many humanists, some of the psychological and social functions of a religion, but without belief in deities, transcendental entities, miracles, life after death, and the supernatural. Humanists seek to understand the universe by using science and its methods of critical inquiry--logical reasoning, empirical evidence, and skeptical evaluation of conjectures and conclusions--to obtain reliable knowledge. Humanists affirm that humans have the freedom and obligation to give meaning, value, and purpose to their lives by their own independent thought, free inquiry, and responsible, creative activity. Humanists stand for the building of a more humane, just, compassionate, and democratic society using a realistic ethics based on human reason, experience, and reliable knowledge--an ethics that judges the consequences of human actions by the well-being of all life on Earth.]
Humanism is therefore concerned largely with two issues: first, a rejection of all forms of theism, supernaturalism, and their associated miracles, superstitions, dogmas, authoritarian beliefs, and wishful and hopeful thinking, and second, the resulting necessity of creating or finding values, meanings, and ethical beliefs in a completely naturalistic universe by the sole use of human reason and individual inquiry. In today's society, these are both tough rows to hoe, but let's discuss them both and then turn to Humanism's relation to Unitarian-Universalism.
[Humanism is a moral philosophy. Humanists believe that humans can live moral, happy, and productive lives on the basis of human reason and experience, without relying on the supernatural. In this article I want to explore three areas of humanist thought to explain humanism to those unfamiliar with this philosophy of life. After reading this, you can judge humanism for yourself. The humanist worldview is not difficult to understand, but in recent years the religious right has defamed humanism in the popular media, making it their whipping boy on every issue for which they have an opinion. In their quest to make all secular and public institutions conform to their God-centered beliefs, humanism has been frequently disparaged. Let me say at the outset that humanism is indeed opposed to the popular religions based on Biblical concepts of supernaturalism, mysticism, authoritarianism, coercion of belief, and inequality among different human sexes, classes, and nationalities. If you, on the basis of this knowledge, feel that your religious faith might be jeopardized, read no further.
Humanists base their lives and beliefs on three intellectual areas: naturalistic ethics, rational skepticism, and science. Humanists believe in naturalistic ethics, that humans are the ultimate source of morals, values, purposes, and meanings. Moral values find their source in human experience; ethics stem from human need and interest; the purpose and meaning of life are what we make it to be. Human ethics and values are an outgrowth of the cooperation necessary for the survival of a social species such as Homo sapiens. Thus, ethics and values can and should be chosen by the application of human reason; they are not handed down to us by a deity from atop a mountain. The dogmatic claim that only supernatural forces can civilize humanity and that human thought cannot be the source of morality is a superstition. To the contrary, we are responsible for our ethics as much as for our actions. It is improper to equate values and morals with religion. Estimable values and a personal code of ethics can exist independently of any religious doctrine or creed, and have done so for centuries. Many great historical figures lived moral, happy, and productive lives without religion, and their example is being emulated by innumerable men and women today. Humanists recognize this, and state only that since we must choose our values and morals, we base our choices on human reason and experience, not on supernatural authoritarian doctrines. Infinite punishments and rewards for finite acts do not need to be invoked to secure proper moral behavior; ethics can be justified by their ability to promote a happy conscience, a productive and successful life, and the harmonious working of society. Discussion of reasoned moral and value choice occupy the major part of the humanist literature, hardly the activity of a group that is trying to "brainwash youth into accepting non-moral values."
The second realm of humanist thought is rational skepticism, which is withholding belief where there is no evidence or where there is contrary evidence. Humanists do not believe whatever feels good, but only what we are allowed to believe by the available evidence. This realist viewpoint may not be as congenial as wishful thinking, but it is certainly more productive of reliable knowledge. To idealize the universe is a confession of an inability to master the proper ways to understand things that specifically concern us. Opposite to rational skepticism is faith, which is firm belief in something for which there is no evidence or, even worse, where there is contrary evidence. When there is evidence, no one speaks of faith. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. It is popularly thought virtuous to have faith, that is to say, have a conviction which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence. However, this is not a virtue--it is a vice. Faith weakens the intellect by destroying the value of reasoned and empirical thinking. Faith promotes dogmatism, since there is no method by which one can use faith to decide among different points of view or even between truth and falsehood. Faith frequently results in censorship, because if contrary evidence might induce doubt, faith holds that it must be suppressed--it obviously can't be fought by using reason, since faith does not use reason. Faith does not result in reliable knowledge, since knowledge is justified true belief, and faith can only justify its beliefs by either revelation or authority, both intellectually unacceptable in our modern world. I discuss all this in detail because belief in God and the supernatural can only be argued by an appeal to faith, there being no evidence or logical reasons to believe in these things. That is why humanists are not theists or supernaturalists.
Is there any way to justify belief and thus have reliable knowledge? There is only one way known to us: the scientific method. We can justify belief by performing empirical studies, using logical reasoning, and conforming to the principles of statistical inference. This method can be used in all spheres of human activity, such as the search for morals and values, not just in gaining knowledge about the material universe. The problem with this method is that it is hard to do, since it requires training and the use of logical thinking, and it is unpopular for many psychological reasons, so few people practice it. But humanists use it in everyday life. The scientific method requires free inquiry to work properly; therefore, humanists oppose censorship of any kind. Humanists are philosophical naturalists--they believe that what is studied by science is all that there is. We have no reliable knowledge about the supernatural and cannot rely on it. Humanists therefore accept what science says is true about our world. This includes evolution. We resist the effort to teach the religious doctrine of creationism in the public schools. Creationism has no scientific support, and the numerous illegal attempts to mandate its teaching are an example of how organized right-wing religious groups try to use the power of government to force their beliefs on others. Science, including evolution, doesn't have to resort to government coercion to be accepted.
In science, everything must have a cause. Did the universe have a cause, an uncaused God? Perhaps, but if something must be uncaused, it might as well be the universe as God, and we have the benefit of knowing for sure that the universe exists. Thus, humanists do not seek God and do not claim to have any knowledge about God. One universe, here and now, is enough for us. This gives humanists strong reason for working to ensure that the present world is the best possible world. Thus we actively work against discrimination, war, nuclear militarism, and threats to the environment. The only immortality we hope for is to be remembered well for our deeds.]
