Humanism, Reason & Reality
Reposted from the American Humanist Association
WHAT IS HUMANISM?
by Frederick Edwords
The sort of answer you will get to that question depends on what sort of humanist you ask!
The word "humanism" has a number of meanings, and because authors and speakers often don't clarify which meaning they intend, those trying to explain humanism can easily become a source of confusion. Fortunately, each meaning of the word constitutes a different type of humanism — the different types being easily separated and defined by the use of appropriate adjectives. So, let me summarize the different varieties of humanism in this way.
Literary Humanism is a devotion to the humanities or literary culture.
Resaissance Humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.
Cultural Humanism is the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved throughout European history, and now constitutes a basic part of the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics, and law.
Philosophical Humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest. Sub-categories of this type include Christian Humanism and Modern Humanism.
Christian Humanism is defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary as "a philosophy advocating the self-fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles." This more human-oriented faith is largely a product of the Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism.
Modern Humanism, also called Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism and Democratic Humanism is defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion." Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories.
Secular Humanism is an outgrowth of 18th century enlightenment rationalism and 19th century freethought. Many secular groups, such as the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism and the American Rationalist Federation, and many otherwise unaffiliated academic philosophers and scientists, advocate this philosophy.
Religious Humanism emerged out of Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, and Universalism. Today, many Unitarian- Universalist congregations and all Ethical Culture societies describe themselves as humanist in the modern sense.
The most critical irony in dealing with Modern Humanism is the inability of its advocates to agree on whether or not this worldview is religious. Those who see it as philosophy are the Secular Humanists while those who see it as religion are Religious Humanists. This dispute has been going on since the early years of this century when the secular and religious traditions converged and brought Modern Humanism into existence.
Secular and Religious Humanists both share the same worldview and the same basic principles. This is made evident by the fact that both Secular and Religious Humanists were among the signers of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933 and Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. From the standpoint of philosophy alone, there is no difference between the two. It is only in the definition of religion and in the practice of the philosophy that Religious and Secular Humanists effectively disagree.
The definition of religion used by Religious Humanists is a functional one. Religion is that which serves the personal and social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical world view.
To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life's harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose.
To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities (such as Ethical Culture societies and many Unitarian-Universalist churches) offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for the moral education of children, special holidays shared with like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth), an opportunity for affirmation of one's philosophy of life, and a historical context for one's ideas.
Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion (taken in the functional sense I just detailed). They do not feel that one should have to make a choice between meeting these needs in a traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all. Individuals who cannot feel at home in traditional religion should be able to find a home in non-traditional religion.
I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition of religion didn't amount to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.
Religious Humanists, in realizing this, make sure that doctrine is never allowed to subvert the higher purpose of meeting human needs in the here and now. This is why Humanist child welcoming ceremonies are geared to the community and Humanist wedding services are tailored to the specialized needs of the wedding couple. This is why Humanist memorial services focus, not on saving the soul of the dear departed, but on serving the survivors by giving them a memorable experience related to how the deceased was in life. This is why Humanists don't proselytize people on their death beds. They find it better to allow them to die as they have lived, undisturbed by the agendas of others.
Finally, Religious Humanism is "faith in action." In his essay "The Faith of a Humanist," UU Minister Kenneth Phifer declares —
Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us.
Now, while Secular Humanists may agree with much of what religious Humanists do, they deny that this activity is properly called "religious." This isn't a mere semantic debate. Secular Humanists maintain that there is so much in religion deserving of criticism that the good name of Humanism should not be tainted by connection with it.
Secular Humanists often refer to Unitarian Universalists as "Humanists not yet out of the church habit." But Unitarian- Universalists sometimes counter that a secular Humanist is simply an "unchurched Unitarian."
Probably the most popular exemplar of the Secular Humanist world view in recent years was the controversial author Salman Rushdie. Here is what he said on ABC's "Nightline" on February 13, 1989, in regard to his novel The Satanic Verses.
[My book says] that there is an old, old conflict between the secular view of the world and the religious view of the world, and particularly between texts which claim to be divinely inspired and texts which are imaginatively inspired. . . . I distrust people who claim to know the whole truth and who seek to orchestrate the world in line with that one true truth. I think that's a very dangerous position in the world. It needs to be challenged. It needs to be challenged constantly in all sorts of ways, and that's what I tried to do.
In the March 2, 1989, edition of the New York Review, he explained that, in The Satanic Verses he —
. . . tried to give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion. For this, apparently, I should be tried. . . . "Battle lines are being drawn today," one of my characters remarks. "Secular versus religious, the light verses the dark. Better you choose which side you are on."
The Secular Humanist tradition is a tradition of defiance, a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece. One can see, even in Greek mythology, Humanist themes that are rarely, if ever, manifested in the mythologies of other cultures. And they certainly have not been repeated by modern religions. The best example here is the character Prometheus.
Prometheus stands out because he was idolized by ancient Greeks as the one who defied Zeus. He stole the fire of the gods and brought it down to earth. For this he was punished. And yet he continued his defiance amid his tortures. This is the root of the Humanist challenge to authority.
The next time we see a truly heroic Promethean character in mythology it is Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost. But now he is the Devil. He is evil. Whoever would defy God must be wickedness personified. That seems to be a given of traditional religion. But the ancient Greeks didn't agree. To them, Zeus, for all his power, could still be mistaken.
Imagine how shocked a friend of mine was when I told her my view of "God's moral standards." I said, "If there were such a god, and these were indeed his ideal moral principles, I would be tolerant. After all, God is entitled to his own opinions!"
Only a Humanist is inclined to speak this way. Only a Humanist can suggest that, even if there be a god, it is OK to disagree with him, her, or it. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates shows that God is not necessarily the source of good, or even good himself. Socrates asks if something is good because God ordains it, or if God ordains it because it is already good. Yet, since the time of the ancient Greeks, no mainstream religion has permitted such questioning of God's will or made a hero out of a disobedient character. It is Humanists who claim this tradition.
After all, much of Human progress has been in defiance of religion or of the apparent natural order. When we deflect lightening or evacuate a town before a tornado strikes, we lessen the effects of so called "acts of God." When we land on the Moon we defy the Earth's gravitational pull. When we seek a solution to the AIDS crisis, we, according to Jerry Falwell, thwart "God's punishment of homosexuals."
Politically, the defiance of religious and secular authority has led to democracy, human rights, and even the protection of the environment. Humanists make no apologies for this. Humanists twist no biblical doctrine to justify such actions. They recognize the Promethean defiance of their response and take pride in it. For this is part of the tradition.
Another aspect of the Secular Humanist tradition is skepticism. Skepticism's historical exemplar is Socrates. Why Socrates? Because, after all this time, he still stands out alone among all the famous saints and sages from antiquity to the present. Every religion has its sage. Judaism has Moses, Zoroastrianism has Zarathustra, Buddhism has the Buddha, Christianity has Jesus, Islam has Mohammad, Mormonism has Joseph Smith, and Bahai has Baha-u-lah. Every one of these individuals claimed to know the absolute truth. It is Socrates, alone among famous sages, who claimed to know NOTHING. Each devised a set of rules or laws, save Socrates. Instead, Socrates gave us a method —a method of questioning the rules of others, of cross- examination. And Socrates didn't die for truth, he died for rights and the rule of law. For these reasons, Socrates is the quintessential skeptical Humanist. He stands as a symbol, both of Greek rationalism and the Humanist tradition that grew out of it. And no equally recognized saint or sage has joined his company since his death.
Because of the strong Secular Humanist identity with the images of Prometheus and Socrates, and equally strong rejection of traditional religion, the Secular Humanist actually agrees with Tertullian—who said:
"What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?"
That is, Secular Humanists identify more closely with the rational heritage symbolized by ancient Athens than with the faith heritage epitomized by ancient Jerusalem.
But don't assume from this that Secular Humanism is only negative. The positive side is liberation, best expressed in these words of Robert G. Ingersoll:
When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free—free to think, to express my thoughts—free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination's wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.
Enough to make a Secular Humanist shout "hallelujah!"
