Aspirational Humanism: 70 Years of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Aspirational Humanism: 70 Years of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) December 18, 2018

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Let’s begin with a question: How often do secular folk fixate on the differences between scripture and real-world religious behaviour? Sometimes it feels as though a solid third of atheist rhetoric in my channels focusses on how Christians–politicians and lay-citizens alike–have failed to uphold [X] isolated verse in the Bible.

Shaming others is an old-as-dirt human behaviour–and it must be fairly satisfying, or we wouldn’t do it as often. But I have a great deal of suspicion for that which satisfies. Much as I don’t like reading texts that are essentially “preaching to the choir”, I find there’s a great deal of complacency in pointing fingers at others and their moral failings.

And so it worries me that so much atheist discourse involves indulging in the satisfaction of thinking we “know” a book better than religious folk, enough that we can shame them with our knowledge.

What are we overlooking when we do? What difficult work are we avoiding when we pass so much of our precious sentient time criticizing others?

Our Duty as Humanists to Build a Better Canon

Last week marked 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As NPR notes, it wasn’t an easy road to acceptance, in large part because the document ran afoul of cultural differences. Many felt that it was too western-centric, a new form of colonialist imposition… and of course, there were religious contentions with some of its most critical articles. Eight countries abstained from the final vote: the Soviet Union and five bloc states, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. (Two more, Honduras and Yemen, did not show up to vote.) Amusingly, though, this “western-centric” document also ran afoul of U.S. conservatives, who did not like the reach of economic rights the document endowed, and feared they would lead to… (you hear that, Russia?) socialism.

Just can’t please everyone, can you?

Since reading news of this milestone, though, I’ve been reflecting on whether we have any better text on secular humanist principles. And if we don’t, well… then we have a bit of a problem. Because while we’re pointing fingers at religious folks for their failure to live up to the best bits of their documents… we’re hardly living up to our own.

Caveat: The UDHR Ain’t Perfect

Now, certainly, I don’t agree with everything in the UDHR. I don’t think many of us would, and that’s fine! One of the great benefits of secularism, after all, is never having to regard anything as immutably sacred. (If ever sacred at all.)

So when I see Article 11.2, for instance, I recognize the reasoning behind it while still wanting better. We have the “pardon” in place as a social practice to ease punishment that we felt was unjust at the time. Is there really no way, without risking mob justice, to add the ability to intensify punishment for truly socially destructive acts? Must we always go through an injustice of a decision, like the conclusion to the “wolf pack” situation in Spain, and simply promise to change the law for future victims… maybe, eventually?

Who is more frequently protected by Article 11.2? Who is more frequently harmed?

I also have concerns about Article 19, which has hardly kept up with social media as a tool of misinformation when talking of the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” I know Articles 28-30 emphatically states that all preceding articles are not to be employed against the spirit of the UDHR, but too much behavioural psychology illustrates how poorly we humans handle inundation by Bad Ideas. So how much can we risk? How should we balance protective censor with protections against state oppression? Good question. Huge question! And no perfect answers spring to mind, so I am left only with my unease and no solutions.

…But Still, We Fall Ever So Short of Its Goals

When I read the UDHR, though, I find myself less troubled by the parts I don’t fully agree with, and more by the parts I do. Because… good heavens, who can read this document and not come up with a handful of examples in recent history of each article being violated? The UDHR should break the heart of any good humanist who takes the time to read it–because it’s still only an aspirational text 70 years after its approval.

But why? Why isn’t it sufficient for a text to make grand declarations and the world to change in keeping with that wealth of codified optimism?

We in the secular world certainly expect it from religious folks–and usually as a brutal kind of mockery, to remind them that if a just god really existed, then a just world would be far more attainable.

…But my dudes, mi gente, we know there is no god save in the minds of fellow believers, each image of an almighty framed by community and text in line with personal beliefs.

So what in blazes is our deal, in mocking other aspirational people for not achieving the highest promises of their sacred texts… when we all have a long way to go?

Humanism is Humanism, Whatever Your Spiritual Beliefs

My #2 pet peeve, when it comes to the practice of humanism, is when religious persons assume that humanism is simply a secular concern.

Usually these religious persons are escatological nihilists of an Abrahamic flavour. They’re the kind of people who delight in posting memes about how YOU are the villain in your own life story, and Jesus is the hero. The kind of people who tell four-year-olds they’re going to hell because these children need to know right now, right at this most vulnerable and credulous moment so as to inspire in them a “loving adoration” for their creator. These people need to believe that No True Christian could possibly see in humankind anything but the worst kind of unredeemable garbage, because the worse the garbage, the more miraculous a god’s forgiveness… if humankind accepts its intrinsically wretched state. If not, to hell (literally!) with you and your prideful ways!

