The Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values March 23, 2010

The Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values

Paul Kurtz, the founder of the Center for Inquiry and Prometheus Books and overall “godfather” of the Secular Humanist movement, has drafted “The Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values.”

Neo-Humanist? Do we really need another label in our community?

It’s a term Kurtz coined to encapsulate the following traits:

Neo-Humanists:

  1. aspire to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to religious believers who share common goals;
  2. are critical of theism;
  3. are best defined by what they are for, not what they are against;
  4. wish to use critical thinking, evidence, and reason to evaluate claims to knowledge;
  5. apply similar considerations to ethics and values;
  6. are committed to a key set of values: happiness, creative actualization, reason in harmony with emotion, quality, and excellence;
  7. emphasize moral growth (particularly for children), empathy, and responsibility;
  8. advocate the right to privacy;
  9. support the democratic way of life, tolerance, and fairness;
  10. recognize the importance of personal morality, good will, and a positive attitude toward life;
  11. accept responsibility for the well-being of society, guaranteeing various rights, including those of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; and supporting education, health care, gainful employment, and other social benefits;
  12. support a green economy;
  13. advocate population restraint, environmental protection, and the protection of other species;
  14. recognize the need for Neo-Humanists to engage actively in politics;
  15. take progressive positions on the economy; and
  16. hold that humanity needs  to move beyond ego-centric individualism and chauvinistic nationalism to develop transnational planetary institutions to cope with global problems—such efforts include a strengthened World Court, an eventual World Parliament, and a Planetary Environmental Monitoring Agency that would set standards for controlling global warming and ecology.

I’m sure a lot of us agree with many of those ideas, but does it mean we should adopt the neologism and statement?

Ron Lindsay, who occupies Kurtz’s former post at CFI, isn’t signing onto this statement (in his capacity as a private individual) for a few reasons, the foremost of which is the attack on atheism coming from someone on our own side:

One major problem is the Statement’s aggressive criticism of atheism or the “new atheism.” Looking at the abstract for the Statement, one finds the startling assertion that: “On the one end of the spectrum are traditional religious beliefs; on the other the ‘New Atheism.'” This equation of traditional religious belief with the new atheism is inappropriate and tendentious; it implies that the new atheism is as dogmatic and as pernicious to humanity as traditional religious belief.

The appendix to Kurtz’s statement is indeed very harsh about “new atheism”:

A new challenge has emerged today to confront secular humanism; for several secular authors have advocated “the new atheism.” These include Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger. They insist that there is sufficient evidence for atheism and urge that secular humanists aggressively advocate the view that “God does not exist,” that the classical religions are false, that people who believe in them are deceived, and that their ethical values are also false.

That last bit is just not true. Religious people can hold ethical values. The “new atheists” argue that those values are not ethical because they come from a god, but they may be ethical for other reasons.

Lindsay raises a few other issues, too, like vagueness on some issues (i.e. “green economy”) and impracticality on others (i.e. “World Parliament”).

Those of you who read it thoroughly can help us out by highlighting some of the more important parts of it as well as any major problems you come across.

Personally, this type of thing is possibly interesting to philosophers but completely irrelevant to me. It’s not like my views about the world are now happily codified or that I’m going to start calling myself a Neo-Humanist. It also doesn’t change what I think.

So why bother with it?

Hell, is there anything new in the statement that justifies there even being a “statement”?

The preamble to it ends this way:

… this Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values is offered as a constructive contribution to the planetary community.

While the sentiment is honorable, I just don’t know who would be affected by this. Nor do I think the “planetary community” cares.

Then again, I’m also not someone who cared much about any of the Humanist Manifestos, so maybe I’m not the right person to ask about this.

What do you think about Kurtz’s statement?

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  • Carlie

    “Neo-humanist”? What was wrong with the old humanists?

    Only being halfway flippant; seriously, what’s supposed to be the difference?

  • I have to confess I have been playing with a way to “label” my own views as a short cut in responding to questions. I think I’ll skip it altogether and just move on to another topic. The label makers seem to miss the possibility that we have enough already as Carlie suggested and as was suggested in the original post. I think I may use my given name to introduce myself without any expansive terms. People will make their own judgments anyway. Why should I prejudice them with me self-appraisal? I am, just like the old Hebrew god. That’s it – nothing else, WYSIWYG.

