April 1992

The Future of Humanism: Building a Local Group


For many of you my talk will be a throw away, therefore I’d like everything out front at the beginning so you’ll know whether to listen carefully or catch up on your sleep. The things I am about to say may sound like heresy. You may want to reject my whole message because it seems to be in conflict with your current position and understanding. I can only hope that additional thought and experience will lead you to re-evaluate your position and change your mind.

Everything I will be saying is based on defining Humanism as a religion. If you are not able or willing to even consider doing that then I think we will all lose. If you are willing to suspend judgment until you’ve had an opportunity to carefully evaluate my presentation then I welcome your thoughtful consideration. I ask no one to take everything I say on faith. I encourage you to acknowledge every doubt and every question you have on this issue and move where your best thinking leads you.

Humanism is a Religion

I am totally convinced that it is essential that we recognize humanism as a religion. But of equal importance we must see that this is true not legally, but also semantically, psychologically, sociologically and anthropologically. If you have trouble with the foregoing I can understand. After I discarded Protestant Christianity as a youth, I became a militant atheist. I wanted to throw out all religion as well as God, Jesus, prayer and the Bible. It wasn’t until some 20 years ago, while attending a humanist program in the Los Angeles area, that one of your local humanists helped me to begin clarifying the issue. I can’t remember the person’s name, but I know he died several years ago.

He pointed out that the roots of the word religion are of ancient Greek origin, and do not relate to the supernatural, but rather to the binding into a community. So semantically humanism is a religion. This insight game me a tool to begin seeing humanism, society and religion in a new way. Over the past 20 years I have explored every element of the issues that have been raised about the relationship of humanism and religion. I now am totally convinced that humanists must return to our humanist roots of the 1920’s and 30’s when all those who helped to develop the concept and the organization saw humanism as a religion.

What is a religion?

As a result of the foregoing experiences, I began to realize that another aspect of religion is that it provides the glue that holds a culture together. It provides the symbols that its members use to define themselves, the universe and the rest of society in a unified way so they feel connected, not alienated. Ideally, it incorporates the wisdom of the past with the best knowledge and understanding of the present.

At this point I was starting to see the true role of religion in society and its deeper importance. I saw that psychologically a religion provides a feeling that life has meaning, and that humanism can do this. Humanism can help individuals to be fully integrated and healthy with a totally congruent world view. For me, the power and glory of humanism is that it not only has the ability to bind all the world’s societies together, it has the potential to integrate the emotional and intellectual sides of an individual. If any Humanist only functions as a talking head, it is not because they understand and have mastered humanism, rather just the opposite. The greatest weakness of the organized humanist movement today is that too many of its practitioners interpret emotion as bad. But this is wrong. Emotion is power. Emotion is the core of our humanity, at least when it is emotion joined to and congruent with intellect, knowledge and science. When the foregoing condition exists, then one has power that can overcome all barriers and sweep humanity toward a world of universal fellowship, joy and plenty. All situations that demean any human being can be tackled and overcome.

The Humanist Vision

For me Julian Huxley has best captured the humanist vision. He calls humanism the religion for the modern world and explains what this means in his books, “New Bottles for New Wine” and “The Humanist Frame.” He describes why humanism is a religion from a sociological standpoint. Sociologically as Huxley says, “Religion is the organ of humanity concerned with human destiny.”

When humanism is properly functioning, it is focused on this issue. Humanism recognizes that human beings are social animals, and that they must relate to other people. Humanism binds a person to all other people independent of nation, sex, cultural and religious backgrounds, or any other differences that exist between people. It is because of the universality that humanism is the religion for the modern world: the multicultural world, the world of science.

Anthropologically, religion is the institution that all cultures possess that provides social bonding. This institution ensures that each person is joined to all other persons in the tribe or group. It is only in modern society that we have lost this resource and Humanism has the capacity to reverse this situation.

Why Fight Traditional Religion?

But suppose you have not been swayed by my arguments. Suppose you maintain the position that calling humanism a religion would be confusing because most people think religion involves the supernatural. If this is your position, I would ask why the foregoing state exists? If you thought about it long enough you would respond, “Because our ministers and priests have told us so.” And I would ask, “Why are you willing to reject everything else your ministers and priests told you except that religion means God or the supernatural, or both?”

