Bracing the Salty Current – Reason is a Humanist Value!

A while back I got into a back-and-forth regarding Atheism+ (an explicitly social-justice oriented Atheism promoted by blogger Jen McCreight) and its relationship to Humanism. My view, in brief, is that Atheism+, by infusing atheism with a commitment to an explicit set of positive values, is essentially a form of Humanism which, through the name, puts more of an emphasis on atheism than Humanism has traditionally done. As a passionate Humanist I think that’s fantastic: anything which genuinely promotes broadly Humanist values gets a thumbs-up from me.

Some atheist bloggers, however, took umbrage at this show of support, unwilling to accept that the values which A+ activists are now promoting are fundamentally similar to those Humanism has long promoted. Why this is I cannot say, but one such – Salty Current – has written a long explication of what s/he sees to be the differences between A+ and Humanism, directed to me, so it seems polite to respond.

First, to clear up an inaccuracy:

The criticisms I’ve read are not of humanism – the pompous capitalization still grates – but of the particular flavor practiced by the HCH group.

This is false. Numerous A+ bloggers, including Greta Christina and Jen McCreight herself, expressed views regarding what Humanism is (the capitalization is essential to distinguish the modern lifestance of Humanism from historical “humanism” which means something different) which did not specifically address HCH. I was responding to what I saw as broad misconceptions regarding Humanism itself – not any particular version of it – in much of the Freethought blogosphere. I found those misconceptions troubling and surprising as Humanism has been the driving force of the Freethought movement in the USA for decades. I was frankly shocked to see well-respected bloggers demonstrate basic misconceptions.

To the argument. SC makes a lot of the fact that I single-out the “supernatural” aspects of religious belief for criticism, and points out that s/he has a problem with any belief which is held without solid foundation. Agreed: there’s no difference of view here. As I noted in the post to which s/he is responding, the list of Humanist values I offered is not exhaustive, and a commitment to right-belief is a core Humanist value – one of the most central. There is no difference of view here.

Where there might be a difference is when SC offers the following:

The defining feature of a religious belief is that it’s held despite (and often because of) the fact that it can’t be defended. That’s what makes it religious.

This is not how I would define “religious belief”. There are lots of beliefs which cannot be defended which I do not think are properly termed “religious”: birthersim, for instance, or conspiracy theories regarding the moon landings. There are also beliefs which are central to religions which are perfectly tenable: the Mormon belief that their religion was founded by Joseph Smith, for example. Very important to Mormons, also true – as far as it goes. You could also trawl religious texts and find, I am certain, numerous ethical and aesthetic precepts which are defensible. So I think we need a more sophisticated definition of both what makes something indefensible and what makes a belief “religious”. Being indefensible is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of religious belief.

Here, as I’ve noted in the past, is where we get to the crux of the matter. As I said above, we…are not only interested in challenging the most plainly harmful beliefs, but bad belief. (That’s why I’ve long thought that we’re more of an epistemic movement, although this doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a catchy name. …epists? epists+?)

No disagreement here either. The Humanist commitment to reason is broader than a mere commitment to challenge beliefs which harm others: it is a full-bore devotion to seeking truth. That’s why Humanists are so often scientists and philosophers, working in are which don’t directly tackle harmful religious beliefs but any unwarranted belief at all. That’s why I gave a talk called “Lust for Truth: Reason as a Moral Value” at the “Skeptics of Oz” conference this year, and why I go on radio and debate apologists. The truth matters for its own sake.

SC seems to think I don’t believe this. Where s/he gets that view I cannot tell – s/he certainly doesn’t tell us. When s/he says “we have…an ethical duty to believe according to the evidence” s/he could be quoting both my talk and my dissertation, which is on the importance of Free Thinking and tackles the ethical necessity of truth-seeking.

A commitment to science and reason as a route to truth is unequivocally-stated in all three Humanist Manifestos (the crispest way to determine the consensus of Humanist thought on a given matter at a given time):

Humanist Manifesto i

Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method. [The bit about "religion must..." seems odd to modern atheists but Humanism began as a radical "religious" movement. Reading the passage it is clear that "intelligent inquiry" and the "scientific spirit and method" are intended to guide all truth-seeking]

Humanist Manifesto ii

Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses. There is no substitute…The controlled use of scientific methods, which have transformed the natural and social sciences since the Renaissance, must be extended further in the solution of human problems…critical intelligence, infused by a sense of human caring, is the best method that humanity has for resolving problems…As science pushes back the boundary of the known, humankind’s sense of wonder is continually renewed

Humanist Manifesto iii

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

It’s very difficult to claim that Humanists don’t have a problem with unwarranted belief in the face of such explicit statements. But in case SC is still in doubt, I recommend Chapter V of Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism, “Reliance on Reason and Science”. In asserting that there is some sort of essential difference between Humanist philosophy and him/herself on this issue s/he reveals nothing so much as his ignorance of Humanist philosophy – ironic, given that s/he is using ideas which Humanist philosophers have promoted for some time to highlight the perceived difference.

when HCH people talk about confronting oppression, it seems clear that they’re placing themselves towards the charitable-service rather than the radical-social-change end of the spectrum.