Humanism vs. Theism, Naturalism vs. Supernaturalism
Let's discuss the easy one first: Humanism's rejection of theism and supernaturalism. Humanism is naturalistic, that is, humanists believe that the universe, world, or cosmos is all that there was, is, or ever will be; that it operates according to natural laws and natural processes; and that all reliable knowledge about it comes through the application of the scientific method, the naturalistic method that relies on logical reasoning and empirical evidence as the sole source of reliable knowledge. I'm not saying anything here about truth, only reliable knowledge. I acknowledge that there are a variety of "truths" out there, but Humanists believe that there is only one source of reliable knowledge about the natural world, and that this source relies on empirical evidence and logical reasoning, that is, the methods of science. Another definition of naturalism is that the universe is what science says it is, something I and other Humanists firmly believe. I am well aware that the vast majority of people reject the philosophy of naturalism and claim that there are a number of--indeed, many other--good ways to know about the universe besides the sole use of empirical evidence and logical reasoning, or that the universe does not always strictly follow natural law (that is, that miracles sometimes occur), or that there exists a supernatural realm beyond the natural universe, typically populated by various deities. These vast numbers of individuals are therefore non-Humanists and anti-Humanists; however, their knowledge, while "truthful" to them, is not reliable, not objective, not repeatable, not examinable by others, and therefore not acceptable to Humanists. Also, the source of the truths or knowledge of theists and supernaturalists is frequently--almost invariably--the result of authoritarian indoctrination, peer or parental pressure, community conformity, psychological surrender to the fear of death or oblivion, emotional loss of loved ones, or misguided and mistaken philosophies, all hardly sources of reliable knowledge.
Basically, one has to choose whether (A) one will believe things based on logic and evidence, or (B) one will believe some things based on logic and evidence and other things on the basis of authoritarian doctrine, blind faith, revelation, emotional and wishful thinking, conformity, peer pressure, fear, and so on. Humanists choose A, while most people choose B. Now if this second category of things includes how you understand the universe, how you derive values and meaning in your life, how you behave and treat others, and how you raise your children, then you are in serious trouble.
With the rejection of supernaturalism, Humanists are explicit atheists. We don't believe in a god. Some humanists call themselves nontheists, which means the same thing as atheist but has a less pejorative connotation, since many individuals mistakenly believe that atheists deny the existence of god, which seems so presumptuous. Now let's be clear, we Humanists don't deny the existence of a god, which is properly termed antitheism, because there is no conclusive evidence for that. On the existence of any god we are agnostic, which means, in this case, that we have no knowledge of a god's existence or nonexistence. I want to emphasize that the beliefs of atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive; one can be both an atheist and agnostic, as I and most other thinking Humanists are.
Of course, one can be antitheist about a particular god, such as, for example, the Christian God, who is claimed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. These attributes have converted many theists to atheists as they became aware that innocent suffering caused by natural diseases and disasters exist in a world supposedly created by an all-powerful and all-loving God. The fact that small children become infected by cholera, malaria, bilharzia, Tay-Sachs disease, and AIDS should be enough to convince any reasonable person that the Christian God does not exist. Bad things happen to good people, according to a noted and published rabbi, because God is all-loving but not really all-powerful. If that's true, maybe God is also not all-loving, or maybe God is all-powerful but not all-loving. We really don't know the facts about God's character, but many people claim to know. We would be wise to be skeptical about those who claim to know about God. The word "god" is actually meaningless because it is indefinable; every theist has his or her own conception of his or her god; there is no coherent accepted definition. A theist is someone who believes that every god except his or her own is false; an atheist is someone unwilling to make an exception for that one.
I wince when I hear others use the words "god," "spirit," "sacred," "the human soul," and so forth. These words are undefinable and meaningless to me and other Humanists, and we consider their use in any non-critical context to be an affront to human reason. We call this using theistic language, a common problem in many religions.
I am aware that there have been and are claims that empirical evidence and logical reasons do exist to believe in a god; we get these, for example, from the Campus Crusade for Christ, which flatters itself that it appeals to students' intellects. But these claims are nonsense, of course. The various arguments for the existence of a god have been refuted by many philosophers over the centuries, and there are a number of books in print today that adequately discuss these. The existence of the supernatural, miracles, the immortal soul, life after death, and so on, fall in the same category. There is no evidence for them and no reason to believe in them; their acceptance can only be predicated on blind faith based on hopeful, wishful, and erroneous thinking. Using its methods, science has the potential to answer all questions about the material universe except one: Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is unanswerable at present and may remain so forever, but Humanists resign themselves to living with some uncertainty and ambiguity in life.
Because of Humanists' rejection of theism and supernaturalism, we are sometimes attacked by the religious right and religious fundamentalists. This occurred more frequently in the 1980's than is occurring today; as their political power has grown, and as they gradually came to understand how small and powerless Humanists really are, the primary targets of the religious fundamentalists today are gays and liberals, both much larger and visible groups. American culture is overwhelmingly theist and supernaturalist, so Humanists will always be criticized, disparaged, ostracized, and discriminated against, and its something we accept, because "we can believe no other." On the other hand, we identify and feel solidarity with women, gays, ethnic minorities, pagans, freethinkers, and others who experience the same thing. Humanists are very interested in church/state separation, and are active in political, civic, and legal efforts to stop sectarian encroachment in our civil liberties, the establishment of religion in public institutions, the censorship of ideas and knowledge, and attacks on our freedom of conscience. Humanists have traditionally worked within both our own and a number of well-known non-Humanist organizations to support our constitutional rights, freedom of conscience, and freedom of choice without religion-inspired authoritarian governmental intrusion. For example, we oppose the introduction of state-sponsored prayer into public schools, and we are pro-choice on the question of abortion. We bitterly oppose the radical religious right and religious fundamentalists who wish to impose their moral doctrines on non-believers and censor information that casts them in a bad light, and we are appalled at the takeover of the Republican Party by the religious right and other moral authoritarians. Unfortunately, I don't have time to dwell on these important issues this morning.
Humanist Ethical Beliefs
Let us now look at the second major aspect of Humanism, the necessity of framing, justifying, and explaining our own meanings, values, and morals in a material, mechanistic, uncaring universe that did not plan for us, does not recognize our existence, but in which we now find ourselves. Here, Humanists share with UUs the obligation of ethical inquiry with the purpose of constructing and living by one's own ethical philosophy. No values or morals are imposed upon us by a religious doctrine or creed; no meaning of life is provided for us by a solicitous deity. We must search individually and together for meaning in the universe, and we can only find that meaning in our relationship with each other and with nature. We must carefully consider the source, action, and consequences of our ethical beliefs, because we are as responsible for choosing them as for following them. We choose our values from among many available, and we must be able to justify our choices with judicious and responsible reasons. As you are well aware, these are major responsibilities that UUs and Humanists share, especially if we have children, because we can't justify our moral ideals and admonitions by simply saying "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." This type of moral authoritarianism doesn't work even for theists, and that's reason enough to abandon it. Maybe someday theistic religionists will catch on to their problem, but right now they just don't get it.