The fact that Humanism can at once be both religious and secular presents a paradox of course, but not the only such paradox. Another is that both Religious and Secular Humanism place reason above faith, usually to the point of eschewing faith altogether. The dichotomy between reason and faith is often given emphasis in Humanism, with Humanists taking their stand on the side of reason. Because of this, Religious Humanism should not be seen as an alternative faith, but rather as an alternative way of being religious.
These paradoxical features not only require a unique treatment of Religious Humanism in the study of world religions, but also help explain the continuing controversy, both inside and outside the Humanist movement, over whether Humanism is a religion at all.
The paradoxes don't end here. Religious Humanism is usually without a god, without a belief in the supernatural, without a belief in an afterlife, and without a belief in a "higher" source of moral values. Some adherents would even go so far as to suggest that it is a religion without "belief" of any kind— knowledge based on evidence being considered preferable. Furthermore, the common notion of "religious knowledge" as know- ledge gathered through nonscientific means is not generally accepted in Religious Humanist epistemology.
Because both Religious and Secular Humanism are identified so closely with cultural humanism, they readily embrace modern science, democratic principles, human rights, and free inquiry. Humanism's rejection of the notions of sin and guilt, especially in relation to sexual ethics, puts it in harmony with contemporary sexology and sex education as well as aspects of humanistic psychology. And Humanism's historic advocacy of the secular state makes it another voice in the defense of church/state separation.
All these features have led to the current charge of teach- ing "the religion of secular humanism" in the public schools.
The most obvious point to clarify in this context is that some religions hold to doctrines that place their adherents at odds with certain features of the modern world which other religions do not. For example, many biblical fundamentalists, especially those filling the ranks of the "Religious Right," reject the theory of evolution. Therefore, they see the teaching of evolution in a science course as an affront to their religious sensibilities. In defending their beliefs from exposure to ideas inconsistent with them, such fundamentalists label evolution as "humanism" and maintain that exclusive teaching of it in the science classroom constitutes a breech in the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.
It is indeed true that Religious Humanists, in embracing modern science, embrace evolution in the bargain. But indi- viduals within mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism also embrace modern science—and hence evolution. Evolution happens to be the state of the art in science today and is appropriately taught in science courses. That evolution has come to be identified with Religious Humanism but not with mainline Christianity or Judaism is a curious quirk of politics in North America. But this is a typical feature of the whole controversy over humanism in the schools.
Other courses of study have come to be identified with Humanism as well, including sex education, values education, global education, and even creative writing. Today's Christian fundamentalists would have us believe that "situation ethics" was invented by 1974 Humanist of the Year Joseph Fletcher. But situational considerations have been an element of Western jurisprudence for at least 2,000 years! Again, Secular and Religious Humanists, being in harmony with current trends, are quite comfortable with all of this, as are adherents of most major religions. There is no justification for seeing these ideas as the exclusive legacy of Humanism. Furthermore, there are independent secular reasons why schools offer the curriculum that they do. A bias in favor of "the religion of secular humanism" has never been a factor in their development and implementation.
The charge of Humanist infiltration into the public schools seems to be the product of a confusion of cultural humanism and Religious Humanism. Though Religious Humanism embraces cultural humanism, this is no justification for separating out cultural humanism, labeling it as the exclusive legacy of a nontheistic and naturalistic religion called Religious Humanism, and thus declaring it alien. To do so would be to turn one's back on a significant part of one's culture and enthrone the standards of biblical fundamentalism as the arbiter of what is and is not religious. A deeper understanding of Western culture would go a long way in clarifying the issues surrounding the controversy over humanism in the public schools.
Once we leave the areas of confusion, it is possible to explain, in straightforward terms, exactly what the modern Humanist philosophy is about. It is easy to summarize the basic ideas held in common by both Religious and Secular Humanists. These ideas are as follows:
Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who think for themselves. There is no area of thought that a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.
Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means for comprehending reality.
Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge.
Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness.
Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world. These ideas, after they have been assessed rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to work, often as alternate approaches for solving problems.
Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now. Humanists regard human values as making sense only in the context of human life rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death.
Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems—for both the individual and society—and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.
Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need for careful consideration of immediate and future consequences in moral decision making.
Humanism is in tune with the science of today. Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable "soul," and that human beings have certain built-in needs that effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value system.
Humanism is in tune with today's enlightened social thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties, human rights, church-state separation, the extension of participatory democracy not only in government but in the workplace and education, an expansion of global consciousness and exchange of products and ideas internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving social problems, an approach that allows for the testing of new alternatives.
Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment.
Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, Humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.
Though there are some who would suggest that this philosophy has always had a limited and eccentric following, the facts of history show otherwise. Among the modern adherents of Humanism have been Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and 1957 Humanist of the Year of the American Humanist Association; humanistic psychology pioneers Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, also Humanists of the Year; Albert Einstein, who joined the American Humanist Association in the 1950s; Bertrand Russell, who joined in the 1960s; civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randoph who was the 1970 Humanist of the Year, and futurist R. Buckminister Fuller, Humanist of the Year in 1969.
The United Nations is a specific example of Humanism at work. The first Director General of UNESCO, the UN organization promoting education, science, and culture, was the 1962 Humanist of the Year Julian Huxley, who practically drafted UNESCO'S charter by himself. The first Director-General of the World Health Organization was the 1959 Humanist of the Year Brock Chisholm. One of this organization's greatest accomplishments has been the wiping of smallpox from the face of the earth. And the first Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization was British Humanist John Boyd Orr.
Meanwhile, Humanists, like 1980 Humanist of the Year Andrei Sakharov, have stood up for human rights wherever such rights are suppressed. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem fight for women's rights, Mathilde Krim battles the AIDS epidemic, and Margaret Atwood is one of the world's most outspoken advocates of literary freedom—Humanists all.
The list of scientists is legion: Stephen Jay Gould, Donald Johanson, Richard Leakey, E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk, and many others—all members of the American Humanist Association, whose president in the 1980s was the late scientist and author Isaac Asimov.
The membership lists of Humanist organizations, both religious and secular, read like Who's Who. Through these people, and many more of less reknown, the Humanist philosophy has an impact on our world far out of proportion to the number of its adherents. That, I think, tells us something about the power of ideas that work.
This may have been what led George Santayana to declare Humanism to be "an accomplishment, not a doctrine."
So, with modern Humanism one finds a philosophy or religion that is in tune with modern knowledge; is inspiring, socially conscious, and personally meaningful. It is not only the thinking person's outlook, but that of the feeling person as well, for it has inspired the arts as much as it has the sciences, philanthropy as much as critique. And even in critique it is tolerant, defending the rights of all people to choose other ways, to speak and to write freely, to live their lives according to their own lights.
So, the choice is yours. Are you a Humanist?
You needn't answer "yes" or "no." For it's not an either-or proposition. Humanism is yours—to adopt or simply to draw from. You may take a little or a lot, sip from the cup or drink it to the dregs.
It's up to you.
The Humanist Philosophy In Perspective (1984)
by Frederick Edwords
Never before has interest and talk about humanism been so widespread and rarely has the humanist philosophy been so poorly understood by both supporters and opponents. What kind of philosophy is humanism? To listen to its many detractors, one would imagine it was a doctrinaire collection of social goals justified by an arbitrary and dogmatic materialist-atheist world view. We often hear leaders of the New Right say that "Humanism starts with the belief that there is no god," that "evolution is the cornerstone of the humanist philosophy," that "all humanists believe in situation ethics, euthanasia, and the right to suicide,' and that "the primary goal of humanism is the establishment of a one-world government."
Where did they get such notions? The source they most frequently cite is Humanist Manifesto II, and indeed all the above elements can be found there. The first article of Humanist Manifesto II declares, ''As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity." The second article says that "science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces." The third article states, "Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction." The seventh article speaks of "an individual's right to die with dignity, euthanasia, and the right to suicide." And the final section, consisting of the twelfth through seventeenth articles, stresses "world community,'' specifically "a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government." In the light of this, it seems to me that we must take much of the blame for how our philosophy is misunderstood. We have all too frequently stated our ideas as a market list of conclusions, each conclusion supposedly as basic as all the rest and of equal acceptable among humanists. This gives those conclusions the ring of "commandments." We have not usually divided our philosophy into parts and derived one part from another. In fact, we have more often intertwined our epistemology with our cosmology, ethics, and social remedies as though they were all to be treated the same.