Why does this seem clear? Why does SC make this assumption (for assumption it must be – no evidence is offered to support it). In actuality, while Humanism is compatible with many political outlooks, it has always had a radical aspect to it. Humanists have played a significant role in both progressive and radical social movements, and Humanists thinkers come in radical and progressive stripes. For my own part I’m glad that HCH tries to host critical discussions which analyze structures of oppression as well as organizing service projects. I write on topics of faith and its relationship with privilege regularly see here and here. We don’t see charity and service as incompatible with radical social change.

In sum, yes, there are differences. If this conversation is to proceed and if there’s going to be a possibility of collaborative efforts, the anti-faith position has to be fully recognized and treated respectfully (which doesn’t mean uncritically).

To reiterate and conclude, there is no argument here. A commitment to tackle what SC calls “faith” is central to Humanist thought and practice, and has been for many decades. It is central to my work as an educator, philosopher, and activist. It is central to HCH’s mission to help create communities which honor and spread reason throughout the world.

Salty Current’s post does not articulate any areas of real disagreement with the mainstream Humanist position. Rather, SC eloquently expresses the very position from which s/he claims to dissent.

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.

  • NathanDST

    Just a note: you may want to edit the pronouns in this post. You’ve alternatively used “s/he”and “he,” rather than sticking to one construction. It comes across as sloppy.

    • James Croft

      Thank you – I’ve edited the couple of occasions where that slipped through.

  • baal

    Humanism (humanists) hold not harming others as a high value. The Pharyngula Horde in-group (SC is one) does not share this value. This heuristic accounts for much of SC’s phrasing and ~splittery language. (fwiw, I lurked mostly and posted there for the better part of a year and will not return anytime soon. They are largely incapable of self reflection with regard to how non- in group people may perceive them (or simply don’t care). This is despite repeated actual notice from folks who mean well and PZ’s change in comment policy which was intended to blunt some of the Hordes more abusive nature.

    So far as the Horde has adopted A+ into its identity, the same behaviours of their in-group have been touted by A+ identifying commentors on the various atheist blogs. This too has been commented upon only to be dismissed as no true A+ers (it’s a leaderles movement so all bad acts aren’t part of the movement if they exist) or that no examples of bad (lack of understanding the world from more than 1 ananlysis frame? unfair? pick your pejorative) acts are in existence.

    Despite the negativity I’m displaying here, I do hope the A+ succeed in positive social change.

    • James Croft

      I think some of the concern of some commenters on Pharyngula, for example, are dedicated to reducing and preventing harm, and think that the sort of criticism they offer is a good way to do it. I don’t see it that way, but I think there are on occasion good motivations behind some bad behaviors.

  • Paul W., OM

    Baal, above, is an excellent example of why a lot of New Atheist types would rather have their own humanism movement that is fully accepting and proud of New Atheism-style atheism.

    We’re tired of being criticized—unfairly, we generally think—by Humanists like Baal, and especially like Mooney and Stedman and certain other prominent Humanists, as though we were just a bunch of thoughtlessly counterproductive, childish assholes… so we’ll take our ball and go play our own humanism game somewhere else, thank you very much.

    No hard feelings, I hope. (Seriously, I do hope that.)

    • James Croft

      Sure, but don’t claim there’s any real difference in fundamental values if you cant, you know, articulate any real difference in values.

      • Paul W., OM

        I’m not one of the people who claimed a fundamental difference in values, and was not defending that claim.
        I was addressing the next thing that comes up if you agree that A+ is a humanism.

  • Tony

    I’m offended at your false assertion that “the members of the Pharyngula Horde In-Group do not place a high value on harming others. ” Especially when the vast majority of the time, when the members of the Horde are rude, abrasive, contemptuous or downright mean- almost *never* involves a desire (overt or subtle) to inflict harm upon others. Or to wish harm upon others (yes, I’m aware of some exceptions, but those are not common and do get called out by other members). If you have substantial evidence to back this claim up, do so. If not, you owe SC an apology, as well as myself, and anyone else that regularly comments at Pharyngula.