The great bulk of Humanist thought and literary activity is concerned with examining moral issues: this, not the naturalist-supernaturalist or humanist-theist controversies, has been the case for decades. I don't have time to explain this aspect of Humanism in anything but a cursory manner, but let me emphasize that most Humanist thought and writing is devoted to moral inquiry, not to battles with theism and supernaturalism. Individual Humanists have a tremendous variety of ethical viewpoints within a naturalistic framework. Humanist ethical systems can be pragmatic, consequentialist, utilitarian, Epicurean, and so on. They would reject ethical systems based on theism, revelation, mysticism, obscurantism, clericalism, scholasticism, and so forth, for these are undemocratic, authoritarian, unjustifiable, resistant to change, and profoundly unreliable. Humanists do not believe in scientism, the doctrine that exaggerated trust in the methods of science can answer every question about morality, values, and meaning in the universe, but we do believe that moral solutions can be scientifically informed. If scientists say, for example, that biodiversity should be preserved for a number of reasons, then that must be considered and given great weight. I hope you understand that nature is amoral--not immoral, but amoral. We will not find morals, values, rights, and meanings in nature. To believe that "what is, should be" or "what is, is good" is submission to the naturalistic fallacy, an error in reasoning. Human ethics can only be the product of human thought; there is no God or Nature's God or Providence or Gaia that will give us ethics. Nevertheless, the study of nature by scientific methods can and should inform all ethical inquiry. For example, scientists have reasons for condemning pollution, habitat destruction, human population growth, and the unsustainable exploitation of plants and animals; upon consideration, these are good reasons based on solid evidence and logical reasoning, so Humanists condemn these things too. Humanists were among the first environmentalists, and environmentalism is one of the most popular activities of Humanists today. For example, Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard professor and environmentalist, is a well-known explicit Humanist.
Above all, Humanists believe that human ethical systems must be based on human needs, human experience, and human reason, not on the alleged needs or desires of supernatural deities. Let me add that basing ethics on human needs does not mitigate our responsibility to not be cruel to and overly exploitive of other animals.
Some have called the Humanist reliance on philosophy and science "naive." But what else is there? The postmodernism school of thought claims that science is a social construct, it does not really provide objective, reliable, repeatable knowledge, and it is subject to political, social, economic, and gender influences. My view is simple: humans have electricity, reliable transportation and communication, computers, space travel, abundant food, modern weapons, medicine that works, and many other wonderful things, because we correctly understand nature. This correct understanding of nature is called science, and it was achieved by application of the scientific method using empirical evidence and logical reasoning. I rest my case.
I might mention one small difference between Humanists and UUs in their shared moral inquiry; Humanists would not be so ready to search for values and ethical insights within the writings of Judaism and Christianity as would UUs. I have read the Bible and perhaps you, as I, find it to be a book filled with arbitrary acts of violence visited on humanity by both God and other humans performing God's explicit bidding. The Bible starts off (Genesis 2:8-3:19) with God commanding Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They did eat the fruit, but how could the first humans know that they were doing wrong to eat it before they had eaten it? They couldn't, of course, so don't you think it was just a teensy bit arbitrary for God to punish Adam and Eve for disobeying Him (or Her), something they couldn't possibly know was evil? And that's only in the beginning.
[Christians often claim that the moral ideals promoted by Jesus during his life--"the most moral person who ever lived" so they say--can stand on their own as ethical precepts, that they are superior to humanist ethics, and they can be adopted by ordinary humans who are not ordinarily inclined to believe in the supernatural. Remarkably, some Unitarian-Universalists also make this claim, and periodically one reads in UUA publications about respecting the ethical tenets found in the New Testament and emulating the life of Jesus, since he was such an admirable moral guide. But what is the truth of these claims?
1. Jesus was credulous and promoted credulity. One of the primary evils of supernaturalistic religions is that they promote credulous belief in their own miracles and dogma. They often discourage belief in other doctrines' dogma and irrationalities, but the basic point remains that persons encouraged to believe in some irrational and fantastic things are willing to believe in anything irrational or fantastic. And frequently they do, with variously humorous, expensive, foolish, or tragic results. Belief in ANY ideology or doctrine that discourages critical thinking is always wrong and inevitably leads to human unhappiness or worse. To my mind, this was Jesus's greatest deliberate failing: he encourage credulity and discouraged critical thinking, and the consequences through history have been horrific. Supernaturalistic religions eagerly continue this practice today, continuing to put humanity through much misery.
2. Jesus accepted without question the subordination of women in his society.
3. Jesus accepted without question the common practice of slavery in his society.
4. Jesus demonstrated and encouraged compassion for the poor and outcast of his society, but--in precisely the same way as Mother Theresa--he ignored the root political and social causes that created this phenomenon, preferring to change each individual's heart or attitude toward the poor, rather than advocate different social, political, and economic practices that might have alleviated their condition. Religions almost always support the political and economic status quo, at first to gain acceptance and respectability from powerful people, and later--after they have achieved acceptance, respectability, and political and economic power of their own--because they have too much to lose. Religions that dare to challenge the political and economic status quo are known as cults!
For those who are poor and outcast, acceptance of one's condition by believing that it is God's will (and that you will ultimately achieve happiness in heaven after death), is intolerable by any rational moral perspective! How can any doctrine teach this? But religions do it all the time; they are the "opiate of the people."
5. Christians can legitimately claim that Jesus tried to change society by attempting to first change each individual human's heart. However, it is better to do this AND, at the same time, try to challenge and change the powerful, evil, and corrupting practices, institutions, and governments of one's era. Jesus failed to attempt the latter. Maybe he thought that attempting to do both simultaneously was too much to accomplish. For someone who is supposed to be God, Jesus didn't demonstrate much audacity. The Bolsheviks and Nazis had more self-confidence than he did.
6. Jesus repeatedly indulged in a common human mistake: talking about some problem and then thinking that you did something about the problem. It is difficult to find the right way of putting your thoughts and words into action, and Jesus failed to find the way. His followers--Christians--have equally failed. They usually ignore or misrepresent the few novel and ethically valid parts of Jesus's message, and instead put into action his ethical failings and the perversions created by them in Jesus's name.]
Later, we come to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). The fourth commandment instructs the faithful to not allow one's "slave or slave-woman" to work on the Sabbath, while the tenth commandment says to not covet your neighbor's "slave or slave-woman." Remember, these commandments are directly from God. Nowhere in the Bible does God command his followers to end slavery or free one's slaves; God upholds the status quo. (By the way, the Bibles that Christian fundamentalists use mistranslate these words as "man-servant and woman-servant," and contain other deliberate mistranslations intended to support orthodoxy and fulfillment of revelation.) As regards to women, their subordination and second-class status in the Old Testament is well-known; I have a book titled Woe to the Woman, the Bible Tells Me So, which is a long and detailed account of all the ways women are mistreated, marginalized, and subjugated in the Bible. The New Testament is no better. Jesus's rules for living are arbitrary, and he never condemns slavery or the subordination of women; he challenges the theological status quo to some extent, but emancipating slaves and women from their lower-class status was just too much to ask of his followers. Since Christianity is such an overwhelming influence on Western society, it is no wonder that freeing the slaves and giving women the vote took so long and required such a bitter effort. My point is simple: any moderately intelligent, educated, reasonable human today could come up with better rules for living than are found in the Bible. Any such human is better, more humane, and more ethical than the God of the Bible. Both you and I are nicer than God.
