Making Humanism Useful
The following is reprinted from the March/April 1991 issue of the newsletter of the Humanist Association of Massachusetts, edited by Tom Ferrick.
Bruce Nappi of the Humanist Friendship Group gives this title (“Making Humanism Useful”) to a forceful critique of modern-day humanism. His essay first appeared in Grassroots News. He states his main point very succinctly:
We must establish a community that people want to join. It must provide benefits of undisputable value for dealing with real life problems. It must satisfy people’s need for social interaction and structure. It must replace the social needs satisfied by religion.
Early on he gives some credit to humanist philosophy:
The scientific method and reason have given society the tools to escape menial labor, to obtain world wide communication, to extend life spans, etc. Wherever people are suffering due to the erroneous taboos of traditional religions, the application of humanist principles will provide direct benefits.
But this liberating effect tantalizes few people. American believers, by a statistically large margin, already place their consciences above their religious authorities. And their churches interpret dogmas to conform to the prevailing values of their congregations. An implied conclusion follows: religious folk are not so uncomfortable within the constraints of traditional beliefs as to throw them off and embrace humanism. There may be some inconsistencies in this behavior, maybe some hypocrisy, but, as Nappi points out:
People ultimately do what they want in life and then invent excuses to fit their actions … Life is very complicated. Everywhere we turn, it is filled with misleading information and endless debates. Even the so-called experts can’t agree. So how do we expect average people to know the right answers? … They cope! They ignore the inconsistency as long as they get by. God is just one more of the thousand things they don’t have to know with certainty to get by.
Nappi wants to alert humanists to two major problems facing our movement. First, our principles and way of life cannot be distinguished from those of secular society in general:
This was brought home to me when I gave a copy of Humanist Manifesto II to a colleague of mine. After reading it, he responded, “Then you are a bunch of liberal, ecological, neo-socialists!”
Whether his analysis was correct or not is not the issue. The important point to note is that our society currently tolerates such a wide variety of “isms” that simply collecting a group of them together under a catchy banner, such as humanism, does not produce an obvious attraction.
As a philosophy, secular humanism has merely been a collection of prevailing secular ideas that idealize harmony among people, and between people and nature. In practice, humanist initiatives are not visibly, or functionally, unique from those of a wide variety of common religious or secular organizations. Identification as a humanist provides no benefits for personal growth or social intervention that are not available through secular organizations generally… This answer is again typified by my colleague’s response to Humanist Manifesto II, “Okay, I’ve read it. I pretty much agree with it. So what? Why should I join your group? I already do this stuff on my own.”
The second problem Nappi underscores is that humanism does not provide community. Nappi and his wife have suffered for having proclaimed their non-belief. They have lost friends because of it.
No one in our town is a humanist. No one on TV is a proclaimed humanist. Yet all these people do the kinds of things that make everyday life go on and they have fun in the process. The question of God almost never comes up and, when it does, it is easily deflected.
It seems that religious adherents are loyal as long as community and traditions are maintained; their values are reinforced in their churches, and deviation from the rules is tolerated as long as church authority is not directly challenged.
When the Nappis turn to humanists for friendship and community:
They [humanists] don’t come to birthday parties, graduations, or family weddings. They aren’t there to help with sickness or support us with life transitions, etc.; for us, humanism is sterile.
If the cost in becoming a humanist is so painful — loss of community, no tradition, awash in a sea of values — why not stay where you are? All it takes is the flexibility mentioned earlier, occasionally closing one’s eyes, blocking one’s ears — that is, coping.
If humanism is to win the minds and hearts of ordinary people, it must provide community, with traditions as well as a philosophy.
Humanism, as it can be in the future, does not have to be what humanism has been.
