February 2000

Civility

Professor John Kesler has spent a number of years developing a description of developmental stages of social thought and action. The model lists seven stages in the civility spectrum and the ages at which each plateau can or should be attained.

Level 1 is that of “power” and is usually achieved by the age of four. It involves following rules for the sake of the rules themselves. Much of society exists on this level. Examples include big money politics, predatory business practices, and professional sports. Brutality is a hallmark of this social level.

Level 2 recognizes interests of others. It can be achieved by age eight. The empiricist social sciences are based on this level. Common questions are: “Who gets what?” “How much?” This is the first stage of reciprocity.

By the age of 12 people achieve the Level 3 cultural stage. Here conflicts of values are dealt with. The sciences of Anthropology and Sociology are highly concerned with this level

Level 4 looks at universality. It involves principled actions that result in three dimensional win/win/win situations. Historically, the Enlightenment was largely based on social interaction at this level. Most adults should attain this step by the age of 16. It is the last age-associated level. Piaget, Kohlber, and Giligan are important theorists.

Level 5 introduces 3-dimensional thinking and is labeled the integrative stage. Positive examples of this level include the seminal thinkers of the great American experiment. Negative examples are communism and post-modern thinking. Some of the leading thinkers were Jean Gebser, Jurgen Habermas, and Charles Taylor.

The Ecological Level 6 considers the physical as well as the social environment. Thoreau was a prime example.

Level 7, Transcendence, is best exemplified in the writings of Ken Wilber. Traditional humanist principles of the value of all life and the environment understand society at this level. Thinking includes transcending self and inspiration. Religion, in its purest form, is also socially at level 7.

Kesler noted that civility is the foundation of civilization. The fact that both words share the same root is just a first-order indication that civilization will not thrive if we do not treat each other and our environment respectfully with long-term consideration.

–Wayne Wilson


From The Devil and Secular Humanism: The Children of the Enlightenment

(over a page of notes and footnotes was intentionally left off this version of this article)
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy,
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague! it is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, O be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What’s in a name! that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, And for thy name,
which is no part of thee,
Take all myself’

In 1933, the Humanists who joined in Manifesto I set out to reconstruct faith in a modern world. Without apology, they described their enterprise as “religious humanism.” In 1980, a number of Humanists led by Paul Kurtz issued A Secular Humanist Declaration and explicitly rejected the idea of a “religious” Humanism. They accused those who retained the adjective of intellectual confusion, sentimentality, and even opportunism. The 1980 Declaration identified religion with:

The reappearance of dogmatic authoritarian religions; fundamentalist, literalist, and doctrinaire Christianity; a rapidly growing and uncompromising Moslem clericalism in the Middle East and Asia; the re-assertion of orthodox authority by the Roman Catholic papal hierarchy; nationalistic religious Judaism, and the reversion to obscurantist religions in Asia.’

Religion was the enemy and Humanist flirtation with it ensured confusion at best and surrender at worst. Clearly, the climate of the Humanist neighborhood had changed. The style of attack was reminiscent of the pamphleteering spirit that had animated the Enlightenment. The secularist broadsides had a familiar ring. Echoes of the “philosophe” could be heard and nineteenth-century battles over atheism and agnosticism were again replayed. Sadly, however, the views chat had animated the attacks of earlier centuries now seemed only trite. The polemic and the anger were, however, addressed to the enemy within. Humanism seemed intent on destroying itself.

The 1980s found Humanists–or at least many of them–as antagonistic toward their fellow Humanists as to Fundamentalists and right-wing Christians. The terms of the internal quarrel were not new but the tone of disdain was. I recall that in the 1950s, the question, “are we religious,” would also evoke debate in Humanist circles. I recall, too, that efforts to distinguish Ethical Culture from the American Humanist Association on one side and from Unitarianism oil the other circled around the “religious” issue and the “God” issue. For Ethical Culture, the Humanists were just too “secular,” while the Unitarians were just too “pious.” In turn, Unitarians and Humanists found Ethical Culture too straitlaced in its ethicism and just out of-date in its neo-Kantianism. But these were arguments with a certain friendliness of spirit; by 1980 that seemed to be gone.

The assurance with which the authors and signers of Manifesto I had taken to the task of religious reconstruction was unsurprising. In the late nineteenth century, religion on the Left in America had developed a moralistic tone and center. The pulpit addressed itself to social criticism as much as it did to salvation. Its efforts were often to be found in the secular world, and its energies were devoted to social reform. As biblical scholarship, the “higher criticism,” and archaeology revealed the mundane sources of cult and text, and as science held sway not just in the academy but in the marketplace, the need to bring religion into the moden world was felt by many in church and synagogue and not just by secular critics. At the same time, ordinary life came to be focused on this world and its demands. To be sure, the sacred was given its due with typical American piety in the patriotic rhetoric of “God and Country.” In the twentieth century, religion was assigned to a Sunday “ghetto,” to the occasional “revival” meeting, or to the rhetoric of a political campaign. By contrast, the new immigrants and ethnic minorities still held on to their religion as a defense against the assaults of the new world. But, they too were pushed and were pushing toward Americanization, toward assimilation and toward secularization. All of this invited the reconstruction of faith from the left and reformulation from the Right. The “old time religion” really would not do.