Rejecting the idea that humanism is a religion for this reason seems particularly unfortunate. Accepting the definition of priests and ministers on this point means fighting all the battles with handicaps too great to overcome. Therefore, your beliefs must probably lose while theirs will win because you have been willing to let your position be defined by them. If you believe that traditional religion has hurt you and hurts other people, then I would encourage you to recognize that the best revenge for being brainwashed as children is success, not individual acts of rebellion. Getting prayer out of the public schools, removing God from our currency, do not at this time qualify as success. People who work on such projects achieve just enough victories in the courts and elsewhere to keep them from realizing they are losing the war. Success is helping to provide an alternative to traditional religions that will help people find their way in a confusing, complex world where every action includes more ignorance than knowledge. Direct confrontation of tradition religion is counter-productive. To the degree that one succeeds they increase the likelihood of a bigger failure. The only possibility of success is to establish alternative organizations to provide the binding structures of society. Humanism has that potential. When Humanism replaces traditional religions as the primary glue that holds societies together this occurrence will be equivalent to the replacement of early Roman religion by Christianity. Humanists could very well benefit from in-depth study of this period to help clarify as well as possibly how such a thing occurs.

If anyone wants to understand what religion actually means they must understand that God, the Virgin Mary, worship of trees, and any other supernatural ideas are only specific symbols used by particular societies to explain and understand the universe in which they live. These symbols are the trappings of religion, not the essence of religion. Therefore, I would encourage you to recognize that religion has nothing to do with the supernatural. It is an essential tool of social organization.

The Need for Vision

So, moving right along. How can we build such organizations? I think we must begin with a vision. But why do I focus so much on vision? For me the issue is very clear. In order to develop a strong group, the group must start with a strong, clear vision. For humanists this is a severe problem. Our national organizations do not have a simple, positive goal. I once thought that the American Humanist Association had the best opportunity to arrive at such a clear goal. But past Board and membership actions leave me skeptical. It may be necessary to set up a whole new national organization made up of people who share a positive humanist vision. Currently, humanist organizations only spin their wheels as members line up on opposite sides of arguments and thereby ensure that no movement is possible.

If there were a national humanist group with a clear, positive message, it could be a magnet that would attract all kinds of local groups. Some of them would be current humanist chapters and similar kinds of groups. Others might be current UUA churches and fellowships that want to clarify their purpose and focus their energy in a dynamic direction. Others might be various church denominations that have grown beyond the dogma of their sect, and who want to align themselves with a deeper, and wider truth. Others would spring up spontaneously from wherever there are people of vision, and energy who want to use their lives in constructive, congruent ways.

The Need For Definition

But in spite of everything I’ve said so far, the reality is that the core ideas about humanity and society from a humanist perspective still are waiting to be clarified. All of the basic ideas that define a person, society and the meaning of life come out of our supernatural roots. Everything needs to be changed, or at least re-focused as we build a firm humanist foundation for society. For the last couple of years I have edited a quarterly humanist journal working to do this. It is currently called The Humanist Dialogue. This journal searches for the essential ideas necessary to provide the foundation for a good society made up of good people. A core assumption is that the empirical scientific processes are an essential part of this effort.

The Good Society and the Good Person

To me a good society is one that believes and implements the idea that human beings are the source of meaning and the individual person is the only worthy focus for ultimate concern. All of our science and all of our wisdom show us that human beings are the ultimate reference system (rather than “objective” reality) because we must always interpret the objective universe, and we always do it with limited knowledge and limited understanding.

A good person by my definition is a Person Who Has Achieved a Sustainable Feeling that their Life Has Meaning.(PWHASFLHM).

A sustainable feeling that one’s life has meaning requires that one be part of a good society. It is an open-ended position with science and wisdom behind it. It incorporates the best understanding available about human beings and their lifetime needs, and is able to change as knowledge and understanding increases.

