The New Humanism Magazine October 28, 2009

The New Humanism Magazine

More than two years after The New Humanism conference at Harvard and coinciding with the release of Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein‘s new book, Good Without God, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University is putting out a new online magazine:

The New Humanism is an online magazine meant to explore and help pioneer new ways of bringing Humanists, atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious together to build a movement that can make a lasting and far-reaching positive impact. In short, we are interested in anything that is good, without God.

I love the concept, though I’m not yet convinced it’s a mindset that a lot of atheists will want to adopt.

A look at a few of the articles and I feel like they’re just setting themselves up for a backlash from the more vocal non-theists:

Why More Humanists Should Meditate

Since June, we’ve met about twice a month on Saturday mornings at the Harvard Science Center. After introductions and personal check-ins, we meditate for about half an hour, and then talk about what the experience was like, and what we think about it.

We’re walking a fine line here, trying to appropriate practices associated with religions without buying into their discredited metaphysics or otherwise losing our secular bearings. We welcome debate about how to separate the wheat from the chaff — what we should and shouldn’t make use of as Humanists.

A Place for the Emotions in Humanism

Many of the organizations that represent nonbelievers use words like “reason” or “rational” in their titles. That serves us well as a counterpoint to “faith.” However, as some dictionary definitions equate reason with logic, one might gain the impression that we reject emotions as well. In fact, feelings are essential to human flourishing and optimal decision-making. Emotions, especially joy, have a place in Humanism.

A little too touchy-feely? For me, yes.

It’s not all flowers and rainbows, though. The articles are interesting and I’d like to see this magazine continue even after Greg’s book is an afterthought.

I wonder if it would be more effective as an actual print publication — a quarterly or annual magazine that could be sent to Humanist (and student) groups around the country for a very low cost. The articles don’t quite function as blog postings, but they are exactly the type of reading you want to share with people who are making the transition into atheism.

(Thanks to Jonathan for the link!)

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  • Valdyr

    I’d have less of a problem with promoting meditation if they’d just start using the proper term for it: relaxing.

    “Meditation” has mystic connotations, for me and probably a lot of other people too. If “secular” meditation is just settling down somewhere quiet and trying not to think of anything, absent any chanting of holy syllables or attempts at levitation… why not just call it “relaxation”?

    As for the thing about emotions, I actually disagree with Hemant that it’s inappropriate to talk about. I’ve heard from a lot of pro and semi-pro religious apologists that atheists are unhappy because they rely on grim, sterile logic and exclude all emotion from their lives because it’s “irrational”. It doesn’t help that pretty much every atheist ever depicted in a movie or TV show acts this way… typically they had something tragic happen to them and made a Stalin-esque vow to never feel anything again, but by the end of the story they’re ready for a hug from Jesus. I’m thinking about Touched by an Angel, here…

    I think it should be part of any “new humanism” movement to dispel the myth that atheists hate emotion, and furthermore make the argument that it’s possible to experience emotions without being ruled by them (what we DO hate). I’ve actually had a pastor rhetorically ask me how I would know if a family member loved me, since you can’t measure love in a laboratory. Seriously. We should put an end to this crap.

  • I think you are right in that it is a little too touchy feely for lots of atheists;
    particularly, the lifetime atheists.

    Some ex-Christians may find it helpful, though. Remember that when we were deeply religious, many of us loved going to church to sing CCM songs, raise our hands to the heaves, and feel release from the pressures of life.

    Those of us with that sort of background can use a little meditation and a little talk about feelings.

  • Siamang

    Since June, we’ve met about twice a month on Saturday mornings at the Harvard Science Center. After introductions and personal check-ins, we stare at our navels for about half an hour, and then talk about what the experience was like, and what we think about it.

    Then we have a big hug-party and a sharing circle, where we beat drums and dance, followed by a harmonic chant. Once we are in touch with our physical bodies, we say the word “existence” over and over again until it sounds funny to us, and we blow our own minds.

    Then we take another hit from the bong… wait, I didn’t mention the big one we take at the outset? Oops, sorry. Forgot that. Anyway, then we bring out the chocolate cake and Fritos….

  • Siamang

    I’ve heard from a lot of pro and semi-pro religious apologists that atheists are unhappy because they rely on grim, sterile logic and exclude all emotion from their lives because it’s “irrational”.

    That Spock character did us some damage.

    Someone want to start a website called “Lusty Atheist”?

  • I love it!

    As much as I like Spock, I am not a Vulcan.

  • I never know what “humanism” means, and neither Wikipedia nor the linked website is particularly helpful.

    I infer something along the lines of “atheists who still think religion is pretty sweet”?

  • The first definition of meditate is to engage in thought, contemplation, or reflection.

    I do this quite a bit – not to get in touch with some larger than life being outside of myself but rather to get in touch with my larger than life life. 🙂

    It also helped my children to survive their adolescence.

  • mkb

    Joel, how about atheists who believe that people have the capacity and the responsibility to come together to improve the world without relying on supernatural help.

  • I agree with what Valdyr said about emotions: that a new humanist movement should make the argument that “it’s possible for atheists to experience emotions without being ruled by them.”