This cultural pattern of secularization was an appropriate home for the appearance of a self-conscious and organized Humanism. Much of the stimulus for its emergence came from the Western Unitarian Conference, informal successor to the Free Religious Association of the nineteenth century. As Edwin Wilson recalled:

Religious Humanism as a movement had no one source, but it first came to self-awareness as a movement among Unitarians. In 1917 at a meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference at Des Moines, Iowa, the Reverend John Dietrich and the Reverend Curtis W. Reese compared notes. They decided that what Reese had been presenting as a “revolution in religion: from theocracy to humanism, from autocracy to democracy” was precisely what Dietrich was preaching at Minneapolis. In a sense, the Humanist movement, as such, was born at that moment.’

Of course, a Humanist point of view did not go unchallenged in Unitarian circles, and two other ministers, Drs. George R. Dodson and William Lawrence Sullivan, argued that the issue for the denomination was between “the God-men and the No-God men.”

Another stimulus to organized Humanism, albeit not without controversy either, came from within Ethical Culture:

Felix Adler… was himself scornful of naturalism as a basis for ethics and religion. Though he invited humanists into membership…he made it clear that they did not yet share the full “religious” vision which he identified with the transcendental or “supersensible” to distinguish it from crude supernaturalism. He did not knowingly admit the humanist or non-religious members into positions of leadership. …The news that two of the professional leaders. V. T Thaycr, Director of the Ethical Culture Schools and Frank Swift, a young Associate in Philadelphia, had signed the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 was kept from Dr. Adler in his final illness.

In the academy, the third source of modern Humanism, the argument appeared on philosophic grounds, the issue of naturalism, and on institutional grounds, the proper role of scholarship. Led by John Dewey, the academy was challenged to put its ideas to work, to avoid mere academicism. We might even think of it as a controversy between an older Humanism and a new one. The former held itself aloof from the world of action, harking back to an aestheticism and a putative notion of scholarly purity, of art for art’s sake, of truth for truth’s sake. For this Humanism, the humanities and humanistic study were sufficient. The latter took its cue from the Baconian notion that “knowledge is power.” Interpreting modern science as “organized inquiry” and “inquiry” caught in the realities of activity, it insisted on the political and social basis of ideas as well as on the utility of ideas for politics and society. In schooling, this controversy showed itself as the argument between the “old education” and the “new”–as Dewey called it; and the “new” flew the banner of “learning by doing.” In politics, it was to appear in the mobilization of scholars as policy advisors as in Franklin Roosevelt’s “brain trust.”

Humanism continued to be the object of attack from “neo-orthodox” and traditional religious points of view. But it was also shaped by the fact that modern Humanism itself became a matter of controversy within its own neighborhood. Among the symptoms was the appearance–after the end of World War II and repeatedly since–of Humanist departures and Humanist fragments. The American Humanist Association was organized in 1941 to bring together Unitarian ministers who could not turn to their own denomination, Ethical Culture leaders who could not overcome the neo-Kantian idealism of their founder, and academics who sought a place to locate their philosophic commitments. Efforts were made to arrive at common projects with other Humanists but these were few and, with two exceptions–joint activity on behalf of the separation of church and state, and the Conference on Science and Democracy (1944-1945)–relatively minor. Two decades later, the American Humanist Association was caught up in an internal leadership struggle. The Fellowship of Religious Humanists was organized in 1963 “by a group of liberal religious leaders, mainly Unitarians and Ethical Culturalists, and is principally concerned with the practice and philosophy of Humanism as a religion.” In 1968, a Society for Humanistic Judaism was established in Birmingham, Michigan by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. He moved toward an explicit Humanism while not departing from a secular Jewish point of view. In 1981, following the publication of A Secular Humanist Declaration, the Committee for Democratic and Secular Humanism was organized by Paul Kurtz. Meanwhile, within Unitarian Universalism and within Ethical Culture, the Humanist strain grew or faltered depending on the leadership and the climate of the moment. Despairing of ever uniting these disparate organizations that seemed to appear with increasing frequency, a North American Committee for Humanism was established in 1980 to bring individual Humanists together. This was met with suspicion as yet another fragment, another competition. Meanwhile, rationalism, free thought, and atheism went their separate ways. Implicitly or explicitly, each of these fragments claimed to represent the best, or the most adequate, or the most comprehensive of Humanism.

