Is There Something Wrong with the “New Humanism”? April 6, 2009

Is There Something Wrong with the “New Humanism”?

Roger Scruton of The American Spectator says his atheist parents would have been appalled by the “New Humanism”:

But the vision is not that of my parents. The new humanism spends little time exalting man as an ideal. It says nothing, or next to nothing, about faith, hope, and charity; is scathing about patriotism; and is dismissive of those rearguard actions in defense of the family, public spirit, and sexual restraint that animated my parents. Instead of idealizing man, the new humanism denigrates God and attacks the belief in God as a human weakness. My parents too thought belief in God to be a weakness. But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need.

Observing the new humanism from my old perspective I am struck not only by its lack of positive belief, but also by its need to compensate for this lack by antagonism toward an imagined enemy.

In London, the atheist bus ads seem to be affirming a way of thinking that is becoming popular.

In America, though, we do have “an enemy” (to use Scruton’s word) — we have plenty of people who seek to convert everyone and will stop at nothing to make their religious views into law.

Those bus ads — which are not antagonistic at all to me — are a way of letting other atheists know they are not alone. It’s a “bat signal” of sorts, calling out to other non-theists. It says there is nothing to be ashamed of and we ought to be proud of our lack of religious beliefs.

Once we are confident that we won’t be condemned for our atheism, we can focus on how to make our lives even better. But it’s hard to be optimistic and cheerful when so many of us can’t be honest about who we are.

Furthermore, we don’t want our children to go through what Scruton went through — we don’t want to send our children to religious schools, force them to worship some deity, and go to Sunday School. Those are not harmless activities, as Scruton seems to imply.

We need to stop being silent. We’ve done that for too long. Now, it’s time to speak up.

Some people, like Scruton, will automatically see that as aggressive. I don’t. I find it refreshing and welcome.

(via The Daily Dish — Thanks to Yohan for the link!)

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  • GullWatcher

    I read the whole article, and it seems that it was the phrase “enjoy life” that pressed all his buttons. That the author seems to see no difference between encouraging people to enjoy life, as the bus campaign did, and encouraging unbridled licentiousness, says more about him than it does about humanism, new or otherwise.

  • I read this because my antennae always come on when I hear Atheism and Humanism together. Is it me? But when I hear “humanism”, I usually hear people who speak from one particular political agenda. Whereas I see atheism as a-political. Atheists belong to many different political circles. But I do find some atheists that feel their politics are a natural outworking of their atheism.

  • River

    I don’t really see the difference between “old” and “new” humanism, other than boldness and visibility. And I agree with GullWatcher’s comment — humanism, new or otherwise, doesn’t mean I’m going to change my morality, and I think I have a fairly good one as it is, thank you very much.

    Oh, and I keep reading Mr. Scruton’s name as “Scrotum”. XD

  • fault

    I don’t really think non-theism is something to necessarily be proud of. All it means is that you are thinking rationally, which is what an average person should be doing anyway.

  • cathy

    “Exalting man as an ideal” Nope, I’m happy with my vagina, thank you.

  • After reading the article, I went to the comments, and it became very clear why Mr. Scruton is on the wrong track. His tale of woe gives ammunition for every Christian stereotype of the immoral, woe-begone atheist, one step away from nihilism.

    Mr. Scruton is a philosopher, so I guess he is missing the real excitement of modern science: he misses the exalting of man, meanwhile over in the lab we are building one. He sees attacks on religion, missing that it is really about telling people that there are better uses of their time.

    Three cheers for the “new” Humanism. No more slouching around, for fear of offending the child-adults still dreaming of Santa Claus.

  • I’m not sure what was more depressing, that post or the comments.

    His assertion that encouraging people to enjoy their lives is somehow an endorsement of throwing out morality and having wild orgies, murdering people, and shooting up drugs is so utterly offensive and disgusting. I recently watched the video of James Randi reflecting on his life and all the things he’s done and how happy he is. He’s truly enjoyed his life and lived it to it’s fullest. How can being that content with the life you’ve led be a bad thing? Not to mention of course that Randi is a good person who doesn’t go around committing horrible crimes.

