Humanism and Politics 1: Humanism is Political, or it isn’t Humanism

Disclaimer: In this series of articles on Humanism and politics I express strongly-held personal convictions regarding the nature and requirements of the Humanist life-stance. Some will disagree – fine. Present your arguments, and we will hash it out. Further, I am fully aware that aspects of this argument are crude sketches – this is a blog, not a journal. The purpose is to start discussion and get people thinking. All of the following is to be read as if preceded by “in my opinion”. Image Credit: cover of ‘Toward a New Political Humanism’, by Barry F. Seidman (Author) and Neil J. Murphy (Editor).

Religion and politics – two subjects we are admonished to avoid discussing at all costs. But what about irreligion and politics? How does the life stance of Humanism  intersect with the political sphere? Are there political views that are mandatory for Humanists, part of the definition of the term? Is Humanism necessarily political? Or can Humanism as a philosophy stand aloof from political concerns and embrace the whole range of political perspectives?

These questions are not solely of intellectual interest. The current political climate, supercharged by the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, an upcoming Presidential election, the economic situation, and instability across the world caused by popular uprisings and mass discontent, demands a response. Humanists must consider their position and their responsibilities as citizens and individuals.

Further, as a recent survey of freethinkers suggests (I’m investigating now whether this survey is available to the public – data coming shortly I hope), and as has been my experience at Harvard, political differences between individuals within Humanist and freethinking groups can be a source of strain and strife. Freethinkers come from all over the political spectrum, and sometimes vehemently disagree over political issues. It would be beneficial, in order to better navigate such discussions, to have greater clarity regarding the political requirements (I use this strong word intentionally) of a Humanist outlook.

So, to first principles: Humanism is a life-stance with an ethical heart. Since the first Humanist Manifesto, Humanists have attempted to create a consensus regarding certain basic ethical principles which form the core of our worldview. The documents thus created do not in any sense constitute a Humanist dogma – explicit statements preface each that make it clear that Humanists are not all required to believe everything in the document in the way it is presented, and that the principles outlined are subject to change. Nonetheless, they do constitute the closest thing Humanists have to a creed: a set of statements which the vast majority of Humanists should be able to assent to. As such, for me, they have taken on a definitional quality: when someone is really interested in Humanism, I send them to the third Manifesto.

In this latest iteration of the Manifesto, Humanism and its Aspirations, our key principles are outlined in admirably short prose. In brief, they are: promote human flourishing; rely on reason to solve shared problems; work to benefit others as well as yourself; ethical values are derived from human experience; build relationships between human beings in order to promote their welfare; consider every human being as worthy of equal moral concern.

It seems clear to me that any serious adherence to these principles will imply some form of political engagement. A society, for example, where certain citizens are denied basic freedoms and equality due to their race or sexuality, is not a society which considers every human being worthy of equal moral concern. This should be unacceptable to a Humanist, and if their espousal of Humanist principles is to be meaningful, they have a responsibility to act to change such a situation.

The same argument can be made regarding some other (clearly political) issues. Poverty prevents human flourishing in numerous ways, yet it abounds in the USA and other societies. Humanists wish to promote human flourishing, and therefore have to fight against poverty. A Humanist who is indifferent to poverty is a contradiction in terms. Freedom of speech and thought, an inherently and irrevocably political issue, is frequently under threat. You can’t consistently be a Humanist and not care when the Patriot Act potentially tracked who’s taking which books out of which libraries, or when libel laws are used to stifle legitimate criticism. You cannot be a Humanist and not care when misleading “history” is pushed down kids’ throats in school and creationism taught as science. And on and on.

I can already hear the indignant cries: “Who are you to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do?” Short answer: I’m telling you no such thing. You, by describing yourself as a Humanist, are telling yourself that this is how you should act. That is what adherence to an ethical stance means: an acceptance that, for a given set of reasons, one should act to promote various goods and avoid various evils. Someone who says “I am a Humanist”, and who does not act to ensure civil rights for all, to alleviate poverty, to promote freedom of thought, and to defend science is simply acting inconsistently with their espoused worldview – and questions can be raised as to whether they can accurately be said to hold that worldview at all.