I confess that the vicissitudes of these organizational ventures are not really of any great interest in themselves. There was little originality in each “new” platform and each “new” effort only revealed a familiar pattern and told a familiar story. But the fragmented and even sectarian development of Humanist organizations since 1933 can be used to trace the struggle of Humanism with its own ideas. The organizations, while often the result of the temperamental and idiosyncratic Humanism of individuals or reflective of particular histories, also serve as markers of Humanist efforts at self-definition. They offer clues to the evolving meanings attaching to modern Humanism. Whereas the nineteenth century witnessed the struggle of Humanism to appear, the twentieth century witnessed the struggle of Humanism to know itself.

The message of these organizational ventures is that modern Humanism does not exist yet. The checkered career of Humanist efforts to state and restate themselves in organization, program, and language since the 1933 Manifesto are symptoms of that fact. Indeed, the arguments between “god men and no-god men,” between philosophic naturalists and philosophic idealists, between activists and contemplatives, between socialists and libertarians and above all between religionists and secularists remain points of polarization within the Humanist neighborhood. At a distance, many of these points seem increasingly less worth the divisions they encourage. Yet they are real enough to the protagonists. Symptomatic of these unresolved issues was Manifesto II published in 1973. It was signed by Humanists from nearly all points of the Humanist compass. At the same time, gone was the clarity, directness, and assuredness of the 1933 document. Manifesto II is a long and puzzling essay, giving with one hand and taking away with the other. In its discussion of religion, for example, it says:

FIRST: In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals. The cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine “spiritual” experience and aspiration.

We believe, however, that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species….

Some Humanists believe we should reinterpret traditional religions and reinvest them with meanings appropriate to the current situation. Such redefinitions, however, often perpetuate old dependencies and escapisms; they easily become obscurantist, impeding the free use of intellect.

In speaking of science it notes:

The controlled use of scientific methods, which have transformed the natural and social sciences since the Renaissance, must be extended further in the solution of human problems. But reason must be tempered by humility…Nor is there any guarantee that all problems can be solved or all questions answered.

Perhaps, most revealing of all is the following from the Manifesto’s introduction,

Many kinds of humanism exist in the contemporary world. The varieties and emphases of naturalistic humanism include “scientific.” “ethical,” “democratic,” “religious.” and “Marxist” humanism. Free thought, atheism, agnosticism. skepticism, deism, rationalism, ethical culture, and liberal religion all claim to be heir to the humanist tradition.”

I do not want to overstate the differences, although within the Humanist neighborhood an exaggerated importance attaches to them. On all sides, there is agreement on the values of rationality, on the moral responsibility of human beings, and on the importance of living socially and in the present. On all sides, there is agreement on freedom of conscience and the urgency of free inquiry. 011 all sides, there is agreement on the moral and political priority of democracy. On all sides, there is a commitment to nurture human capabilities for good and an essential hopefulness about human beings.

At the same time, these agreements often mask deeply felt disagreements. The proponents of democracy separate into libertarians and social democrats, and the confidence in human potentiality founders on issues of practical policy, of how to give political and social reality to that potentiality. The commitment to human responsibility divides in the argument about the appropriate role for Humanists and for Humanist organizations in social action. Indeed, Humanists seem to rehearse in their own terms the same kinds of quarrels that have divided churches and fragmented political parties. I might be tempted to leave it that Humanists have turned out to be human, after all. But that does not solve the problem: what, really, is Humanism up to?

It seems to me that the fragmentation, even sectarianism, that has emerged in Humanism since 1933 is only partly explained by the differing sources from which Humanists and Humanist organizations came. Instead, fragmentation is a consequence of the quarrel over faith, and in particular, of the way in which that quarrel has been framed in the argument with Fundamentalist Christians. Given to dogmatic assertion, they invite equally dogmatic contradiction. And given that they, often for their own opportunistic reasons, insist that Secular Humanism itself is a religion, it is understandable that they evoke denials that it is a “religion.” But Fundamentalism is only the current occasion for Humanist argument. Were the quarrel over the nature of faith resolved, a quarrel that is really about the nature and function of Humanism itself, the other differences would vanish in a constructive diversity.

At one level, the religious argument is really only over words. For example, the leading proponent of “secularism,” Paul Kurtz, has struggled painfully with the issue and has even gone so far as to coin the term eupraxophy to describe Humanism:

If humanism is not a religion, what is it! Unfortunately, there is no word in the English language adequate to describe it fully…. Accordingly, I think we will have to coin a new term in order to distinguish nontheistic beliefs and practices from other systems of beliefs and practices, a term that could be used in many languages. The best approach is to combine Greek roots. I have come up with the term eupraxophy which means “good practical wisdom.”

I sympathize with Kurtz’s impatience and I understand his concern over the confusions of religious language and the political uses to which those confusions are put. In our world, a religious temperament prevails that, in its current anger, is often viciously anti-intellectual and anti-democratic. The identification of religion with Fundamentalist dogmatism and anger tends to monopolize public consciousness arid compromises all others who would use the term. Indeed, liberal and centrist religions like mainstream Protestantism and Reform Judaism have moved to the right in response to this Fundamentalist climate. Like Paul Tillich, who once called for a moratorium on “God language,” it might be worthwhile to call for a moratorium on “religion language”. At least the dust might settle and we could all get on to more substantive matters.