    The comments made me so sad, that so many people think that fear is the only thing keeping people moral. Without the threat of divine wrath that they would immediately become horrible immoral people. If you need fear of God to keep you moral then how real are your morals?

  • Epistaxis

    It says nothing, or next to nothing, about faith, hope, and charity; is scathing about patriotism; and is dismissive of those rearguard actions in defense of the family, public spirit, and sexual restraint that animated my parents


  • I haven’t read the article, but this snippet that Hemant gave stood out to me:
    But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need.
    Maybe other people need their prop, but I do not. Nor do I want it. And I do not want people forcing it on me. Has this guy ever been to the USA?

    And as far as new humanists being “scathing” towards patriotism, I think that what passes for patriotism in this country is pretty scathing, and sometimes pretty ugly. You betcha.

  • Don

    Yep, everything was better in the good ol’days. You tell em grandpa!

  • I agree with the general sentiment. There’s certainly a thinly-veiled level of hostility from some humanists and atheists, and I understand the reasons; it just isn’t my particular cup of tea.

  • Christophe Thill

    I think the term “concern troll” rather adequately describes this Mr Scruton.

    “The new humanism spends little time exalting man as an ideal. It says nothing, or next to nothing, about faith, hope, and charity”

    It says nothing about faith? Should it really?
    I don’t like the word faith. For such things as trusting your own possibilities and future, I think we should promote another term.
    Hope? I disagree. It does.
    Charity? Another word I don’t like. Talk about the feeling of solidarity between human beings. Not about charity.

    “is scathing about patriotism”

    Patriotism is a trick used by those in power to send some people to war and to scare others, deprive them of their liberty, even torture them. Is that really so great?

    “and is dismissive of those rearguard actions in defense of the family, public spirit, and sexual restraint that animated my parents.”

    Sexual restraint? Hmm, what a nice cause to fight for. But what has humanism got to do with it?

    “Instead of idealizing man, the new humanism denigrates God and attacks the belief in God as a human weakness. My parents too thought belief in God to be a weakness. But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need.”

    Either it’s a weakness, and if you get rid of it, you get stronger, and you should help people to do so. Or it’s not, and you don’t care. But you have to choose…

  • Ian

    (First post)

    Sounds to me like:

    Feminism in my great grandmother’s generation was concerned with negotiating financial security with their husbands, accessing jobs like Nursing and Primary Education, and seeking more child-friendly taxation. The feminists of her generation would have been horrified at the “New Feminists” of my mother’s generation.

    They demanded the pill – where was the sexual restraint? They demanded access to any job, with equal pay, with no concern for the men they were putting out of work. They demanded an end to derogatory language, and weren’t content for men to have even that last small vice.

    Clearly feminism has gone backwards. Women need to return to the ideal feminism of the late 19th century, to their traditional jobs and the authority of their husbands. They can just get on with being equal, and be a good deal quieter about it…

    … sometimes a change of noun nicely emphasizes the stupidity.

  • Following on from Ian’s post I’d like to quote Mae West (I think):

    “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

    I feel the same about “I’m an atheist, but” comments. It’s not like anything I say or do represents any other atheist. If they want to spend their time apologising for what other individuals are doing out of their own conscience then let them, but I really resent the attempts to drag the rest of us down into self-loathing and bowing and scraping before this nebulous notion of ‘respect for religious beliefs’. You don’t achieve change by sitting in the corner and saying nothing.

  • Vincent

    I just think the things he’s critical of are the actions of atheists, not humanists. While many atheists are humanists, bus ads saying there’s probably no god have nothing to do with humanism and everything to do with atheism.

    Mainly he just shows how out of touch he is.

  • Michael

    “But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need.”

    He seems to be saying, “I don’t need religion to keep me moral, but the unwashed masses are too stupid to be moral without the threat of eternal damnation.”

    I think that’s awfully condescending. I don’t need god to be a good person, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

    I hope you enjoy the view from your high horse, buddy.