In general, Humanism challenges racism, sectarianism, ethnicism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry, because we insist on judging and interacting with other humans as humans, not as objects or classes. There is a book called The Arrogance of Humanism, which details human-caused environmental degradation and destruction, in the sense that humans take everything for themselves without regard to other life forms on Earth. Well, I agree with the book's premise, except its misnaming of the problem and its mischaracterization of humanism. I would title the book The Arrogance of Anthropocentricism, and Humanists would object to that "ism" also. For Humanists, contrary to Protagoras, "man is" not "the measure of all things."
[I am familiar with David Ehrenfeld's book, The Arrogance of Humanism, and except for one extremely unfortunate and colossal error, it is a fairly good book that describes the arrogance of humans in their disregard for the survival and safety of other organisms on Earth by their ignorance of the interconnectedness of nature and by their misguided narrow focus on only human development, interests, and progress. As a teacher of environmental science for almost twenty years, I never fail to condemn such tunnel-vision and ignorance, and explain why we must--for many scientific and ethical reasons--protect and preserve biodiversity in the natural world. All humanists share my views, since we base our understanding and appreciation of nature on scientific and rational moral principles, not on ignorance, authoritarian beliefs, and arbitrary, counterproductive imperatives--which Ehrenfeld so rightly criticizes--that are held by so many non-humanists.
Ehrenfeld's huge, unfortunate mistake was to name this ignorant, arrogant, anti-nature attitude "humanism." A better term would have been "anthropocentrism," which in fact is the correct name for this attitude. Ehrenfeld's confounding of the word "humanism" with "anthropocentrism" was due to either or both his own ignorance of the history and meaning of humanism or a deliberate, mendacious effort on his part to pervert and libel the word "humanism" (I honestly don't know which). Ehrenfeld's book has done enormous disservice and harm to organized humanism (as do others who misuse and libel the term) by confusing and misleading people about the ideals and meaning of humanism. I have even been confronted by a distinguished environmental scientist, my colleague who is in fact an implicit humanist himself, with the statement that he didn't want to be called a "humanist" because he read Ehrenfeld's book at one time and didn't want to be identified with what Ehrenfeld describes as "humanism" (well, neither do I!). (I told him that his hero, Edward O. Wilson, is a well-known humanist and has identified himself as such on many occasions!) Such an ignorance of the true history, ideals, and values of humanism is unfortunate, but all too common. I can assure you that humanists are not anthropocentric, and because we base our ethical principles and appreciation of nature on rational understanding and scientific knowledge, humanists are leaders in the effort to preserve biodiversity and protect natural ecosystems by advocating birth control, family planning, land-use planning, environmental regulations and restrictions, creation of parks and nature preserves, etc. All humanists are environmentalists, and we have been the first and most prominent to criticize and condemn the venal anthropocentric despoilers of the natural world.]
Humanism and Religion
Now let's discuss the relation of humanism to religion, and this will take us to Unitarian-Universalism. Remember, previously we have talked about theism and supernaturalism; these are not synonymous with religion. Is Humanism a religion? This question, believe it or not, has generated an immense literature, which we will ignore. Is Humanism a religion? The answer is simple: yes and no! It depends on how you define religion! If religion is defined normatively as worship of a supreme being, or involving any type of theism or supernaturalism, then Humanism could not be considered a religion. If, on the other hand, religion is defined functionally as one's ultimate concern, the system of principles of how you will live your life, the source of your values and ethics, your world view, or how you find meaning in life, then Humanism could be considered a religion. But so could capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, republicanism, environmentalism, science, golf, football, basketball...well, you get the idea. Creedless, liberal, atheistic, and humanistic religions exist in the world, no doubt about it, but I personally don't consider Humanism to be a religion, and neither do most Humanists. [Few religious humanists consider Humanism to be their religion; most consider Humanism to be their world view, philosophy, or life stance and their religion to be something else, such as Unitarian-Universalism, Ethical Culture, or Buddhism.]
Perhaps Humanism could be considered a substitute for some aspects of religion. In my view, religions fill a variety of human needs. People join religions to find a sense of community, to associate with others with similar needs and backgrounds, to find a place to help their children get an education in ethics, and--most importantly--try to find answers to their questions about morals, values, and meanings; to develop, in other words, a philosophy of life. Every human has these questions, including atheists and humanists. We find that we exist, so ask "How should we then live?" These are all good and vital functions of any institution, and Humanists encourage their fulfillment. All people have a philosophy, whether they acknowledge it or not. One's philosophy should be explicit. But what comes with a personal philosophy of values and morals? Too often a very heavy baggage of supernaturalism and theism whose inclusion is, frankly, incomprehensible to me and other Humanists, as well as being dysfunctional to the believer.
Theistic religions provide a ready-made theistic philosophy--or theology--to answer these questions, one that is burdened with authoritarianism and supernaturalism. Liberal religions, on the other hand, such as the UUA, allow members to develop their own moral philosophies and provide the opportunity to do so with like-minded individuals. For the guests present, the word "liberal" in "liberal religion" is used in the sense of "liberty;" UUs are at liberty to think for themselves about all aspects of ethical inquiry. The UU motto is "Deed, not Creed." Humanists agree completely with this point of view. UU congregations have members with a diversity of theologies and philosophies, including theism, deism, pantheism, paganism, atheism, and humanism. All are engaged in a common search for meaning and values without the requirement to believe or accept any specific doctrine or creed. For this reason, the philosophy of Humanism has long found a home within Unitarian-Universalism.
The Relationship of Humanism and Unitarian-Universalism
Modern Humanism has long roots and many sources, most of which I can only list in the time I have. These are the philosophy of materialism, with its roots among the ancient Greeks; the philosophy of naturalism, already discussed; ethical contributions from many religions and philosophies; the freethought, rationalist, and Ethical Culture movements; the rise of modern science; ideas about the use of human reason of the Enlightenment; and principles of democracy, civil liberties, constitutional law, and freedom of conscience. This is a long and rich history, but we have to zero in on one moment in it: the development of contemporary Humanism as an institution in the United States and ultimately, the world.