At the same time, there is a historical and intellectual truthfulness in the effort at religious reconstruction that was evident in Manifesto I. It recognized that “religious” values were among the persistent features of human experience everywhere. In seeking to capture the point, Dewey remarked:

It is pertinent to note that the unification of the self through the ceaseless Bur of what it does, suffers, and achieves cannot be attained in terms of itself. The self is always directed toward something beyond and so its own unification depends upon the idea of the integration of the shifting scenes of the world into that imaginative totality we call the Universe.

Paul Kurtz, himself a naturalist, is not unaware of the needs of human experience. When he shared the draft of his text on “eupraxophy” with me, I wrote in reply:

I think the matter (of religion) is a “non-issue” on the evidence of your own text. Thus, when you describe what humanism should be up to, ie: a method of inquiry, a cosmic world view, a life stance, and a set of social values (p. 13ff), you’re talking about what others call “religion.” Furthermore, when you talk about “humanist centers” or other institutional forms, you’re really describing Ethical Culture Societies, Unitarian Fellowships, etc. I don’t think you’ve developed a new form but only have given a new name to an existing one.

But the argument is not simply over words and the quarrels are not merely semantic. Although we might be successful at inventing new vocabularies as Kurtz and others have tried to do,” we would still face the question of modern Humanism’s lack of coherence, and its deterioration into polar positions since 1933. This lack of coherence might find a more hopeful resolution were polarization over religion settled. These days, sadly, we avoid working on the question, “what is Humanism up to,” and instead play a game of “either/or.” All of us are infected by the features of rightwing-policicized religion, here and abroad.

Our thinking is distorted by the fact that we love to choose sides. Humanists, more than most, are given to an argumentative game by temperament and by history. Often, however, what begins as an intellectual exercise takes on a life of its own and drives us toward separations that were unimagined when the argument began. I have seen this happen repeatedly, and never more than in the past decade. We lose ourselves in the joys or argument and forget that it is only argument. The game of either/or itself becomes our reality. So it is with many of the polarities that afflict Humanism. In the heat of argument it is easy to turn “faith” into a caricature of itself and then to identify all faith with superstition. When such a mood seizes us, we embrace its complement, a simple-minded secularism that denies any value to a move beyond the immediate. In saner moments, we know that experience is too rich with possibilities to be reduced to abusive labeling and that we are ill served by the mentality of the arena. Yet it is all too human to invest ourselves in our arguments and then to be unable to retreat. Losing the argument comes to feel like a loss of self.

I do not mean to trivialize what occurs as a result of debate although its origins and issues are often trivial. The consequences of argument appear in realities of relationship. We come to like, associate with, and support some, whereas we reject others. These separations are then often reflected in our conduct so that the next debate is not only about words but about these realities too. Our arguments become weapons of internal warfare rather than tools of understanding and social criticism. We lose sight of the problem. Fundamentalist religious movements here and abroad have succeeded in constricting freedom, influencing public policy, and corrupting education. These political realities cannot be ignored and there is a legitimate need for a responsive Humanist politics. This would seem to require unity rather than fragmentation, but that is the opposite of what happens.

At the same time, we are stubborn and contrary. We convince ourselves of the correctness of our own views and proceed to act on that conviction. So I ponder the Humanist adjectives that have emerged in the less than sixty years that have passed since Manifesto I–scientific, naturalistic, religious, evolutionary, Marxist, existential, secular, rationalist, and ethical. It is, I confess, ironic, perhaps even sadly comic. Humanism set out to be inclusive. Its method, from classic times to ours, has been dialogic, the effort to catch the partial truths on all sides and to erect transcending truths that would move us beyond the present encounter. Yet today, Humanism retreats into secularism and surrenders to its own Fundamentalist temptation. It allows the non-Humanist to set the terms, the style, even the content of the argument. It hereby becomes ineffective and loses itself.

I think that we are given to the game of “either/or” precisely because the ambiguities of experience have become nearly intolerable. The authors of Manifesto I could speak with confidence about the world to come. They had not yet seen science perverted into holocaust and nuclear destruction. They had not yet watched democracy turn into populist conformism. To be sure, they warned of these possibilities, but these warnings seemed merely conceptual. Given the events of the decades since 1933, it is understandable that Humanist confidence should be eroded and chat Humanism should lose its way In the midst of chaos, it is much more satisfying to separate into sheep and goat, saved and damned. To confess the truthfulness and the humanity in the other is never easy; to admit the falsehood and inhumanity in ourselves is even more difficult. But then that is the permanent difficulty of all human relationships. Today, as we lose our moorings, that difficulty nears impossibility.