  • Hemant,

    The best use that I’ve found for the various Humanist Manifestos and this recent neo-humanist statement is using them as an example of humanist thought at the time of their writing.

    For example, Humanist Manifesto I reflects an optimism about human potential that was shattered by WWII and the Holocaust.

    20 years from now, folks will look at the “new atheist” criticisms and will comment about how important that must have seen to the authors at that time.

  • Alex

    What you need to do is just really think for yourself and let the pieces fall where they may. I would think critical thinking and reasoning would lead to a more just and caring society.

  • cathy

    What exactly is ‘quality and excellence’ and why would they be opposed to reason?

    Also this: ‘and a positive attitude toward life’ No negative nancies allowed. This whole positive thinking movement is way too wooey for my taste. I’ll be as cynical or opptimistic as I like, thank you.

  • Just call it Kurtzism. That’s what it is. This is a mishmash of values that aren’t necessarily related except that Kurtz holds them.

  • Greg

    Neo-Humanists:

    2.are critical of theism;
    3.are best defined by what they are for, not what they are against;

    Anyone else find this somewhat amusing?

  • Andrew Lovley

    Besides being a recycling of previously stated humanist values, this Neo-Humanist statement seems to address the growing divide in the secular community regarding what should be done with religion/religious people.

    New Atheists think it is legitimate and necessary to tell religious people that their worldview is based on a inaccurate view of the world. Secular Humanists are willing to tolerate religious views so long as they are different yet humane.

    New Atheism aspires to a religious-less world, Secular Humanism holds a cosmopolitan view that does not include wiping out religion but instead coexisting with its positive or benign manifestations.

    I think the categories we have are sufficient. I do not think there’s any need for ‘neo-humanism’. Perhaps those who identify with secular humanism could be more vocal in their qualms with the strategies of the ‘new atheists’. That said, I do no see the difference between secular humanism and ‘neo-humanism’.

  • Kahomono

    One nit with what you wrote:

    The “new atheists” argue that those values are not ethical because they come from a god, but they may be ethical for other reasons.

    I think that should be

    The “new atheists” argue that if those values are ethical it is not because they come from a god, but they may be ethical for other reasons.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Can’t we all just get along? I don’t like playing to this supposed dichotomy between the new atheists and the, I guess, “neo-humanists.” While we will certainly disagree and debate on how to move forward as a movement, there’s no reason why we can’t seek common ground amongst everyone on the atheist side of the equation, rather than seeking out what makes us different. Call me hippy dippy, but I really don’t see the need to play up these differences.

    I do agree with most of the points in his little neo-humanist statement. But number 16 does not follow in any way and just shows that the whole thing is just a little pet project of Kurtz’s. World Parliament? I think you’ll find that many people that fit the “neo-humanist” mold won’t agree on that one.

  • Kahomono

    @Greg: “Critical” is meant here (I presume) in the philosophical sense and would not really have any derogatory connotation.

  • Karen

    Neo-Humanists:
    1. aspire to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to religious believers who share common goals;
    2. are critical of theism;

    These two strike me as fundamentally opposed. How would someone appeal to religious believers while being critical of theism?

    Karen

  • Andrew Lovley

    World Parliament is certainly a goal worth working toward eventually. Given that the actions taken by people on one side of the world can affect those on the other side, and that this will only exacerbate with increased technology and activity, people around the world should be able to collectively make binding statements on other members of the world. World citizenship is a far-out ideal but it is a legitimate one and worth at least talking about right now.

  • Spinozaist _4

    Kurtz’s comments about “the new atheism” in the appendix quoted by Ron Lindsay in his blog should be considered along with the important qualifications that immediately follow them. Kurtz, it seems, is NOT offering up a wholesale rejection of the new atheism. Rather, he appears to be expressing concerns over atheism becoming the dominate or overriding focus in certain quarters of the humanist movement.