It is interesting to know that modern Humanism as an organization--but not as a philosophy--primarily came out of the Unitarian Church. A small group of extremely active Humanist Unitarian ministers, together with a larger number of distinguished Humanist intellectuals, got together and wrote "Humanist Manifesto I" in 1933. The main impetus behind this manifesto was to start Humanist journals, form a Humanist organization, and develop a Humanist religion, all to further the cause of Humanism, specifically, Religious Humanism. This is the first time I have used the term "religious humanism," so I had better explain that today there are two main groups of Naturalistic Humanists, Religious Humanists and Secular Humanists. The former is the older, but the latter has today eclipsed the religious branch. But more on this later if there's time.
The four Unitarian clergymen were John H. Dietrich, Charles Francis Potter, Curtis W. Reese, and Edwin H. Wilson. These ministers--all explicitly atheist and humanist--were giants within the UU movement. They were active during the 1920s to 1960s, although Ed Wilson lived into his nineties and I knew him well in the 1980s; he even stayed at my house once on a trip to Houston. The titles of a few of their many books may indicate their interests: Humanism (1934), The Humanist Pulpit (7 vols., 1927-1934), Humanist Sermons (1927), Humanist Religion (1931), The Meaning of Humanism (1945), Humanism: A New Religion (1930), Humanizing Religion (1933). The organizations and journals they helped to found, including the American Humanist Association, the Fellowship of Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and the Religious Humanist, still exist today and are very active. Their specific history is described in the book Religious Humanism in America by Mason Olds (1978). [The second edition of this book, published in 1996, has been lengthened, revised, and re-titled as American Religious Humanism; every religious humanist should have and read a copy of this excellent book.]
Their goal of forming a Humanist religion, however, was never realized. Our country has one small humanist religion, the Ethical Culture Society of the American Ethical Union, but it was formed by someone else, Felix Adler in 1876, and, while completely sympathetic to contemporary organized Humanism, is not officially connected with it. In fact, most religious Humanists in the United States find their home in the UUA. Studies and surveys have repeatedly showed that 45-50% of UUs are Humanists, although this number may be changing recently. There are two reasons for this: first, there is a trend from the 1970s to the present for Humanists to identify more with the secular humanist branch of Humanism than with the religious, and second, UUA is apparently losing Humanists as fast as it is gaining members who are neopagans, goddess worshippers, Earth-centered religionists, and other theistic and supernaturalistic believers. I must confess that I myself am a participant in these two trends.
[The question of whether humanism is religious or a religion is very old. It has been argued for decades and is still very controversial. Recently, Free Inquiry devoted an issue to this topic, with articles pro and con. There is no easy solution to this problem.
I often tell people that the answer to whether humanism is a religion is easy: Yes and No! It just depends on how you first define religion. If religion is defined to be supernaturalistic or theistic, then humanism (OUR type of humanism--naturalistic humanism) would of course not be a religion. However, there are many legitimate functional definitions of religion (involving social community, organizational structure, mutually-accepted ethics, agreement on the objects of ultimate concern, finding values and meanings in life, etc.) which would allow humanism to be defined as a religion. However, many of these alternative functional definitions of "religion" would also be suitable for "worldview," "living philosophy," "philosophy of life," or "life stance" which is how I usually characterize humanism. Furthermore, ideologies such as communism, socialism, naziism, fascism, libertarianism, etc. can be and have been held so strongly by individuals that their adoption would be consistent with many non-theistic definitions of religion. Such ideologies often serve as religion substitutes or replacements in secular states where traditional religions are weak or discouraged.
Because of the definition of religion problem, the "humanism is/is not a religion" question is ultimately insoluble. Instead, humanists have wisely defined two main branches of naturalistic humanism, secular humanism and religious humanism. Secular humanism rejects all forms of religion and states that humanism cannot or should not be characterized as a religion. Their reasons are well stated elsewhere; I will not repeat them here. Certainly, secular humanism is NOT religious or a religion. Religious humanists, on the other hand, are a bit more diverse. Most religious humanists consider humanism to be their personal philosophy within a religion that permits or entails humanism; for example, Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture respectively. Another--much smaller--group of religious humanists states explicitly that humanism is their religion; they do not belong to any formal religious organization, but they formally practice Humanism as their religion. The former group of religious humanists would therefore consider humanism to be religious but not a religion (i.e. religious humanism), while the latter group would consider humanism to be both religious and a religion.
My main point is that all three of these groups are legitimate varieties or identifications of humanism. It does no good for one to baldly state that humanism cannot be religious or a religion when, in fact, many humanists would consider that statement to be false. The existence of even one person who believes that humanism is their religion falsifies such a statement. If you are a humanist who doesn't like religion and doesn't want humanism characterized as religious or a religion, then you are a secular humanist.
There is presently a disagreement about the numbers of secular humanists compared to religious humanists. Among explicit naturalistic humanists, religious humanists far outnumbered secular humanists in the past, and some think they still do today. Most people, however, including myself, think that secular humanists today are the majority. Moreover, if we were to include implicit secular humanists (secularists who would probably identify themselves as agnostics, atheists, nontheists, antitheists, freethinkers, non-believers, rationalists, etc., because they have never heard of humanism and don't realize it applies to them), then secular humanists would undoubtedly outnumber religious humanists. There are, of course, implicit religious humanists hiding in mainstream theistic religions, but I believe their numbers are small.
The religious nature of humanism is a question that cannot be solved unless everyone agrees on a single definition of religion. Since such an event is unlikely, then it does little good to make claims and statements one way or the other. Just define yourself as a secular humanist or a religous humanist, recognize that both identifications are legitimate. Focus on the nontheism, naturalism, and anti-supernaturalism that we all share, and for heaven's sake be tolerant of those fellow humanists who identify themselves in the group that is different from yours!.]
Without question, the most active Humanist organization today is the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism [now named the Council for Secular Humanism], which publishes the journal Free Inquiry. I am a charter member and subscriber. Even the American Humanist Association a few years ago removed the word "religious" from its tax exemption statement. The founder of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, Paul Kurtz, was once active in both secular and religious Humanism and was once the editor of the AHA's The Humanist, but he resigned to promote Secular Humanism when he and others gradually became more alienated from religious structures. Paul, whom I also have the honor to know, is without question the best known Humanist in the world today. He and Ed Wilson were the writers of "Humanist Manifesto II" (1973), which is much more secular than "Manifesto I," and says nothing about establishing a humanist religion. Today, the AHA's Humanist chapters and the Secular Humanist chapters of CODESH [now CSH] are overwhelmingly secular. In certain cities and areas where they are large, with hundreds of members, they serve the same function for members that UUA congregations serve for Religious Humanists throughout the United States. Nevertheless, there are still many implicit and explicit Humanists in UUA congregations, including, I'm sure, here in Butler County.