A New Direction For Humanism
The News and Views of the Humanists of North Jersey announced that Larry Hyman will suggest at their monthly meeting:
… that humanists should not be concerned about a belief in the existence of God and indeed emphasize our commitment to reason, individual responsibility, and to the democratic ethos. By redefining humanism as an affirmative rather than as a negative philosophy, we can appeal to millions of younger Americans who are neither theists nor atheists…
From the Humanist Community of the Peninsula (San Carlos, CA), in his column “On Retiring From the Office of the President”, Bob Delzell writes:
I would like to suggest a few thoughts and random ideas for the future. This may sound like preaching, but it is directed at myself as much as at anyone else.
It is not enough to speak to each other; we have to learn how to listen. It is not enough to seek the truth; we have to provide a vision. It is not enough to deplore the failures of organized religion; we have to provide an organization that will do a better job. It is not enough to condemn the supernatural until we can find expression for the awe and mystery that encompass this life. It is not enough to strike out at fundamentalists without recognizing that they are human beings who are trying to make sense of this life in the best way they know how. It is not enough to be satisfied with reason, or logic, or science, “the facts”, or the truth, without recognizing that we are as ignorant of the answers to ultimate questions as anyone else. It is not enough to be an “activist” without understanding that the end to which we aspire is just as important as the means we use to get there.
Finally, humanism to find a place on the human scene, I think we have to create a sacred space wherein our hopes and visions can be raised to a level that will inspire, give hope, and provide meaning. Anything less may be entertaining, enjoyable and stimulating, but it won’t take us anywhere. Lest anyone take offense at the word “sacred”, let me assert that the experience of the sacred is a real, bonafide, human experience. It is not supernatural, supra-normal, transcendental, or in any way “out of body”. It is a deeply significant part of being human and demands fulfillment. If we humanists can’t, or won’t fill this need, then some other group will.
Humanists of Utah Incorporated
Humanists of Utah is now a registered corporation in the State of Utah. Articles of Incorporation were filed with, and accepted by, the State of Utah Department of Commerce on the 3rd of August, 1992, at 2:29 PM. Humanists of Utah is now officially recognized as a nonprofit corporation to act and operate as a religious, educational, charitable and ethical organization, by advocating and promoting ethical, rational and democratic humanism among our membership, and the larger community.
The Articles of Incorporation were written, studied, rewritten and refined by the Board of Directors for five months. The services of two lawyers were utilized in finalizing the papers of incorporation: Steve Hutchinson and Brian Barnard; our thanks to them for their service and advice.
Humanists of Utah, a nonprofit corporation, may now solicit and receive contributions, and engage in all other lawful purposes, activities and pursuits authorized by Sections 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Members can feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in this step toward professionalism. In a sense it is a “rite of passage” for one of the newest, and fastest, growing chapters of the American Humanist Association.
One Way To Meet Another Humanist
There aren’t many humanists around, so when an opportunity comes to meet another, I feel obligated to do what I can. This is the story of my recent experience.
I recently had a complete physical, and a colonoscopy was scheduled with a Dr. Marshall. A member of our chapter, Dr. Strother Marshall, is on the staff at the clinic. Probably the same person, but I have never met him. I thought it was a good opportunity to make his acquaintance.
I got on the table and lay on my side with an IV containing a sedative to make me comfortable during the procedure. The Doctor came in and took his expected place. I couldn’t see him. Now seemed to be the time.
I asked: “Are you Dr. Strother Marshall?”
“Yes,” came the reply.
“I send you a periodical every month” (At this point I was getting pretty woozy.)
“Oh, what is it?” the Dr. asked, beginning the exam.
“The Utah Humanist,” I managed.
“I enjoy it very much”
Just then I recognized the incongruity of the situation, and it seemed very funny, and as my mind went into never-never land, I started to laugh.
Ever tried to laugh in that circumstance? I’m afraid the laugh came out as a giggle, or maybe a cackle. I couldn’t tell.
When the exam was over, Dr. Marshall said to come back in five years. I think I remember seeing him and giving a parting word, but I’m not sure. Neither am I sure that I would recognize him should I see him again, nor he, me.
But, we did meet, not exactly face to face, but you might say, humanist to humanist.