So yes, my #2 pet peeve is when religious persons erase the existence if Christian humanists, Jewish humanists, Muslim humanists, Baha’i humanists, Hindu humanists, Sikh humanists, Taoist humanists…

But my #1 pet peeve is when we secular folk do the same. And oh, we do. We do so every time we lump in nihilistic spiritualists with people using whatever story they’ve been given since childhood–whatever story forms their cultural communities, their families, their support groups–to try to build a better world. Every time we fixate on what is often regarded as on par with a belief in Santa Claus, or the value for working- and middle-classes of trickle-down economics. Every time we share memes about the “idiots” who draw strength and patience and wisdom from their faith.

Two Problems with This Behaviour

Meanwhile, we need a big tent if we’re going to develop better texts, and from those texts a better world. But are we even contributing to this big tent ourselves, if we’re so busy doing what is easy, lazy, and cruel? Where is our body of humanistic good works in all this tribalist venting at an out-group?

Simply put, when we join religious nihilists in neglecting religious humanists… we lose allies and ourselves as key players in compassionate humanism.

What we need is more Thomas Jeffersons… at least, the part of Jefferson that tried to build a better scripture than was originally on offer. To take a less slave-sanction-y example from the contemporary field: we need more Anne Lamotts, Rachel Held Evans’s, Rob Bells… people who openly, and with good humour, reject the bad, own up to what is awful, and otherwise re-shape their religions’ stories to suit humanity’s present needs.

And no, we don’t need these storytellers because creating the right story, the perfect text, is any guarantee of real-world application. (As the UDHR amply demonstrates, talking a big talk is an old-as-dirt human behaviour, too.)

Rather, we need a big tent because the very act of refining our culture’s stories–all of them, religious and secular–is a colossal undertaking. We need more people in the trenches of this work, dedicated on a daily level to thinking about how the world is, how we want it to be, and what needs to change in order to achieve those better ends.

…Because It’s Not Just Text, Is It?

No, it’s not just text… And this is the #1 mistake that ever so many persons with rigid legal views perpetuate: the belief that any text could ever be inviolate. Of course they bloody well aren’t. Each is simply paper and ink, or pixels on a screen, or lines scored with reed on wet clay, or chiseled with metal on stone. Before we had writing, we still had stories. We spoke them, sang them, probably did dances and made elaborate physical gestures to accompany them. We embodied our stories. And that’s where real authority lies–with the power and potential of each and every human being.

Evolution couldn’t prepare us, though, for the moment when the body of a given written text would become conflated in our simple primate minds with the bodies of human beings, each carrying a collection of experiences and authority-claims within them. Each collection profoundly human. Each collection unique in all the cosmos. And that’s not an easy conflation to erase.

Nevertheless, what the UDHR strove to articulate was that if anything should be inviolate in society, it is not our texts, not our bodies of law and scripture unto themselves, but ourselves: we wondrous, strange, and briefly questing human beings.

And so, 70 years on, the UDHR embodies a great deal of potential never achieved.

But so too do the humanists who read it today, along with a myriad of other cultural stories, and choose only to point fingers at the disconnect in others between aspirational text and individual praxis. We all have so many more interesting stories to embody. And we need them–all of them, all the mess and the muck of distinct human experiences–to develop a world where others are freer to do the same.


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  • So yes, my #2 pet peeve is when religious persons erase the existence if Christian humanists, Jewish humanists, Muslim humanists, Baha’i humanists, Hindu humanists, Sikh humanists, Taoist humanists…

    But my #1 pet peeve is when we secular folk do the same. And oh, we do. We do so every time we lump in nihilistic spiritualists with people using whatever story they’ve been given since childhood–whatever story forms their cultural communities, their families, their support groups–to try to build a better world. Every time we fixate on what is often regarded as on par with a belief in Santa Claus, or the value for working- and middle-classes of trickle-down economics. Every time we share memes about the “idiots” who draw strength and patience and wisdom from their faith.

    You’re right to point out this disturbing irony. Religions erase their humanistic contingents because they’re an implicit threat to organizational authority, while secular humanists erase the same groups because they don’t fit into our monolithic concept of religion.

    I think we’re fighting a losing battle if we think we can’t see eye to eye with religious people on issues of social justice. And maybe that’s the rhetorical aim of a lot of atheist bloggers, the same sort of losing battle that Simone de Beauvoir derided in The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility for the state of the world by taking action that is only meant to flatter our self-image as maverick outsiders rather than sincerely engaging with others to improve society.

  • Priya Lynn

    Great article. I agree with the vast majority of what you wrote 🙂

  • Joe Omundson

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines recently. The blog I run is intended to help people who are recovering from religion, and I’m trying to figure out what kind of stuff I want to write for it. It’s easy to tear apart the logic of religion and I’ve spent plenty of time doing that… but at some point, I feel I need to talk about what we’re moving toward. How do we heal from religion, and after that, what’s something better we can do instead? What’s our real goal for humanity and how do we move toward it?