Humanists, like all other human beings, are caught in the terrors of our age and have difficulty holding onto the genius of their position. Like everyone else, they tend to revert to a mythic past where matters were simpler, clearer, more assured. So it is that when Humanism meets Fundamentalism, it responds in Fundamentalist style with a “raucous Humanism.” The world we live in seems to justify the Humanist in his or her defensive aggression. Surely the twentieth century has taught us through the horrors of genocide and the possibilities of global destruction that we are not God’s special creatures. It is an affront to be told that these horrors are, after all, just punishment for evil or unknowable features of a divine plan. Too much has happened for us to be beguiled any longer by promises of eternal elevation. As we grow increasingly more sensitive to other natural beings, indeed to nature itself, we also learn how arrogant “speciesism” is, whether advanced by the story of creation or by the ” religion of humanity.” So the pretensions and pretentiousness of traditions that single us out as “lords of creation” stir us to a noisy Humanism as if we could shout down the enemy. But the noise deafens us too and blocks the effort to reconsider the place of human beings in a reconceived nature.

This game of either/or, of absolute meeting absolute, encourages other instances of Humanism’s loss of itself, like meeting the foolishness of “creation science” by polemicizing evolution theory. We play out, once again, the post-Darwinian battle. Or else, we argue God and No-God, moving as if choreographed for and against the arguments from “design.” “first cause,” “final cause,” and so on. We are quite comfortable with these moves, we know them in advance and know that the outcome is predictable. They are, in fact, an indulgence and an escape. Neither side convinces the other, can convince the other, or expects to convince the other. As Corliss Lamont commented recently, “I’m bored with it.” Wisdom, then, would search for ways to move beyond the battle…but wisdom is surrendered to the joys and protections of battle itself.

Yet something serious is at stake. To be sure, the stories of creation and the promises of providence are poor physics, poor biology, and poor history. Humanism cannot, however, simply dismiss the matter by patronizing diagnosis and thereby betray itself by resigning most of humanity to superstition. If human beings mistakenly “people the darkness beyond the stars with harps and habitations,” as Robinson Jeffers put it, a Humanist must ask why and find a better response to the unspoken question for which spirits, demons, saints, and devils are answers. In other words, as the world grows incomprehensibly large and as we learn that it simply does not pay attention to us, we need all the more to attend to questions of meaning and security in experience.

These questions have not yet been answered. The notions of Enlightenment will not do–they addressed a more manageable world. The angers of Fundamentalism and the confusion of sects confess to a widely shared anxiety of spirit. In that sense, both Fundamentalism and raucous Humanism are only symptomatic, and the game of either/or attends only to the symptoms. When we are lost we shout more and more loudly in panic; we mask our desperation with busyness; we seek out a villain. Thus, within the debates that produce a noisy humanism is hidden the question: How shall human life be purposeful and joyful in a universe where human life seems only a chemical and biological incident?

A Humanist can cite the evidence that shows we are indeed living in a secular culture. The powers of the Gods are invisible to nearly all of us not just to Humanists. They grow increasingly more invisible as time passes. We conduct ourselves as if the Gods, even if they existed, were indifferent. The believer–with the exception of those few who separate themselves from the world–reveals that he or she does not seriously hold to the notions of judgment and resurrection. Eternity is denied in practice no matter how loudly proclaimed in rhetoric. The game of either/or invites the Humanist to take pleasure in the fact, while the Fundamentalist rages against the rule of Satan. The Humanist proclaims that we are already living in the “humanist century” as the authors of Manifesto II put it, echoing the optimism of their eighteenth-century ancestors. That great numbers of people do not hear or respond to that proclamation should give the Humanist pause…but it does not.

Reacting against the animation of nature with mysterious deities–there is indeed a renewed spiritualism, a confidence in magic, even a so-called “new age” philosophy–a prosaic Humanism joins a raucous Humanism and calls on the “facts” to witness the falsehood of its enemies. The Humanist forgets, however, that “facts” do not convince and that their interpretation, their meaning, is always at issue. “Facts” need their stories and it is stories that have vanished. Certainly it is important to expose the foolishness of astrology or the trickery of religious charlatans. This has merit as a type of social mental health. But, despite repeated exposure, the followers of astrology persist and the charlatans continue to find their victims. Argument does not work because it does not reach to the depths that move us toward gullibility. At the same time, the naive empiricism that sometimes afflicts Humanism–a consequence of playing the debating game–leads it to an aesthetically impoverished and psychologically inadequate outcome. Thus, Humanism fails to address the depths, and the resort to argument becomes a double defeat.