    On Twitter recently, I paged through a questionnaire some researchers had posted looking for feedback from non-believers on whether our lives were satisfactory or not. Many of the questions seemed to revolve around emotional support systems, how many people we had in our lives, etc., as if the idea is that atheists are evil pricks without any love in their hearts.

    There is a need for the a-religious to usher in a new kind of atheism that correctly represents us, moving away from the theist vs. atheist positions and discussion that enjoins the religious on their own turf, wasting our time talking about imaginary beings. The new humanist movement should simply be focussed on taking a stand against idiocy, injustice, and intolerance in whatever forms they take.

  • I’m with Valdyr and theadividual. So no, this isn’t for everyone, but I think that a large proportion of humanity get into religion not for the supernatural nonsense, but for other things. And these are things that religion is particularly good at providing, but mainly for historical reasons. I’m thinking of communities made up people of a range of ages; I’m thinking of ceremony (weddings, baby-namings, funerals etc); I’m thinking of marking important points in the year (winter festivals, solstices); I’m thinking of the comfort you can get from meeting a group of people once a week and doing something relatively mindless (singing songs etc.), but harmless, and bonding. I’m sure you can think of other things.

    The point is that classes, and choirs, and the like, only provide these things up to a point: classes tend to cost money, and to run for a set number of weeks; choirs tend to involve lots of practising. Religion can provide them all year round, and you’re not expected to be able to sing very well.

    So some of us don’t need these things at all; I don’t need them especially (although I quite enjoy a well done ceremony). But there are lots of people who do seem to need, or at least really want, all this sort of stuff. And these people tend to look to religion to provide it. But none of this even has to be religious; none of it has to involve the supernatural. And if these things can be provided in an atheist context, we might be able to win quite a lot of converts to atheism, and save quite a lot of people from the bad things that religion does.

    In reply to Joel: I think a reasonable definition of “humanist” is an atheist who thinks that religion has some good ideas worth using. I happen to think a lot of these good ideas were co-opted, rather than invented, by religion. I think of humanism as winning them back. It’s only an accident of history that birthdays aren’t religious, after all.

  • But I admit that the sort of stuff these New Humanism people are doing may be a couple of steps further along the way towards the creepy and touchy-feely for my taste. I also cringe a little at the word “meditation”, although I probably shouldn’t. Very rational and anti-supernatural friends tell me meditation has no inherent link with mysticality; again, maybe it’s just been co-opted by the “I believe in fairies” brigade.

  • mkb

    Garic, I think you have described why ethical culture societies fill such a void for some of us. No need to believe in anything supernatural, but also no need to give up the social network (and occasional singing) that churches provide. (The opportunity to explore ethical issues is nice too).

  • bigjohn756

    IIRC, Sam Harris is quite a fan of meditation. I have long been fascinated by it, too. I have a friend who is a Zen Buddhist. He has invited me to attend the meditation sessions that he puts on at his house. I am tempted to go sometime to learn some meditation techniques from the experts. I probably could tolerate, for a short time, the candles and chanting that accompanies the ritual.

  • Siobhan in Vermont

    A sense of community, of being there for each other, of social connection and emotional caring, are all things that people gain from their particular brand of religion. It is often what draws people in. As others have mentioned, we do not need to be ruled by our emotions, I further suggest that it is insane to try and ignore that they exist or to deny ourselves their full range and complex flavor, or worse, to deny them in those around us.

    Humans are social creatures. It is a simple fact of existence that we are able to accomplish more in groups than we can individually. Therefore it makes sense for the atheists or skeptics to establish groups. If one wishes these groups to thrive, to grow, to effect change in the world, then they must appeal on an emotional level that satisfies. Failing to do this will result in the failure of a larger impact overall.

  • Miko

    I think both topics are appropriate.

    For me, the most significant quotation from the article is:

    The format is intentionally eclectic—it’s in the spirit of Humanism to experiment with different approaches, and examine them all critically.

    One can be a critical atheist, or an uncritical atheist. The uncritical atheist will reject these things with the same lack of attention by which the uncritical theist accepts them. Naturally, it wouldn’t be efficient for all of us to try every kooky idea that is suggested, but that’s no reason to suggest that we should blindly reject every idea suggested by a religious person or a religion.

    I’d have less of a problem with promoting meditation if they’d just start using the proper term for it: relaxing.

    That isn’t the proper term. Meditation is an active, self-guided, and controlled process. Relaxation isn’t. Both meditation and relaxation have positive effects, but neither the means nor the effects are entirely the same.

    chanting that accompanies the ritual.

    Chanting is a key aspect of some forms of meditation. The syllables don’t have to be considered “holy” or even say anything. The repetition of a few meaningless sounds will, of course, have exactly the same effect, namely, of focusing and clearing the mind. It’s certainly not necessary for meditation, but it is still a legitimate meditation technique rather than an extra tacked on by religionists.