What we need to do is explain our philosophy in a more hierarchical manner, setting forth first our basic principles*those ideas that unite all humanists and form the foundation of the philosophy. Once this is done, we can follow with our beliefs about the world*belief which, by the nature of scientific inquiry, must be tentative. Then, once that ground work is established, we can recommend appropriate social policies, recognizing the differences of opinion within our ranks. With this approach, people will see humanism in a way I find to be more accurate* and in a way that reveals humanism's non-dogmatic and self- correcting nature.
For use in promoting the humanist philosophy, I have organized the ideas of humanism into a practical structure along the aforementioned lines. Even though most humanists don't communicate the philosophy in this way, I believe that I am being accurate when I suggest that this is the way most humanists see humanism.
We humanists think for ourselves as individuals. There is no area of thought that we are unwilling to explore, to challenge, to question, or to doubt. We feel free to inquire and then to agree or disagree with any given claim. We are unwilling to follow a doctrine or adopt a set of beliefs or values that does not convince us personally. We seek to take responsibility for our decisions and beliefs and that necessitates our control over them. Through this unshackled spirit of free inquiry, new knowledge and new ways of looking at ourselves and the world can be acquired. Without it, we are left in ignorance and, subsequently, are unable to improve upon our condition.
We make reasoned decisions because our experience with approaches that abandon reason convinces us that such approaches are inadequate and are often counterproductive for the realization of human goals. We find that, when reason is abandoned, there is no "court of appeal" where differences of opinion can be heard. We find, instead, that any belief is possible if one lets oneself be aided by arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, religious experience, alternative states of consciousness, or other substitutes for reason and evidence. Therefore in matters of belief, we find that reason, when applied to the evidence of our senses and our accumulated knowledge, is our most reliable guide for understanding the world and for making our choices.
We base our understanding of the world on what we can perceive with our senses and with we can comprehend with our minds. Anything that is said to make sense should make sense to us as humans, else there is no reason for it to be the basis of our decisions and actions. Supposed transcendent knowledge or intuitions that are said to reach beyond human comprehension cannot instruct us because we cannot relate concretely to them. The way in which humans accept supposed transcendent or religious "knowledge" is by arbitrarily taking a "leap of faith" and by abandoning reason and the senses.
We find this course unacceptable, since all the supposed "absolute" moral rules that are accepted as a result of this arbitrary leap are themselves rendered arbitrary by the baselessness of the leap itself. Furthermore, there is no rational way to test the validity or truth of transcendent or religious "knowledge" or to comprehend the incomprehensible. As a result, we are committed to the position that the only thing that can be called knowledge is that which is firmly grounded in the realm of human understanding and verification.
Though we take a strict position on what constitutes knowledge, we are not critical of the sources of ideas. Often intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, and flashes of inspiration prove to be excellent sources of novel approaches, new ways of looking at things, new discoveries, and new information. We do not disparage those ideas derived from religious experience, altered states of consciousness, or the emotions; we merely declare that testing these ideas against reality is the only way to determine their validity as knowledge.
Human knowledge is not perfect. We recognize that the tools for testing knowledge, the human senses and human reason, are fallible, thus rendering tentative all our knowledge and scientific conclusions about the nature of the world. What is true for our scientific conclusions is even more true for our moral choices and social policies. These latter are subject to continual revision in the light of both the fallible and tentative nature of our knowledge and constant shifts in social conditions.
To many, this will seem an insecure basis upon which to base a philosophy. But, because it deals honestly with the world, we believe it to be the most secure basis possible. Efforts to base philosophies on super-human sources and transcendent "realities" in order to provide a greater feeling of security only end up creating illusions about the world which then result in errors when these illusions become the basis for decisions and social policies. We humanists hope to avoid these costly errors, and, thus, we have committed ourselves to facing life as it is and to the hard work that such an honest approach entails. We have willingly sacrificed the lure of an easy security offered by simplistic systems in order to take an active part in the painstaking effort to build our understanding of the world and thereby contribute to the solution of the problems that have plagued humanity through the ages.
We maintain that human values only make sense in the context of human life. A supposed non-humanlike existence after death cannot, then, be included as part of the environment in which our values must operate. The here and now physical world of our senses is the world that is relevant for our ethical concerns, our goals, and our aspirations. We therefore place our values wholly within this context. Were we to do otherwise—to place our values in the wider context of a merely hoped for extension of the reality we know—we might find ourselves either foregoing our real interests in the pursuit of imaginary ones or trying to relate human needs here to a very different set of nonhuman needs else where. We will not sacrifice the ethical good life here unless it can be demonstrated that there is "another life" elsewhere that necessitates a shift in our attention and that this "other life" bears some relation and commonality with this life.
We base our ethical decisions and ideals upon human needs and concerns as opposed to the alleged needs and concerns of supposed deities or other transcendent entities or powers. We measure the value of a given choice by how it affects human life, and in this we include our individual selves, our families, our society, and the peoples of the earth. If supernatural powers are found to exist, powers to which we must respond, we will still base our response on human need and interest in any relationship with these powers. This is because all philosophies and religions are created by humans and cannot, in the final analysis, avoid the built-in bias of a human perspective. This human perspective limits us to human ways of comprehending the world and to human drives and aspirations as a motive force.
We practice our ethics in a living context rather than an ideal one. Though ethics are ideals, ideals can only serve as guidelines in actual situations. This is why we oppose absolutistic moral systems that attempt to rigidly apply ideal moral values as if the world were itself ideal. We recognize that conflicts and moral dilemmas do occur and that moral choices are often difficult and cannot be derived from simplistic yardsticks and rules of thumb. Moral choices often involve hard thinking, diligent gathering of information about the situation at hand, careful consideration of immediate and future consequences, and weighing of alternatives. Living life in a manner that promotes the good, or even knowing what choices are good, is not always easy. Thus, when we declare our commitment to a humanist approach to ethics, we are expressing our willingness to do the hard thinking and work that moral living in a complex world entails.
Tentative Beliefs About The World
Our planet revolves around a medium-sized star, which is located near the outer edge of an average-sized galaxy, which is part of a galaxy group consisting of nineteen other galaxies, which is part of an expanding universe that, while consisting mostly of cold, dark space, also contains perhaps one hundred billion galaxies in addition to our own. Our species has existed only a very short time on the earth, and the earth itself has existed only a short time in the history of our galaxy. Our existence is thus an incredibly minuscule and brief part of a much larger picture.
In the light of this, we find it curious that, in the absence of direct evidence, religious thinkers can conclude that the universe or some creative power beyond the universe is concerned with our well being or future. From all appearances, it seems more logical to conclude that it is only we who are concerned for our well-being and future.
Human beings are neither entirely unique from other forms of life nor are they the final product of some planned scheme of development. The evidence shows that humans are made from the same building blocks from which other life forms are made and are subject to the same sorts of natural pressures. All life forms are constructed from the same basic elements, the same sorts of atoms, as are nonliving substances, and these atoms are made of subatomic particles that have been recycled through many cosmic events before becoming a part of us or our world. Humans are the current result of a long series of natural evolutionary changes, but not the only result or the final one. Continuous change can be expected to affect ourselves, other life forms, and the cosmos as a whole. There appears to be no ultimate beginning or end to this process.
There is no compelling evidence that the human mind is separate from the human brain, which is itself a part of the body. All that we know about the personality indicates that every part of it is subject to change caused by physical disease, injury, and death. Thus there is insufficient grounds for belief in a "soul" or some form of life after death
The basic motivations which determine our values are ultimately rooted in our biology and early experiences. This is because our values are based upon our needs, interests, and desires, which, themselves, often relate to the survival of our species. As humans we are capable of coming to agreement on basic values because we most often share the same needs, interests, and desires and because we share the same planetary environment.
