How Humanists Get It Right

This is an article by Michael Werner. It appears in the November/December 2011 issue of The Humanist. You can read other articles from this issue and subscribe to the magazine by going to their website.

A fellow humanist once asked, regarding the fact that the American Humanist Association has published three Humanist Manifestos, “Can’t we ever get it right?” My answer is that we try to get it as right as we can at the time. Humanism espouses a scientific worldview and, like science, endeavors to use open-minded critical thinking to discover progressive truths. Some might say we are a philosophy or even an alternative to religion, but I view humanism as an evolving tradition or a progressive lifestance. Humanists are part of a long line of people trying to live their lives to the fullest in the absence of any gods or an afterlife.

So, if we can’t get our philosophy exactly “right” it’s because we know that knowledge of the world is fallible, probabilistic, and tentative. The fallibility of our knowledge requires we admit that everything we know may actually be wrong. Accepting this requires humility and, at the same time, courage to stand up for what we best believe without dogmatism or fear of being proven wrong. Knowledge of the world is probabilistic in that we know specific things with greater or lesser confidence; I know that water flows downhill better than I know what the weather will be next week or, better yet, how to raise children. Lastly, knowledge is tentative. It is a provisional statement and frankly just the best we can do at the time, just like the Humanist Manifestos of 1933, 1973, and 2003.

A recent study found that one of the biggest differences between social and religious liberals and their conservative counterparts is that liberals have a better ability to hold views in an ambiguous, adaptive manner. Some may see this lack of resoluteness as weakness, and, in fact, it can be very difficult for humanists to live within the boundaries of our limited knowledge and still act decisively. Fundamentalists choose the easy way of absolute certainty of belief. Others petulantly decide that if we can’t know anything with certainty we can’t know anything at all, and collapse disappointed into a radical postmodern relativism or total cynicism. Still others, immobilized by doubt, never act on any convictions. We may long for an immaculate center, but it’s never there; as Samuel Butler said, “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.”

I welcome manifestos IV, V, and VI and hope the humanist tradition always continues to grow and evolve. Humanist Manifesto I was written in 1933 at a time of great economic despair and reflects the spirit of the times. It has a mildly socialistic tone because, as Kurt Vonnegut said of that time, capitalism had failed. It’s also written in the sexist language many used before the feminist revolution. It’s a document of its time, but our knowledge of the world changed and we changed our philosophy and language accordingly. If the first manifesto was overly optimistic about the prospects for human nature and progressive human thought, the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust forced a sober reevaluation of those perceptions.

We now see human nature as having potential for both good and evil behavior. We now see human progress as elusive and doubtful in many areas. Still, we forge ahead, for what other reasonable choice do we have? No loving God protects us or metes out everlasting justice. Any progress is that which we create, finite and imperfect as we are. Any justice is justice we make. Any love we give is only given now. Any suffering is ameliorated by us, here and now. Only we have the power to create a world in which we flourish.

We long for a vital center to our lives that both grounds us and inspires us, a vision of grander authenticity to our lives and not just smaller truths. We long for an evocative whole story and higher vision that lifts our hearts and ennobles our lives. Some may find this integrated story for the future in the balanced humanist life of the here and now. To embrace humanism is to accept the exhilarating challenge of moving toward a responsible search — as the ancient Greeks did — for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Michael Werner is past president of the AHA and remains active in many humanist organizations.



About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • SJH

    I like this. It is very positive. I am confident that we all can get it right. I think the key is in the second paragraph. We must all have the courage and humility to face our fallacies and ignorance. Additionally, we also need to go into all relationships with the unbreakable conviction to not judge others. Both of these are extremely difficult, at least for me, but if we all do our best it can happen.

    • Newavocation

      When you said to not judge others, are you referring  to the person? Actions, behaviors and ideas should always be open to questions and judgments.

  • Trina

    Good one.  The world changes, knowledge increases; it’s only natural that a humanist manifest will change over time.  I’d be worried if it didn’t.

    • Trina

      manifesto, that is…

  • Anonymous

    This is precisely how humanist attitudes towards written documents differs from religious attitudes. For humanists, a text is only as authoritative as the arguments put forth in the text. For religionists, a text is authoritative regardless of the arguments (if any) put forth in the text. More, there usually aren’t arguments in religious texts BECAUSE the point is to accept and obey the dictates of the given text, not to question them.

  • Anonymous

    “[...] liberals have a better ability to hold views in an ambiguous, adaptive manner. ”

    That’s a joke, right? Liberals are just as dogmatic, close-minded, and prone to reject evidence as conservatives when it comes to their shibboleths. 

  • William White

    The humanist thread running through ALL religions devised by humans, the Golden Rule is amenable to change in wording by the various “sacred” scripts yet never changes in spirit. If practiced more “religiously”,  it would surely keep us focused on the greatest good for the greatest number. We live in hopes…


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