  • Gary Whittenberger

    “Erase the existence” is a straw man argument. That can’t be done.

    Religious humanists and secular humanists will have different declarations with some overlap. So what?

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Correct Universal Ethics.

  • Joe Omundson

    Correct? By what standard

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Correct by the standard of reason. If there is a better standard, let me know.

  • You always make me think. I suppose it would be better if those thoughts would turn into actions!

    I tried to drive some traffic over here, but I’m not especially influential. I do hope your blog catches on in a big way.

  • Not a straw man. We’re just talking semantic differences re: my shorthand for the negation of whole groups of persons from argumentation, the same way that some evangelicals insist there is no such thing as an atheist, only a person angry with (their) god. I didn’t mean *literally* erasing the persons themselves. Gee, I wonder what the term would be for trying to present my argument in its most absurd formation!

  • Thanks for reading and writing, Priya! In the future, please do feel free to contest the parts you don’t agree with! 🙂

  • Lerk!, thank you for your kind words–which are an action unto themselves! Your own thoughts are very welcome here, and I have no doubt they manifest in meaningful action in your everyday communities, too.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Gee, I wonder what words you’d use if you expressed your point more clearly and precisely here. “Erase” is really poor.

  • Helen LIpson

    So pleased to see this rather rare acceptance, among secular humanists, of NON-secular humanists and their value. I don’t denigrate anyone for believing in God until I know WHAT KIND OF GOD THEY BELIEVE IN – that is, how that God inspires them to behave, to treat other people, to accept as their responsibilities to others. And a great many believers give very humanistic answers – unless you insist on defining humanism as secular only.

  • joeomundson why

  • Do you have examples?

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Sure.

    Example 1: Any person X should not enslave any other person Y.

    Example 2: In responding to a trespasser Y, any person X should first order Y to halt and if this is not successful, call the proper authority to stop and/or penalize Y.

    These are examples of moral rules which should be applicable anytime anywhere, don’t you think?

  • The 1st is a great example; the 2nd not so much: you can’t assume there’s always a “proper authority” available.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Please give what you believe to be an example of a place where there is not a “proper authority”?

    It depends somewhat on how we define “proper authority.”

  • I’ll give you 2 examples:

    1) Somalia when it had no functioning government
    2) Sparsely populated places like Wyoming or Montana, where somebody could have their home broken into by an armed intruder and the police wouldn’t have much hope of getting there to help on time.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Thanks for your examples. I’ll reply to each one.

    “1) Somalia when it had no functioning government”

    GW: In a case like that the “proper authority” would be a regional one (like the EU or NATO) or an international one (like the UN).

    “2) Sparsely populated places like Wyoming or Montana, where somebody could have their home broken into by an armed intruder and the police wouldn’t have much hope of getting there to help on time.”

    GW: In a case like that the “proper authority” would be the county sheriff or the state police.

    GW: Notice that the second moral rule has a two-step response — 1) order to halt, then if this is not successful, 2) call the proper authority for an intervention. However, the number of contingent steps can be expanded to three or four, e.g. 3) escape from the premises and/or 4) use nonlethal force or the threat of lethal force against the trespasser.

    GW: An alternative rule for the same type of situation might be this: “In responding to a nonaggressive trespasser Y, any person X should use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop the trespassing.”

    GW: Correct Universal Ethics can be (and probably should be) formulated by a panel of moral experts using reason and consensus.

  • Correct Universal Ethics can be (and probably should be) formulated by a panel of moral experts using reason and consensus.

    Agreed. But that consensus can be intractable difficult to achieve in practice beyond an extremely limited set of things (like your proposed rule about slavery).

  • Gary Whittenberger

    AD4: Agreed.

    GW4: That’s a good start.

    AD4: But that consensus can be intractable difficult to achieve in practice beyond an extremely limited set of things (like your proposed rule about slavery).

    GW4: Your objection amounts to a prediction with which I disagree. Instead, I predict that a panel of moral experts (I think nine persons would be ideal) would be able to reach consensus on moral rules to cover 95%+ of moral issues, if they are all using reason to formulate the rules. For a group of nine I would define consensus as agreement by at least seven of the nine (78%).

    GW4: In the end did you agree with my responses to your concerns about the second example? If not, why not?

  • Yes, I agreed with your alt. rule for the situation (i.e. use min. necessary force).

    I also agree that getting 7/9 to agree on 95%+ of issues seems reasonable; precisely defining what you meant helped.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Thank you.

    Some people believe that without religion there can be no morality or ethics with a sound foundation. I totally disagree with this. CUE is the answer.