The Problem with Humanism… February 3, 2010

The Problem with Humanism…

R. Joseph Hoffmann explains the problem with Humanism.

Contemporary humanism is a mess because it doesn’t know what it believes, so much so that it doesn’t know what “it” stands for. Humanism has become the garbled message of freedom, science, democratic values, and church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules. It has ignored or rejected its renaissance origins (too religious?) in favor of a free-base approach to whatever grabs its attention on a given day: a Vatican blunder; an ignorant school board’s pronouncement on creation; a victimized child asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance; a pro-life television ad; an evangelical minister’s excoriation of atheists, and in the broadest sense (think Yul Brynner as the King of Siam) et cetera. It is betimes conservative, libertarian, progressive, socialist, apolitical, pro-gay, latitudinarian, anti-war and anti-Muslim, thus sometimes pro-war, 98% atheistic and 100% philosophically messy.

The argument is essentially that if you stand for everything, you’re really not standing for anything.

Hoffmann also reprints an article he wrote called The New Humanism Manifesto:

10. The New Humanism is hopeful. The Old Humanism was critical. It is not our job to be critical. It is our job to be hopeful.

11. We are religious atheists. We believe that there is no God, and that Jews are his chosen people. Likewise, the Chinese, Inuit, Low-achievers, etc.

12. There is no contradiction in this. New Humanists have risen above contradiction to the All Embracing.

13. And Rainbow Love.

Hmm… no sarcasm there whatsoever.

Is Humanism too broad for you or do you think it addresses a proper, particular mindset?

Are there people who call themselves Humanists who don’t give two shits about the Humanist Manifesto (whichever version)?

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  • Ron in Houston

    One of the things that jumps into my mind is how the person who makes the definition gets a certain level of power, fame and/or perhaps notoriety.

    I don’t get how something being broad, diverse, and hard to define is a “problem.”

    And yes I use the label Humanist and don’t care about any manifestos.

  • Mick

    I’m not sure I know any of the humanists he’s talking about. I’m usually trying to get them to be less radical and aggressive. Sounds like he’s hanging out with a really old crowd.

  • Humanism represents an approach, not a dogma. It represents a commitment to secular reasoning and to doing right by your fellow person.

    When Hoffmann describes it as “the garbled message of freedom, science, democratic values, and church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules,” I think it sounds just wonderful.

  • Valhar2000

    Humanism, in the sense of the idea that humans have problems, and it is up to those same humans to solve their problems, is indeed a very broad category that encompasses many people who don’t give a crap about a manifesto. And I think this is just fine.

    I call myself a secular humanist, using this definition for the word “humanist” and the usual definition for secular. I don’t particularly care for manifestos, except in the sense that the last Humanist Manifesto I saw, which was sent by the American Humanist Association to Isaac Asimov when they asked him to be president, seemed to me a very well crafted document that I agreed with. If they have made substantive changes to it since then I’ll have to look at them and see if I agree, but even if I don’t, I’ll still be a humanist, just one who does not agree with a precise formulation of general morality put forth but other humanists.

    Hoffman, and, indeed, everybody else, must understand that it is absolutely essential that morality be open to discussion, evaluation and reform. If it is not, we are condemned to perpetuate our mistakes, as our ancestors have done so often. This is why the amorphous nature of humanist morality is a good thing: if not in and of itself, because it a side effect of something that is indeed a good thing.

  • This argument is not unlike one recently about naturalism by Barefoot Bum. He had the same basic argument, that because naturalism doesn’t have a narrow, concrete, agreed-upon definition, that it has little or no use. Both arguments are poor ones because they deal with orientations towards reality. Such orientations change because our understanding of reality changes, as does human culture.

    Humanism is a perspective, one that is itself pretty simple to grasp. That it manifests in messy ways says nothing about humanism itself. And I agree with Zackford: a “garbled message of freedom, science, democratic values, and church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules” does sound wonderful.

  • Pretty much everything in his garbled mess are just subsections of the same things – freedom and science. But I don’t see why something has to be narrow to deserve “membership”.

    The premise that broad philosophies are problematic is an opinion that doesn’t seem to be backed up by any supporting evidence – do broad belief systems generally lead to problems? What kind? He lists how broad humanism is then doesn’t make any argument with it other than “that sucks”.