[The relationship between humanists and the Unitarian Universalist Association is an unusual one. The American Humanist Association was founded largely by humanist UU ministers and other religious humanists in 1941. Most religious humanists are members of the UUA. The UUA, however, is not a humanist religion and never has been: it is a liberal or creedless religion, which allows its members to form their own "theology" or philosophy about traditional religious concerns. (For those unaware of the etymology of the word "liberal," it is used in the term "liberal religion" in the sense of "liberty,"--one has the liberty to believe what one wants about typical religious topics: deities, spirituality, prayer, etc., or the irrelevance and uselessness of these--not "liberal" in its more popular political sense.) For this reason, the UUA has been a home for many humanists who desire the structure or context of a formal religion. This is especially true for humanists who have children and wish them to have some sort of formal ethical education. I remember surveys done years ago, when I was a member, that at least half of all UUs were humanists; the others were theists, deists, pagans, etc.
Although I don't have the statistics to support this statement, I believe that in the last ten years the number of humanists in the UUA (religious humanists) has decreased, and the number of explicit secular humanists has correspondingly increased. I think that there are at least four reasons for this change:
1. Individuals are attracted to the UU religion because it is a home for religion-needing people who would identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or simply nonbelievers. Once there, they discover the rich history and empirical-rational-skeptical philosophy of humanism, and realize that they are humanists. This leads them to investigate humanism and the philosophy's three main sources: the liberal religious source of Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture, the atheist/agnostic source of nineteenth and twentieth century Freethought, and the scientific source of critical thinking based on empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism derived originally from the eighteenth century Enlightenment and later sources. (You might list a fourth source of Renaissance Humanism, but I'm not sure how this leads directly to organized, modern, naturalistic humanism, as did the other three.) All three sources provide ethical input into humanism, since modern naturalistic humanism is primarily an ethical philosophy. Over a few short years, the individuals begin to identify more with humanism than with UUism. Then they leave the UU religion, often because they can't stand to sing hymns, join in group readings, or associate with theists (as nice, accepting, and non-proselytizing as they are) anymore. (Or today, associate with pagans, goddess worshippers, etc. anymore.) In the last ten years, the information about humanism needed to make such a transition is more available and much more easily obtained.
2. Since the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism by Paul Kurtz, and the development of explicitly secular humanist local groups around the country, explicitly non-religious secular humanists now have a place to call home. Some of these secular humanist chapters provide personal services similar to organized religions such as UUism.
3. The UU Church has been undergoing a change in recent years. More pagans, New Age religionists, wiccans, goddess worshippers, Earth-centered religionists, etc., are entering UUism (again, I have no numbers to support this claim--it is only my impression; what do others think?). The rational, empirical, skeptical humanists easily tolerated the friendly, non-aggressive theists in UUism, but the new pagan religionists are a different story, since their entire belief system is based on supernaturalism. I would think that humanists would be less tolerant of these new members of UUism, probably less tolerant enough to cause some humanists to leave.
4. Society is changing and becoming more modern and less dogmatic. It is easier today to live one's life as an explicit secularist without suffering--at least in public--the traditional contempt, bigotry, and misunderstanding accorded to secularists by the theist, religionist majority. (I'm not claiming this is universally true--just easier.) Thus, humanists find that they do not need the security or identify of membership in a religious institution. They find that being a secular humanist is something of a liberation after being a UU humanist.
Finally, before anyone misinterprets what I am stating here, I am not objecting to religious humanism. Although I am a secular humanist, I strongly support humanists who want to identify themselves as religious humanists. Religion can legitimately fulfill various needs that every person has. (I do object to theism and supernaturalism, which for some reason go hand-in-hand with most religions!) I strongly support authentic humanist religions such as the Ethical Societies of the American Ethical Union and congregations of Humanistic Judaism. Furthermore, I believe that Unitarian Universalism is a fine institution, far far better than its mainstream or evangelical religious alternatives, and I would encourage religionists, humanist or otherwise, to investigate it and perhaps join. The fact that the UUA historically allows, encourages, and nurtures humanists is proof enough that it is a good and worthwhile organization. It also frequently serves as a valuable stepping stone to secular humanism!]
[Modern humanism did NOT evolve from Christianity, although this religion undoubtedly had some small influences (Erasmus, More, etc.). Modern humanism is an evolution primarily from ancient Hellenistic philosophies, Hellenistic pagan religions, the Enlightenment, and science. One motivation of humanism is certainly a reaction against the Judeo-Christian heritage, but from this one can't conclude that humanism grows out of that heritage. By such illogic, one might as well claim that everything in the modern world is an evolution from Christianity because Christianity preceded the modern world. To the contrary, humanism evolved out of ideas diametrically opposed to the beliefs and claims of Christianity--ideas that Christianity has tried to suppress for two millennia.
Humanism has ancient Hellenistic roots: the Greek philosophies of empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism, and the pagan religions of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Peripateticism. The latter are the true religious roots of modern naturalistic humanism (and let me emphasize that I am discussing the roots of OUR type of "Modern Humanism": naturalistic humanism, the humanism of the CSH, AHA, and IHEU), not "Christian Humanism."
The intellectual stars of the Rennaisance, the Humanists, discovered, commented upon, and made available to a wider audience the great philosophical works of pagan Greece and Rome; these included the considerable beginning of logical reasoning, critical thinking, science, religious tolerance, and the focus on humanity rather than gods. For this we can thank them. But remember that all of these Renaissance Humanists were orthodox Roman Catholics; the new classic literature made them question their beliefs, but not change them. In particular, the Church fought mightily against the new ideas. While we can recognize the work of the Renaissance Humanists as furthering the progress of humanism, by no means can we conclude that Christianity did so. It is a mistake to attribute the humanist impulses of individuals to the institution within which they worked. In fact, just the opposite is the case: the Catholic Church resisted every humanistic idea. Renaissance Humanism is much more a direct predecessor of Christian Humanism, still relevant today, than naturalistic humanism, which is why Pope John Paul II can legitimately call himself a "Humanist."
The Reformation was characterized by protest and dissent, but the reasons were ethical, doctrinal, and political, NOT based on any inherent humanistic ideal. It is a mistake, therefore, to attribute humanist ideals to either individuals or institutions that protest the corrupt and authoritarian religion of their day without examining their motives. Is Luther a humanist for protesting the Roman Catholic doctrine? No, because his reasons were not based on a desire for free inquiry, rationalism, freedom of conscience, individual liberty, etc. He and his followers were as bad or worse in these regards as the Roman Church. Were the German princes who supported and protected Luther humanists because they desire democracy, freedom, etc.? No, they wanted to be out from under the political and economic thumb of Rome. These were certainly good motives, but they were good for many reasons; the good HUMANIST motives came later.