  • theShaggy

    Hemant, how do you not see “There probably is no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life” as offensive to many? It’s not telling lonely atheists “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” It’s telling Christian and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Mormons that they don’t enjoy their life.

    It is deliberately incindiary, written subtle enough that vocal atheists can get away with saying “Oh but it’s not THAT bad,” but it is still intentionally antagonistic, and totally not directed at the people you think it’s directed at.

    We agree on many things, because humanists and secular freethinkers and atheists need to stand up and shout their non-belief from every conceivable hilltop, but we don’t need to do it by creating our own version of “don’t believe in God Jesus? See you in Hell!”

  • Vic

    He seems to be confused in a few ways. He’s holding his parents beliefs up as ideals, he’s criticizing humanists for beliefs that have nothing to do with humanism (man as the “ideal”?). He sounds, by mindset, to have very conservative Christian leanings wrapped up with a humanists shell.

  • stogoe

    Oh, sod off, Shaggy. Your concern is noted and stupid.

  • theShaggy

    Stogoe, wow! You’ve convinced me! Thanks for your fantastic contribution to the discussion! You didn’t even need to provide anything constructive like an argument or support, just needed to attack me in order to feel validated!

    Similarly, your complaint is noted and pointless. I think I WILL sod off, then.

  • forkboy1965

    This parent has been bringing up his daughter to believe whatever she wishes, but clearly receives no religious instruction from me or my wife.

    Our daughter is growing up to be a nice and militant anti-religion free thinker. More power to her.

  • Siamang

    Yeah, what a terrible essay.

    It seems there was an entire generation of intellectual atheists between between Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins. Who could tell?

    Seriously. It seems their entire modus was to retreat to a walled garden and try to live as religious a life as possible without actually believing, and without fundamentally communicating with the outside world.

    I understand the red scare drove many of them underground. But honestly, our forbears (pun intended) have much to answer for. What a hostile environment to nonbelief we arrived in. Where was the assertion of equality? Where was the outreach from the walled garden? For all of the exhaulting of humanity at Cambridge, where, at all, was the actual ENGAGEMENT with the rest of humanity?

    You know, the non-stiff-upper-lip high-minded?

    What of the rest of actual humanity? Well, for them (those stupid, muddy working-class shlubs), they can use the crutch — the “moral prop”. If you ain’t good enough to read Milton, Blake, and Lawrence, well, we aren’t going to dumb it down for you.

    Isn’t that the antithesis of “exhaulting humanity”?

    And by the way, what’s so great about humanity to begin with? Shouldn’t that very notion of an absolute perfectable nature be examined with extreme skepticism?

    So much about what Scruton holds up as the virtues of Humanism strike me as nothing more than arbitrarily chosen ideals. Or rather ideals chosen because they had counterparts within Christianity. Ethical system, check. Sexual restraint, check. Faith (even), check. Even patriotism. Why should patriotism flow naturally from Humanism? I cannot think of a notion more antithetical to Humanism than patriotism. My allegiance is to the IDEALS of America, and if the country departs from those ideals, I do not cleave to the country and forget the ideals.

    Humanism *must demand* that we consider ourselves humans before nationalists. What use, then is “Patriotism” as an end or a virtue in and of itself? Suppose we are humanist citizens of a corrupt regime, subjects of Saddam, for example. Is patriotism really a humanist value in that instance?

    Everyone reading this is well aware of the open hostility to atheists that exists in America, from the shameless attacks by elected officials, to the silencing by the media, to the outright calls for us to voluntarily silence ourselves from the pundit class (now including Scruton).

    This is where Old Humanism brought us. All that bowing and scraping. All of that exhaulting the Human as a pinnacle. All of the toiling in the walled garden while treating the masses as lesser intelectuals not ready to lose their moral prop.

    Old Humanism removed themselves from the discussion, retreated to the halls of the intelligencia, ceded their position and abdicated their role within the general public. Where, half a century earlier, Robert Ingersoll, the great agnostic, packed lecture halls and spoke directly to the masses. Where among the Old Humanists is his kind today? Nowhere. I submit to you that we have had no such voice until Richard Dawkins.

