Humanism and Politics
To Ronald A. Lindsay’s fine editorial (“Humanism and Politics,” FI, August/September 2012), I would like to add that psychological researchers have done some interesting studies lately attempting to locate the personality traits that impel people either toward conservatism or liberalism in their politics. Generally, liberals will manifest a strong tendency toward a quality known as “openness,” while conservatives are more likely to evince “conscientiousness” as their dominant personality characteristic.
Openness means that liberals are more inclined to welcome novel experiences, are less bothered by ambiguity, and will court rather than fear change. There is here, I think, significant overlap between secular humanism and political liberalism, because attitudes like these are practically synonymous with a scientific and rational approach to understanding our world and our existence. Conscientious conservatives, on the other hand, are more likely to value order and stability, and, therefore, lean toward authority, hierarchy, and tradition to help them come to terms with this world and our place in it.
Their psychological differences may help to explain why liberals and conservatives also differ in their theories of human nature. Borrowing and adapting from conservative thinker Thomas Sowell, Steven Pinker has reasoned that human beings divide politically because they hold either a “tragic” or a “utopian” view of human nature. The utopian/liberal view emphasizes the human potential for good over our capacity to do harm. According to utopians, humans will instinctively seek to live caring and productive lives. Diametrically opposed to this, the tragic/conservative perspective warns that, without some type of external compulsion, innately selfish and depraved human beings will never be able to create a moral order and a just society.
For many conservatives, the external compulsion, and/or its justification, must come in the form of a god whose justice is vengeful, swift, and final. But it need not be so. James Madison, for instance, realized that self-interest and factionalism were the greatest threats to a republic. He proposed, therefore, “a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to a republican government.” Let every faction have its say, and some will gain adherents, and some will not, but no single one will dominate the field. Madison’s view of human nature was “tragic,” but his solution was, in the classical sense, “liberal.” Even religious sects, he believed, should be left to fight it out in the court of public opinion.
So, is it possible to be a Republican humanist, or is the term itself the quintessential oxymoron? Do some humanists maintain a loyalty to the Republican platform in spite of the party’s hostility to science and its positions on the social issues? If there are any such out there, perhaps after Lindsay’s editorial, we will hear from them.
Wayne L. Trotta
As a rule, the Republican Party is associated with conservative interests that seem to oppose humanist principles in policy and practice. But this does not say that the more liberal interests of the Democratic Party are necessarily any more comforting. I would not want to be ruled by the repressive policies and antiscience attitudes of conservatives any more than I would want to be ruled by the “political correctness” and constricting bureaucracies of liberals. Overriding political ideology is always the enemy of freethought. It seems to serve the same mental function as organized religion that is always obscurantist.
What changes the world is not political rhetoric but rather the implementation of new knowledge and technology. As we bring forth new knowledge and new technology, we change the patterns of human interaction. This changes what we value. As we change what we value, we change everything. This is history. This is how and why things change. The political rhetoric is always after the fact.
Consequently, there is no sense in our necessarily representing humanism as any particular political position. We just need to support free inquiry and free speech wherever we find it.
John L. Indo
I read with cautious enthusiasm Ronald A. Lindsay’s editorial. I’d spent years as a volunteer and employee at the Center for Inquiry trying to convince folks in the organization that a humanism that takes no sociopolitical position(s) is hardly a humanism at all. The many affirmations and manifestos—indeed the history of the humanist movement in the last 150 years alone—makes it clear that “applied ethics” form the “pulse,” if you will, of what humanism can mean in the modern world . . . if it is to mean anything at all.
Upon completion of “Humanism and Politics,” I was satisfied that the issues Lindsay discussed were discussed straightforward and without equivocation, as has not often been the case among the leadership of the Council for Secular Humanism. But just over halfway through, when it really started to get interesting, Lindsay swerved from hitting the obvious and went off onto an overly specific path to talk about International Blasphemy Day and other atheistic but not necessarily humanistic social causes. Here’s what I would have liked to have read about instead:
The deeper reason(s) for why there is a severe disconnect between the modern Republican Party (and much of the modern Democratic Party as well) and humanism has less to do with the social conservatism and religious dogma on the Right than the things we are told humanism does not address very specifically, not really. Lindsay is correct that there are far more important issues involved in running an ethical society, and it is indeed with those issues that both political parties lie too far to the Right to be even marginally considered humanistic. The nature of American empire, the fact that for decades our military has been used for offense rather than defense, the fact that neoliberal capitalism has bankrupted the nation, sent jobs overseas, and destroyed whatever was left of the American dream—once President Reagan got through with his attack on the New Deal—all this and more are indeed issues humanism has much to say about. Yet all too often, these things are ignored . . . at our peril as a movement and with great embarrassment.
