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.

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Atheism's Lack of Values is a Bug, Not a Feature
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.


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