The Meaning and Legacy of Humanism: A Sharp Challenge from a Potential Ally

Yuval Noah Harari and A. P. Norman

In 2015, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari published Sapiens, a sweeping and widely acclaimed history of humankind. In it, he discusses a phenomenon he calls “humanism.” Humanism, as he defines it, is a family of “religions (that) worship humanity, or more correctly, homo sapiens.” This worship of humanity, he argues, has made modernity “an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history.” The crimes of genocidal Nazism, Stalinist communism, and environmental destruction, he argues, can all be traced to the central tenets of humanism. If Harari is right, humanists need to engage in some serious soul-searching.

In mid-2017, Tom Flynn, editor of this magazine, responded with an editorial arguing that Harari’s “extreme and factually untethered” critique effectively “smears” humanism (“Smearing Humanism,” FI, June/July 2017). A. P. (Andy) Norman, a humanist philosopher and frequent contributor to Free Inquiry, shared Flynn’s concerns but found that he was able to view Harari’s efforts in a more charitable light. For if you grant Harari his definition of humanism, much of the rest seems to follow. Moreover, the resulting story—a kind of revisionist take on modernity—does contain important insights. Nevertheless, Norman reached out to Harari with a plea to rethink and rescind his critique of humanism. Harari replied, and the ensuing exchange is presented here, with only minor edits. The issue, it turns out, has profound implications for the humanist movement and its historical legacy.

A. P. Norman

Dear Dr. Harari,

My name is Andy Norman, and I count myself a fan of your work. I admire your clarity, your passion for big ideas, and your commitment to clear, accessible writing. I think your books—Sapiens and Homo Deus—are landmark achievements, destined to stimulate reflection for generations to come. I learned a great deal from them.

I’m reaching out on behalf of the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Humanist Association. My charge is twofold: (1) to communicate a concern shared by thousands of self-identified humanists, and (2) to respectfully request your consideration. I ask that you hear me out.

Our concerns center, as you might imagine, on your portrayal of humanism. What you present as humanism bears little resemblance to the humanism we know. The humanism we know—from history, philosophy, and the relevant literature, from our congregations, our social justice work, and, yes, our work for animal rights and the environment—is in many ways the polar opposite of what you depict.

In fact, it’s deeply important to today’s humanists that our worldview not be conflated with those of communism, capitalism, and Nazism. A glance at any one of our movement’s manifestos will make it clear that such ideologies are antithetical to humanism. Humanist principles proscribe all forms of ideological rigidity, and self-identified humanists have consistently fought against totalitarian ideologies. Prominent Nazis (Heidegger) and communists (Marx) rejected humanism. Contemporary humanists don’t “worship” homo sapiens; we don’t believe that we humans have a “sacred nature.” We don’t think that “the supreme good is the good of homo sapiens,” and we certainly don’t think that “all other beings exist solely for the benefit of (our) species.” In fact, humanistic thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer laid the foundations for the animal-rights and environmental movements.

About Those Manifestos

The American humanist movement has generated several foundational documents known (and often self-described) as manifestos.

A Humanist Manifesto (1933), now known as Humanist Manifesto I, was issued by an ad hoc group; with the sole exception of philosopher John Dewey, all its promulgators were Unitarian ministers. It is unique among the manifestos in that it explicitly regards humanism as a new religion.

Humanist Manifesto II (1973) was drafted by Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz and surviving Manifesto I coauthor Edwin H. Wilson under the auspices of the American Humanist Association. It rejected the religious orientation of its predecessor, defining humanism as secular and nonreligious.

A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980) was drafted by Manifesto II coauthor Paul Kurtz. It was promulgated as the founding document of the organization now known as the Council for Secular Humanism, copublisher of Free Inquiry magazine.

Humanist Manifesto 2000 (1999) was drafted by Paul Kurtz and first appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Free Inquiry. It expanded on previous documents in the series by, among other things, calling for a planetary approach to humanism and further emphasizing humanism’s dependence upon scientific naturalism.