The Need To Develop A Model Organization

But how can we get from where we are today to the grand and glorious places I have held up as the future? Organization is essential. But we do not currently have organizations such as I am discussing. Partially, this is true because we don’t have even clear models for the kind of organizations I am discussing. Julian Huxley’s vision is my vision. But though he acknowledges that organizational development is an essential element in actualizing his position, he admits that the task of laying out what this means exceeds his talents. Therefore, the task of developing a model for humanist organization remains to be accomplished. How can we develop organizations that are congruent with our philosophy? To me the foregoing is the greatest hurdle humanism faces in becoming the religion for the modern world.

This is a project I have worked on for over 20 years. I have laid out my best thinking on this issue in my book, The Humanist Chapter of The Future, and The Future of Humanism. This book got its start at the first Southern California regional Humanist conference held in San Diego when I was asked to talk about my vision for humanist chapters. Today I hold in my hand the latest edition which I produced partially to be able to have available to participants of this year’s HumCon conference.

So far I have been talking generally. Now I would like to mention the specifics of my answer to the question: What are the characteristics of a model humanist group?

The Characteristics of the Model Humanist Group

First and foremost, as indicated above, these groups must have a vision. They must see themselves as permanent institutions. They need to legally incorporate, and begin laying the groundwork to develop and maintain the resources they will need as they grow and expand. They must see themselves as custodians of positive virtues essential to the well being of the larger society. They must see themselves as having a message that will be ever perfected until it speaks to every human being.

Secondly, the group must recognize the need to build a community, a place where people feel connected with joyful bonding. This must be a place where the open-minded searcher will be helped to find their own way while drawing from the best thinking available. Here all must be helped to grow and develop their best talents, their core interests. Here individuals must be encouraged to become fully functioning, warm, loving, capable, open, nurturing, positive, creative, dynamic, congruent human beings.

Third, such a group must understand the importance of having their own building and a paid administrator. This paid administrator should be closer to a facilitator than a minister, priest or rabbi. They are the person with the time, energy and talents to ensure that the policies and goals of the organization get carried out in the best way possible. The group needs to establish a savings program and do whatever it takes to keep this account growing towards the day when the funds are adequate to hire an executive director who shares the chapter’s vision, and who has proven skills to build a group that will generate sufficient energy, and money to keep it growing and developing.

Fourth, their programming should be as broad as possible to appeal to every kind of humanist and every important need and concern. All who have interest must be encouraged to lead and coordinate those activities, or services they feel are important. The group must empower people, not disempower them.

Fifth, festivals, ceremonies, weddings, etc. must be a part of the organization. Ideally, they will be ones that will speak to the larger society, and can get them involved. This area is one of the most fertile in terms of the bonding function.

Sixth, and very important, the group must have a weekly meeting on Sunday morning to bring everyone together and provide the sharing and interacting necessary to build a real community. Programming must appeal to the full spectrum of human beings: women as well as men, youth as well as the elders. Activities for children are essential.

Seventh, they must accept as one of their goals the transformation of the bigger society to develop the institutions and resources to overcome every barrier that keeps anyone from becoming a PWHASFLHM. They must recognize every person as a potential member of the group, and work to develop whatever programs, services and activities are necessary to attract an ever broadening range of people. Each success must be used to show the way to further expansion. The goal is not size and power, but rather finding and sharing answers to improve the quality of life for more and more people. We must recognize that no one is secure until all people are secure, and that security is best provided through humanism. We must accept our share of responsibility for all of society’s negative trends, behaviors, and institutions. We must realize they are there because we have not yet developed a full bodied humanist alternative to tradition religions.

Eighth, in my opinion no humanist group can achieve the things I have discussed unless they realize that they are a religious organization, more specifically a church. Humanism joins all human beings together based on their common humanity independent of their particular cultural, racial, national origin, or religion of birth. All history is our history. Christianity is our history as is Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, the Renaissance, early Greek thinking, etc.

Ninth, and finally, they must be open to the idea of humanist spirituality and mysticism. These activities must be developed in such a way that study and practice do not allow one to get caught in the inner byways of their own mind, but provide tools to ensure that the empirical process does not get lost or misapplied. How this can get done I do not know. But I am sure that somehow it can and must be done.

Well, there is my vision and my message. If any of you feel that the thrust of what I have been saying correct, I hope you will add your energy to the processes that will be necessary to move these ideas forward.

