The Trouble with Humanism
John P. Middleton
Secular Humanism is often seen, even by me a devout Theist, as a solution to many problems. Religions simply cannot agree. Their dialogue, when it is expressed, is often vitriolic, separatist and accusatory, perhaps reflecting our human need to dominate more than anything else. This is the greatest failing of religion, that we humans cannot practice the gentle commands of any religion, but seem to embrace all that is competitive about it.
Until our human concept of spirituality is reformed, Secular Humanism is all we have left. That is not a bad thing in that the general principles of Secular Humanism are the same as those of most spiritualists, and even the stated goals of religions, but not all religions and not in practice. “For many, mere atheism (the absence of belief in gods and the supernatural) or agnosticism (the view that such questions cannot be answered), aren’t enough.
Atheism and agnosticism are silent on larger questions of values and meaning. If Meaning in life is not ordained from on high, what “small-m” meanings can we work out among ourselves? If eternal life is an illusion, how can we make the most of our only lives? As social beings sharing a godless world, how should we coexist?
For the questions that remain unanswered after we’ve cleared our minds of gods and souls and spirits, many atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and freethinkers turn to secular humanism.” –secular Humanist website.
Secular Humanism has a set of principles that appear to work toward world peace and unlimited compassion, the common goal of Religious Philosophy, but not religious behavior namely. Those principles are;
- 1. “Free Inquiry : The first principle of democratic secular humanism is its commitment to free inquiry.
- 2. Separation of Church and State: Because of their commitment to freedom, secular humanists believe in the principle of the separation of church and state.
- 3. The Ideal of Freedom: There are many forms of totalitarianism in the modern world – secular and non–secular – all of which we vigorously oppose. As democratic secularists, we consistently defend the ideal of freedom, not only freedom of conscience and belief from those ecclesiastical, political, and economic interests that seek to repress them, but genuine political liberty, democratic decision-making based upon majority rule, and respect for minority rights and the rule of law. Ethics Based On Critical Intelligence: The moral views of secular humanism have been subjected to criticism by religious fundamentalist theists. The secular humanist recognizes the central role of morality in human life; indeed, ethics was developed as a branch of human knowledge long before religionists proclaimed their moral systems based upon divine authority.
- 4. Moral Education: We believe that moral development should be cultivated in children and young adults. We do not believe that any particular sect can claim important values as their exclusive property; hence it is the duty of public education to deal with these values.
- 5. Religious Skepticism: As secular humanists, we are generally skeptical about supernatural claims. We recognize the importance of religious experience: that experience that redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural. We are doubtful of traditional views of God and divinity. Symbolic and mythological interpretations of religion often serve as rationalizations for a sophisticated minority, leaving the bulk of mankind to flounder in theological confusion.
- 6. Reason: We view with concern the current attack by non–secularists on reason and science. We are committed to the use of the rational methods of inquiry, logic, and evidence in developing knowledge and testing claims to truth.
- 7. Science and Technology: We believe the scientific method, though imperfect, is still the most reliable way of understanding the world. Hence, we look to the natural, biological, social, and behavioral sciences for knowledge of the universe and man’s place within it.
- 8. Evolution: Today the theory of evolution is again under heavy attack by religious fundamentalists. Although the theory of evolution cannot be said to have reached its final formulation, or to be an infallible principle of science, it is nonetheless supported impressively by the findings of many sciences.
- 9. Education: In our view, education should be the essential method of building humane, free, and democratic societies. The aims of education are many: the transmission of knowledge; training for occupations, careers, and democratic citizenship; and the encouragement of moral growth.
We recognize the need for intellectual modesty and the willingness to revise beliefs in the light of criticism. Thus consensus is sometimes attainable. While emotions are important, we need not resort to the panaceas of salvation, to escape through illusion, or to some desperate leap toward passion and violence. We deplore the growth of intolerant sectarian creeds that foster hatred. In a world engulfed by obscurantism and irrationalism it is vital that the ideals of the secular city not be lost.”- Drafted by Paul Kurtz, Editor, Free Society.