Theoretically, then, it is possible to develop a scientifically based system of ethics once enough is known about basic human needs, drives, motivations, and characteristics and once reason is consistently applied toward the meeting of human needs and the development of human capacities. In the meantime, human ethics, laws, social systems, and religions will remain a part of the ongoing trial-and-error efforts of humans to discover better ways to live
When people are left largely free to pursue their own interests and goals, to think and speak for themselves, to develop their talents, and to operate in a social setting that promotes liberty, the number of beneficial discoveries increases and humanity moves further toward the goal of greater self-understanding, better laws, better institutions, and a good life.
Current Positions On Social Policy
As humanists who are committed to free inquiry and who see the value of social systems that promote liberty, we encourage the maximizing of individual autonomy. In this context, we support such freedoms and rights as religious freedom, church-state separation, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of association (including sexual freedom, the right to marriage and divorce, and the right to alternate family structures), a right to birth control and abortion, and the right to voluntary euthanasia.
As humanists who understand that humans are social animals and need both the protections and restraints provided by effective social organization, we support those laws that protect the innocent, deal effectively with the guilty, and secure the survival of the needy. We desire a system of criminal justice that is swift and fair, ignoring neither the perpetrator of crime nor the victim, and ignoring neither deterrence nor rehabilitation in the goals of penalization. However, not all crimes or disputes between people must be settled by courts of law. An alternative approach, involving conflict mediation wherein opposing parties come to mutual agreements, has shown much promise and therefore has our support.
As humanists who see potential in people at all levels of society, we encourage an extension of participatory democracy so that decision-making becomes more decentralized and thus involves more people We look forward to widespread participation in the decision-making process in areas such as the family, the school, the work place, institutions, and government. In this context, we see no place for prejudice on the basis of race, nationality, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, political persuasion, religion, or philosophy. And we see every basis for the promotion of equal opportunity in the economy and in universal education.
As humanists who realize that all humans share common needs in a common planetary environment, we support the current trend toward more global consciousness. We realize that effective programs in ecology require international cooperation. We know that only international negotiation toward arms reduction will make the world secure from the threat of thermonuclear or biological war. We see the necessity for worldwide education on population control as a means of securing a comfortable place for everyone. And we perceive the value in international communication and exchange of information, whether that communication and exchange involve political ideas, ideological viewpoints, science, technology, culture, or the arts.
As humanists who value human creativity and human reason and who have seen the benefits of science and technology, we are decidedly willing to take part in the new scientific and technological developments all around us. We are encouraged, rather than fearful, about biotechnology, alternative energy, computer technology, and the information revolution, and we recognize that attempts to reject these developments or to prevent their wide application will not stop them. Such efforts will merely place them in the hands of other persons or nations for their exploitation. To exercise our moral influence on the new technologies, to have our voice heard, we must take part in the revolutions as they come about.
As humanists who see life and human history as a great adventure, we seek new worlds to explore, new facts to uncover, new avenues for artistic expression, new solutions to old problems, and new feelings to experience. We sometimes feel driven in our quest, and it is participation in this quest that gives our lives meaning and makes beneficial discoveries possible. Our goals as a species are open-ended As a result, we will never be without purpose.
Humanists, in approaching life from a human perspective, start with human ways of comprehending the world and the goal of meeting human needs. These lead to tentative conclusions about the world and relevant social policies. Because human knowledge must be amended from time to time, and because situations constantly change, human choices must change as well. This renders the current positions on social policy the most adaptable part of the humanist philosophy. As a result, most humanists find it easier to agree on basic principles than on tentative beliefs about the world, but easier to agree on such beliefs than on social policies. It is my hope that clarity on this point will erase many prevalent misunderstandings about humanism.
The Promise Of Humanism (1989)
Every religion has its promise, the special reward it offers to the faithful. Such a promise is often the main feature that attracts outsiders in. As such, it can become a primary selling point and motivator.
The ancient promise of Christianity is eternal life in heaven. I can remember a number of years ago listening to one radio preacher describing it in detail with vivid word pictures as he rhapsodized over how wonderful it would feel to be there. I can remember as a child learning about the streets paved with gold and rivers flowing with milk and honey.
Different denominations also offer secondary promises, such as wealth and happiness in this life, God's helping hand in times of trouble, and even physical healings.
In Buddhism, the promise is somewhat different. If you follow the Noble Eightfold Path of conduct, you will experience inner peace and eventually, through a series of rebirths, the state of Nirvana. This state is the blowing out of all craving, attachment, and desire.
New Age religions tend to promise increased powers of mind that will bring about inner peace, happiness, power over external events, cosmic knowledge, and ultimate union with God.
Like in politics, so in religion: the key is PROMISE BIG.
In the past, Humanists have sometimes thought of themselves as too noble and honest to stoop to such strategies for gaining converts. So, instead of offering our own "campaign promises," we used to prefer to run down the promises of all the other groups. Instead of focusing on a better way of our own, we kept the spotlight on those ideas we disagreed with. Only we didn't seem able to do it with the captivating music of Omar Khayyam:
Of threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain—This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
This seemed to be our message, and to some it still is. But, if this is our message, are Humanists merely the consumer crusaders of the metaphysical world, the Ralph Naders of the religious realm? Is our only role that of protecting the gullible from the purveyors of spiritual Florida swamp land?
This is, of course, a noble calling, worthy of the best efforts of talented individuals. But is it ALL we should be about? From much of our older rhetoric, you would think so. On the other hand, today many Humanists are directing their focus on what HUMANISM has to offer.
And when that is done, the relevant question becomes "What is the promise of Humanism?"
Well, we already know what we can't promise. As sober realists and no-nonsense straight-shooters, we're experts in throwing the wet blanket of rationalism over the fondest hopes of our fellows. We know the "bad news," but what's our "good news," what is the gospel of Humanism?
One way to find out is to ask ourselves how we would present Humanism to someone who has never been exposed to traditional religion. Here would be a person in no need of disillusionment and possessing no idols in need of smashing. We could now go directly to the goal of offering the "good news" of Humanism.
If some Humanists would find themselves speechless in a situation like this, it could be because they believe Humanism is simply the "default" condition of humanity, the "natural state" that prevails when no brainwash is present. And I've known a number of Humanists who have put it to me in exactly those terms.
But, if that's the case, then the solemn duty of every Humanist when confronting a person unexposed to religion is to immediately teach him or her all about it! In this way, the person will learn what to watch out for, will be prepared, and will be put on guard.
But I don't accept that Humanism is the default condition of humanity. And I am indeed confronted with individuals unexposed to traditional religion. I confront them every day. They are my children.
How do I teach my children Humanism? Well, I don't do it by running down religions they have never heard about. I don't do it by exposing them to the varieties of religious experience. Instead, I expose them to the varieties of worldly experience. My children, ages 4 and 5, already enjoy travel, pictures, movies, music, people, animals, flowers, daydreams, stories, words, numbers, shapes, colors, and the joy of learning. I want them to live the good life envisioned by Humanism, to experience the promise first hand. That's why, when I asked my eldest daughter, Livia, what the praying hands in front of the Oral Roberts medical complex were doing, she exclaimed, "They're clapping!"
Are my children Humanists yet? Time will tell, but other Humanist parents I know who have used a similar approach have been pleased with the results. And the implication is clear. The promise of Humanism is a good life here and now.
So, let's discuss it in detail. What IS the "good life?" Can it be pursued directly? Can EVERYONE have it (that is, do we have a promise we can keep; can Humanism deliver the goods)? And finally, will it play in Peoria?
Lloyd and Mary Morain talked about the good life in their 1954 Beacon Press book, Humanism as the Next Step, when they wrote:
As a starting point let us take the idea that this life should be experienced deeply, lived fully, with sensitive awareness and appreciation of that which is around us.
This was the first of their seven key ideas of Humanism. They elaborated further, saying:
Back through the centuries whenever people have enjoyed keenly the sights and sounds and other sensations of the world about them, and enjoyed these for what they were—not because they stood for something else—they were experiencing life humanistically. Whenever they felt keen interest in the drama of human life about them and ardently desired to take part in it they felt as humanists.