  • I think meditation is a great thing. It doesn’t have to be carried to monk-like extremes. It’s not just relaxation, though: in my experience it’s like bird-watching, but the birds are your thoughts and feelings, and in the same way that you learn about birds by watching them, you learn about yourself by observing how thing squishy thing in your skull ticks. Squooshes. The sitting and being quiet without distractions (or with structured distractions, like repetitive breathing exercises) just helps you pay attention. “Clearing the mind,” isn’t the point; observing it is.

    On the reason vs. emotion front, I think that atheists too often invest their egos in being rational (as though any human could “be” rational) as opposed to using reason. I think the first tendency leads us into more of the tedious “more rational than thou” squabbles than are strictly necessary. The latter, however, is a skill that can be cultivated and applied to all aspects of life, including the emotional ones. (How to tell if you’re having a fair argument with your spouse, for instance.)

    Plus, one of the things that people who like church like about church is that it allows them to emote. I’m not interested in atheist scream therapy, but I wouldn’t mind an air of celebration now and then.

  • Hmm, ninja’d by Miko!

  • Claudia

    It’s always great to go into a thread and see someone else has already gone to the trouble of putting your thoughts into writing. Thanks Garic!

    Humanism isn’t for everyone and it has no need to be. We should be wary of becoming balkanized though. People for whom Humanism is not attractive shouldn’t dismiss it as nonsense or a quasi-religion out of hand. It should naturally be entirely open to debate and criticism, both as a global concept and in it’s various facets, but the assumption that because you don’t want it other people shouldn’t or that they are “weaker” because they like it is wrong. Likewise Humanists should avoid the (many) pitfalls that await anyone becoming a part of an organized moral philosophy. Dogmatism, a sense of superiority and intolerance to others who choose a different path do not require an accompanying deity.

    Personally, I’ve been sort of interested in Humanism for quite some time. I’ll bookmark the magazine for a few weeks, see how it goes.

  • Tom

    Ewwww, touchy-feely! That’s just too uncomfortable for some.

    Come on, I know a lot of single atheists read this blog. How are you ever gonna find someone unless you get in touch with your touchy-feely side!

    I am gonna be following this magazine.

  • Siamang

    I’m married. I’m done being touchy-feely with strangers!


  • I don’t see how it’s “touchy-feely.” I’ve seen MUCH creepier attempts by atheist/agnostic groups to acknowledge our own humanity in a world of reason…

  • Yeah, this isn’t for me. Particularly the meditation. I’m glad it’s available for people who want it, but meditation makes me very uncomfortable. We were supposed to meditate in one of my college classes, and I just sat there like an idiot while (presumably) everyone around me was able to do it.

    I’m also a lifelong atheist, so “mystical” or “spiritual” rituals are just not part of my background. I’m not much of a group person, have never belonged to a church community, and thus have little interest in getting together with other atheists to engage in group discussion, let alone singing, lighting candles, chanting, etc.

    But I am glad to see the “kinder, gentler” face of atheism getting some media attention. I’m looking forward to Greg Epstein’s book.

  • Matt

    I don’t see anything wrong with emotions or meditation. Seriously.

  • Problems with being too “touchy-feely”?

    Worry not and travel to a Latin American contry!

    Meet the people, or watch them from afar… and you’ll find folks give and receive more hugs, for starters. Then, there’s the tradition of men and women salute and kiss each other in the cheek (men to men usually not, but men to women yes, BTW) when arriving at the office, even if they’re not close friends nor family. People are used to have less personal space between them.

    Afterwards, talking about emotions with others does not seem touchy-feely. At most, it seems just plain feely.

    I was gonna say something about meditation, but that topic is already thoroughly covered.

  • Erik

    Time to found Emo Atheists!

  • hybridization

    There’s nothing inherently “supernatural” about emotions. Period. It’s clear from observations of social nonhuman animals that they feel emotions, and yet they haven’t come up with any religion to explain them. (Whether or not the emotions are exactly the same as ours is irrelevant; it’s just one of those human characteristics that appears in nonhumans, in one form or another.) Children show emotion before they’re even aware that religion exists, but like language, it seems to be something you have to acquire at the right time from being around other people. If anyone recalls hearing of badly abused children, children who can’t interact with others or show emotion “normally”, that’s a perfect example of how a person without emotion is clearly different from the rest of us.

    Frans de Waal argues that morality is based in emotion. He’s written some fantastic stuff on the subject, well worth a read.

    It is supremely arrogant to suppose that we are even capable of abandoning our emotions. That, to me, seems just another form of placing ourselves above the rest of “nature”, which is what bugs me about religion in the first place.

    Also, I don’t see how taking advantage of the physical/mental benefits of “spiritual” exercises makes a person any less rational. Religious people believe they’re getting in touch with their deity; science might have another answer, but it’s clear that meditation does have observable benefits (the chanting, grounding, focusing, bonding, etc., it can all happen whether or not you believe in Jesus). If you don’t believe in the deity, you can still take the useful parts of the exercise, and you don’t have to pretend you believe OR feel guilty for your lapse of reason. It’s probably neurological (I’m assuming, but I’ve never read up on it); how is it irrational to take advantage of a technique known to be beneficial for explainable reasons? If you don’t believe it’s God making these people feel this stuff, then it has to be something observable, right?

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