While at first glance these principles may appear philosophically unassailable, (and some are), there are others that are confounding. Let me start with number 7, the rational pursuit of knowledge. The concept that since God is unapproachable through reason he does not exist. Most theologians, like Karen Armstrong will avow that Spirit defies reason, but must be approached with awe, prayer, intuition and doubt and hope. The secular Humanist must discount these in some fashion. He must proclaim the highest measure of Truth is World Human Society.
Our specific society is of no value in determining Truth to the secular Humanist because societies like Nazi Germany or the polygamous Polynesians, or Stalin’s Russia may permit violations of both Secular Humanism, and concepts of freedom. So no Truth can be absolute without World Human Society imprimatur. While that imprimatur need not be universal, it requires a vast majority mandate, and that appears impossible within the current state of Human development.
Where this often leads the Secular Humanist is toward “post-modernism”. That is the belief that Absolute truth is illusory and only the (subjective) truth that relates to me (or us) is valuable. (Religions, the man-made institutions of Faith, are also afflicted by this disease). Post-Modernism has an ally in quantum dynamics which is claiming that if a tree falls in the forest and there is no observer; no sound ensues, thus pushing Man the observer to the center point of the universe as the most important arbiter of truth. (A theist generally asserts God is a universal observer.)
There are some exercises in moral philosophy, like the Trolley Car syndrome that point out the degree of the problem, but I will not list them here. Suffice to say, humankind can be confronted with both scientific and non-scientific problems for which no rational answer currently exists. I must insert that word “currently” because the Secular Humanist will avow that there will be a rational answer someday, as we grow. But if queried, The Secular Humanist will admit he/she follows certain daily activities that have no rational explanation, such as the pain/pleasure syndrome of like and dislike. Not everyone is attracted to pleasure and many are attracted to pain. There is no acceptable, definitive, rational explanation for that attraction even in the DSM.
Arguments about childhood stress and inadequacies are speculation for the pain attraction, which then may violate the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.
Similarly, the Humanist’s need to dwell in a society does not adequately explain altruism. One can live perfectly comfortably in society and never contribute to anything of non-self-interest, and not have the society suffer necessarily, since others may contribute. So what is the rational motive for contribution?
Rather than argue points such as these with the Humanist, I will generalize some conclusions, admittedly assailable but statements that I would vigorously defend.
- 1. The universe cannot be explained rationally and needs acknowledgement that its creation and operation are currently beyond the purview of mankind, and may thus have supernatural consequences.
- 2. Post-Modernism, ultimately and for the same reasons, puts mankind in a position where I alone am the arbiter of truth, an indefensible position.
- 3. There is no disagreement between spirituality, (including the PHILOSOPHY of Christianity or most other faiths) and evolution at any philosophic level. The two are not mutually exclusive despite the fact that conservative religionists wish to create a barrier. No barrier exists. Science and spirituality are not at war.
- 4. There is an enormous difference between Religion and Spirituality. Religion relies on human dogma which can have a blithering array of manifests, many divisive. Spirituality, on the other hand, is based on the core concept of unlimited compassion, which religions have demonstrated they cannot achieve.
- 5. The arguments that Humanist, Atheist and Agnostics offer are reactions against the dogmatic, fundamentalist belief structures of religion and have little or less to do with spirituality.
- 6. Humanism need not decry spirituality, but simply relegate it to an alternative place wherein unanswered questions may be addressed.
Showing the limits of Humanism is not my ultimate point. It is rather, to say we need to apply Secular Humanist principles of “Ethical Truth” coupled with an acknowledgement of spirituality’s potential “Absolute” truths to effect world change from belief structures to action structures. It is not what you believe that is meaningful, but rather how you act.
In an action structure Humanist denial of spirituality is meaningless. What becomes important is the ethical standards we exhibit whether driven by spirituality or not. But it is important that RELIGIONS dogmatic belief structures not be used to set policy for people’s behavior.
Once we go from what people BELIEVE to how we ACT the world will be a much better place.
John P. Middleton