I used to think humanism had to take a far more explicit political position than I do now; however, if there is anything to be taken seriously about the humanist ethical code, it’s that individual liberty is not the only measure of a free society. Indeed, it is the measure of the far Right and capitalistic Libertarians when the rest of what humanism is goes ignored. So, no, humanism is not at all in line with the Republican Party, nor most of the members of the Democratic Party. Humanism is, instead, far more in line with the Occupy movement’s call for inclusive democracy and the end of the capitalist state as we know it than with either of these antiquated political structures—structures that only serve the corporate elite here in the twenty-first century anyway.
I am glad Lindsay took on some of the important facts about humanism and politics, but unless organized (H)umanism completely embraces a truly progressive stance across the board, humanism will have little to say about what happens next in America. If humanism deserves a place at the table, that place must be a sociopolitical one. What else is humanism for, anyway?
Barry F. Seidman
Oak Ridge, New Jersey
Ronald A. Lindsay Responds:
The letters responding to my editorial are all very insightful. I especially like John Indo&
rsquo;s point that free inquiry is paramount. Before we commit to anything else—whether it’s a political position or a position on the existence of God—we need to commit to free inquiry. It’s the only reliable way to advance our knowledge and improve our conditions.
Barry Seidman’s letter covers a lot of ground and I can’t really give it an adequate reply here. I will say that my view of humanism is that it does have some political implications, specifically humanism tries to rectify those injustices that are directly related to religious dogma (opposition to same sex-marriage, restrictions on reproductive rights, etc). In a broad sense, humanism is also committed to supporting social and economic policies that will ensure the best standard of living possible for everyone. Moreover, humanism opposes economic and social inequality to the extent such inequalities operate to deprive some of equal standing in the community and undercut democratic institutions. The problem is moving from this broad commitment to specific policies. It seems apparent to me that neither communism nor unregulated capitalism is compatible with humanism, but once we eliminate the extremes, there’s room for reasonable disagreement. Part of the problem is that economics is a very inexact science at best, so I don’t think we can say with confidence that, for example, a tax rate of 50 percent for millionaires is the optimal solution. So although personally I sympathize with some politically liberal policies, I’m not prepared to say that someone who takes a conservative position on certain economic policies, e.g., by favoring a flat tax, cannot be a humanist.
Humanism and Atheism
As a humanist and as an atheist, I must disagree with PZ Myers’s attempts to collapse them into a single concept, as he does in “Atheism’s Third Wave” (FI, August/September 2012). A person who rejects the concept of supernatural beings and powers is an atheist, whether or not that person is also a humanist. Contrary to Myers’s position, not only is the pursuit of social justice not a consequence of atheism, the pursuit of social justice is harmed by inclusion in the definition of atheism.
As a humanist, I will try to convince atheists, apatheists, agnostics, and the religious to practice humanist principles in their lives by both example and by soft argument. If I advocate atheism and humanism as a “package deal” I have lost any chance of advancing either with a huge population that might be open to one or the other. And in all honesty, I find it much easier to advance humanism and leave advancing atheism to situations where the two aren’t tied to each other. Humanism has moral consequences; atheism does not.
I find I can better advance the cause of atheism by conducting myself with honesty and integrity and letting it be known that I am an atheist only if the opportunity presents itself. This usually happens by someone’s tying conduct to “Christian principles” or some such. I don’t have to insult their beliefs to let them know I can live morally without the necessity of belief. Nor do I have to convince them that atheism is the path for them. The world is a little bit better off if we each take from the situation what we can and let our separate paths go where they do.
Upper Saint Clair, Pennsylvania
This year I expect to get my master’s degree in philosophy, for which I’ve written a thesis on atheism. For this thesis I read some articles in Free Inquiry but was often disappointed about the negativity I found concerning atheism. The focus often remained on the destruction of the transcendental with little or no interest shown for the development of society beyond that (very necessary) destruction.