Referring to this attitude as "zest for living," they were following the lead of Bertrand Russell who, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, referred to "zest" as "the most universal and distinctive mark" of the happy individual. People with this quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things until they have enough, and know when to stop.
This vision reminds us again of Omar Khayyam:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness— Oh, Wilderness were Paradise now!
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into the Dust descend; Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie, Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!
Which sounds like the hedonistic doctrine Humanists are accused of advocating:
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Or, as Mad magazine once put it —
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou— Pretty soon I'll be drunk, fat, and in trouble.
But there is much more involved in the Humanist notion of the good life. The physical pleasures are only a part of it, not to be denied of course, but far from representing the whole. For the Humanist there are also the pleasures of an unfettered mind making new discoveries, solving problems, and creating. There is the enjoyment of art, music, dance, and drama. There is the joy of helping others and the challenge of working to make the world a better and more peaceful place. And, of course, there are the joys associated with love and family. The Humanist seeks the enjoyment of as many of these as possible.
In this, we are clearly at one with the ancient Greek ideal of wholeness and the integration of life. For example, in the ancient Olympic games, competition included not only athletics but drama, music, poetry, and philosophy. And the whole combination was viewed as a religious event. The Greeks put it together and did it all. So can we.
In having zest for living, we join with the ancient Chinese who, in following Confucius, saw much of life as play—which accounted for their enjoyment of ceremony and especially their love of toys.
This worldly and good-natured view of life that claims no ultimate knowledge, stands out when contrasted with Hinduism. Whereas the Yogi is often seen as renouncing desire, living an ascetic life-style, and acquiring eternal knowledge, Socrates, the sage of the ancient Greeks, deliberately provoked certain appetites in himself, lived a social and active life, and professed to have no knowledge whatever!
It is also radically different from traditional Christianity, which has sometimes called this world a vale of tears, has seen pleasures as vanity, and seems to find the goal of human life beyond the grave. Such believers might quote Ecclesiastes—
Better to go to the house of mourning
than to the house of feasting;
for to this end all men come,
let the living take this to heart.
Better sadness than laughter,
a severe face confers some benefit.
As an antidote, Robert Louis Stevenson offered these words in his Christmas Sermon:
Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality: they are the perfect duties. If your morals make you dreary, depend on it they are wrong. I do not say, "give them up," for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better men."
Edwin H. Wilson, the grand old man of religious Humanism who, for 90 plus years, lived the promise, summed it up when he wrote:
The Humanist lives as if this world were all and enough. He is not otherworldly. He holds that the time spent on the contemplation of a possible afterlife is time wasted. He fears no hell and seeks no heaven, save that which he and others created on earth. He willingly accepts the world that exists on this side of the grave as the place for moral struggle and creative living. He seeks the life abundant for his neighbor as for himself. He is content to live one world at a time and let the next life—if such there may be—take care of itself. He need not deny immortality; he simply is not interested. His interests are here.
The way those interests should be carried out here is described by Havelock Ellis in his book, The Dance of Life. There he presents living as an art, one best characterized as a dance. In this, he follows the ancient Greeks who chose the image of dancing because, unlike walking or running, dancing is not generally viewed as a goal-oriented activity leading from point A to B. One dances for the sheer joy of the activity. It is the process more than the product that counts. And this is how the Humanist good life is to be lived.
So, when someone asks a Humanist, "What is the purpose of life?" the Humanist should answer, "Life is not purpose, life is art." The meaning is found in the doing.
This is a revolutionary and truly unique way of looking at the world. It is a way that finds the question of cosmic purpose irrelevant, one that is unmoved by the author of Ecclesiastes who, in contemplating the question of ultimate value, writes—
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and what vanity it all is, what chasing of the wind!
The Humanist response is that Solomon missed the point. The people, ideas, things, and actions we love do not depend for their worth on how long they last or their supposed cosmic significance. They are things in themselves to be enjoyed for their own sakes. Life is an art, not a task. Life is for us, not for the universe. And life is for now, not for eternity.
But there's more. We can take Edwin Wilson's statement that this life is all and enough and beef it up a bit to declare that this life is more than enough. Then it will express the Humanist optimism of Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote:
The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
(We ought to get some rosary beads and repeat this every day.)
There is more in this world than I could experience in a thousand different lifetimes. There is a richness here, a cornucopia of choices, a wealth of opportunities. There is so much to see, to do, to read, to learn. The question is not, "What shall I do with my life?" but "What shall I do next?!"
Different people choose different things. Most Humanists will choose a life oriented outward, not only to enjoying the good life, but sharing the good life through helping others. Yet other people may choose the inner life of meditation. By making such a choice, each one misses something the other is enjoying. But that can't be helped. Any time one makes a choice in the use of one's time, one fails to engage in all the other possible uses for that time, including having other experiences.
So, if a monk or celibate priest speaks to me about the ecstasies of spiritual contemplation, I respond by sharing how thrilled I was in the birthing room watching my children being born. If a young fundamentalist describes to me the experience of being "born again," I can't wait to talk about the exciting moment when I first appreciated geometry. If heaven is described to me in graphic detail, I immediately want to show my slides of sunsets, seascapes, and mountain ranges.
I'm in love with life, and too busy with it to find time for things allegedly outside it.
But now we can ask, if this is the promise of Humanism—if this is the promise of liberal religion—is it a promise limited only to the affluent, the intelligent, the educated? If so, then are we making a promise we can't always keep? This is the criticism leveled against us by the otherworldly religions. While we say that they can't keep their otherworldly promises, they explain that they turned to this other world because we Humanists didn't keep our worldly promises.
Otherworldly faiths offer the "joys of the spirit" to those who have been denied "the pleasures of the flesh." And the claim is that such spiritual joys are more permanent and universal than is our pleasure. But why give up so easily, denying oneself worldly pleasure to feed on a mirage in its stead? Isn't this settling for less, and retreating into an unwarranted resignation? Bertrand Russell thought so when, in chapter 2 of The Conquest of Happiness, he took the author of Ecclesiastes to task for denouncing the very things that make happiness possible and give life meaning.
Nonetheless, I must admit that I benefit from growing up in a middle-class environment in a wealthy country where I have access to such variety. But all is not lost in more impoverished environments in less wealthy countries. At the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada, India, an extended family of Humanists teach the poor the joys of traditional folk dance, music, athletics (especially acrobatics), science, animal husbandry, occupational skills, and, most important of all, the vast world made possible only through reading. Many of the beneficiaries of this effort are not only poor and uneducated, but are often crippled and abandoned. Yet in a country steeped in an ancient tradition of other-worldliness due to just such harsh realities, the promise of Humanism is offered and met. The International Association for Religious Freedom, the world organization of liberal religions, has similar projects in India and is getting similar results. The promise is no illusion.
And I look at my own life, asking myself how useful the promise of the good life would be to me if I suddenly went deaf, or blind, or couldn't walk. And yet I can answer with Robert Louis Stevenson that the world is indeed so full of things that can make me happy. A calamity is a limitation, but if I were limited only to reading, I would find the world is so full of a number of books that I could not read them all in this lifetime. If I were limited only to seeing, I could not see all I want to see in this lifetime. If I were limited only to hearing, I could not hear all I want to hear in this lifetime. I have not tested all the thoughts I want to test, or worked out all the ideas I have started but don't have time to develop. I haven't written all the speeches I want to write. I haven't met all the people I could meet or faced all the challenges I could face. Calamities destroy the promise usually because we concentrate on what we have lost instead of letting the misfortune simply focus our pursuits in a new direction.
The Stoic remedy for misfortune is as much a part of this promise as is the Cyrenaic enjoyment of good fortune. When misfortune limits you, shift your focus and move on. I would argue that we can, in most cases, keep the promise of joy in the here and now. And even when all cannot be joy—for life indeed includes a large share of obligations, struggles, sorrows, and pain—the larger context can still be that of an artful life.
