It turns out that I really am a Humanist.
Many in the atheist community assume (or talk in ways that seem to assume) that there is simply a necessary connection between atheism and Humanism. But this assumption was far from obvious to me when I first became an atheist. I was reading Nietzsche and his harsh critiques of Enlightenment values and really didn’t know what to think.
Having just been for the first time liberated to think freely, I was not going to become immediately dogmatic about anything. And since it was Nietzsche who liberated me, I was willing to read what he said about just about anything with an open mind. I have always found it very valuable to let him antagonize me precisely on the subjects of my most cherished beliefs and values. I think my versions of those beliefs and values are quite better battle-tested and smarter than a lot of other people’s for my periods of willingness to consider them with an openness to Nietzsche’s deep suspicions. Eventually my formulations, articulations, and defenses of Enlightenment values developed to the point where they account for and incorporate and improve themselves based on everything I found important and uncompromisingly critical that Nietzsche could dish out. And as a result, they are, in many ways more than most, fairly Nietzsche proof. I would even call them Nietzschean, in their own way.
But I digress, when I was hearing out Nietzsche and thinking along with him primarily, I never saw Nietzsche as a Humanist. Maybe a transhumanist. Some read the exhortations he puts in Zarathustra’s mouth about overcoming the human being as literal. We should not merely become better humans but we should somehow help to create something literally beyond the human. What does that really mean? I still don’t know exactly. But out of my reflexive defensiveness that Nietzsche was an option and not only Humanism, I always resisted the assumption that just because I was an atheist I must be a Humanist. Maybe I did want to vigorously analyze Enlightenment values before assuming they all held up post-Christianity as before. I wanted that leeway. And Humanists tended to emphasize compassion in their moral proclamations and, again, Nietzsche had made me a bit leery of idealizing compassion as the highest virtue.
But it really struck me recently that I really am a Humanist and have been, in spite of myself, ever since I became an atheist. Because the core thing I really got from Nietzsche was his celebration of human potential–or was it superhuman potential?–and his vigorous defense of basic human nature against all the Christian vilification of it that had previously been central to my thinking. In fact, I so deeply internalized the inspiring and ecstatically optimistic side of Nietzsche that it’s hard for me to read him and see the misanthropy in him that’s so apparent to others. I would see a harsh critic of culture and people and ideas, of course, but I wouldn’t take it all as pessimistic the way others do. I took it as the discussion of what not to be that complements the discussion of what we should aspire to be.
I basically love humanity and for a long time I have been downright defensive of human nature. But even more than that. A lot of misanthropes and cynics love humanity but hate people. Not me. I don’t just love humanity the “abstraction”. I really love most individual people. I am fundamentally disposed to like each new person I meet. They have to earn my dislike, not my affection. I am basically clear eyed about our limits and flaws but I am constantly contextualizing them by pointing out how many of them are really not our fault, how very damn well most of us mean, how remarkable we are as creatures for having the aptitude to actually overcome them, and just how much extraordinary stuff we have accomplished. And it really bugs me when people put us all collectively down. I would almost say I can’t stand misanthropes but that’s not really true–even they have their charms; the lovably irascible bastards.
And though I share Nietzsche’s mistrust of pity (some of my thoughts on generosity are here), by contrast compassion construed instead simply as sympathy and empathy for others when considering them, is one of my best traits, not my worst. In fact it’s my empathy and sympathy for others themselves that always made me leery of pity. I hate the temptation of helpers to demoralize those they help by condescending to them, robbing them of their sense of their own power, and being able to control them or use their misery as an opportunity for pleasure. It was because I believe in the potential of each person that I do not want to “suffer with” others (and the Latin “com-passion” and the German Mitleid both literally mean “suffer with”) but rather empower others and celebrate with them in their strength. And when people do need empathy and sympathy, I am eager to give it if I can, but I always keep an eye on their dignity, their space, their needs, and what will constructively bring them out of it. I try to make it never about me.
I am a fan of human beings. I have rational confidence in our potential. I think we are far better and more wonderful than our flaws. I have good rational reasons to believe that maximizing the flourishing for all of us as much as possible, and minimizing the suffering of the worst off of us as much as possible, is the good. I also believe in developing reason based ethical communities that meet the needs for ritual, community, self-conscious personal formation, values development, identity, and philosophical debate, all in integrated, life-enhancing ways that can take over the work religions have tried to do but always been too mired in supernaturalism, authoritarianism, and traditionalism to ever really get right. I realize I want this to be under the banner of Humanism. It is time I linked up with and explicitly embraced being part of the longest and deepest tradition of positive atheism in our culture and history.
It’s time I just came out to myself as a Humanist. It is time I admit, I have been one all along. And what better moment to do so than World Humanist Day. Happy Humanist Day!