–Arthur M. Jackson

The Virtuous Character

The following is a summary of a presentation by Bridget Newell, Visiting Instructor from the University of Utah Department of Philosophy at the March meeting of the Humanists of Utah

The source for Aristotle’s main argument was taken from The Nichomachean Ethics. Aristotle reasons that in order to become virtuous we must develop habits of doing moral deeds. It begins in a person’s childhood, and requires a constant and proper upbringing. Virtuousness does not come naturally. It is up to us to become either virtuous or vicious. The potential is there in all of us, but virtuousness requires nurturing and modeling at a very young age. Personal responsibility is required for maintaining it throughout our adulthood.

We can help children to become virtuous if we help them do deeds which are pleasant, and if we associate pleasure with doing them. Children then connect feelings of pleasure with the doing of good deeds. For example, we can teach generosity by being kind to other people, and reward our children with praise when they behave in a generous way. And when they’re selfish, we need to reprimand them for not doing the proper thing. Children develop positive feelings with doing the right act, and negative feelings for doing the wrong act.

Aristotle taught that once a child has learned to associate good deeds with pleasant feelings, then the child will eventually do good deeds on his own. And the deeds will not remain based on feelings alone, but on a cognitive level as well. Eventually people do virtuous deeds because they become the right thing to do, and because they discover they actually feel better for doing them. People come to the conclusion that the examples they’ve been taught really do make sense. When knowledge blends with an activity, then a deed becomes “goodness for goodness sake.” And when this point is reached, authority figures no longer become necessary because good behavior has been internalized. This is how a virtuous character is developed.

What if children don’t have the proper upbringing? Can they develop a virtuous character later on? The answer is yes, but it becomes much more difficult. You begin by thinking good deeds. Imagine them first in your mind, then do them. The cognitive element will eventually follow. Virtuousness begins with the thinking process, then it is analyzed, followed by placing oneself in appropriate situations, and ending by doing good deeds.

Aristotle defined the word “virtuous” as, ” Doing the right thing, at the right time, and in the right amount.” He taught that “Virtues are a MEAN between two extremes.” For example, courage is not a foolhardy act, but it is not running away either. Generosity is not generosity if we give all our money to the homeless. Instead, generosity is giving what we can: we are neither stingy nor wasteful, and we consider our own growth and development in the process. Virtuous development is doing what’s appropriate for the individual.

A good way an adult can develop and maintain a virtuous character is to have a “companion friend.” This is a person with whom we share the same values: a person we can trust, be intimate with, and relate to in a non-authoritarian way. A companion friend would be one who helps point out our deficiencies as well as our strengths. This friend knows the whole of us, and is willing to give us feedback about our behavior. A companion friend must be self-directed, and have self knowledge. This type of friend helps us formulate goals, and ideals and is morally obligated to point out our flaws.

Aristotle believed that human interaction is necessary to become virtuous. He taught that we are all political, and social beings, and we are lacking if we do not have companion friends. They add to the good life. They help us pay attention, and keep us from getting out of character, and becoming vicious. Companion friends help us to put things in perspective. They are our moral yardstick, and we learn our moral sensibilities from them.

Aristotle made allowances for “weakness of will,” when rage or passion comes into our lives. The philosopher believed that conflicts are what lead us to self-examination, wherein our ignorance is identified, and rational and virtuous goals are explored. Since virtue does not come naturally, it behooves us to accept the responsibility to nurture moral deeds.

–Nancy Moore

Maybe They Should Read Aristotle!

This article appeared in the December 1, 1991 issue of Parade Magazine.

A recent study of high-level executives sponsored by London House, a human-resources testing organization, shows that those who scored high on an ethics exam were less likely to feel hostility, anxiety, and fear than were the unethical executives.

The psychologists who conducted the study now face a chicken-or-egg dilemma: They’re not sure if ethical practices lead to feelings of emotional stability and competence, or if a positive self-image and emotional health lead to ethical practices. Either way, the conclusion is obvious.