    From the appendix:

    “(the new atheist)…position is mistaken, for it has distorted both secular humanism and humanism in general. We reaffirm that secular humanists are (a) skeptical of supernatural claims, (b) no not think that there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence, and (c) do not believe the historical claims of revelation in the Bible or the Koran are evidential. (d) Ethics should be independent of theological foundations; nor do we think (e) that we should lampoon or ridicule religious believers per se. (f) We should indeed critically examine the many claims of religious traditions with a skeptical eye, and (g) and we should be willing to engage in constructive dialogue and debate with those within the religious communities. (h) Although we may profoundly disagree with our religious colleagues and/or adversaries, we should be tolerant, respectful, and dignified. (i) Even though we may disagree about fundamental doctrinal, philosophical, or theological issues, our discourse should be civilized.
    With this in mind, we have proposed a new form of humanism that is not antireligious per se, nor avowedly atheist. We submit that there is an urgent need for a new humanism in the world today; hence Neo-Humanism… It is especially important that humanists appeal to a wider base of support. Some 16 percent of the American population is not affiliated with any church, temple, or mosque—approximately 50 million Americans—whereas only 2 to 3 percent are estimated to be out-and-out atheists. Hence, Neo-Humanism wishes to address its message to a broader public who we believe should be sympathetic.
    The new atheists surely have played an important role in contemporary society, for they have been willing to question the foundations of theism, a topic often considered verboten until now. One should not overlook the fact that the old atheism had a strong impact in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, insofar as it was allied with Marxism, including its totalitarian versions. Indeed the communists at first attempted to eradicate religious institutions from the societies in which they ruled, and this led to extensive persecution of believers.
    There are varieties of unbelief…It is too narrow to identify humanism with atheism or even agnosticism, for one can reject the lure of religious salvation on other grounds. The main point of Neo-Humanism is its recommendation that we adopt a positive humanist agenda. This is the position of the scientific naturalist who begins with nature and life, as viewed from the perspective of reason and science, without the baggage of ancient religions. Contemporary civilization has progressed beyond that. “

  • Greg

    @Kahomono:

    You mean he meant to write:

    “Evaluate theism critically?”

    Thing is, if he meant that, he should have written that. Being critical *of* something always means taking a contrary position, philosophical or no.

    That is the only way there wouldn’t be a contradiction between the two that I can see, granted.

    But even if he meant that, I still find it somewhat amusing that when writing a ‘manifesto’, he should make such an elementary error in his wording! After all, shouldn’t a manifesto be as clear and concise as possible?

  • Richard

    It seems like a new label for fatheists.

  • Richard P.

    “aspire to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to religious believers who share common goals;”

    I don’t understand why there is this insistence to tolerate religions. I believe to pander to the religious is to give their delusional beliefs credibility. This just leads to religions holding onto those delusional beliefs without question.

    Religion is the single most destructive force, perverting the social evolution of humanity. It does not need to be pandered too. As a group that cares about the advancement of humanity, the eradicating of such a destructive force needs to be one of our main goals, not aspiring to be more inclusive.

    It should be ridiculed and disseminated down to show the stupidity of it’s ideologies. It should be mocked until everyone is to embarrassed to admit they hold such delusional beliefs.

  • Oh how this cries for sarcasm. Too bad I’m working on choosing cooperation instead of confrontation. Toleration of differing cultures is surely not the freedom of speech and belief we as non-theists “demand.” It’s non-theism or idiocy – cleverly broad-minded of you. Ooops – guess I need more work. At least I know I’m not perfect and I don’t have the answers to life’s complicated mysteries.

  • Kimpatsu

    The World Parliament isn’t impractical; it’s the one suggestion on that list I can really go for. Pity I was born several centuries too early to see the United States of America or the Federated States of Europe become a reality…

  • Sunioc

    So many things wrong with this. First being, well, the whole thing. We don’t need a humanist manifesto. It reeks of dogma to me.

    Second, “neo-humanist?” Really? Third, 2 contradicts 1 and 3. You can’t admit that there are religious humanists, and then in the next breath say that humanists are critical of religion. Humanism does not necessarily equal atheism. 2 and 3 contradict each other, as pointed out by Greg earlier.