The main idea behind what PZ Myers wrote in his article is the same message as the one of my master’s thesis: it’s time atheism goes beyond its classic approach of sole negativity and starts to fight actively for a more human society, e.g. “for equality for all, economic security for all, and universally available health and education services,” as Myers’s examples go. I hope his article will be one of the first in a long and extensive series of articles in FI on how the atheistic movement may become a more positive one, going beyond its negative definition. It’s a terrain that still needs a lot of exploring.
PZ Myers’s column begins with a pithy summary of why religion is nonsense. “It would be hilarious,” he writes, “if it weren’t for . . . so many believers taking bad logic so seriously.” Unfortunately, he then abruptly proceeds to advocate what must surely be as dangerous an ideology as religion—albeit a nontheist one—by proposing that socialism be the “third wave of atheism.” He doesn’t quite call it “socialism,” of course, but he does call it a “socially conscious, activist” atheism and further makes clear from his ensuing comments that he does, indeed, mean full-blown florid socialism.
Surely the reader is entitled to expect some airtight logic and some impressive data, as he demands of theistic religions. Otherwise, he will produces what would be just more hilarity—were it not so dangerous. But neither logic nor data are given, just a number of flat statements taken from the socialists’ talking points. Apparently, wishing to keep one’s own assets from confiscation is greedy, whereas to be given someone else’s by force is merely social justice. Don’t we all want “equity”? And isn’t “equity” really the same thing as “equality”? All terrible logic! As for data, didn’t we watch the USSR (and several other countries) crush themselves through socialism (note the second S in USSR) during much of the twentieth century? Current Europe is awash with further examples.
Myers’s third wave is, economically, just a killer tsunami. I hope he will abandon his true faith in socialism—or write about something else.
Peter C. Hughes
Aurora, Ontario, Canada
This is to thank PZ Myers for such a refreshing review on the meaning of atheism. His proposal for a universal, humanitarian atheism is not only the right cause to adopt, but it also enables us to, as Myers states, demonstrate our opposition to harmful religious beliefs.
Whitby, Ontario, Canada
The State and Marriage
Tom Flynn hits on a topic that merits lots of discussion (“Are LGBTs Saving Marriage?,” FI, August/September 2012). Flynn talks about civil union as a substitute for conventional marriage. I don’t argue with this. But I would like to point out that there is one type of marriage he completely overlooks, as does just about everyone else. It is the marriage established by the common law of England. It is alive and well in the State of Alabama as I understand it is in some fifteen other states.
While many people tend to think of Alabama as being backward, on this subject it is advanced. Common-law marriage is a wonderful thing. And it is unbelievably simple to enter into. All a couple has to do to be married is cohabitate and hold themselves out to the public to be married. They don’t have to prostrate themselves before an institutional authority such as a preacher, priest, rabbi, or a justice of the peace. The marriage is created by the actions of the parties.
My wife and I have been married by the common law for thirty years. Everything seems to work out fine. The subject of divorce has never come up. This reminds me of something by Nietzsche: the strongest ties are the invisible ones.
Name Withheld by Request
Russell Blackford, in “The State and the Marriage Business” (FI, August/September 2012), had a hard time coming up with any reasons why the state should be recognizing and promoting marriage. As a group, liberal, well-educated secular humanists generally have happier and more stable marriages than the usual conservative defenders of marriage, so why should it be hard to defend something we are so good at? Are we worried that if we say that marriage leads to a more stable society and is the best way to raise children, we might offend those with different arrangements, even if it helps make the case for same-sex marriage? Can we promote an ideal while remaining tolerant of and understanding the alternatives? We are supposed to be the flexible, nuanced ones; they are the rigid ones.
Blackford also has trouble condemning polygyny, influenced by a handful of “polyamourous” couples in Australia, even though the overwhelming majority of polygynous marriages have been the of the Muslim and Mormon variety. It should not be hard to condemn such right-wing patriarchal relationships, and a little math, as well as some movement beyond his stale academic feminism, would show that it is not only bad for the women involved but also for the many men who will be left out. Just look at the many mammal species where the males fight for the right to mate with all the females—and the sad fate of the losers—to get a preview of (or look back at?) a society with widespread polygamy. If government does nothing else, it should promote what works well and condemn what doesn’t. Seldom do we find such clear examples.