    • James Croft

      You can cause harm without intending to though, right? And you can be reasonably expected to understand that the repeated use of derogatory slurs against people who hold different views might well cause harm, can’t you?

  • Giliell

    baal, I find it fascinating that somebody complains about “lack of self-reflection” and then goes on painting a whole group with one broad brush.
    If you actually had paid attention during your time on Pharyngula, you would have noticed that The Horde holds lots of different views on different subjects and argue quite fiercly amongst themselves.
    Do we care much about how “not in-group” people see us? Well, I, and I think many others care about outright falsehoods being spread. I don’t care about people thinking I’m mean. I probably am.
    You talk about the value of “not harming others”. We care about it. But we’re also adults who understand that sometimes you can’t go on with everybody being happy. To quote Lichtenstein: You can’t carry the torch of enlightenment through a crowd without singing some beards.
    We well understand that you can either harm rape victims by allowing people to nicely discuss what they should have done to prevent it and why they should just remove themselves from society if they can’t stand rape culture anymore. Or we can can be fierce and also downright nasty towards such a rape apologist and thereby give the rape victim a safe space.
    We can let people discuss “civilly” with all nice words whether women are actually human beings with a right to their own body or should just be treated as life-stock and thereby actually harm women*, or we can put a stop to this. Yes, that means hurting important fee-fees.
    We also understand that whether or not something is harmful and hurtful doesn not depend on bad words. We fully understand that saying “I think the African American community has a big problem with people not taking care of themselves” is much more offensive than saying “asshole”.
    Your criticism seems to be based on the fact that you don’t understand these things.

    *Do you have any idea how much it hurts and plainly scares the shit out of many women to see people do that?

    • James Croft

      There’s a massive false dichotomy here which is always wheeled out to defend certain forms of criticism, and it is this:

      EITHER I can be nasty and demeaning to people who disagree with me OR I can refrain from criticism in the name of being civil.

      The possibility that seems not to occur is that you can staunchly and firmly denounce, for instance, sexism without demeaning sexists. Civility is not a muzzle.

      • NathanDST

        Why should we NOT demean sexists? Racists?

        • James Croft

          Because they are human beings.

        • baal

          There is a substantial difference between getting a negative reaction from someone for being a jerk or an asshole to them and getting a negative reaction from someone for asking them to stop using “faggot” as an insult (instance of a bundle of sticks being pretty rare). I do assert, that despite it’s variation in personalities, the Horde are entirely blind to the harms you cause due to being righteous. Righteous – being certain that you are the only one who is right. I’m not saying you’re wrong to ‘singe beards’, I’m saying that holding a candle under someone’s face is different from willy nilly torch swinging is different from some guy planting his beard in your face is different from a stray ember from a far away campfire.

          “Your criticism seems to be based on the fact that you don’t understand these things.”<–this is my point actually.
          There are gradations of comment and writing. You all (yes it's a broad brush but do you need me to type out SC, Gelial(now in borg flavor), somehandmaden or another, brownian and the other regulars? You don't think that's inviting a pharyngula invasion / pile on more so than the generic invocation? Do you want that to happen? I don't. I even nearly fear it.) seem to think the only right action is to dial every point to 11 and leave it there. It's not proportional and it's not harmless.

          As evidence, there was a comment thread on WWJTD where several nice folks expressed fear at the thought of posting on Pharyngula lest they be molested. You all need to understand violence and harm better.

          @ tony " do get called out by other members"
          No, they do not. There was entirely 1 exception that i could find in 9 months of reading pretty much every comment thread (including the 300+ comments ones). Josh (who is or is not ironic, i can't tell) was disgusted by a woman's performance of femininity. He was called on it (by you all!! same list and cast of regulars) and apologized. That was it.

          If this has substantively changed in the last 3 months I've not been there, I apologize and will start reading that blog again. I'm not holding my breath, however.

          Out of respect for James and his efforts for civility, I'm not posting replies after this one. I will read your replies and consider them (if any).

          • James Croft

            Hey baal – let’s be careful about criticizing en masse (“the Horde”), partly because not all the individuals might display all the behaviors and because readers (including me!) don’t know precisely who you’re referring to!

            I have experienced some pretty shocking exchanges at Pharyngula, but I’ve also had very valuable discussions and have occasionally seen one commenter call-off another. It is rarer than I’d like, but it has occasionally happened.