Let me be very clear about this: if Humanism in this context means anything at all, it means broad adherence to the values espoused in Humanism and its Aspirations. That implies acting on those principles. That implies political engagement. 

I see no way around it: Humanism is political, or it isn’t Humanism.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. All the great Humanist figures from history who have inspired this site were politically engaged, most of them heavily so. Robert Ingersoll was a Republican politician of high standing. Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were both passionate and influential social reformers. Felix Adler was a community organizer as much as he was a philosopher. The idea that freethinking can be an apolitical movement seems a fairly recent development.


Just because Humanism implies some sort of political engagement around certain central values we share, does not mean that all Humanists need share precisely the same political viewpoint. Why not? Essentially, because there is (lots of) room for disagreement about the most effective mechanisms to achieve the social ends Humanists desire. This disagreement over the means to effect  desired ends is the subject of the second post in this series, coming soon…

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Jim Farmelant

    As you say, Humanists can be found from all points of the political spectrum, although most Humanists do tend to be liberals (i.e. center-left). However, in almost any Humanist group of any size, you can often find at least one or two libertarians. Having said that it is interesting to look at the first Humanist Manifesto, we read:

    “The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.”

    In other words the first Humanist Manifesto took an explicitly socialist stance. Democratic socialism was seen as best political vehicle for realizing Humanist values. BTW the main author of the first Humanist Manifesto was philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, who was very much a socialist.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Interesting, too, that the second and third do not take such a stance. Isn’t this an empirical question – the economic system which best supports human welfare as a matter of fact is the one we should support, no?

  • Michael R

    You are trying to generalize the term humanism whilst loading it with liberal/utilitarian values. But that’s not productive if you want to communicate with the general public.

    The public hears the word “humanism” and assumes it means AC Grayling’s broad definition: “Humanism in the modern sense of the word is the view that, whatever your ethical system, it derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world”.

    That’s it. Humanism means human-centered, human values, from the human. This is what the general public assumes. They don’t know any manifestos and nor should they. Words should, first and foremost, be consistent with their literal meaning.

    Really what you’re advocating is a particular interpretation of humanism: liberal humanism, utilitarian humanism, cosmopolitan humanism, etc. And hence that is exactly what you should call it.

    You are never going to get conservative humanists to agree with your loaded definition of humanism that is “committed to diversity”. That’s fine if you only want to preach to the (liberal) converted, but if you want to debate with all humanists then you need to first acknowledge the legitimacy of all humanist interpretations. You need to start the debate with where humanists are, not where you wish them to be.

    Debate that denies conservative humanists even exist is not debating, it’s dictating. Engage people where they are, or they will simply ignore you.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hi Michael. I make a distinction between “humanism” (small ‘h’) and “Humanism” (big ‘H’). The sort of humanism you describe is what I’d term “humanism”. The big-H version I blog about is the Humanism described in the manifestos and other explicitly Humanist writing.

      So, if there are people who call themselves “humanists” who do not subscribe to the basic principles I have outlined here (and they are EXTREMELY minimal, I’m sure you agree), I am happy to say they are not Humanists as I understand the term. I don’t feel the need to debate them – if they honestly do not embrace the equal moral equality of every human being, they are not Humanists, and not worthy of my respect.

      • Michael R

        Joe Average does not know the distinction between big-H and small-h humanism, he conflates both with AC Grayling’s small-h definition.

        “commitment to diversity” is mentioned in the Third Manifesto, but not explained. It is explained in the 2nd Manifesto:

        “We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward the building of a world community in which all sectors of the human family can participate. Thus we look to the development of a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government… We must expand communication and transportation across frontiers. Travel restrictions must cease…”

        This is a radical transformation from ethnic/nation states to a world without borders. The question is: what percentage of humanists want such a borderless world? Is it only an “EXTREMELY minimal” number of humanists who object to dismantling their borders?