Coming to Terms With Myself as a Humanist

I sometimes feel a certain loneliness in being a humanist, because in everyday life I am constantly in contact with people who have difficulty understanding why I have rejected my Mormon heritage, which is “ordained by God,” and “the only true church.” They are afraid I will lose my chance for “Celestial Glory” throughout eternity. They also feel I have betrayed my heritage, which they believe to be a precious thing (and it is!). Sometimes, I am tempted to return to my former religious orientation, for I, as a human being, naturally have an inclination to “belong,” to be part of the larger group. We humans are social animals.

But humanists are an exciting group to associate with, and I don’t know of any of my non-humanist friends or relatives who have actually cut off their friendship with me.

It helps me to maintain perspective to remember the words of the English author, Somerset Maugham: “Most people think little: they accept their presence in the world. Blind slaves to the striving which is their mainspring. They are driven this way and that to satisfy their natural impulses, and when it dwindles, they go out like the light of a candle. Their lives are purely instinctive. It may be that theirs is the greater wisdom. But if your consciousness has so far developed that you find certain questions pressing upon you, and you think the old answers wrong, what are you going to do? What answers will you give? …Aristotle has said that the end of human activity is right action, and Goethe that the secret of life is living. I suppose that Goethe means that man makes the most of his life when he arrives at self-realization; he had a small respect for life governed by passing whims and uncontrolled instincts. But the difficulty of self-realization, the bringing to the highest perfection every faculty of which you are possessed, so that you get from life all the pleasure, beauty, emotion and interest you can wring from it, is that the claims of other people constantly limit your activity ….” (The Summing Up, pg. 172)

Humans yearn for this self-realization, but often do not see clearly that their own behaviors actually impede its attainment. One can bring “to the highest perfection every faculty,” only if he deals with the world as it is rather than as his superstitions have misled him to believe it is. Vardis Fisher commented on people’s fascination with superstition: “The great mass of the people today resist with an angry outcry those truths which knowledge puts before them, for no reason but this: that the written words set down by primitive minds contradicts those truths…” (God or Caesar, pg. 83).

He ascribed much of the evil that occurs in human relationships to sham and pretense, which may take the form of claims to authority by divine authorization, hereditary superiority, power gained through the use of force, or other specious pretexts. (It may be of interest to us who live in Utah that Fisher was one of America’s finest novelists before he died in 1968. He was born in Idaho, raised a Mormon, and later excommunicated. One of his novels was The Children of God, a story of the Mormon trek westward.

People are born with a tremendous curiosity to learn all about their environment as well as to discover the causes of things. Unfortunately, all societies, because of their felt need to condition the individual to conform to cultural expectations, succeed in stifling this natural curiosity to a large degree by the time the person has achieved adulthood. Our society does much of this kind of conditioning with the exception that one is free to exercise his intellectual freedom if he wishes. Many, however, choose not to.

The preference of superstition to rationality may also stem from the fact that the latter requires more effort than the acceptance of the simplistic answers of authoritarian religion, but I believe there is more involved than mere intellectual laziness. Probably many persons have never really discovered the satisfactions and joys of the search for truth by the use of reason.

Perhaps we humanists can help others to discover these satisfactions and joys. An excellent way to introduce people to the rational quest is to suggest they read Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism, or Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. If they feel intimidated by the prospect of having to read a whole book, and would like a shorter introduction, I suggest the chapter entitled “Gods and Stars, Priests and Kings” in H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History, which takes a humanistic approach to history. In 17 pages the chapter describes how present-day religious beliefs have evolved from primitive ones, and how early in history religious and political leaders discovered the usefulness of invoking the god(s) in getting the illiterate and superstitious masses to accept these leaders’ authority, and adhere to moral laws.

While we are helping others, let’s each of us not be afraid to walk our own personal path of self-realization through truth seeking, to cherish our own precious uniqueness, which sets us apart from the “herd,” the “flock,” or the “mass.” There is comfort and security in just being like everyone else, but there is adventure in the quest for truth!

Maugham says it well, “It may seem arrogant that I have not had content to walk in the steps of other men much wiser than myself … But much as we resemble one another we are none of us exactly alike … I have sought to make a pattern of my life. This, I suppose, might be described as self-realization tempered by a lively sense of irony, making the best of a bad job.” (Op cit, pg. 173)

–Richard Layton