    It’s the Old Humanism which brought us to be the most distrusted minority in America, and allowed religious authoritarianism to ravage the masses unchecked by any contrary voices. Perhaps it IS time to stop sneaking around, talking in whispers and keeping to our walled gardens.

    Time to come into the light, and re-engage the conversation.

  • Richard Wade


    Atheists want to do more than simply reach out to other isolated atheists. We also want to express our opinion to the rest of society. We want to be heard once in a while above the cacophony of religious chanting and ranting. We have a rightful place in marketplace of ideas as much as anyone else, and I know that you agree with that.

    If you think that the current bus ad, “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” is deliberately incendiary because it implies that theists are not enjoying their life, (you may be reading too much into it, but let’s assume you’re right just for argument) then what would you suggest instead? Would just the first sentence suffice, “There’s probably no god”? or would that still be too incendiary? I appreciate that you think we should stand up and express our non-belief, but how gentle and delicate do we need to be? If we determine our statements only by what does not offend any theists, then we would end up saying nothing. So many seem to take “offence” at even the most courteous and well-mannered disagreement with their beliefs.

  • theShaggy


    Thanks for your reply.

    Honestly, I prefer “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone.” When they decided on the other one for my home of Toronto, I really wish we took that instead. It is outreach instead of starting a fight that doesn’t exist here.

    Honestly, I like the slogan, I think it’s funny and gets the point across that there is no reason to spend our lives worrying about what some higher power may or may not want, etc. But Hemant said this:

    “Those bus ads — which are not antagonistic at all to me — are a way of letting other atheists know they are not alone. It’s a “bat signal” of sorts, calling out to other non-theists. It says there is nothing to be ashamed of and we ought to be proud of our lack of religious beliefs.”

    So why don’t we just say that? Why are we trying to intentionally demean those who DO believe in a God in order to reach out to those who don’t? I’m sorry if I read to much into it, but since a big criticism that most atheists make is “Christians keep trying to shove their religion down our throats,” we’re not doing a very good job of taking a high road in this case.

    We’ll get criticism regardless, I’m pretty sure all the vitriol against the TTC for the announcement that the ads were going to run would happen either way. I would just rather be proud that we’re reaching out to each other with kindness, rather than doing so with sarcasm. Isn’t that what friendly atheists do?

  • Siamang

    “Christians keep trying to shove their religion down our throats,”

    Actually, I don’t mind that as long as they buy the advertising themselves and don’t get the government to do the forcing.

    I am not against religious people getting their point across. There’s plenty of billboard space and IP addresses to go around.

    Now that I contend that I don’t mind it, am I allowed to say that I think it’s okay if we do it too?

  • Richard Wade

    I am all for taking the high road whenever possible, and I’m known around here for taking pains to keep dialogues respectful. I’m just not yet convinced that the “Now relax..” statement is either intensionally or inadvertently demeaning, incendiary or offensive to strongly believing theists. We should not assume that without checking.

    I see the two ads as being two different steps, and they don’t necessarily have to appear in order. The “You are not alone” ad is for finding and encouraging each other to support each other. The “Probably no God” ad is the second step, to supportively challenge those people who are sitting on the fence, whose commitment to religion is rudimentary and perhaps only from inertia or a kind of default social compliance. Only those people would be likely to reconsider their passively held beliefs by such an ad. The actively devout will be impervious to it and so are not the target audience.

    So I disagree with Hemant that the “Probably” ad is just a call-out for hidden atheists, but I am not yet convinced by your argument that the second part of it is by implication insulting to theists.

    I don’t think it is intended to get in the face of true believers, or to imply that they are unhappy worry-warts. Maybe we should ask them about their feelings when reading it, rather than assuming it is “demeaning” to them. So far, all the objections I have heard from theists focus on the “Probably no God” sentence, rather than the “relax and enjoy life” sentence. They seem to be ignoring that part, at least from what I have read and heard so far. If you have evidence to the contrary, please let me know.

  • llewelly

    Sadly, it seems Roger Scrotun is owned by the cheap strawman humanist of religious apologists.

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