Nowhere is the need for psychological and aesthetic adequacy more evident than in the utterly personal fact of death and dying. Here Humanists are better in their practices than in their theories–responsive in their relationships and ceremonies while still narrowly rationalistic in their arguments. Of course, Humanism does not, cannot, promise immortality, but the issue is not about immortality although the debate pretends that it is. The believer weeps the same tears the Humanist does, feels the same losses, and the same regrets. Humanist and non-Humanist alike know that their lives do not play out fittingly with a beginning, middle, and end. We are interrupted, repeatedly interrupted, and finally interrupted by death. For our experience, the game of denials on all sides is simply inadequate, the debate pointless…and I may add, the promises of tradition not only unbelievable but irrelevant. The hidden question is again a question of meaning and security, how shall we live with the consciousness–and not just the fact–of mortality. As Harold Blackham put it once:

The loved detail of a landscape is annihilated by distance, but one call return and find it. There is no return in rime but what was once somewhere had no less reality than what is elsewhere…. By the criterion of eventual oblivion, there are no distinctions nor standards, no virtues nor values nor joys nor sorrows: nothing is. This is the true nihilism, to take oblivion as the measure of all things because oblivion is the destiny of all things.

To accept and respect the temporal condition of all things is the beginning of wisdom….To appeal against the temporal terms of the human condition, the ephemeral character of our life, to aspire to an eternal unconditioned existence is not really to look for salvation, for it is to reject and forfeit life. This earnest refusal of life is the profoundest thoughtlessness, the tragic misunderstanding not merely of the terms of human existence but mainly of its very character, what there is there to love and care for, and how it is as it is.

Not only does the debating game force Humanism to respond raucously, noisily, and prosaically, but it leads Humanism to continue to repeat naive views of reason, science, and progress as if the mere repetition would overwhelm the opposition. To be sure, I understand the need to deny the claims of the supernatural; I too find those claims not merely unbelievable but degrading. After all, we are told by the supernaturalist that another reality is necessary for the intelligibility and worthiness of this one. The world that is my home thus becomes the object of a sneer, as it were, even a cosmic sneer: an extra-natural invasion of nature is needed if my life is to have any meaning. We are told that we must lose the world in order to gain it…and so on.

The rationalist has little difficulty in demonstrating the contradictions of this extra-naturalism. However, in his or her anxiety to win the battle, the rationalist ignores the absurd features of existence, the non-rational, the intuitive, and the responsive features of our experience, the contradictions and false starts, that should prevent us from attributing a rationalist’s structure to nature itself. Science, which is where Humanism embeds rationalism, is not merely reason working itself out in some Hegelian world-historical drama. It is a skeptic’s enterprise, but it is a poet’s enterprise as well, a fascinating scene of intuitions, guesses, and inventions. A reasonable Humanism, even a scientific Humanism, is not merely a rationalist’s Humanism. It understands that we meet the world long before we assemble it in art and science. We meet mysteries, always new mysteries, in a present encounter-just as we think we have dismissed the old one. Of course, that is not the same as elevating the encounter to a meeting with “the mysterious,” as the believer would have it. But it does not permit us to deny mysteries as if sooner or later the world will become entirely transparent.

Just as the game of either/or tempts reason toward rationalism and science toward scientism, so too it tempts hope to foolishness. We all hear the promises of salvation. We know enough of sadness, pain, and disappointment to want to believe that somehow, somewhere, it all fits together and that what was sadness, pain, and disappointment had some meaning and purpose. Thus Humanism once secularized salvation with the notion of progress. Our Promethean energies would make things right later, if not now. Ironically, with this belief in inevitable progress, Humanist freedom surrendered to destiny as presented in Comte’s positivism or the paradoxes of Marxist determinism, although it was a good destiny, for history was on our side. A selective reading of events, a history that even posed as scientific, outfitted this sentiment for salvation with evidence.

But false promises turn out cynics on all sides. Just as salvation demands blind belief, so progress cannot survive an honest reading of events. The game of either/or does not, however, permit the Humanist to confess the inadequacy of the Enlightenment’s idea of progress, nor to reconstruct it. Were it possible to escape the playing field, we might acquire a sense of tragedy, a certain humility, and finally reach a notion of progress as a setting for future action and not as a description of past achievement. Thus, Jean-Paul Sartre from within his Humanism imagines us leaning forward into time not yet:

But there is another meaning to humanism. Fundamentally, it is this: man is constantly outside of himself; in projecting himself, in losing himself outside of himself, he makes for man’s existing; and on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent goals that he is able to exist; man being this state of passing-beyond, and seizing upon things only as they bear upon this passing-beyond, is at the heart, at the center of this passing-beyond…. This connection between transcendency as a constituent element of man … and subjectivity in the sense that man is not closed in on himself but is always present in a human universe is what we call existentialist humanism.

There are many instances where Humanism has been betrayed by its compulsion to fight its enemies with inappropriate weapons; I have named but a few of them. The game of either/or, wherever we find it, induces a recurring pattern of simplification confronting simplification, absolute confronting absolute. As in all games, there are winners and losers, points to be scored, and cheers to be heard. Sadly, the game of either/or is played most viciously when faith is the playing field…and this is not surprising. For whatever the point of view, faith, unlike politics, business, or sports, addresses itself to those deepest issues of human experience, issues of life and death and meaning. It is these issues, not the name given to them, that stir the passions and call for attention. For Humanism, which is neither simple nor absolute, the game of either/or forces a loss of integrity, a loss of its own character.