  • Uhgh, if that is what I have to think to use the label, “humanist,” count me out. I’ll stick to atheist and skeptic.

    Non-theism comes with no real ascribed creed beyond the functional view of the universe. These various labels may hint at a focus (naturalist, humanist, godless baby eating secularist) but anyone who claims to be able to define a group of non-theist as a “religious” anything is doomed to alienate a good number of that group.

    He would have done far better to have worded this as how he views his own mindset and not as he assumes all other humanists feel.

  • Steven

    What’s the point of not being religious if you are still going to follow dogma?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    11. We are religious atheists.

    Atheism is not an essential ingredient to humanism, nor is it an essential ingredient to secularism. Humanism is about trying to help people here on Earth, it does not require disbelief in an afterlife. If Hoffmann is confused on his basic definitions, maybe he’s not the person to be leading the charge.

  • I agree with many of the other commenters here. It seems to me that narrow philosophies that are incapable of significant change are the problem, not broad ideals that allow people to think about a given situation and adapt. The former leads to dogmatism, the latter to critical thinking.

  • CybrgnX

    That’s right define ourselves into few specific points, eventually a dogma will set in and then we are a cult. As in ZEN don’t limit your vision down a specific path but allow your walk to carry you to where you need to go seeing all open paths.
    The various religions and dogmas around the world have made a mess of things which is why Humanism has gone in so many directions. There is so many things messed up!!!
    We should keep ourselves loose and open. those who cannot handle openness are straight-jacketed into some religious cult anyway.

  • Angie

    Has Hoffman studied humanism at all? If he did, he would know that it is NOT some amorphous, monolithic system, but rather a family of systems. Is he referring to Renaissance humanism? Civic humanism? Christian humanism? Educational humanism? Existential humanism? Perhaps he should do some research before making such comments.

  • Valhar2000

    Well, I’ve just read the 3rd Humanist Manifesto, put out by the AHA, and I agree with it.

  • I consider myself a person who believes in peace, pacifism, tolerance and universal human rights. Because of that, I call myself a humanist. But I don’t try to fit with anyone else’s definition of humanism.

  • littlejohn

    Humanism seems pointless to me. It means everything; it means nothing.
    The term is often used by nonbelievers who lack the nerve to call themselves atheists.
    It’s like alcoholics who join AA. Why do you need to join a club dedicated to what you don’t do? I can non-drink by myself, thank you.
    Maybe I can start a non-skydiving club, but only if I get to be president.

  • Shannon

    I call myself an atheist, and I sometimes call myself a secular humanist. I’m not interested in an organized group telling me what else I need to believe for *either* label. I have always understood atheist to mean someone who doesn’t believe in gods. And humanism is someone (religious or not) who believes humans need to help each other and solve our problems, not wait for supernatural beings to do it. Secular humanists are those who aren’t waiting for the supernatural beings because they don’t believe they exist anyway.

    I think those definitions are too simple for some, so they prefer to come up with longer ones. Who’s right? I don’t know. But I’m sticking with the simple definitions (that don’t involve bullet pointed manifestos) that I first heard.

    So it’s weird and vaguely annoying when people say no, to be an atheist you also have to believe/disbelieve this and that. And same with humanism.

    I’ve had more people tell me I don’t think the right things as an atheist though. Other atheists – usually in blog comments – sometimes here. Eh. Whenever a term is invented, it’s only inevitable that people will argue over who is using it correctly and who is a True Scotsman and who isn’t. We’re human, it’s what we do.

  • Am I the only one who thinks those “articles” are completely anti-humanist, as reliable as an article on homosexuality written by Fred Phelps?

    They remind me of the people who ask “how can atheists talk about morality, since they don’t believe in god”, which is, of course, absurd…

    Or the writer mentioned in Pharyngula who thought the atheist conference in Australia was absurd, since what did atheists have to talk about? The fact that they didn’t believe in this or that?

    That “manifesto”, for instance, looks just like a parody of liberal thought written by a conservative. “See, they believe in just anything, they’re completely wishy-washy, they have no morals at all”.

  • Yeah, I pretty much fit into that last part “Are there people who call themselves Humanists who don’t give two shits about the Humanist Manifesto (whichever version)?”

    I don’t need and/or want something telling me how to be a good humanist (even then, I didn’t even know there were any manifestos about this until this post). Like a lot of the bus and billboard adverts say “Millions are good without god” that’s just simply how I look at it. I don’t need a “god” anymore than I do a set of dogmatic sounding rules to be a humanist.