          • Giliell

            “Righteous – being certain that you are the only one who is right. ”
            Duh, yeah, because clearly there’s a reasonable difference in opinion on the word faggot, whether women should just be more responsible and whether or not there should be harassment policies.
            “There are gradations of comment and writing. You all (yes it’s a broad brush but do you need me to type out SC, Gelial(now in borg flavor), somehandmaden or another, brownian and the other regulars?”
            Wow, that’s the worst butchering of my nym I have seen so far. It took me a while to figure out you even meant me. Given that you read almost every comment on Pharyngula (which not even the most regular people there actually manage) and have gotten such a bad impression of me that is astounding.
            “No, they do not. There was entirely 1 exception that i could find in 9 months of reading pretty much every comment thread”
            Funny enough, I can remember more. From gentle “Hey, please don’t use that word” to substantial disagreements.

            Really, I can’t even follow your argument because it’s so badly worded I don’t know what the point actually is apart from generic “da evil Horde”

      • Giliell

        Yes and no.
        I do have a vast repertoire of ways to carry a discussion. And I think that the different approaches have their merit.
        But I draw a line.
        There is no civil discussion with somebody who doesn’t accept me as a full human being. I understand that you can treat that question with academic interest, I can’t.
        Tell you what, I’ve been conditioned to apologize for being angry, to turn the other cheek (actually by atheists), that being angry made me wrong and that no matter what the other person had said or done, if I used a “bad word”, I was wrong, my crime was superior to everything else.
        Took me a year of therapy and yes, that aweful Pharyngula Horde with their open ears and open hearts and yes, their criticism as well to understand the value of a good and honest “fuck you”.
        What you demand is that I either just let the sexists, homophobes, racists, trasphobes and misogynists roam freely or that I keep on engaging in that self-destructive behaviour I mentioned above. Neither is acceptable to me.
        But do you actually notice that you feel the need to criticise all of us here from Pharyngula while whatever baal said seems to be fine by you?

        • James Croft

          1. I haven’t criticized anyome. I’m asking questions and encouraging discussion of an important issue.

          2. In your response you succumb to the same false dichotomy I pointed out was illegitimate in my reply to you. I am absolutely not “demand[ing] that [you] either just let the sexists, homophobes, racists, trasphobes and misogynists roam freely or that [you] keep on engaging in that self-destructive behaviour I mentioned above”. What I am suggesting is that there are ways of expressing hurt, anger and moral outrage which do not demean other people.

          There is no need to apologize for legitimate anger. Homophobia makes me angry. Racism fills me with disgust. And we need to own and express that in as forceful way we can – without dehumanizing other people.

          Saying “Fuck you” is rude but not demeaning, incidentally. Sometimes a hearty “fuck you” is precisely what is required. This isn’t about “bad words”, and I wish people wouldn’t reduce these important ethical questions to issues of name-calling.

          Why are we discussing this anyway? It’s completely OT.

        • James Croft

          I want to say my comment comes across as too blunt. I respect how you feel, Giliell. I never want to be told I have to restrain from the strongest possible criticism of practices which demean me and people like me. You say:

          “There is no civil discussion with somebody who doesn’t accept me as a full human being. I understand that you can treat that question with academic interest, I can’t.”

          That really struck me, because I was having the exact same discussion yesterday with someone. I was telling them that, as a gay man, there is no way I can have a “respectful” discussion with him when he denies my full humanity. It’s impossible for civil discourse to take place when I believe your a full human being and you don’t believe that about me.

          BUT, what I try to remember is – and I don’t mean to preach here, but I mean to explain my own thinking – they are people too. And even if they don’t respect my humanity, I can respect THEIRS. And if I don’t, then I am sacrificing some of my moral authority. Ultimately, I don’t just want to liberate myself – I want to liberate them from oppressive thinking – and that means respecting their basic humanity.

          That’s a fucking hard line to walk, and lots of times I cross over it, but I think it’s still the right path.

        • James Croft
  • Tony

    Sorry for aiding in the OT James.
    I just didn’t like the insult directed my way, as well as every other regular at Pharyngula by BAAL.

    • James Croft

      No it’s fine I actually think my comment was a little blunt. Giliell raises an important point which is dear to my heart too: I don’t want to be silenced from strongly criticizing the people, communities and organizations which harm me either. I’ts an important point to raise.

  • Pingback: Sometimes We Cannot Be Civil. But I Can.()