The argument over whether or not Humanism is religious or secular needs to be reconceived. Perhaps there is some wisdom, given today’s environment, to minimizing religious description and language. We might avoid the worst dangers of the game of either/or. Humanism might then illustrate the virtues of dialogue in a world of partisans. But dialogue is not merely toleration-the final temptation of the game of either/or. It is almost inevitable that those Humanists who find the noisiness of their fellows an affront suppress criticism for the sake of peaceableness, confuse courtesy with clarity, and dialogue with the exchange of opinions. Dialogue, however, transcends opinions in the continuous renewal of knowledge and meaning. That is the genius of the sciences that are dialogues between persons mediated by events and that offer reliability through the constructive uses of uncertainty. In place of the game of either/or, Humanism, in its commitment to the sciences, intended to substitute an inquirer’s biography for the ” man of faith.” For Humanism, discoveries, reasonings, and arguments were always in the process of acceptance, rejection, and transformation. Moments of organization were indeed found in experience, but they were moments. The universe was not organized once and forever.

By contrast, the religious climate today is indeed sectarian and absolutist. Diversity is taken as a sign of sin. Humanism, if it could avoid the Fundamentalist temptation, might preach an appreciation of diversity from within its own genius for inclusiveness. It would not then simply take its identity from its opposition as seems to be the current fashion. Ironically, it is the secular Humanist who is most likely to enter the lists of religious warfare as a protagonist and often with relish. While always denying it, he or she still fights the religious/anti-religious war–often confusing it with the clerical/anti-clerical war–on the same ideological, even theological, territory as his or her opponent.

Humanism is worldly and secular. The qualities of experience to which Humanism must address itself, however, are those that have legitimately been called religious. The authors of Manifesto I knew this very well and knew the need for a reconstruction of faith. Since then the religious question has not been faced adequately in Humanist terms–in secular terms. Here, the game of either/or blocks the reconstruction of the terms of its faith-progress and hope–by driving Humanism to a mere echo of its past or to inane simplifications. Not the least of these simplifications may be found in the confusions surrounding the notion of the “secular” itself. In one sense, the term only describes a location. For example, “secular priests” in the Roman Catholic Church exercise their vocation in the world. In another sense, the “secular” is contrasted or even opposed to the “sacred.” Thus, St. Augustine’s City of God and City of Man, or Jesus’ advice to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” But neither of these meanings conveys the intention of secularity for Humanism. It is where the action is, all of the action, including that which has historically been religious action. For the Humanist, the “sacred,” the name given to that which is untouchably precious, departs from its separate universe to inform this one, the only one we have. Thus both sacred and secular are transformed under the aegis ofa Humanist naturalism.

Some of the differences within Humanism may be traced to differences of origin, for example, as Unitarian Humanism arose within a Christian framework or as Ethical Culture arose within a Reform Jewish context. Each of these, as we have seen, experienced an internal lack of clarity at the outset. By and large, their legacy of controversy over Humanism has been muted. It is regarded as a legitimate possibility in Unitarian-Universalist circles even by non-Humanists, and naturalism, if not Humanism, has replaced neo-Kantian idealism in Ethical Culture. In other words, Humanist fragmentation can no longer be attributed to its pluralist sources. To be sure, varieties still show themselves in differences of organization, practice, and language. Yet, important as these are, they no longer in themselves require fragmentation. Still, Humanism is not yet. This arises from the fact that the game of either/or and not the accidents of history blocks the reconstruction the signers of Manifesto I proposed.

The story of twentieth-century Humanism in the period after Manifesto I is a story of departing from that notion of the interpenetration of sacred and secular in the natural world, and is instead a story of attack and defense. This contrasts starkly with the revolutionary excitement of the Enlightenment which enshrined its secular saints in its own pantheon. It contrasts as well with the intellectual and cultural excitement of the nineteenth century when Emerson could embed the transcendent within experience and nature, and Ingersoll could call for a “secular religion.” It contrasts finally with the philosophic confidence of that religious naturalism that inspired Manifesto I.

–Howard Radest, 1990


The Evidence for Evolution

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each,” says Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Science.

In spite of the compelling evidence for evolution, the teaching of evolution in our schools remains controversial. How can the two views of science and religion about origins be so different?

The publication, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, in 30 pages gives a synopsis of the scientific evidence on this question. In the preface Alberts indicates, “The tremendous success of science in explaining natural phenomena and fostering technical innovation arises from its focus on explanations that can be inferred from confirmable data. Scientists seek to relate one natural phenomenon to another and to recognize the causes and effects of phenomena. In this way they have developed explanations for the changing of the seasons, the movements of the sun and stars, the structure of matter, the shaping of mountains and valleys, the changes in the positions of continents over time, the history of life on Earth, and many other natural occurrences. By the same means, scientists have also deciphered which substances in our environment are harmful to humans and which are not, developed cures for diseases, and generated the knowledge needed to produce innumerable labor-saving devices.”