  • Min

    I can non-drink by myself, thank you.

    Not everybody can. Alcoholism is a disease, and alcoholics have about as much of a chance of “not drinking” by themselves as heroin addicts do of just suddenly deciding they don’t like heroin any more and stopping.

  • stogoe

    What defines Humanism to me is the irrational belief in the capacity for humanity to solve its own problems.

    It’s one of the nicer irrational beliefs to have, and I’ve flirted with it many times, to be sure. I’m just not sure it’s true. I haven’t seen any evidence for it.

  • anothermike

    The comments make so much more sense than Hoffman’s viewpoint does. The big problems in the world are so often caused by a mindset that goes into lockstep and becomes exclusive of the views of others, even when those views are badly outdated. We don’t want our secularism to become a crusade. Make peace, not war.

  • The problem with humanism is not that it’s a meaningless term. It’s that people don’t know what it is, or how to apply it. Really, “humanism” means simply that humanity should take care of itself and its members should treat each other with dignity.

    That’s all it is.

    Of course, this is a wide-open definition, and can include a lot of things. Nevertheless, it has boundaries, so the complaints being leveled against it are, quite simply, invalid.

    Also, the assumption that “humanism” equals “non-belief,” while widely accepted, is untrue. One CAN be BOTH religious and humanistic. There are, in fact, many famous religious people who were also humanists. One that leaps to mind at the moment is Martin Luther King Jr. But there are plenty of others too.

    Lastly, the assumption that humanism is bad or meaningless, because of one “humanist manifesto” that some person or group wrote, is absurd on its face. It’s possible to view humanism in many ways. That Hoffmann has managed to find one version of it that he dislikes, doesn’t say anything about humanism itself. What it does say, is that he can cherry-pick. Unfortunately, that’s not a skill he ought to be proud of; argumentum ad cerasum eligum (sp?) is not a valid way to support one’s claims.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Wow, it is always stunning to see the vast ignorance out there about humanism. First, this Hoffman guy spends half his article critiquing the second humanist manifesto, which is completely out of date anyway and is replaced by the third humanist manifesto, which was written in 2003. Not fair to argue against humanist statements without even acknowledging the existence of the 2003 humanist manifesto.

    Second, I would suggest that the word “manifesto” is a really unfortunate choice, at least in a contemporary context, but it was the word used when the first document was written in 1933, so it has been appended to subsequent documents to maintain continuity. But it does give the impression that the document is some sort of creed or dogma, when that is not at all the case. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you read the current version for yourself; it is very brief, just one page, and by some of the comments on here I can tell that many people have not read it but are still feeling free to criticize it. Here’s the URL:

  • Kris

    The Problem with Humanism…

    The problem is, of course, the humans…

  • Lost Left Coaster

    @stogoe: What’s the alternative? Nihilism? Apathy? It’s obvious that we have a lot of obstacles towards creating a better future for humanity, and progress is by no means inevitable. But we all know that no god is going to save us, so who is left to do it?

    It’s far too easy, I think, to write off our situation as hopeless. The fact is, there are people out there who are working hard every day to make the world a better place, and they are succeeding. Check out this week’s New Yorker for an article about a woman in Haiti who took charge of finding food for her quake-ravaged community and has managed to support hundreds of people through her efforts. I’m glad she didn’t decide that it was “irrational” to believe that humanity could solve its own problems.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I prefer to think of myself as a secular inhumanist.

  • JulietEcho

    To me, humanism means trying to make the world a better place to live and placing the importance of human rights and welfare above any concerns about an afterlife or life after death. It’s possible to be a religious humanist, but it fits more neatly (IMO) with a non-religious worldview.

    Humanists naturally oppose that which does harm to humanity (the Zeroth law!) – so if the Vatican is trying to discourage condom use in countries where they could improve health and life for the inhabitants, they’ll condemn that – but not because they’re anti-religious. They’re pro-humanity. If a religious group is working to get clean water or a steady food supply to an impoverished area, Humanists would praise such efforts, because it helps humanity.

