In a recent op ed article in The New York Times, Natasha Lennard and Cary Wolfe asked the question “is humanism really humane?” (see link below)
While the authors rightly point out that the term “humanism” has many meanings, Natasha Lennard falls into the fallacy of equating humanism with specism. But before we look at the critique, it’s a good idea to look at the usual mistakes the uninformed make about Humanism.
The term “humanism” developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, part of a matrix of terms for the developing secular thought of the era—“secular” itself was one term; others were freethought; agnostic; materialist, naturalist . . . and others.
Though there has been no general agreement, “humanism” has become the most generally used of the terms—besides “atheist”—to indicate a naturalistic, non-supernatural, ethical way of life. There have been two branches of Humanism: congregational and secular, though the worldview of both groups is identical.
We Humanists choose the term because we see it as a positive description, whereas “atheist” is a negative descriptor. We don’t see why we should describe ourselves as non-theistic, since we see the gods as outmoded and complicated answers to what have proven to be simple questions.
There are several fallacies concerning Humanism, perhaps chief of which is that Humanists deny the supernatural. Humanists don’t do that. We merely ask that the supernatural—if we are to include it in our understanding of reality—act in a way that is not explained by natural phenomena. So far, this hasn’t happened.
Another fallacy is that Humanism has not evolved since the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. There have been several manifestos since 1933 in the US, and, both domestically and internationally, Humanism has developed into a pluralistic movement of several varieties. Humanists are people who are quite aware of the most recent developments in human thought.
Another fallacy is that Humanism is overdependent upon individualism and the self. While Humanist ethics insist upon the freedom and flourishing of each individual, Humanism is a communal tradition, teaching that the highest good is compassion and cooperation as animals that have evolved to be social.
Another fallacy is that Humanism is all head and no heart. Though Humanists believe that reason, the scientific method, and scholarship are the most dependable—and universal—methods for discovering and describing reality, we understand the difference between description and narration. Humanists believe that the story of evolution is the most moving and awe-inspiring story of all. Besides, science teaches us that all thought is embodied thought.
Another fallacy is that Humanists believe that human beings are born good. This was a fallacy of liberal religion in the twentieth century, but Humanism is based firmly on natural selection, which clearly does not lead to a conclusion that human beings are “good.” Natural selection teaches us that human beings are animals. Animals are neither “good” nor “bad.” Animals are . . . as we are . . .
Now back to the fallacy in the NYT, that Humanism is “human centered” and speciest because of its name. There was indeed an over-valuation of human capacity in the early twentieth century, a mistake eradicated in the conflagration of the Second World War. Nowadays, Humanists have no illusions concerning the human. Our only distinction as a species is our ability to harm and heal in a global, calculated manner. Not all Humanists are vegetarian or vegan, but I daresay many are. My humanist congregation serves lunch each Sunday, and there are always vegetarian and vegan options.
Humanists are committed to embracing the best in human thought. What happens to Humanism as we discover the power of the microbiome over our thinking? Humanists have profound interest in this new idea. Does this discovery destroy the notion of free will? No worries for Humanists. Concepts such as free will and individualism have long been scrutinized by Humanists.
What happens to Humanism if the Big Bang theory is disproven? Nothing but profound interest among Humanists. What if one god or another actually shows up and does something? No problem. Humanists are interested in what happens next. We are not dogmatically anti-supernatural, we are merely naturalistic until the supernatural makes more sense than it does at the present time.
Everything interests us. Since we have no dogma, no idea upsets our apple cart!
Fact is, it is those who are working from a naturalistic framework who are capable of dealing with the implications of new discoveries. Humanists embrace the best of human thought, wherever that leads. As critiques of specism evolve, Humanists are ready to learn and adapt.
We are interested. We are ready to learn. We are awe-struck by both the beauty of the human arts and the beauty of reality.