Katrina Voss in “Sloppy-Seconds Atheists” (FI, August/September 2012) wrote about the mating strategy of the Australian redback spider and the analogy to some of us as not being the actual vanguards of freethought. I resonate with this feeling. Our task, however, is more subtle but nonetheless important in that we need to be spreading the memes that strengthen freethought. The challenge is being true to this “mission” even though it may not be as glamorous as the task of vanguards. I draw comfort from the fact that, while most of us are not in the forefront, the relative tranquility with which we can go about our task of freethought meme-spreading is a strong indication that the zeitgeist is moving in the right direction and that, while we must be diligent, the tide is with us.
John J. Miele
Pennington, New Jersey
Humanism with a Pulse
In her introduction to the special section “Humanism with a Pulse: The New Activists” (FI, August/September 2012), Lauren Becker comments “of course we [secular humanists] need to win arguments, but the point of winning the argument should be winning the person, holding onto the person while he or she lets go of the harmful beliefs.” This sounds to me suspiciously like the Christian meme “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” This is a statement not found in the Bible, but one that has become an article of faith criticized by many, including Christian writers, as nearly impossible to do and easy to use as an excuse for hatred and discrimination. Winning the argument may take a form of tough love that does not easily allow for “holding onto the person” but can provide an excuse for using “soft love.”
In his opening editorial (same issue) Ronald A. Lindsay quotes the Council for Secular Humanism as proclaiming that humanism “is beyond atheism, beyond agnosticism,“ adding “being a humanist implies not only rejection of deities and spirits but also acceptance of certain fundamental principles.” He doesn’t say it, but atheism has only one fundamental principle, a disbelief in the existence of a deity. I agree with Myers (same issue) that atheists ought to fight for equality, security, health care, and educational services, but when he seems to indicate some atheist community should be doing so, I believe he slips into the realm of confusing atheism, secularism, humanism, and freethinking.
To me, freethinking is the basis for all. A freethinker is one who forms opinions and makes decisions on the basis of reason independently of authority or revelation or tradition. This goes beyond religious issues and cuts across the board to all issues. There are religious freethinkers.
Secularism means an indifference and more a rejection of religion and religious considerations, in any government action. There are religious secularists.
Bare bones, atheism is the doctrine that there is no god. Many, if not most atheists were raised in religious households. We were all raised in a society permeated by religion. To get to be an atheist, or even a secularist, one must first be a freethinker. With natural affinities, atheists are most likely to work towards Myers’s goals by being part of a secular humanist community. Myers himself seems to know this when he says, “Science without humanist moral standards leads to Mengele or the Hiroshima bombing or the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.” He seems to acknowledge that even in a deity ruled world, humanist principles provide the better means of living.
Cazenovia, New York
Re “Humanists Care about Humans!” by Bob Stevenson (FI, August/September 2012, special section): showing people their natural human capabilities is caring about humans. Deceiving someone about not having ability is unethical. Many people are led to believe supernatural intervention is a necessary part of quitting alcohol and/or drugs.
I am a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Reno, Nevada—one of the best places to get addicted or rid oneself of addiction. There are many ways to stop repeated overindulgence of alcohol and drugs: religious, secular, groups, and individually. Becoming addicted to a substance is a natural process resulting from using a substance. Recovery by abstinence is a natural process that anyone can achieve (with or without attending recovery groups) if they know about it. Abstaining from alcohol or drugs is a natural human ability that is part of every person and need not be deified.
William Weber, M.A., M.F.T.,L.A.D.C.
It’s natural, or course, for all of us, whether we are believers or secular humanists, to suffer when our loved ones die. (“Grief Beyond Belief,” Rebecca Hensler, FI, August-September 2012). However, I am of the opinion that we humanists experience the most sorrow. After all, when we see those we love embark on their final voyage, we know we’ll never meet them again.
While believers trust they will reunite in paradise with those they loved, we who do not believe there is an all-powerful God reject that fantasy—and simply accept the truth of our limited existence. And the truth is what sets us free.