    In 6, “reason in harmony with emotion” makes no sense. Reason is independent of emotion. “Quality, and excellence” sound like meaningless marketing drivel to me.

    12 through 16 will be picked up by Faux News and declared as final proof of the evil atheist agenda. “Green economy” is another vague and meaningless term. “population restraint” goes is a violation of the right to use one’s own reproductive system as one sees fit. Although I agree with the “it’s a vagina, not a clown car” idea, I don’t think it’s my business to tell someone when enough is enough.

    “environmental protection, and the protection of other species” is in many cases more easily said than done. Although helping the environment is a noble cause, there are limits to what we can do without returning to a primitive hunter and gatherer society. As for protection of other species, This is often taken to ridiculous extremes. If direct, preventable human intervention is endangering a species, we should do what we can to curb the behavior in question. However, if there’s only 2 ring tailed, purple horned pandas left in the world, and they’re both in a zoo, there’s better things we could be doing with our time than trying to get them to bang just to preserve a doomed species.

    The last 3 go together. It would be nice if Atheists and Humanists had an active and out role in politics, but as for taking progressive stances on the economy, that sounds kinda exclusive of conservative humanists. and that last one is going to send “one world government” conspiracy nuts over the edge.

  • 1. aspire to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to religious believers who share common goals;
    2. are critical of theism;

    I get that it’s possible to include people while simultaneously being critical of them… but how are the religious humanists themselves supposed to be critical of theism? This manifesto is manifestly not inclusive of religious humanists. I’m rather tired of secular humanists who think humanism and secular humanism are the same thing.

  • Andrew Lovley

    Religion is not synonymous wih theism. Non-religious does not equal non-theistic. There are theists who are not religious, there are religious people who are not theists. So a religious humanist may be critical of theism because a religious humanist can be atheist that attends a regular service where they reflect on values and their service to one’s community in a collective, peaceful setting.

  • Verimius

    Oh look, a split is forming in the atheist movement between new atheists and humanists.

    Kinda makes us look like churches, doesn’t it.

  • Justin

    Too political! I thought Humanism was supposed to replace religion in people’s lives, not their party. And the “key set of values?”

    “happiness, creative actualization, reason in harmony with emotion, quality, and excellence.”

    Nothing but fluff!

  • @Andrew Lovley
    Not sure if you were responding to me, but I think my point still stands. Most religious humanists are indeed theistic. Also, I imagine that when they “aspire” to include religious humanists, they’re not just talking about the atheist religious humanists. What kind of inclusiveness would that be?

  • Andrew Lovley

    If a religious or theistic person is compelled to show compassion for others and to act in the service of another’s well-being,

    if a religious or theistic person is compelled to conserve and preserve the planet,

    if a religous or theistic person is compelled to have tolerance for all people regardless of their worldview, and value respectful dialogue among them,

    is there any reason we need to abandon their side in tackling society’s ills, or

    is there any reason we need to ridicule them or insist they become non-religious or atheistic?

    The New Atheists are generally very particularist. They speak and act as though they cannot fully respect someone unless they too are non-religious or atheistic. This kind of perspective is a destructive one to possess and humanists of all sorts are understandably trying to distance themselves from it.

  • @Andrew Lovley
    Agree! But the point I was making is that this humanist manifesto is clearly not inclusive of theistic humanists. They should be trying harder than that.

  • Really, the rant/manifesto just doesn’t make sense to me. It sounds like he wrote it while he was high as a kite.

    As for tolerance of belief, well, I can’t say I don’t strongly object to religion…however, it’s possible to disapprove of the belief without calling for a ban on it (banning ideas is 1) evil and 2) totally unworkable), and it’s possible to “hate the sin and love the sinner” in this case–you can get along with the person even if you really don’t like their beliefs. I know there are exceptions, though, like teabaggers–I find it impossible to like mindless drones 😛

  • Andrew Lovley

    I agree with you too. Perhaps what would be more justifiable than “critical of theism” would be “critical of dogma and intolerance”.

  • bigjohn756

    @Secular Planet – Bingo!