And when, in those rare instances, we find that the realization of the promise is futile, as in the case of an agonizing terminal illness, Humanism offers the freedom to exit this life at will and with dignity. This is voluntary euthanasia, an area of great importance to Humanists, so much so that there will be two major workshops on this topic at the national conference of the American Humanist Association next weekend.
So, in the end, the promise is not a perfect one. But we admit that. Others may seem to offer more perfect promises, but can they deliver? I have no evidence that anyone has ever gotten to heaven, realized Nirvana, or merged with God. But I see evidence every day that the promise of the good life is no mirage.
So, I'll stick with the honesty of Humanism, that this life is all there is, and with the promise of Humanism, that this can be more than enough. And this promise will serve as my motivation to make life better when all is not as it should be. For I can better enjoy the promise on a clean rather than a dirty planet. And I can enjoy it better when I am helping others to participate in it.
This is a philosophy I can be proud of. And, being proud of it, I can confidently share it with others. I can offer the "good news" of its promise and know I am doing something valuable for others.
As a result, Humanism need no longer be a philosophy exclusively for those bold enough to face an uncaring cosmos with defiance, for those fearless enough "to go where no one has gone before," and for those impudent enough to call the majority of humanity cowards for fleeing to a sweeter tale. Most people are moved by exciting promises. They are captivated by thrilling visions. And this philosophy can be for them to.
There's nothing wrong with offering a zesty promise if we have one. And have one we do. So let us Humanists stress it, publicize it, and present it as our entry in the religious/ philosophical sweepstakes. I submit to you that this one shift in our focus will do more to counter the harmful effects of otherworldly belief than all the rationalistic arguments of history's greatest freethinkers. So let's give it a shot.
We have nothing to lose but our minority status.
by Gerald A. Larue, Ph.D.
There is a certain aspect of Humanism that inspires a Humanist to debunk the superstitious and simplistic assumptions of pseudoscience and organized religion. Perhaps through overemphasis, Humanism may project a negative image and be seen as a joyless put-down of everything that does not represent cold, hard rationalism or analytic science. What is there in the continuing questioning and debunking of another's way of thinking or apprehending the world that adds color and depth and insight to the human scene? What becomes of fantasy and fantasizing, of tall tales and imaginative reflection on the maybes, perhapses, and might-have-beens, that so enrich literature, art, and reflective human thought? Might we be in danger of projecting an image of an organization opposed to everything and anything that doesn't fit neatly into our particular framework of rational scientific thought?
The immediate response is "nonsense." For many, Humanism provides the acme of freedom to experience, enjoy, and appreciate the many dimensions of being human. As a Humanist, I am free to experience and enjoy as many facets of my humanity as I wish, without appealing to some archaic tradition or without reference to cultic requirements. For example, during the past Easter season, I listened to Handel's Messiah, hummed along with the choruses, paused properly before that last triumphant "Hallelujah," and smiled at the memory of the person who had once stood next to me in a choir and who broke in too soon. I also listened to the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar and hummed the melodies, pondered the role of Judas, sighed deeply and appreciatively at Mary's song when she tried to get Jesus to relax, muttered to myself that, "If I am experiencing a male chauvinistic feeling, then at this level I am chauvinistic" — I love to be stroked and caressed! This music belongs to me as much as it does to the devout Christian. These compositions are products of human creativity, and they are part of my human heritage. I need not accept the theology or mythology that is implicit in each composition, but I can understand what the artist is attempting to convey of belief, feeling, and interpretation.
Humanists have so many freedoms. Unlike my Orthodox Jewish friends, and unlike my Roman Catholic father in his observance of Friday "fish day," I can choose my food without reference to taboos established several thousand years ago, and I am free of papal edicts. I have dipped in a common dish with Bedouins, risking roundworm infection and dysentery, all the while knowing they would hesitate to do the same thing with me because of Muslim food laws. I have eaten with Orthodox Jews, knowing that they could not bring themselves to eat in my home because I do not keep kosher. I have drunk with drinkers and abstained with abstainers, eaten vegetables with vegetarians and devoured meat with carnivores. I have eaten with fingers, chopsticks, knives, forks, and spoons, drunk from delicate china and from a bottle passed from one dirty hand to the next. As a Humanist, I am free to set my own standards, to conform or not conform as I wish. The only rules are those that are self-imposed because of personal desires and respect for the ways of others.
In moments of deep passion, I have immersed myself in the art of Goya, Rembrandt, Raphael, Picasso, and countless others who have made creative statements in oils, water colors, ink, and crayons. I have attempted to enter into their art, penetrate their minds, see life through their eyes, feel their moods, be part of their art, and probe the humanistic dimensions of their creativity. The fact that some themes were centered in religious mythology or beliefs of the past is immaterial — these artists are humans perceiving the world. Perhaps, if I am open, I can see and feel something of what they saw and felt and thereby grow in my Humanism.
The literature of the world is open to me as a Humanist — there are no banned books, only those that I consider a waste of my precious time. I enjoy science fiction and have served as a "technical consultant" on several films. Despite my presumed "expertise," the producer is not compelled to follow my suggestions — a detail that some writers in The Humanist magazine fail to understand. I LIKE fantasy and fiction and imaginary projections. If, as a professional educator, I do my job, my students will have mastered proper scholarly methods to investigate the factuality of the claims of fiction science. And if they have not, well, these programs, too, will pass.
As I speed along the freeway in my little sports car, I often tune into "old fashioned gospel" radio programs, and in my euphoric exuberance in response to wind, sun, and air, I roar out the hymns. Other motorists may think I am a bit mad, but there are moments when the sheer joy of being cries out for expression, and hymn-roaring is, for me, one means of expression. I don't believe the contents of the hymns; I simply enjoy life and living, love and loving.
At times I feel very close to poorly informed, new converts to Christianity, to those who have lifted out of the morass of Christian theological meanderings an impulse to love and forgive, to understand and reach out in compassion. These values are not uniquely Christian; they are supremely human. I could care less what the individual believes; we meet on the ground of human concern. Should that individual attempt to convert me, the situation changes. If a gentle response to the effect that I have my own belief system fails to dissuade, I can and will debate. Because I am a professional ancient Near Eastern historian, these persons generally fail badly. I do not want to hurt or upset them — I feel no missionary call to convert the world to Humanism — but I am committed to the preservation of freedom of and from belief systems and to the maximizing of the human person.
Religious expression can move me and touch me deeply, because religious expression is part of the human tradition. In the ancient Egyptian temple of the god Amun, I feel chills run along my spine when I realize that, where I stand, the pharaohs of Egypt stood in worship millennia ago. This very spot was believed to have been the first soil to emerge from the primeval abyss. If I listen, perhaps I can hear the footsteps of the ancient priests of Amun echoing in the peristyle hall. I can feel with the pilgrims at the legendary birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, where for centuries millions have come to worship. In a Roman Catholic or Greek or Russian sanctuary, I can let the music move me as I watch the sunlight filter through clerestory windows and seemingly hang suspended in the air. At the same time, I am sharply aware of human stupidities perpetrated in the name of the sacred and that these sanctuaries built to honor a god are really statements honoring the humans who designed, built, and contributed to them.
I excavate a tomb and remove the personal ornaments from a skeleton — a violation of human dignity in the name of scientific archaeology. With some reverence, I place these bones in a plastic bag and rebury them in another setting where they will not be disturbed or destroyed as a token of respect for the personality of which they were once a part. There are no rules to say I must do this, only my responses to and respect for others and for myself. I am free to be as romantic and unrealistic as I wish without losing contact with the cold hard facts of human survival, human cruelty and indifference, human abuses of power and privilege, and human bigotry and bias. A mixture of romanticism and realism — but we are all mixed bundles, we humans, and, as an individual Humanist, I express my particular blend.
