Humanism and Politics 1: Humanism is Political, or it isn’t Humanism

Humanism and Politics 1: Humanism is Political, or it isn’t Humanism October 28, 2011

Disclaimer: In this series of articles on Humanism and politics I express strongly-held personal convictions regarding the nature and requirements of the Humanist life-stance. Some will disagree – fine. Present your arguments, and we will hash it out. Further, I am fully aware that aspects of this argument are crude sketches – this is a blog, not a journal. The purpose is to start discussion and get people thinking. All of the following is to be read as if preceded by “in my opinion”. Image Credit: cover of ‘Toward a New Political Humanism’, by Barry F. Seidman (Author) and Neil J. Murphy (Editor).

Religion and politics – two subjects we are admonished to avoid discussing at all costs. But what about irreligion and politics? How does the life stance of Humanism  intersect with the political sphere? Are there political views that are mandatory for Humanists, part of the definition of the term? Is Humanism necessarily political? Or can Humanism as a philosophy stand aloof from political concerns and embrace the whole range of political perspectives?

These questions are not solely of intellectual interest. The current political climate, supercharged by the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, an upcoming Presidential election, the economic situation, and instability across the world caused by popular uprisings and mass discontent, demands a response. Humanists must consider their position and their responsibilities as citizens and individuals.

Further, as a recent survey of freethinkers suggests (I’m investigating now whether this survey is available to the public – data coming shortly I hope), and as has been my experience at Harvard, political differences between individuals within Humanist and freethinking groups can be a source of strain and strife. Freethinkers come from all over the political spectrum, and sometimes vehemently disagree over political issues. It would be beneficial, in order to better navigate such discussions, to have greater clarity regarding the political requirements (I use this strong word intentionally) of a Humanist outlook.

So, to first principles: Humanism is a life-stance with an ethical heart. Since the first Humanist Manifesto, Humanists have attempted to create a consensus regarding certain basic ethical principles which form the core of our worldview. The documents thus created do not in any sense constitute a Humanist dogma – explicit statements preface each that make it clear that Humanists are not all required to believe everything in the document in the way it is presented, and that the principles outlined are subject to change. Nonetheless, they do constitute the closest thing Humanists have to a creed: a set of statements which the vast majority of Humanists should be able to assent to. As such, for me, they have taken on a definitional quality: when someone is really interested in Humanism, I send them to the third Manifesto.

In this latest iteration of the Manifesto, Humanism and its Aspirations, our key principles are outlined in admirably short prose. In brief, they are: promote human flourishing; rely on reason to solve shared problems; work to benefit others as well as yourself; ethical values are derived from human experience; build relationships between human beings in order to promote their welfare; consider every human being as worthy of equal moral concern.

It seems clear to me that any serious adherence to these principles will imply some form of political engagement. A society, for example, where certain citizens are denied basic freedoms and equality due to their race or sexuality, is not a society which considers every human being worthy of equal moral concern. This should be unacceptable to a Humanist, and if their espousal of Humanist principles is to be meaningful, they have a responsibility to act to change such a situation.

The same argument can be made regarding some other (clearly political) issues. Poverty prevents human flourishing in numerous ways, yet it abounds in the USA and other societies. Humanists wish to promote human flourishing, and therefore have to fight against poverty. A Humanist who is indifferent to poverty is a contradiction in terms. Freedom of speech and thought, an inherently and irrevocably political issue, is frequently under threat. You can’t consistently be a Humanist and not care when the Patriot Act potentially tracked who’s taking which books out of which libraries, or when libel laws are used to stifle legitimate criticism. You cannot be a Humanist and not care when misleading “history” is pushed down kids’ throats in school and creationism taught as science. And on and on.

I can already hear the indignant cries: “Who are you to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do?” Short answer: I’m telling you no such thing. You, by describing yourself as a Humanist, are telling yourself that this is how you should act. That is what adherence to an ethical stance means: an acceptance that, for a given set of reasons, one should act to promote various goods and avoid various evils. Someone who says “I am a Humanist”, and who does not act to ensure civil rights for all, to alleviate poverty, to promote freedom of thought, and to defend science is simply acting inconsistently with their espoused worldview – and questions can be raised as to whether they can accurately be said to hold that worldview at all.

Let me be very clear about this: if Humanism in this context means anything at all, it means broad adherence to the values espoused in Humanism and its Aspirations. That implies acting on those principles. That implies political engagement. 

I see no way around it: Humanism is political, or it isn’t Humanism.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. All the great Humanist figures from history who have inspired this site were politically engaged, most of them heavily so. Robert Ingersoll was a Republican politician of high standing. Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were both passionate and influential social reformers. Felix Adler was a community organizer as much as he was a philosopher. The idea that freethinking can be an apolitical movement seems a fairly recent development.


Just because Humanism implies some sort of political engagement around certain central values we share, does not mean that all Humanists need share precisely the same political viewpoint. Why not? Essentially, because there is (lots of) room for disagreement about the most effective mechanisms to achieve the social ends Humanists desire. This disagreement over the means to effect  desired ends is the subject of the second post in this series, coming soon…

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