Humanist Manifesto III (2003), also known as Humanism and Its Aspirations, was drafted by a committee under the auspices of the American Humanist Association. It is (by design) the briefest of the manifestos.

—The Editors

I don’t think we’re far apart, philosophically speaking. The issue that separates us is fundamentally terminological. I know that, generally speaking, one is entitled to define a word for one’s own purposes and then use it in a somewhat nonstandard way. I appreciate that the repurposing of words can have salutary effects. I understand that “humanism” is a convenient designation for a class of views you wish to criticize. I get that certain modern ideologies treat human interests as the only thing that ultimately matters and agree that these ideologies need to be pulled up by the roots. But your usage of “humanism” could also cause great harm. Please consider:

Secular thinkers have long sought a philosophical alternative to the arbitrary religious affiliations that so frequently divide humanity. Philosophers have worked this problem from one end, and visionary social reformers, activists, and community-builders have worked it from another. Contemporary humanism, as articulated in several humanist “manifestos,” is the product of decades of intellectual and social toil. It represents a system of commitments that is carefully crafted to temper some of humanity’s worst instincts. Its central idea is that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity. This idea was once given a theological foundation—“endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights”—but nowadays, humanists see the notion of rights as useful shorthand: we embrace the idea that such rights “exist” because things tend to work out well for us when we do. Historically, humanist ideas—primary among them the notion of human rights—have done a great deal to alleviate human suffering. I genuinely believe that humanism, as understood by its philosophical and social advocates, is a source of moral progress.

So your portrayals of humanism worry us greatly. Given the size of your platform, you could, without meaning to, undo decades of good work. I ask, respectfully, that you walk back your characterization of humanism. Perhaps you can find another designation for the family of views you have in mind (“human-centrism” for example, or perhaps “sapiens-sanctifying”). By taking these modest steps, you would earn the gratitude of a large and growing humanist movement and might well find a sizable and receptive audience for your ideas. (Humanist organizations have provided sustained support for other public intellectuals, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, and Daniel Dennett.) Your work deserves to be celebrated alongside the work of these avowedly humanistic thinkers—rather than dismissed because of an unfortunate terminological choice. We’d appreciate your help undoing the damage you’ve done to the humanist cause.

Sincerely, Andy Norman

Y. N. Harari

Dear Andy,

I’d like to focus first on what is probably the most important issue. What do we do with our shadow? People who celebrate the achievements of modernity, of the enlightenment, and of secularism often are not sure what to do with communism and fascism. Are they too part of modernity? Are they too a product of secular enlightenment? My view is that they are, but this does not negate the achievements and values of modernity and of the secular enlightenment. It does mean that we should be on our guard, acknowledge our shadow, and reject all notions that “it cannot happen to us.”

I think one of the great achievements of humanism, as against traditional religions, is that humanism has the courage and wisdom to acknowledge its shadow and its mistakes. I agree with you that humanism has done far more good to humans in the past few centuries than any traditional religion. When it comes to other animals and to the ecological system as a whole, though, I am more skeptical.

In the twenty-first century, the crucial reality we should face is that we are entering a post-humanist era. Artificial intelligence and bioengineering are game changers. They are going to change the very meaning of humanity. We will need to rethink many traditional humanist notions that worked very well in the past three centuries. Acknowledging our shadow will be crucial for a successful engagement with the new revolutions. I emphasize the fact that the Nazis and Stalinists too believed in (their version of) humanity and thought that they were creating better humans (rather than serving some God)—so that we don’t have the wrong impression that belief in the supreme value of humanity in and of itself vaccinates us against terrible crimes.

You write that humanism’s “central idea is that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity, not because we have a sacred nature but because things tend to work out well for us when we do.” But the big question is “who are we?” Maybe things work well for us Jews when we don’t treat Palestinians with dignity? Maybe things work well for us humans when we don’t treat cows with dignity? Maybe things will work well for us superhumans in the year 2100 when we will mistreat ordinary homo sapiens? The argument from self-benefit is an extremely dangerous one.