  • Eric VDG

    I appreciate the willingness to create definition in the community, but don’t feel that in this case it is warranted, well-vetted, accurate, justified, nor constructive. In my assessment, this is a ‘fail.’ I predict it will do little to move the ball forward and will only contribute to the flurry of confusing language. Where’s the ‘disapprove’ button?

  • Killer_Bee

    Gawd! Another -ism / -ist?
    Get over it.
    I’m an “atheist” because the definition is so pared down I can’t avoid it without being dishonest.
    I’m not a humanist, secular or any other kind. So, “Neo-Humanist” is out of the question. I think these kinds of things are fluff.

  • Dan Covill

    This is not a set of “principles and values”, IMO, it is a political action plan that happens to include some principles as a basis. While I agree with most of his items, I fear that Paul has conflated values with objectives to an extent that his priorities are not apparent.

    He should have taken a lesson from Moses and chopped it off after the first 10, then it would have looked more like principles. Everything after that looks like a position in a political debate. Sorry, but a “green economy” (even if one actually defined it!) is not a principle. It’s a debatable issue.

    Paul Kurtz has made great contributions to the cause of atheism/agnosticism, starting the Brights several years ago. I would have hoped for clearer thinking from him.

  • Miko

    Secular Planet hit the nail on the head. Kurtz wants to take everything Kurtz believes and give it a generic sounding name so that he can attack others for deviationism.

    And of course, #4 and #5 are in contradiction with the other 14. I agree with some of them and disagree with others, but I’m using the same principles of critical thinking and ethical critical thinking in reaching all of my conclusions. Someone with different underlying core beliefs could use critical thinking and reach a set completely different from mine of which ones they do and don’t disagree with.

    Andrew Lovely: World Parliament is certainly a goal worth working toward eventually. Given that the actions taken by people on one side of the world can affect those on the other side, and that this will only exacerbate with increased technology and activity, people around the world should be able to collectively make binding statements on other members of the world.

    Let’s take a hypothetical. While being interviewed on local TV news, you make a remark that is deemed offensive by Xiabi’s, a small religious sect in a country that you’ve never heard of. Since you’ve affected them, it is of course appropriate that the World Parliament get involved. In response, they petition the parliament to have you stoned to death and the parliament agrees. As you have noted, people in other parts of the world should be allowed to make binding statements against you, so I have no doubt that you would submit to this punishment without complaint.

    Every time I hear that the UN has passed a rule saying that hate speech should be criminalized, or that Sharia law should be enforced worldwide, or what have you, I feel doubly glad that all of their hot air isn’t legally binding. World government is a race to the bottom, where we end up with the worst features of each member government. It is hegemonic and destroys local cultures for the sake of uniformity, often without understanding the geographic and social features of the area which led to the local cultural idiosyncrasy in the first place. It is a slow, lumbering bureaucracy which is crippled by inefficiency, where small municipalities will be unable to act until they secure the consent of strangers half way across the world which have never considered the needs of those municipalities and which don’t really care about the good of those municipalities. It will probably lead to the U.S.-style pseudo-democratic corporate republican system poisoning the rest of the world; and that system is something that no one calling herself a humanist should ever consider inflicting on our world neighbors. And, worst of all, don’t forget that the word “binding” really means “police and military force;” asking for a world government is asking for the most extreme increase in violence that the world has ever seen. I’d rather think that humanists would be committed to peace and shrinking armies, not to the creation of a vast new military force tasked with keeping people all over the world “in line.” With the economic collapse, we in the U.S. are now seeing the danger of having a centralized banking system over such a large area. With the health insurance debacle, we are seeing the dangers of having a system run by corporations and in which around 300 politicians can undermine the will of 200,000,000 people. Imagine what would happen if this were scaled up to the level of the entire Earth: there would be chaos, bloodshed, death, poverty, deprivation, and, in short, the collapse of all society.

