Humanism and Atheism

April 22, 2010

A blog post that I wrote a short time ago regarding Paul Kurtz's Neo-Humanist Statement generated a number of interesting comments. One commenter asked, in light of my criticism of the Neo-Humanist Statement, why I identify myself as a humanist in addition to identifying myself as an atheist. What does the humanist label add? It's a fair question.

I began calling myself a secular humanist about 28 years ago, after I first became acquainted with the Secular Humanist Declaration. (The SHD was, of course, drafted by Paul Kurtz.) I found I agreed with the key ethical views set forth in the SHD, as well as the general approach that was outlined for resolving, or at least narrowing, disagreements and disputes, not only in ethics but in other areas. The SHD advocated use of critical reasoning and science, while carefully avoiding an embrace of scientism, that is, the view that every genuine question can be resolved by science. And, of course, the SHD unequivocally rejected the position that claims about reality can be based on appeals to mysticism, revelation or religious or ideological dogma.

I still find myself agreeing with most of the assertions of the SHD. Of course, the SHD was overbroad, at times hopelessly vague, and, in general, too wordy. (Paul Kurtz is a good writer. At times, he is a great writer. But no one ever accused Paul of being terse.) Those are common faults of manifestos and declarations. But in the main, it concentrated on relevant matter and set forth in reasonably clear terms the key features of a secular humanist outlook. With respect to ethics, this includes a commitment to free expression and free inquiry and respect for individual autonomy (which has obvious implications for secular humanist views on assisted dying and reproductive choice). With respect to politics, this includes a commitment to democracy, a secular society, and equal civil rights for all.

Accordingly, the term "humanist" or "secular humanist" implies that in addition to rejecting belief in the supernatural, one accepts certain methods of inquiry as legitimate and also accepts certain ethical and political principles.

But are the principles I have mentioned really "humanist" principles? If one means ethical or public policy precepts to which only humanists subscribe, the answer is obviously "no." Many religious people might accept some, if not all, of these principles. However, if they do, they will usually do so for the wrong reason: because their religious beliefs require them to accept these principles. Humanists maintain these principles can be rationally justified and defended. And, importantly, they can be questioned and challenged. There is no dogma, metaphysical, ethical, or political, in humanism.

Of course, there may be atheists who accept these principles as well and who, for whatever reason, prefer not to identify as humanists. Unlike our religious friends, however, if they do accept these principles, they typically do so after applying critical reasoning and, like secular humanists, they regard ethical principles as subject to challenge and revision.

Which is one reason I was so dismayed by the Neo-Humanist Statement. It goes out of its way to pick a fight with atheism, as though atheists were necessarily opponents of humanism. To the contrary, even atheists who shy away from the humanist label are likely to be allies of humanists on key issues, including key methodological issues. One can fashion an ethics that is responsive to human interests and needs only if one first rejects religious dogma and revelation as a source of ethical knowledge. On this fundamental point there is usually no disagreement between atheists and humanists. (Granted, there are some atheists who reject the institution of morality, but nihilists are few and far between.)

So to those who question how I can describe myself as a humanist when I reject the Neo-Humanist Statement, the answer is simple: the Neo-Humanist Statement, although it makes some valid points, is a seriously flawed document. There is another document that I believe better captures the essence of secular humanism, namely the SHD. Although dated in its references, its principal points retain their validity and vitality.

Sometimes the earlier model is better.

Comments:

#1 SimonSays on Thursday April 22, 2010 at 2:53pm

I’m an atheist and a humanist. IMO certainly not mutually exclusive.

What I like to say is very simple: “I don’t believe in god. I believe in people.”

#2 Ophelia Benson on Saturday April 24, 2010 at 3:30pm

“With respect to politics, this includes a commitment to democracy, a secular society, and equal civil rights for all.”

One can’t always have all three though - which is one reason I’m wary of statements and manifestos. They can end up looking like lists of All Things Good, which are not necessarily compatible with each other. They can end up looking too easy: let’s just sign up to almost everything.

What if democracy leads to a theocratic society and unequal rights for some? That can happen, after all.

“the term “humanist” or “secular humanist” implies that in addition to rejecting belief in the supernatural, one accepts certain methods of inquiry as legitimate and also accepts certain ethical and political principles.”

