Dream the Impossible Dream

Journalist Andrew Brown has penned an article for the UK’s The Guardian: “Humanism is an Impossible Dream”. It is…confused. Brown believes that Humanism – the form promoted by the British Humanist Association, at least – is an incoherent idea.

Reading to the end of a recent press release I discovered that the British Humanist Association proclaims that it is “the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination based on religion or belief. It exists to support and represent people who seek to live good and responsible lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.”

I realised that though I know what this means clearly enough, it’s actually an entirely impossible dream. “Humanism” is, of course, a thoroughly contested word. But for the moment I will stick to the BHA’s definition and ask whether that represents a coherent idea.

The first point is that it is defined in a largely negative way. If we leave out the stuff about trying to lead good and responsible lives – for I know of no organisation that openly markets itself to people who are trying to live bad, irresponsible lives – “humanists” are people who are free of religion and superstition. One consequence of defining yourself in this way is that your identity becomes dependent on what you are not. As the definition of “religion” or “superstition” shifts, so must the meaning of “humanism”.

Humanism is defined in a largely negative way? Well, this is what happens when 1) you get most of your information about a proud intellectual and ethical tradition with roots anchored in the earliest civilized societies from the last two sentences of a press release and 2) you “leave out the stuff” which articulates a positive set of values – that unimportant stuff about “trying to lead good and responsible lives”.

What Brown does’nt seem to realize – and had neither the intellectual curiosity nor sense of journalistic responsibility to discover – is that the phrase about “leading good lives” is shorthand for a rich and complex ethical philosophy which has been developing over generations and has played a significant role in humanizing the world.

So much for that. What of the claim that, as the meaning of religion shifts, so must the meaning of “nonreligious”? Well, fair enough. So what? It is hardly fatal to a self-critical, mutable philosophy like Humanism – one which recognizes that even the best ideas must change with changing times – to recognize that one of its core concepts might itself change, and thereby prompt a reconsideration of the language used. One of the great benefits of living by a self-consciously human-created philosophy is precisely its ability to change to accommodate its context.

Brown suggests a definition of “religion” he prefers:

Very roughly, you could define the religion that scientists study as “the stories and practices that individuals and societies use to explain and create their relation to each other and their meaning in the world”.

Now, clearly this “religion that scientists study” is not the “religion” which most lay people speak about when they say “I am religious” or “I am not religious”. When someone tells a pollster that they are not religious they are not thinking – unless, perhaps, they are a scholar of religion – that they have given up practices to explain and create relationships to others and find meaning in the world. They are saying, rather, that they no longer consider themselves a member of one of the well-known established religions: they are not a Christian, not a Jew, not a Muslim etc. This is really what they mean.

But what if the term “religion” were indeed to become widely-used in the sense Brown offers? Would this somehow discredit the Humanist project? Not slightly. We’d just have to accept that, given that the definition of religion has changed, then perhaps Humanism has become a religion (again). No big deal: it’s the language which has changed, not our values.

Brown does get something right, though:

To eliminate religion, in this wider definition, is to eliminate all social bonds…[I believe that] atheism, or post-Christianity, can itself become a myth by which society understands and constitutes itself…something will always be needed, and something will always be used.

I believe that people need stories, narrative structures to shape their lives. And I believe, with Carl Sagan, that a Humanist “mythos” – a grand-narrative which frames our experience in terms of Humanist values – might indeed emerge, may already be emerging. This does not mean, though, that the Humanist endeavor is “doomed and incoherent”. It means that we are finally on our way to living with myths we know to be myths, stories we tell ourselves in the full knowledge we might have to change them.

If Humanists are dreaming an impossible dream, at least it’s a dream we are ourselves spinning.

About James Croft

Dr. James Croft is the Outreach Director of the Ethical 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 completed his Ed.D 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.