What Humanizes us?

What Humanizes us? March 8, 2019

I try to put out a post a week just to keep the juices flowing. But some weeks are harder than others, and I just do not know what I am going to post. This week was shaping up to be such a week as I did not feel posting about Cohen’s testimony or any other current event. But sometimes I get into a conversation and it all comes together. My writer’s block goes away, and I have my message for the week. This is one of those posts.

This past weekend I was in Canada to speak at a conference. I spoke with a pastor who was doing some academic work on dehumanization. We had a rich and fascinating conversation, and he gave me an insight that I want to talk about. This post will be in the vein of looking at larger questions rather than current events. For now I will not provide the pastor’s name without his permission, but if he gives me permission in the future, I will provide it in an update.

As it concerns discussion about dehumanization the work by Nick Haslam is the best I have seen on the subject. He talks about two different types of dehumanization. There is animalistic where we see others as just animals. The qualities of animalistic dehumanization are lack of culture, coarseness, amorality, irrationality, and childlikeness. Then there is mechanistic dehumanization where we see others as commodities. The qualities of mechanistic dehumanization are inertness, coldness, rigidity, passivity, and superficiality.

I got acquainted with Haslam’s work because when I was studying Christianophobia, I wanted to understand the nature of the comments many of my respondents were making. I wanted to know if such comments met an academic definition of dehumanization. Of all of the work I looked at, Haslam’s writing was the best systematic definition of dehumanization. I discovered that his description of animalistic dehumanization fits the attitudes of those with Christianophobia to a T.

Based on the work of Haslam, my friend made the point that in a materialistic world these two ways to understand dehumanization make total sense. We can see each other as either just another type of animal or just a faceless member of society. In a secular society, there is no other way to understand humans except as one of these two patterns of dehumanization.

I have seen these types of dehumanization take place even when there is no ill intent by those who perpetuated these tendencies. For example, when I was in grad school, I remember an animal rights activist singing a song about how we are all animals. I know that the intent of the song was that we would acknowledge the importance of taking care of animals. But to make that point, the singer reduced us down to animals. Perhaps we are higher forms of animals, but we are just animals nonetheless.

I also have watched as business individuals talk about customers as if they were a faceless mass devoid of personality. Customers are merely individuals who purchase commodities. Indeed, this way of talking about customers reduces them, or us, to commodities. It may be that anytime we operate within large institutions, there is a propensity to look at others as potential commodities. I know that in large universities we also have to be careful because it becomes much too easy to start seeing students as just numbers to fill a classroom. Whenever we slip into a pattern of viewing others as such, then there is a tendency to envision them as cold and emotionless, almost like robots.

In a materialist world, these types of dehumanization seem inevitable. I tried to think of ways in which we can think of humans within a materialistic framework that did not reduce us down to animals or commodities. But I was unable to do so. Perhaps this is merely due to my lack of imagination and someone will point out what I am missing. But for now, it does seem that materialist assumptions about reality naturally lead to one of these two dehumanizing paths.

For my friend and myself this was not a problem that we share with the materialists. With our Christian beliefs, we understand humans as having the spark of the divine within them. All of us are created by God, and thus we have worth since He values us so much. God’s impact on us separates us from the animals. It also assures us that we do not have to be reduced down to a nameless commodity. So my Christian beliefs relieve me of the obligation to see others as either animals or commodities.

Let me head off an objection that I know will come. The fact that my Christian beliefs remove the intellectual connection to dehumanization does not mean that Christians automatically avoid dehumanization. Neither does it mean that atheists and agnostics must dehumanize others. I have had secular friends who are good and kind to others and Christian friends who are jerks. We do not always live consistent with the implications of our worldview, and we can find good and bad individuals within all religions and irreligious groups.

I also want to avoid the practical implications of this observation for the time being. I have thought about those practical implications, and they are pretty powerful as we consider the process of secularization in our society. Perhaps in a future blog I will discuss them. But at this point, discussing those implications will invite arguments that I would rather not have right now. Since I am avoiding making arguments about the implications of dehumanization in a materialistic society, I hope we can avoid discussing what leads to good and bad societies for the time being. Instead, I want to focus on the epistemology of how people in a secular framework justify treating others as humans instead of as animals or commodities.

I wonder what can be potential sources of humanization within a secular framework. Some of the classical atheist philosophers, such as Camus and Nietzsche, struggled with how can we justify morality in a world without the divine. I wonder if what they were really struggling with was how can we humanize others when we have a materialistic framework that indicates that we are cosmic accidents. Because when you humanize others, then it becomes much easier to treat them in a moral manner.

One of my disappointments of the new atheists is that, with the exception of Harris, they do not struggle with the issues of morality in the way the classic atheist philosophers did. As such, they certainly do not struggle with the ideas surrounding sources of humanization in a secular society. If our society is going to become more secular, then I would like to think about how we develop pathways towards humanization of those who are not like us. All of us, religious or secular, who are going to live in a secular society have a vested interest in considering how to justify humanizing other individuals in that society.