Which is perhaps why I don’t call myself a humanist (though I think the main reason is that it seems to imply a certain starry-eyed view of humanity, which I don’t have). I don’t want to commit to all three of those things as one item; I prefer to separate them. I’m an atheist and a proponent of rational inquiry and a fierce advocate of human rights and equality. Those are perhaps related but they’re also distinct, and I’ve never really wanted to throw them all into a big pot along with democracy and other odds and ends.

“I was so dismayed by the Neo-Humanist Statement. It goes out of its way to pick a fight with atheism, as though atheists were necessarily opponents of humanism.”

Well quite - just as Michael De Dora’s recent post on atheism did. Fans of CFI were dismayed by that, too, yet you thought we were being weirdly orthodox to be dismayed. But there’s been a lot of going out of one’s way to pick fights with atheism lately, even by a certain school of atheists.

#3 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday April 25, 2010 at 7:08am

Many religious people might accept some, if not all, of these principles. However, if they do, they will usually do so for the wrong reason: because their religious beliefs require them to accept these principles.  RAL

Names please.

And, what makes that the “wrong reason”?  What objective standard do you use to identify that as reason as wrong?

#4 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday April 25, 2010 at 8:39am

@Anthony McCarthy
I may have time later today to give you a longer answer, but a complete answer would take pages. Anyway, for now, this will have to suffice.
Name names? It might be easier to omit names, if you’re talking about leading political figures in the U.S., almost all of whom have asserted that respect for democracy and fundamental human rights has a religious basis; indeed, some have claimed it must have a religious basis. Ronald Reagan and members of his administration were the most notorious expounders of the view that “the Western ideas of freedom and democracy spring directly from the Judeo-Christian religious experience” and “the fate of our democracy is intimately intertwined, ‘entangled,’ if you will with the vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” (That’s from a 1985 speech by Education Secretary [ironic, no?] William J. Bennett to the Knights of Columbus, quoting, in part Ronald Reagan.) But you can find similar language coming out of the mouths of Jimmy Carter, MLK, Jr. and other “liberals.” Of course, Carter and Reagan had different views about the nature and scope of human rights.
And the fact that you have individuals with sharply contrasting views on what respect for human rights and democracy entails all using a religious justification for their views gives you one reason why this is the “wrong” approach. Religious doctrine does not provide a sound basis for reasoning about ethics or public policy. It is plastic enough to justify just about anything. It’s been invoked in support of both the divine right of kings and democracy; in support of both slavery and slavery’s abolition; in support of both the subordination and the equality of women. The list of contradictory views that religious doctrine has been alleged to support could be extended indefinitely.
For an additional reason why reliance of religious doctrine is the wrong approach, consult the Euthyphro, with which you’re probably familiar.

#5 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday April 25, 2010 at 12:01pm

Ronald Reagan and members of his administration were the most notorious expounders of the view that “the Western ideas of freedom and democracy spring directly from the Judeo-Christian religious experience”  RAL

Do you think that you could intuit the teachings of Jesus or the Jewish Prophets from Ronald Reagan and his administration?  I don’t. And for that reason I believe their citation of religion was like that of many others who have used it to gain power, a sham.  Reagan and his administration had critics whose PRACTICE of their religious professions were clearly sincere and who, for that reason, are far better examples of people who are better representatives of their religious tradition.

I seem to recall someone pointing out that in all of the “virtues fableized by William Bennett, he somehow left out justice, which is at the core of Jewish law, in intent if not always in practice, and so is also central to authentic Christianity. 

I’ve become increasingly interested in the refusal of people to make the kinds of judgments necessary to distinguish between a Ronald Reagan and a Jimmy Carter, not to mention adherents of Christianity who don’t hold public office and who attain a high degree of fidelity between their professions and their actions.  When that lapse of judgment is opportune, as it so often is when discussing these matters, it is all the more noteworthy.