    Now, before there were even local parliaments, it was still the case that actions by one person affected other persons. And since people would rather live in peace than at war, they found ways of solving them (e.g., the common law tradition). As legislatures developed, they worked to destroy these existing, spontaneously evolved institutions for conflict resolution, and as a result we’ve just had a whole lot more conflict. Seeing as people are really, really good at solving problems through voluntary considerations (indeed, society could never exist if they weren’t), why not unshackle our hands and let us solve our problems ourselves?

  • Miko

    Sunioc: as for taking progressive stances on the economy, that sounds kinda exclusive of conservative humanists.

    Leftists like myself don’t like it either. “Progressive” has always been defined as opposition not only to traditionalist conservative economic policies, but also to the more radical solutions advocated by socialists and anarchists. Progressives are driven by a quasi-fantastic vision of modernization, focus on a Quixotic quest to eliminate waste, and in the process invariably cozy up to the large business interests in the name of “efficiency.” It flies in the face of the standard modern-liberal/conservative debate (Big-Gov-Small-Biz vs. Small-Gov-Big-Biz) by advocating in favor of both Big Government and Big Business, and as such it is really further from the leftist ideal (No-Gov-Microscopic-Biz) than even such odious positions as conservatism are.

  • stephanie

    New Humanists, New Atheists. This is too silly, I’m done. I think I’ll just remain a human and an atheist, thanks.

  • Joffan

    That list has some very muddy thinking behind it. It is definitely misordered and in places (as already observed) appears downright contradictory.

    #1 is a tactic, not a principle. Greg observed the ironic juxtaposition of #2 and #3 – it reads like Kurtz wrote #2 and then realized he didn’t want to sound so confrontational, so quickly pushed #3 in.
    #4 is the first real principle on there, although why he has “wish to” on front is mysterious. #5 is unclear but if restated could be good. #6 is a ragbag. #7 is a slighlty better ragbag. #8 is worthy but odd in this context, and hard to draw boundaries on. #9 almost reaches justice but falls over. #10 is vague and could be very faulty if by “good will” Kurtz means “overlooking problems”. #11 is way too big for individuals. #12 is meaningless (in that it means different things to different people). #13 is ok although again a medley. #14 sounds bigoted – can’t anyone else engage in politics? #15 is a bit like #12 and #16 is the “when I am emperor” statement.

    Instead of Neo-humanism, I suggest we name this movement Kurtz-woollyism. I’d also say that if Kurtz persuaded someone to take up the list in its entirety, I’d accuse him of starting a dogmatic cult.

  • Polly

    “the democratic way of life

    This is a funny phrase.

    “Gather ’round kids. We’re going to cast ballots to see what’s for dinner.”

    “All in favor of Disney World for the family vacation, raise your hands. Niagara falls?”

    “Boss, we took a vote and decided there’d be no overtime this monday. It was unanimous. The people have spoken.”

  • What happened to the website? Nothing’s there now.

  • ckitching

    The new atheists surely have played an important role in contemporary society, for they have been willing to question the foundations of theism, a topic often considered verboten until now. One should not overlook the fact that the old atheism had a strong impact in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, insofar as it was allied with Marxism, including its totalitarian versions.

    This bothers me. This statement basically consists of the “poisoning the well” fallacy with a healthy dose of guilt-by-association. Many “new atheists” may want to see religion (or at least the unquestionable revealed kinds) vanish from the world, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any who would want to do it via forced conversion or other coercion.

    On the other hand, many of the big names in “new atheism” are also highly critical of totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. It is now quite clear that any government or religion that claims absolute authority and wields the power to destroy any who defy their authority is going to be highly destructive. The Soviet Union certainly proved that that a secular totalitarian regime can be just as (or more) dangerous as any religious one.

  • easy there

    “16. hold that humanity needs to move beyond ego-centric individualism and chauvinistic nationalism to develop transnational planetary institutions to cope with global problems—such efforts include a strengthened World Court, an eventual World Parliament, and a Planetary Environmental Monitoring Agency that would set standards for controlling global warming and ecology.”

    Whaaaaaa?

  • Throwing politics into the equation has never made much sense to me. There are atheists on all sides of the political spectrum; why try to define us all into one political group?

    Besides, having a list of ideas that people have to agree on is just asking for schisms and infighting; we have enough of that already.