He goes on to say, “The concept of biological evolution is one of the most important ideas ever generated by the application of scientific methods to the natural world. The evolution of all the organisms that live on Earth today from ancestors that lived in the past is at the core of genetics, biochemistry, neurobiology, physiology, ecology, and other biological disciplines. It helps to explain the emergence of new infectious diseases, the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the agricultural relationships among wild and domestic plants and animals, the composition of Earths atmosphere, the molecular machinery of the cell, the similarities between human beings and other primates, and countless other features of the the biological and physical world.” He quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973), “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Alberts continues, “Scientists have considered the hypotheses proposed by creation science and have rejected them because of a lack of evidence. Furthermore the claims of creation science do not refer to natural causes and cannot be subject to meaningful tests, so they do not qualify as scientific hypotheses. In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that creationism is religion, not science, and cannot be advocated in public school classrooms. And most major religious groups have concluded that the concept of evolution is not at odds with their descriptions of creation and human origins.”

Evolution, Science and Creationism states, helps explain the origin of the universe, the Earth and life. In the late 1920s astronomer Edwin Hubble made observations that he interpreted as showing that distant stars and galaxies are receding from the Earth in every direction. The velocities of recession increase in proportion with distance, a discovery that has been confirmed by numerous and repeated measurements since Hubbel’s time. The implication is that the universe is expanding. One hypothesis is that the universe was more condensed at an earlier time. This deduction suggests that all the currently observed matter and energy in the universe were initially condensed in a very small and infinitely hot mass. A huge explosion then sent matter and energy expanding in all directions. This Big Bang hypothesis led to more testable deductions. One was that the temperature in deep space today should be several degrees above absolute zero. Observations have shown this deduction to be correct. The COBE satellite launched in 1991 confirmed that the background radiation field has exactly the spectrum predicted by a Big Bang origin for the universe.

Charles Darwin’s original hypothesis on biological evolution has undergone extensive modification and expansion, but the central concepts stand firm. Studies in genetics and molecular biology have explained the occurrence of the hereditary variations that are essential to natural selection. Genetic variations result from changes, or mutations, in the nucleotide sequence of DNA, the molecule that genes are made from. Such changes in DNA now can be detected or described with great precision. In 1799 an engineer named William Smith reported that, in undisrupted layers of rock, fossils occurred in a definite sequential order with more modern-appearing ones closer to the top. Today many thousands of ancient rock deposits have been identified that show a corresponding succession of fossil organisms. Multi-cellular organisms–fungi, plants and animals–have been found in only younger geological strata. The fossil record provides consistent evidence of systematic change through time–of descent through modification. Inferences derived about common descent are reinforced by comparative anatomy. For example, the skeletons of humans, mice and bats are strikingly similar despite their radically different ways of life and diversity of their environments. This suggests a common ancestry for them.

Evolutionary theory explains that biological diversity results from the descendents of local or migrant predecessors becoming adapted to their diverse environments. This explanation can be tested by examining present species and local fossils to see whether they have similar structures, which would indicate how one is derived from the other. Also, there should be evidence that species without an established local ancestry had migrated into the locality. Wherever such tests have been carried out, these conditions have been confirmed.

Embryology is another source of independent evidence for common descent. A wide variety of organisms from fruit flies to worms to mice to humans have very similar sequences of genes that are active early in development. Evidence for evolution also is provided by the discoveries of modern biochemistry and molecular biology. The code used to translate nucleotide sequences into amino acid is essentially the same in all organisms. Moreover, proteins in all organisms are invariably composed of the same set of 20 amino acids. The unity of composition and function is a powerful argument in favor of the common descent of the most diverse organisms. The evidence for evolution from molecular biology is overwhelming and is growing quickly.

Many of the most important advances in paleontology over the past century relate to the evolutionary history of humans. Not one but many connecting links have been found as fossils. They document the time and rate at which primate and human evolution occurred. Scientists have unearthed thousands of fossil specimens representing members of the human family. Most of these specimens have been well dated, often by means of radiometric techniques. They reveal a well-branched tree, parts of which trace a general evolutionary sequence leading from ape-like forms to modern humans.

Science and Creationism closes by saying, “The claim that equity demands balanced treatment of evolutionary theory and special creation in science classrooms reflects a misunderstanding of what science is and how it is conducted. Scientific investigators seek to understand natural phenomena by observation and experimentation. Scientific interpretations of facts and the explanations that account for them therefore must be testable by observation and experimentation.

“Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science…publications [of the advocates of these claims] typically do not offer hypotheses subject to change in the light of new data, new interpretations or demonstration of error. This contrasts with science, where any hypothesis or theory always remains subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of new knowledge. The growing role that science plays in modern life requires that science, and not religion, be taught in science classes.”