There is much more to be said about the positive virtues of Humanism — about freedom to be, to express, to dare, and to attempt to extend our outreach and burst our societal and inherited bonds. Each Humanist can write a personal narrative; indeed, I think each should be prepared to give a personal "testimony" (to use the language of evangelicals). It is absolutely essential that we continue to express the impact of rational and scientific analysis on modern life and thought. It is imperative that we take stands against sloppy thinking, against the imposition of ancient mythic interpretations on modern life and living, against the efforts to impose religious teachings and interpretations on society, against anything that inhibits freedom for all. We have excellent means of confronting vapid, inconsistent, muddled, shollow, unreasoned, nonscientific arguments by debates, lectures, and publications. We must also express through like means the positive virtues of Humanism.
Life Is To Be Lived Now
A Vital, Personal Humanism (1986)
by Frederick Edwords
When one hears the word Humanism, one thinks of that philosophy spelled out in documents called "Manifestos," a philosophy critical of traditional religion and which advocates reason, science, and civil liberties. What one too often does not think of is a philosophy of joy, personal fulfillment, and emotional liberation. Yet Humanism is all of these things. That the focus of discussion of Humanism has been largely on the Manifestos is unfortunate, since such discussion hides the vital and personal Humanism that means so much in the individual lives of so many.
In traditional churches, it is a common practice to take a verse of Scripture and elaborate upon it in a sermon. Humanists are at an advantage here because they need not limit their source material to just one book. Humanists can draw from all the great humanistic works of classical antiquity, or even from modern materials. Therefore, I take my text from the Dialogues of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher and statesman. In particular I focus on his essay entitled "The Shortness of Life." If I were to address the work in biblical fashion, I guess I would cite my text as Dialogues 10: chapter 1, verse 1. There Seneca writes:
The majority of mortals, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of nature, because we are born for such a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.
Complaints that life is too short are as common today as in Seneca's time. We often lament that there just aren't enough hours in the day to do the things we want. We find we must sleep away a third of our lifetime and, in the normal week, work nearly another third. We see this as leaving only a third for ourselves. But that is quickly eaten away by life's other obligations — to family, to political party, to the maintaining of a home, to the paying off of creditors, and little things too numerous to mention. And so it seems that the gift of life has not really amounted to very much time for ourselves.
Yet, in spite of the fact that the life of the average Roman citizen was filled with as many similar obligations, Seneca had the boldness to declare: "the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it." And he added, "our life is amply long if ordered properly."
Reading these words today, one tends to think that their author is about to launch into a diatribe on time management aimed at providing one with an arsenal of nifty techniques for cramming more action into every minute. I call that the trash compactor compactor approach to life.
I used to attempt to live that way. In my early twenties I used to listen to Earl Nightingale success tapes. He advised making a list every morning, before the family gets up, of the six most important things you have to do today. And although this is not a bad practice at the beginning of a business day, one can carry it too far. Certainly I did. I used to keep a diary of my daily goals and note how well I did on each. I tried to allocate every moment of my time to increase my "efficiency." My advice to myself in one of those diary entries shows how far to the extreme I had gone. "Live relentlessly," I wrote.
This was not what Seneca had in mind, however. He was concerned with values and the priorities of life. He was urging his readers to reconsider their goals, to reassess themselves, and to give the truly important things the time they deserved.
As we look around us today, we see many people living life on what might be called the "deferred payment plan." Children commonly say, "Just wait until I grow up." Students can't wait until they finish school and leave home so they can begin to live as they like. When young people date, they look forward to the time when they will be married. Then they'll be happy. When married they look ahead to owning their own home. Then they'll be happy. When winter comes, they look to Spring, or to the day they can move to California. If they have children they say, "When the kids grow up and leave home, then we'll be able to do what we want." Of course there's still the job. So they look to retirement as the time to live.
Seneca denounces this attitude in the strongest language: "Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life," he says, " and to set apart only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? . . . What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and six- tieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point which not all have even attained!"
We can live now, every day. We should find our meaning and joy at this time, not some other. Don't wait for happiness. Create it. For the irony is, when retirement comes, people tend to look back and wonder what became of the "good times." The remedy, then, is to always remember that today is the day you will be nostalgic about tomorrow. These are the "good old days." Make them good before they get old.
It's funny how often I remember the "good old days" of my past. Yet those were the times I was anxious to get out of. I didn't like what I was doing, so I felt that the good times all had to be ahead. Well, the good times for me are at the present time, but they could have been for me back then, too, and as nice as I remember them, if I had then the life philosophy I have now.
Postponing happiness, however, is not the only problem. We also lose much of our lives seeking to gain the approval of others. We live our lives for others, not in a charitable way that might bring mutual happiness, but in a slavish way, putting our happiness in their hands. We often worry about what others might think and say of us.
This is a big problem in adolescence. It was for me. Throughout high school, I was counting my social faux pauxs and ignoring my successes. My mistakes and embarrassments stuck in my mind and haunted my efforts to fall asleep. Round and round in my head I would replay the unpleasant scenes, as though it were a play and I was trying to memorize everybody's lines. I imagined that everyone else had as good a memory as me when it came to the things I had done wrong. I'm sure that, at the drop of a hat, I could have rattled off all my biggest and latest stupidities to anyone who might inquire. And that memorization effort was successful, in a sense. To this day I can still recall some of those high school fooleries—though the memories no longer carry with them the emotional impact and insult to my self-esteem that they once did.
Such is the extent that one can worry about what other people think. To this, the Roman philosopher Dio Chrysostom declared:
Thank goodness we don't understand the language of ravens, jackdaws, crickets, frogs, and pigs. Otherwise we'd probably worry about what they think too. Yet how many people seem more brainless than the frogs and jackdaws? Does that make any difference to us? No. We let what they say upset us and render our lives utterly miserable.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius suggested a way to avoid this problem. In his Meditations he wrote:
Constantly observe who they are whose approval you seek, and by what principles they are guided. For if you look to the sources of their opinions and appetites, you'll neither condemn those offenses they give nor desire the approval they withhold.
Elsewhere he added that one shouldn't listen to the opinions of all people, but only those who we can respect.
Of course there are also those we seek to impress, get even with, and compete against. How much of our lives do we allow them to rob from us? And among how many such people does each one of us distribute his or her life? Seneca argues:
People do not allow anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the boundaries of their property, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they them- selves even bring in those who will eventually possess it.
In my early twenties, there were lots of people I wanted to impress. I had to find out the hard way that impressing someone is not a one-shot deal. You can't just make an investment in a single positive impression and then go about your business. You feel you have to keep on impressing these people. At least, that was the way it worked for me. I not only wanted to stand tall in their estimation, but I felt I had to constantly maintain my stature. Like the personnel at Eastern Airlines, I felt I had to earn my wings every day.
And there were people with whom I was in continual competition, too, or who I wanted to get even with. The diaries I kept at that time are filled with references to such people, which sometimes can make me wonder who's life the diaries were really recording!
Clearly, then, our efforts to live our lives by the measure of others turn us away from ourselves. So, we should choose with care the standards by which we wish to live and the standard- bearers we wish to follow. If we are finding life short, this is evidence that we have chosen wrongly and should reassess our goals, and perhaps even our values. It is so easy, after a promising start, to become sidetracked and lose sight of our reasons for doing what we do. Things that were, at first, means to worthy ends can become ends in themselves. But these are not our ends, the ends we started with. They are ends that take us away from ourselves and render the time we really spend for ourselves shorter and shorter.
We would do well to keep an eye on our lives. Are we led on by irrelevant desires, engaged in useless tasks, always plunging into something new instead of finding a steady goal, or spending time in escape so as to avoid confronting our problems? Periodic reassessment of where we are is insurance against losing sight of what we really want.
Another source of the feeling that life is short is the time lost in worry, fear, and anxiety. One irony here is that at the very moment we are achieving our goals or having the life we seek, the anxious thought comes over us, "How long will this last?" We wonder if it might not all disappear in some calamity. The happily married can wonder if divorce will one day ruin it all. The wealthy can worry about bankruptcy. Whatever it is, it can be lost, and this realization can cause some to fail to enjoy the bounty of the moment.
