The Perils of Decentralized Philosophy

Last week, a gunman opened fire during a school board meeting in Florida.  Luckily no one was hurt, but, naturally, the story got a lot of press coverage.  Although the crime had no religious component or motive, as far as anyone could tell, some news outlets reported on his religious views according to facebook: humanism.

Hermant Mehta, of Friendly Atheist, took umbrage:

Clay Duke was obviously not a Humanist — Humanists are not violent people.

The Humanist Manifesto III states:

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Even if that’s the term Duke used to describe himself, he obviously had no idea what it meant.

If someone asked me if I were a humanist, I would reply: sure, I guess. In all honesty, I have only the vaguest possible idea of what humanism consists of, and, if pressed for a definition I would say “Humanism is the belief that human beings are intrinsically valuable in some unique way.  Also some people claim Jefferson was a Humanist.”

Not a lot to hang your rhetorical hat on.

The trouble is that, not only does humanism not have any particular authoritative definition, it doesn’t even have a community of people who argue about the definition.  I’d never visited AmericanHumanist.org in my life before I clicked through to find their definition.  Humanism isn’t part of my social life, in the way that weekly Mass is for Catholics.  I don’t get to know other humanists by virtue of the fact that they are humanists.  I never feel like I’m on a humanist ‘team’ or that I ought to be embarrassed by the actions of other humanists.

After all, because humanism is known to be inchoate, I don’t feel any pressure to defend it or reform it.  This isn’t so much the case with atheism, since (a) atheism is a much simpler, negative belief, and (b) there are more obviously inappropriate blanket statements about atheists that I can try to correct (i.e. that we’re all nihilists).

I believe this ultimately weakens both atheism and humanism.  It’s harder to present a compelling vision of atheism or humanism when there is no strong force to push atheists/humanists into dialogue with each other or when it’s easy to write off other people who share my beliefs.  I’m certainly guilty of this.  I’m quick to say “That’s not essential to atheism” when I run into nihilist atheists or hedonist atheists or moral relativist atheists.

What I ought to do is think more about why these beliefs are so common among other people who don’t believe in God.  I ought to think about what evidence I have that leads me to differ and then reach out and convince them.  Currently, I spend more time pitching my views on morality to Christians than to atheists.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    You should read Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More! They founded the school of New Humanism. Really fantastic stuff.

  • http://khaosandeffect.com Ashok

    I'm unclear as to what you're worried about here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    There is no need for atheists to band together in that way. It's not like when a Jew does something all non-Hindus gather together to defend the action or denounce the non-Hinduism of the person. "He wasn't a real non-Hindu, a real non-Hindu wouldn't do that."It is the laughably overblown version of the No True Scotsman fallacy.


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