        If you look at the science, kin-preference is a biological fact, which suggests that diversity is tolerated but not preferred.
        Michael Lind:

        “The secular humanist movement avoids the difficult question of the coexistence of in-group altruism and inter-group rivalries by imagining, with John Lennon, that conflicts would vanish if only people stopped being religious and patriotic…

        Unfortunately for Humanist Lennonism, evolutionary biology does not provide much hope for the sort of altruistic personal commitment to planetary solidarity that secular humanists want to encourage..

        … social animals are not altruists. Nor are they strict individualists. They are nepotists. As a rule social animals, like wolves, deer, humans and chimps, show favoritism to their relatives and friends and allies, with little or no concern for members of their own species with whom they have no close connection. Abrahamic monotheism insists on the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. Darwinism insists at best on the distant cousinhood of humanity.

        Among humans, nepotistic solidarity can be transferred, with difficulty, to political units larger than the extended family. But national patriotism is much harder to promote than city-state patriotism, and global patriotism may be a bridge too far.

        The illogical leap from the acceptance of evolutionary science to the call for world government and world taxation is typical of the intellectual legerdemain practiced by secular humanists. They assert scientific naturalism leads to the currently fashionable attitudes of North Atlantic left-liberals, but they never provide any convincing arguments for the thesis that if you believe in Darwin, you must follow Dewey…”

        The point is that, while we should promote global harmony and co-operation, it is anti-human to enforce diversity upon humans who are biologically nepotist in nature. We need to work within the limitations of the human, within the facts of science, not dream the impossible dream. Enforced diversity is anti-human and anti-science, driven by the emotional desires of liberals and ethnic minorities who are averse to their minority position. Big-H humanism is therefore anti-human and anti-science.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          The argument you present depends on a deeply misleading reading of the manifesto commitment. The commitment to world government and international INSTITUTIONS need not imply any “anti-human” or “anti-science” reformulation of human NATURE. Further, we must not be too fatalistic about our capacity for change. If there has been one constant in the human story it is or ability to radically reformulate the way we relate to each other. Yes, this will require concerted educational effort. But I have participated in anti-racism and anti-sexual prejudice work, for example, which HAS made a difference to how people act, think, and identify. This possibility (a real, if distant, possibility) is what we should be reaching for. There’s nothing utopian or anti-science about striving to be our best selves.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          Thanks for the link to the Lind article – it is interesting, though confused. His response to Kurtz’s attack on the is/ought distinction (an idea that has been attacked by philosophers for decades) is simply to reassert the distinction in its own terms (this is what his GPS example does); he equates a concern with the consequences of our actions with utilitarianism (a false equivalence); he assumes that because a global consciousness is not necessarily natural that it is not possible (this is germaine to your criticism); he misses the fact that the justifications for global social institutions are separable from the justifications for science (of course if you accept Darwin you needn’t accept Dewey – that is not the point Kurtz makes). Apart from that, it’s a great critique.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Further, I’m not sure where you get anything about a commitment to diversity – I don’t use the term in this piece. I do believe that is a component of Humanism, but to what were you responding?

  • Nathan DST

    First, good to see you posting again.

    Second, there are people who don’t see humanism as political? How does that work? That sounds like saying feminism isn’t political.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      There are such people – lots of them. There are some at Harvard. Mostly, it takes the form of a denial that Humanists should get at all involved in party politics, but it also can take the form that Humanists per se can have no unified stance on any political issue. I reject this notion, because any worldview must have core components or risk becoming completely incoherent!

  • Craig Volpe

    Another good article, James. I like your argument for humanism being incompatible with apathy.

    You state, “certain citizens are denied basic freedoms and equality due to their race or sexuality, is not a society which considers every human being worthy of equal moral concern. This should be unacceptable to a Humanist.” What about denying certain people other freedoms for other reasons? Would denying non-citizens or criminals the right to vote be against humanist values as well?

    • TempleoftheFuture

      This is a great question. I don’t know. I know that I would believe that criminals should retain the right to vote (I used to work in prisons while I was at university, which has forever colored my views of the criminal ‘justice’ system), but I don’t think I, for example, should be allowed to vote in the USA necessarily. I hadn’t really thought about it. What do you think?

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