While the Unitarian (and Universalist) denomination is derived from liberal Protestantism, the humanist movement within the UUA is NOT derived from Protestantism. To the contrary, its roots are pagan Greece, the Enlightenment, science, and later the Freethought movement as its history became better understood. Although the 1933 Humanist Manifesto had humanist Unitarian ministers among its signers, and the first explicit humanist organization--the AHA--had Unitarian ministers among its founders, it is a mistake to seek modern humanism's roots within Unitarianism. Half of the founding group members included what we would today call secular humanists. Does that mean we should then conclude that secularism is the source of modern humanism? Of course not.
Religious humanism did not first appear in Unitarianism, but in both Unitarianism and Ethical Culture. And as I have repeatedly emphasized, naturalistic humanism in general has a much more ancient and diverse history. Rather than modern humanism coming out of the religious humanism in Unitarianism, just the opposite occurred: religious humanism in Unitarianism derived it principles and goals from the already existing external humanist sources. So many people make the mistake of confusing cause and effect with the coincidences of history. The religious humanism movement in Unitarianism was NOT the start of "Modern Humanism," nor is this what "led" to the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. A number of trends led to this movement and document. Both modern secular and religious naturalistic humanism have the same historical sources. It is only a historical coincidence that the first document and organization were originated by a group that included religious humanists, and don't forget that it also included secular humanists.
Voltaire called Christianity "the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and bloody religion that has ever infected the world." I agree, and I find the suggestions that "Modern humanism is an evolution from Christianity" and "Humanism was an outgrowth of liberal theology" to be repugnant as well as untrue. This misunderstanding is not a new issue. Religious humanists who come from the "liberal religion" tradition have had the tendency to over-emphasize the "liberal religion" tradition in the origin of humanism rather than the Hellenistic/Enlightenment/Freethought tradition. (The editors of Free Inquiry have made this point more than once.) While it is true that modern, organized humanism was established by a group of men, some of whom were connected with the Unitarian denomination, the fact remains that the motivation of these men was not Christianity or Unitarianism, but rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, naturalism, materialism, atheism, freethought, science, democracy, free inquiry, and critical thinking. While some of them wanted to remake religion into an institution that served humanity rather than gods, others wanted to abandon religion altogether. They came together to form a new organization--the American Humanist Association--that would help them accomplish all of their ambitious goals.
I resent the efforts of those who try to argue that humanism is in some way an outgrowth of Christianity. Naturalistic Humanism is the repudiation--the antithesis--of Christianity in every way, and it has been this way since the beginnings of both. Humanism predates Christianity, and its root philosophies and religions were opposed by Christianity at every turn for two thousand years. While Humanism and Christianity from time to time have agreed on some issues (such as the golden rule as a suitable simple rule for morality), they are most often antagonists. While many individual Christians have adopted humanistic ideals and have done things that promoted humanistic goals, these have either been coincidental or exceptional, certainly not a consequence of Christian doctrine. The point is that we humanists owe nothing, absolutely nothing, to Christianity or any other theistic religion.
The Renaissance was important only as the period when pagan humanistic writings were rediscovered. The liberalization of religion is a result of the Enlightenment--when the ancient pagan philosophies actually began to be accepted, championed, and institutionalized--not the Renaissance or the Reformation; this was my point. Humanism is primarily derived from the Enlightenment, not the Renaissance or the liberalization of religion. For historical, philosophical, and chronological reasons, it is more correct to say that humanism brought about the liberalization of religion, rather than saying that liberal religion brought forth humanism. The Reformation created different sects but did not liberalize them--humanism did. And as I hope I made clear, the change from revelation to reason in the Christian framework is a RESULT of humanism, not the cause, origin, or source of humanism. We humanists owe nothing to theism, not even a tip of the hat. Sorry to get medieval about this, but it is such a common misunderstanding that I have to be explicit.
The religious/secular humanism controversy is an old one, and a fairly empty one now. The first Humanist Manifesto and organized humanism came out of BOTH religious and secular humanism. True, Manifesto I was written by a Unitarian religious humanist, but its spirit invoked both branches, and half of the signers were secular humanists. I have always encouraged people to be either religious or secular humanists, as they see themselves, since the differences are so minor.]
The Necessity of Humanism
Humanism, in my and others' opinion, is absolutely vital in today's world. My personal view is that Humanism must flourish or we will lose our Earth and our civilization. I can mention only two reasons this morning. First, belief in theism and supernaturalism is bad because if you believe in gods, immortality, a soul, and miracles, then you can believe in anything. Millions of individuals believe in the paranormal, ghosts, communication with the dead, astrology, alien abductions, past lives, and so on--all things for which there is not a shred of empirical evidence. Yuri Geller, the charlatan psychic, said it best: "The paranormal exists because God exists." His logic is perfect. Critics of Humanism falsely claim that we believe "if it feels good, do it;" but the truth is that theistic religionists believe "if it feels good, believe it." Any affront to human reason is permitted if you have already suspended the rules of evidence and reason and chosen to believe in virgin births, raising the dead, life after death, mind-body duality, and so forth. The belief in transcendence is dangerous because it weakens one's skepticism and capacity for rational thought. Perhaps you say that these religious and paranormal beliefs, while irrational, illogical, and unreasonable, are not necessarily harmful. But then you will also fall prey to pseudoscientific beliefs: creationism, parapsychology, and the current, most popular pseudoscience--Republican environmentalism, which maintains that there is no ozone depletion, no global warming, no biodiversity loss, no dangerous pollution, and no topsoil erosion. That popular purveyor of nonsense, Rush Limbaugh, is a major victim of this lack of critical thinking, and he victimizes others--his dittoheads--as he peddles this new Republican pseudoscience.
[One of the central issues in Humanism--perhaps the most central: what is the advantage of adopting a humanist philosophy rather than a theistic one within a traditional religion. I will only give a brief response here, but there is an enormous literature that examines precisely this question (modern examples include books by Paul Kurtz and Corliss Lamont and many articles in The Humanist and Free Inquiry). This is a great topic for discussion, although on this list what I say below is probably like preaching to the choir.
First, humanists believe that it is better for a human to be free of illusions, and belief in god and the supernatural is an illusion. Undoubtedly, as John states, theistic and supernaturalistic religions offer their believers emotional supports that enable them to survive and live happily in the world, but similar supports can be found in humanism:
A. Afraid of death? Either believe in an afterlife and immortal soul or live your present life realistically and achieve immortality by the memories and records of your efforts to improve the world for others. One can be happy or unhappy in either situation, but only the latter is authentic and consistent with nature and reality as we know them.