  • Contemporary Christianity is a mess because it doesn’t know what it believes, so much so that it doesn’t know what “it” stands for. Christianity has become the garbled message of anti-abortion, creationism, theocratic values, and the elimination of church-state separation spread out over a playing field with no ball and no rules. It has ignored or rejected its Jewish origins (too anti-Semitic?) in favor of a free-base approach to whatever grabs its attention on a given day: a Vatican pronouncement; an scientific school board’s pronouncement on gay free speech; a victimized child asked to study evolution; a pro-atheist billboard ad; an atheists denouncement of crimes by the religious, and in the broadest sense (think Yul Brynner as the King of Siam) et cetera. It is betimes conservative, libertarian, reactionary, socialist, capitalist, anti-gay, latitudinarian, pro-war and anti-Muslim, but sometimes anti-war, 98% Jesus is god and 100% philosophically messy.

  • Angie

    :: winks at Stephan Goodwin ::

  • Ash Bowie

    Stephen: genius

  • Jason R

    To me the word Humanist is fine. But I define it broadly as somone who supports all of Humanity as a whole, and not to some version of tribalism Ie. racism, nationalism, religious denominations and so forth.

  • Revyloution

    Damn you Stephan Goodwin, you beat me too it. Well done.

    Christianity is far more confused about its identity than Secular Humanism.

  • Polly

    Can you be a humanist and a misanthrope?

  • Erp

    The International Humanist and Ethical Union has a minimum statement

    “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

    I will note the various Humanist Manifestos are of US origin.

  • One of the things that drew me to this whole atheism-secularism-humanism thing was the lack of a dogmatic approach. If people are looking to “belong”, then join a political party or a charity group.

  • Why would someone have a problem with humanism?

  • muggle

    No, it’s too religious for me. And I don’t call myself Humanist because I don’t give two shits about either Humanist Manifesto.

    In short, I rather loathe Humanism but for different reasons than this asshole.

    But, yeah, hello, he’s right about one thing, ATHEISM doesn’t stand for anything. The only stand I make in regards to my absence of belief is there is no god.

    I make plenty of stands about plenty of things, mind you, but it’s irrelevant (except in the sense that it affects my worldview as in my mind is free to be open to certain things religion would close it to like not beating my child or freaking out because the guy next door is rather sweet on the guy a block over for instance) to my Atheism.

  • Shannon

    Stoegoe, I agree with you in not believing that we can solve all our problems. But the reason I call myself a humanist is because I think we should make an effort, however small it turns out to be.

  • I don’t think being a Humanist in any way means you have to ascribe to a manifesto (or anything else, for that matter).

    I actually worked at the American Humanist Association while one of them was being written. I read it, commented, added my thoughts, etc. and we published it. I think parts of it are meaningful to me and other parts are completely useless.

    Unlike “some people,” my beliefs and convictions aren’t based on something written on a piece of paper.

  • AxeGrrl

    Polly wrote:

    Can you be a humanist and a misanthrope?

    I’m living proof! 🙂

    (But I guess only because my misanthropy is uh, ‘intermittent’ 🙂

  • Annie

    “Rainbow Love”
    Fuck me. I would never dare suggest that to my humanist group here. I’d be tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail.

    So much for rainbow loving humanists.

    I think we’re a little more down to earth hereabouts.

    I myself have a longing for something more “spiritual” but I would never go that overboard.

  • country squire atheist

    Many people use the term “Humanist” to identify themselves when they feel uncomfortable or nervous about saying they are an atheist, or agnostic. I have no qualms about coming out and saying I’m an atheist. The “Humanist” community needs to figure out what it means by the term “humanist”…I agree that there is much equivocation and side-stepping going on with some people. We have “religious humanists” like Greg Epstein and we have “secular humanists” like Paul Kurtz…so it does cause some confusion with the term.
    I think we all ought to just come out and say we’re atheists and be done with it!

  • I usually identify myself as a secular Humanist. It sounds more professional than atheist. Most importantly it begs people to ask wtf it means to be a secular Humanist whereas people pretty much assume they know what you’re talking about when you say atheist (Hitler, baby eating, etc). When people inquire further I usually say something along the lines of “It’s the belief that humans should take responsibility for themselves.” It’s an easy sell/conversation starter in addition to being quite a hard statement to disagree with.

  • I find that there’s no single “philosophy” or “ideological group” that I agree with 100%, so I just prefer “atheist” because the only qualification needed is a lack of belief in gods. While there are lots of points I like about other groups, I find it difficult to just dump myself wholeheartedly into any one category aside from that.

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