#6 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday April 25, 2010 at 4:56pm

@Ophelia: Clearly, there is not a relationship of logical implication among democracy, a secular society, and equal civil rights for all.  On the other hand, one can be committed to these as goals even if one concedes that it may not be possible to achieve all these goals simultaneously.  It then becomes a question of setting priorities. 
Also, I would maintain that there is a connection between democracy and some measure of civil rights for all citizens and some measure of liberty, such as freedom of speech on some matters.  A system of government does not deserve the designation of a “democracy” if whole segments of the population, such as women, ethnic minorities, and so forth are excluded from political participation.  Moreover, one cannot have a democracy if all forms of political speech except those authorized by the government are forbidden.  I recognize that this position implies that the United States and other Western countries were not democracies until the 20th century, and I stand by that implication.  Those that were not monarchies were republics with a limited franchise and rigid gender and race classifications. 
Your remarks made me think of an interesting question.  Would it ever be justified to block democratic elections or otherwise intervene in the democratic process to prevent a theocratic government from taking control, since once ensconced such a government effectively would become a dictatorship?  If the allegations against some Turkish generals are to be believed, this may not be an entirely hypothetical question. 
On your other point, I do not recall suggesting that critics of Michael DeDora were weirdly orthodox.  As I recall, I made two principal points: some of his critics were wrongly suggesting that Michael’s views represented CFI’s position and some of his critics were intemperate in their comments.  At this stage, it is probably not worthwhile to slog back through the posts and comments to determine exactly what I said.  I will just say that if any of my remarks could be interpreted as asserting that his critics were weirdly orthodox, that is not an implication I intended. 
@Anthony McCarthy: I am a bit reluctant to reply because I have a suspicion that at least on some substantive issues we are in agreement.  At the very least, we share a distaste for Reagan.  However, as I stated before, in the long run, how one arrives at an answer can be as important as the answer itself. 
It appears that you interpret the sayings attributed to Jesus in a certain way.  What you are doing is using your own understanding of what is morally right or wrong in reaching your conclusions about the “authentic” teachings of Jesus.  Reagan and others who might disagree with you used the same approach; they just viewed Jesus through a different moral prism.
If you disagree, please identify for me one policy advocated by Reagan that is directly contrary to the body of sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.

#7 SimonSays on Sunday April 25, 2010 at 5:41pm

Ron: I’ve yet to see a non-democratically elected government maintain popular legitimacy in time of peace.

I’ve also yet to see a theocracy come into power through the democratic process.

In the case of Turkey, where the generals have successfully conducted several coups in the past, I would argue that while there has not been an Islamic government since the founding of the republic, the various governments of the past 40 years have been quite authoritarian with regards to civil liberties and downright murderous with regards to the Kurds.

With Turkey (as in many other countries like Saddam’s Iraq, Egypt, or Syria), the term ‘secular government’ is more or less a euphemism for ‘extremely pro-military’. This is because the two main organizations that have power and organizational abilities in these countries are the military and the church. IMO both the military and the church are to a large degree authoritarian and undemocratic.

#8 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday April 25, 2010 at 6:47pm

It appears that you interpret the sayings attributed to Jesus in a certain way.  What you are doing is using your own understanding of what is morally right or wrong in reaching your conclusions about the “authentic” teachings of Jesus. RAL

Well, that’s what happens when any of us read any book, we interpret what we read in a certain way, and that way is inescapably shaped by our understanding.  There is no such thing as a disembodied “objective” reading of a text that will reliably arrive at a meaning with universal and necessary consent.

I will add that I’ve also read scholars with knowledge of the scriptures relevant to understanding what might have been the meaning of them, and also in the historical context in which they were written, and what the best evidence of which sayings are most likely authentic and what the meaning of those is. 

That said, I don’t think there is really any way to find “Sell what you have and give the money to the poor”,  Do to others that which you would have done to you, Forgive seventy times seven times.  Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter into the Kingdom of God before the equivalent of the Values Voters, etc, from the policies and actions of the Reagan administration. 

Reagan and others who might disagree with you used the same approach; they just viewed Jesus through a different moral prism.  RAL

You assume something I don’t, that they were sincere in their professions of Christianity.  I don’t think they were any more sincere about that than they were about protecting and defending the Bill of Rights, Democracy and the rule of law.  Which they clearly weren’t sincere about.

If you disagree, please identify for me one policy advocated by Reagan that is directly contrary to the body of sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.  RAL

Funding the Contras in order to reestablish the oppressive oligarchy in Nicaragua was clearly contrary to a number of Jesus’ teachings, which I’ve already cited.  Not to mention the domestic policies on poverty. 

You shouldn’t let your hatred of Christianity blind you to such obvious facts, many, if not most,  of the people who profess to believe that Jesus was divine, ignore his teachings.  He kind of predicted something like that.

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