I know one woman who worried that she might never be able to bear children. But when pregnant she worried about miscarriage and deformity. When the child was born she worried about crib death. When the child was older she worried about injury or possible abduction. Any of these things can happen to a person, it is true. But something else can happen as well. Everything can turn out fine. Since one does not have control over all outside factors, then the best course is to enjoy the pregnancy for what it is, enjoy the new life for what it is, enjoy the child's growth for its own sake, and so on. Precautions can be taken, but life is to be lived now.
As anxiety over the future robs us of the present, so does guilt over the past. All human beings commit wrongs, some intentional and some accidental. But guilt and remorse are non- productive and often counter-productive. If we have done wrong, we should seek what action we can take to remedy the problem or make amends. If nothing can be done, we should try to learn what we can from the experience so as to avoid repetition in the future. But at no time is it productive to wallow in our own self-pity, condemn ourselves, punish ourselves, or pursue the rest of our lives as though we are undeserving.
Yet so many do this. Were it not so, there would not be the popularity of guilt-oriented religions like conservative Christianity. In Old Testament times, the collective guilt of the tribe was symbolically placed on a goat and the scapegoat was sent out into the wilderness. But with the coming of Christianity, Christ became the scapegoat for the sins of the individual. His death was to free all those who believed from the guilt of their past actions. The "saved" thought of themselves as "washed in Christ's guiltless blood," and fully pardoned for their transgressions.
This sort of symbolic blood-sacrifice is an intellectualized version of a primitive scheme for expiation of guilt. As long as humans have lived in societies they have often sought to invent such schemes. Guilt is such a painful and disorienting emotion that society cannot function if it is allowed free reign.
Yet such guilt expiation schemes accomplish no real good. The wrong has still been done. This leaves the thinking person in a quandary. Since no ritual can undo an actual wrongdoing, should the thinking person continue to feel guilty? Many would say yes. But this would render the thinking person less effic- ient than the one who has the superstitious scheme. Suddenly the twin goals of honesty to oneself and rational living seem at odds.
But they are not. The initial awareness of wrongdoing reminds us of our error. But such feelings are not ends in themselves. They are goads to productive action. Such action can be to remedy what can be remedied, or to perform in the future in a fashion that will avoid a repeat performance. But once the appropriate action is taken or resolve established, there is nothing more that needs to be done. And if one feels a sense of wrongdoing about something that is not actually wrong, then the appropriate course is self-re-education, not remedial action or resolve.
But think how much people waste of their lives in useless replays of past wrongs. And those who cannot face their wrongs squarely, and have no guilt expiation scheme in which they can believe, often resort to repression and other efforts to forget what they did. Such actions can distract one from a meaningful pursuit of ones goals as much as outright guilt can. The past is to be neither forgotten nor dwelled upon, but learned from in the interests of better living in the present and future.
In regards to the use of time, past, present, and future, Seneca wrote:
Has some time passed by? This is something one embraces by recollection. Is time present? This is something one uses. Is it still to come? This is something one anticipates. One makes life long by combining all times into one. But those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and troubled.
I find this observation of Seneca quite accurate. Today I can be in a potentially boring situation, such as waiting alone at a bus stop, without being bored. Although there is nothing in the present I can do, I can contemplate my past, plan my future, or do both. This makes the time go by quickly, yet, para- doxically, makes my life longer.
It is a Humanist dictum that this life is all and enough. We will pass this way but once and there is no guaranteed paradise waiting just beyond the grave. This is our only shot. But the possibilities of this life are sufficient to give meaning to our existence. For it is in the context of this life that we love, laugh, experience nature, pursue goals, and enjoy triumph. And to better enjoy these things we cultivate courage, bear adversity, and rise up from the ashes of failure.
Since it is this one life that cradles all our values and pursuits, it is imperative that we make it our life, that we set goals that are our goals, and that we seek to enjoy the present moment, even when it is not everything we have desired. By doing this, and by planning every day as if it were our last, we will neither long for nor fear tomorrow. Tomorrow will, instead, become an extra bonus to an already full life. And the past will not haunt us, but rather be our teacher in our efforts to better live today.
In lecturing on various aspects of Humanism, I have often been confronted by the preacher of salvation who offers me Pascal's famous wager. I have been told that by not believing in an afterlife I take a great risk. For if the afterlife is really there, I will miss out. But if I believe, and it is not there, I lose nothing. So in the interest of a sound investment strategy, I ought to become a believer.
There are many things wrong with this wager. But the one that concerns me in this context is the fact that the proposal is not a sound investment strategy. For if time and energy is invested in believing in salvation, following rules and rituals that are designed to guarantee salvation, expiating guilt in a fashion conducive to salvation, associating with others who talk about nothing but salvation, and seeking to convert others to engaging in similar activities, how much of one's life is really being lived as one desires?
A number of years ago, I knew a young woman who lived her life this way. Nothing I could say or do seemed to have any effect. She was constantly trying to live by religious rules, doubting her own salvation, praying away her guilts, keeping the company of people who reinforced these ideas, and occasionally trying to spread this faith to others. Never have I seen a human being more emotionally tortured than this woman. Her religion became a fixation, not the "fire insurance" policy that Pascal's wager seems to imply. This kind of religion, or any kind, isn't something you do once and then it's taken care of. It's a life commitment. So it does make a this-worldly difference when one chooses to accept or reject such a belief as this.
As you can see, active belief in an afterlife can act as a tremendous drain on your time and can sidetrack you away from living the good life here and now. Too many have found this out too late. Ex-fundamentalists very commonly regret sacrificed years. This can lead them into a frantic effort to make up for lost time. When an article on Fundamentalists Anonymous, an organization for ex-fundamentalists, appeared in an issue of Penthouse magazine, the positive response from ex-fundamen- talists was overwhelming, since so many were reading the magazine to catch up on some of the living they had missed.
The price humans pay in adherence to false beliefs, devotion to charismatic leaders, and involvement in fanatical mass movements is staggering. Seneca could have had such people in mind when he wrote:
They spend life in making ready to live! They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter. The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon tomorrow and wastes today.
Humanism, on the other hand, is a philosophy for today, for the here and now world of our senses and aspirations. It is a philosophy that puts life first, death last. It is a philosophy that finds joy in a Spring flower or the crash of waves on the seashore, in a momentary human encounter or the purr of a kitten. It is a philosophy of purposeful goals, meaningful pursuits, and high aspirations. It is a philosophy of human interconnected- ness, love, and the family.
How can it be all this? How can it mix the pleasures of the hedonist, the aspirations of the visionary, the self-interest of the individual, and the commitment of the family? Because all of these are natural human tendencies, and Humanism is geared to humans as they are, with all their varied aspects. It is a philosophy that finds this life long and meaningful, and does so because it urges people to live in a manner that is appropriate to their natures. Nothing need distract the Humanist from the business of living fully, loving fully, sharing fully, and pursuing goals that give purpose and meaning to one's existence.
So, in a way, Pascal's wager can be turned around. Since we have more evidence for the here and now than we will probably ever have for the hereafter, why not assume that this life is all there is and live it to the hilt. If this is correct, you will have lived a long and joyful life. But if there is more beyond the grave, then you may have a heavenly bonus coming as well!
Recently, when I expressed these ideas in a public forum, I was asked if my philosophy wasn't too selfish. Was I, in my efforts to have a long life myself, ignoring other people who might not be so fortunate? Was I not simply expressing the ideas of the "me-generation?"
However, as I have noted, this philosophy appeals to our natures, and there is more to our natures than the desire for personal pleasure. We also get individual fulfillment through making a difference in the world, trying to help others, and trying to resolve the inequalities and injustices in the world. Humans are social beings. If this were not so, no public charities could survive. Fulfilled people are those who make their social causes and other pursuits truly their own. They choose them carefully and re-assess them periodically, thereby preventing altruism from becoming slavery.
I would like to conclude with one of the most humanistic pieces of poetry to come down to us from ancient times. Its source is ancient India, and it is called The Salutation to the Dawn. Were we to greet each day with words like these, we would never have time to complain that life was short. We would be too busy living our Humanism.
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life,
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth
The glory of action
The splendor of achievement
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the salutation to the dawn.