B. Finding yourself alive, how does one then live? Theistic religions provide the answer of believing in God and following the commandments, while humanism says that humans are responsible for creating their own morals as well as following them. Either can result in both ethical and unethical behavior, but only the latter is realistic, subject to rational analysis, and actually represents the true state of affairs (who can deny that religionists actually create and follow their own moral codes regardless of what they claim to believe!).
C. What is the meaning of life? Most religions are happy to provide a simple, superficial, semi-palatable answer, e.g. serve God on Earth and then in heaven by achieving salvation through some easy or difficult doctrine, while humanists say the meaning of life is found in an individual's relationships with other humans. Both have undoubtedly given meaning to humans, but only the latter can be examined rationally, can be accomplished without guilt, and actually promotes better conduct among humans.
Second, while religions have certainly resulted in some good in the world, their misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry, authoritarianism, propagation of nonsense, ignorance, and credulity, tolerance of slavery and crimes against humanity, human over-population, environmental destruction, maintaining the status quo (I must be thinking of Christianity), etc., far outweigh any of that good. Contrast that with humanism, which has always promoted the most noble qualities of humanity: reason, empiricism, tolerance, fellowship, compassion, democracy, skepticism, etc. Science is a product of the empirical, rational, and skeptical humanist impulse, and has given humanity unparalleled advances in food, energy, communication, transportation, medicine, etc. Contrast just the fruits of science with all that religion has given us--the comparison is telling.
Transcendental religions offer small good in exchange for much superstition and human debasement, while humanism offers much good in exchange for the effort of critical thinking. Humanism, like religion, can "can calm fears, enhance joy, justify anger, comfort sadness." Humanism also "offers love" to its UNcompliant participants. In short, humanism has all the presumed benefits of supernaturalist religions but without the illusions and dysfunctional attributes.
The hypothesized survival value that religious belief supposedly imparts to humans has been well-studied by evolutionary sociobiologists. The survival value actually comes from the propensity of humans to be credulous and obey authority, two characteristics religions have used for centuries for their own purpose of continuing their cultural dominance. (Primitive societies in which individuals submit their divergent wills to a single authority have less discord and conflict, and thus are more successful than societies that don't believe authority; societies with the characteristic of submitting to authority will have more offspring--because they are more successful--and the frequency of this trait will increase in the population through time.) Humans are conditioned from birth by classic methods of positive and negative reinforcement to obey authorities and believe everything they say. Although adolescence is nature's way of helping young people learn to question authority and begin thinking for themselves, most individuals speed quickly through this stage and never master the ability. The result: a religious society in which at least 90% believe in some kind of god, i.e. they believe what others tell them. The incidence of religiosity is less in countries, such as those in Western Europe, that do a good job of teaching critical thinking to their children.]
Finally, the most important reason to adopt Humanism as one's philosophy of life is to put yourself in your proper place in the universe and begin living a life based in reality that is capable of self-realization. Theistic religionists in this country, primarily Christians but others also, make two wildly harmful claims about human relationships: First, they maintain that a God exists that is infinitely more powerful, knowing, good, and perfect than humans can ever be. I once had a Sunday school teacher who make a tiny chalk dot on the blackboard and told us that this dot was us; then he said his thumb represented God, and he took his thumb and rubbed out the chalk dot; this, he said, perfectly illustrated the relationship between God and human. Of course he was irrefutably correct, and his illustration made a big impression on me. Soon thereafter I became an atheist and stopped going to Sunday school. This relationship is so overwhelmingly dehumanizing, especially since God is also infinitely more arbitrary than humans can ever be, that no one who really believes it can escape existential despair, and self-actualization is impossible.
But, second, although we can never be like God, we are divinely compensated by being made in the image of God, by being allowed to subdue the Earth and given dominion over all plants and animals upon it, and by being enjoined to go forth and increase our numbers. We are told that we are different from other animals because we possess an immortal soul, but they don't, so we are different in kind from the animals we have dominion over. So subduing the Earth and dominating the plants and animals is not only good, it is a divine mandate. These beliefs give humans an exalted and erroneous view of their position with respect to the biosphere. Contrary to Christian doctrine, we humans are part of the environment; we are dependent on nature; we are not different in kind from animals, only different in degree, because we all share an evolutionary history and none of us possesses a soul. The theistically-inspired elevation of humans above animals and nature is false and will lead to our destruction unless we stop believing it. Believing that humans have some divine attributes and divine mandates leads many theists to oppose birth control, environmental protection, and the scaling back of nonsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Only Humanism offers a realistic and healthy understanding of our true relationship to our ecosystems: we are part of the biosphere, we depend on it for our survival, and we do not have a divine license to destructively exploit it.
[Christian doctrine thus makes two colossal, complementary errors: it views humans as less than god-like (thereby demeaning the human attributes of empathy, forgiveness, love of goodness and justice, the human potential for moral improvement, and the pleasure, usefulness, and morality of gaining greater knowledge), while simultaneously it views humans as being greater in quality than other organic life (thereby giving humans a dangerously false perspective of humanity's relationship to the natural environment). Both of these errors are outstandingly dehumanizing, making us both less and more than we really are, and belief in both of them are leading us down a path to destruction.]
I believe that only a widespread acceptance of Humanism will save both our physical and psychological selves, allow us to actualize our selves, and allow us to live in sustainable equilibrium with our world and with each other.
Thank you very much.
During the years between 1995 and 1998, I had the opportunity to write extensively on humanism listserv discussion groups (email lists) about many of the topics in this address. I have therefore taken the liberty to update this essay about humanism and its relation to the UUA by inserting some excerpts from these additional writings. I have put this later text in brackets [ ] and colored it to distinguish it from my original address. Ultimately, I plan to combine and edit all of this material in a form suitable for publishing in printed form, but for my immediate purpose in putting this material on the web I have taken the most expedient route.
I might add that few references are cited in all the parts of this essay, because I wrote them quickly, without the aid of references, solely from my own knowledge. I plan to provide complete references in my printed version. All analyses and conclusions are my own, but as I state in the body of the text, most of my conclusions are shared by other humanists in the world. I don't claim any unique originality on my part for these, but my presentation of the topics is original. There are abundant references to primary and secondary humanist sources on the web, especially in the webpages I created for the AHA at http://humanist.net/. For instance, the Humanist Manifestos cited above can both be found here.
I might also add that I consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to write about the topics in this essay, and since I personally have no axe to grind, I believe that my analyses and conclusions are objective and fair. Readers should feel free to disagree with me, however, and I would appreciate any constructive criticism sent to my email address.
Copyright © 1998 by Steven D. Schafersman Steven Schafersman can be reached at email@example.com.