Humanism Under Fire: When Atheists Have to Face Applied Humanism

Barry Seidman

I was invited to respond to Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb’s essay, which was itself a response to two letters to the editor—one by myself—concerning how humanists ought to regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My letter addressed Nat Hentoff’s essay in the October/November 2014 Free Inquiry, in which he defended the recent actions of Israel against the Palestinian people in Gaza. Hentoff could not understand anyone taking the Palestinian “side” because, after all, they are “terrorists,” and no peace will ever come to the region as long as groups such as Hamas exist. My letter spoke to my bewilderment, frustration, and even despair at how anyone who self-identifies as a humanist could be so blind to the crimes of the Zionist state.

I have been involved officially and unofficially in the freethought/humanist community since the late 1990s. I was once employed by the Center for Inquiry, and I still produce the radio broadcast I began at that time, Equal Time for Freethought, on WBAI in New York City. One of the topics I have repeatedly featured is how humanism—and individual humanists—should express sociopolitical viewpoints. Engaging in dialogue on this issue, I am often reminded that one key aspect of humanism is that it is informed by scientific naturalism and is skeptical of religious and other supernatural and paranormal claims. Others point to the ethical foundations for humanism as described in several manifestoes and the long progressive history of humanist thought. To me, all of these elements lie at the core of humanism, but while many who call themselves humanists apply its skepticism, naturalism, and atheism in the real world, too many fail to apply the ethical codes of humanism, which tend to be manifested not so much through investigation as through political ideas and actions. If we more consistently applied humanist ethics to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we might not see such unfortunate commentaries as Hentoff’s published in the flagship magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism.

In an essay I wrote for a collection I edited about a decade ago, Toward a New Political Humanism(TNPH), I discussed the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suggested several humanistic approaches toward ending the apartheid and violence associated with it. TNPH was about applied humanist ethics and at the time was one of the few texts urging humanists not only to avoid being apolitical but to engage vigorously in the political landscape if they are serious about the ethics they so often express (albeit usually when confronting religious ideas and morality). Obviously, any such effort must be built on evidence, critical thinking, and an objective survey (insofar as possible) of the subject under discussion. Also, our expression should be tempered by compassion, empathy, and a genuine wish to leave the world healthier than when we entered into the debate. Let us try to apply these principles to considering the Middle East situation.

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