So my question is this: if you are a secular individual, what is your intellectual motivation for humanizing others? Is there a way one can have a materialistic framework and not reduce humans down to either animals or commodities? Or is it possible that there is no intellectual escape from a materialistic worldview and one of these two types of dehumanization? Perhaps it is the case that only when one embraces a belief in something greater than humans that one can then can justify humanizing others. My hope is that there are viable intellectual paths from a materialistic worldview and humanizing of others. Those paths will become all the more important as the United States moves towards a more secular society. Thus, I am truly interested in how individuals steeped in a materialistic mindset legitimate humanization.

A couple of caveats before I sit back and see what is offered in the comments. First, I am not interested in platitudes or mindless talking points. Statements like “being good for goodness sake” are nice sentiments. But they do not truly address the dilemma of how we justify humanization in a secular society. I am not looking for an answer that is needlessly complicated, but I do expect some degree of nuance as I am asking a serious question that is sophisticated enough that the answer will not be reduced to a meme.

Second, I allow a good degree of trolling and silliness in the comments. Perhaps I have been too lenient at times, but I prefer to err on the side of more speech. But on this issue, I really would like to see useful dialog. I am going to be a bit more restrictive than normal. Comments that do not further a real argument and that merely insult Christians (which is not a good way to show the willingness of secular individuals to humanize others) will be taken down without warning. Sometimes I think I should just jettison the comments sections of my blog. But at times I do find that it can lead to interesting discussions, and so I hold out hope for such dialog. I hope this may be one of the times where we get such a discussion.

Update: My friend just saw the blog and agreed to be identified. His name is Andy Steiger. He created and hosted the Thinking Series and is the author of Thinking? Answering Life’s Five Biggest Questions.

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  • rogerwmbennett

    I always enjoy reading your blog, but this question is an uncommonly deep one, “outside your wheelhouse” professionally but within the wheelhouse of every human simply as a human.
    I hope I make my way back again to see some materialist answers. Like you, I’m not a materialist and have no answer to suggest to those who are.
    I appreciate your caveat that theists can be beastly and materialists can (from our shared perspective) rise above what seems to be justified.

  • Alan Drake

    I have lived in New Orleans for most of the last 26 years, and I plan to die here.

    There are many attractions (and negatives) to living here, but the comity and openness of the people, one to another, is perhaps my greatest joy (except during meals).

    The underlying reason is, I think, that people simply enjoy living like this. If we do not each do “our part”, it falls apart.

    It is also a bizarrely creative place, where the role of money is secondary to our social & creative life.

    Catholicism certainly played a role in establishing New Orleans culture (especially forgiveness of sins), but it’s role is fading – as are AA Protestant churches. White Southern Baptists never really got much of a foothold, main line Protestants are definitely here – as are Jews – but they have not defined our character.

    I think New Orleans is ahead of most of the USA in evolving into a post-Christian society. Yet we recognize each other’s humanity far more than any evangelical dominated city does.

    My hypothesis is: If you want your humanity recognized, you need to recognize the humanity of others AND you must value other things much more than material wealth & possessions.

    After all, what is symbolizied in Mardi Gras throws ?

  • “My hope is that there are viable intellectual paths from a materialistic worldview and humanizing of others.”

    I think you’re hoping for some rationality but most people are not, especially, non-Christians. That said, humanism seems to have had a pretty good track record.

  • Joseph Rhea

    George, does Haslam incorporate identity politics into his work? Because it seems like a belief similar to “You just think that way because you’re a woman,” etc., is on the dehumanization spectrum at least: it casts people as Others and seems to limit the depth of empathy and mutual understanding across difference.

    I ask because I didn’t see that map neatly into animalistic or commodity dehumanization – maybe it shades toward animalistic – but it seems like the most prevalent form of soft dehumanization in the U.S. today: seeing someone only as a representative of an “Other” or alien group.

  • sidpol

    I find a resonance between this premise and the work of Richard Rohr/C. Baxter Kruger/Andrea Robe and others working to change our perspective, and interpretation of, on the Gospel. Many of God’s statement and Jesus’ teachings used a community or collective “we” or “you and your descendants”. As these teachers present a refreshing view of the Gospel, they also point out, it was Paul and Augustine that tried to ease the sting of original sin by relating it to the individual and giving doctrine for the individual. Yet, the Bible remains applicable to the collective, inclusive, and nondualistic. Richard Rohr asks that we convince ourselves of this point by studying God’s covenants with Abraham, Noah, and David. The resonance I see with this article is the focus on the individual and condemnation of the individual’s sins separates us from each other and from God. This separation continues today in our alienation from each other and, as you so aptly state, dehumanization of each other.

    I am sure Paul’s and Augustine’s intentions were to be helpful, but people of great light also cast great shadows. We need to remain vigilant in our contemplation of God’s word, seeking understanding, and remain in our inner room with the Trinity.