I define humanism as a worldview that sanctifies humanity and sees humanity as the ultimate source of authority. Just as theism thinks authority comes from theos (god), and nationalism thinks authority comes from the nation, so humanism believes that authority comes from humanity. That’s why it is called “humanism.” There have been many kinds of humanism, just as there have been many kinds of theism. For just as it is unclear what exactly god is, so it is unclear what exactly humanity is. Is it inherent in individual humans, in the human species as a whole, or in some particular group of humans?

In my treatment of humanism I focus on liberal humanism (which views humanity as an individual property), social humanism (which views humanity as a collective property), and evolutionary humanism (which views humanity as a property of a superior group of humans). I pay little attention to what you define as secular humanism, because I am interested in the historical impact of ideas rather than in the ideas per se. Perhaps secular humanism does not sanctify humanity at all and instead sees authority as inherent in science (in which case, why call it “humanism” and not “scientism”?). But the humanist movements that had a big impact on history did sanctify humanity. Perhaps secular humanism recognizes only the authority of science. But the humanist ethical codes that had a big impact on history did not rely exclusively on scientific research. There was no scientific basis in 1776 for the claims that all humans are equal or that they all have “rights.” As far as I know, there has never been any scientific definition for “rights” nor any scientific basis for believing that humans have these rights.

That doesn’t mean we should start killing and stealing. You can object to killing people on various grounds. Some people say that you shouldn’t kill because God said so. Some say you shouldn’t kill because it violates human rights. Some say you shouldn’t kill because it causes suffering. The explanation you give is very important because it has many consequences. If you don’t kill just because God said so, then the moment God tells you to start killing heretics, you would have no qualms about killing those heretics. If you don’t kill just because killing violates human rights, then you would find nothing wrong with killing animals that have no human rights. If you don’t kill because it causes suffering, you would avoid killing heretics and animals as well.

Secular humanism as you define it may be superior to other currents of humanism from an ethical and philosophical perspective, but to the best of my knowledge, it was less influential than Liberalism and Socialism. Truth and influence don’t always go together. Silly stories may convince billions, while the truth enjoys just a tiny following. But then the question is what you seek in life—power or truth?

Yours, Yuval

A. P. Norman

Dear Yuval,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’m grateful that you’re willing to engage on this important issue. You make several interesting and valid points, and I wish to acknowledge them. You’re quite right that we need to acknowledge and be mindful of what you call “our shadow.” (By this, I take it that you mean the dark, unintended consequences of our words, actions, and commitments.) I agree that believing in the supreme value of humanity does not by itself vaccinate us against terrible crimes. I understand that there’s much more to ethics than human rights, and that “Can it suffer?” is a much better question than “Is it human?” I concede, for present purposes, that the notion of human rights has little scientific basis. It’s also true that modernity has been very hard on animals and the environment. This is a major problem, and we need to understand the root causes. You’re right that Nazism and Stalinism were post-enlightenment, largely secular, and horribly destructive.

Nazism, Stalinism, the industrial exploitation of animals, and the pillaging of the environment: these are four great evils, and we need to understand what caused them. You’re drawn to a simple and sexy story: that humanism—the worship of humanity—is their root cause. But there are two big problems with this hypothesis: first, there are better explanations of the four great evils; second, humanism has nothing to do with worshipping humanity.

On the latter point, the word humanism is misleading you. The philosophy of humanism isn’t the result of putting humans on the pedestal once occupied by gods; it results from the realization that the gods won’t save us, so we’d better save ourselves. Humanism is not about making ourselves sacred; it’s about us taking responsibility—for animals and the planet as well as ourselves.

What does the word humanism really mean? I beg you to actually look into the matter. Please look up any of the humanist manifestos and see if you can find any reference to the worship of humanity. You won’t find it because it isn’t there. I invite you to immerse yourself in the humanist literature. Humanists have been extremely clear: we think it’s a really bad idea to declare anything sacred and then harbor worshipful attitudes toward it. The reason is simple: doing this invariably marks off some
things as beyond question. It prevents honest inquiry and creates dogmatic ideologies. Real humanism opposes all forms of ideological fixation. We want to tear down the pedestal, not climb atop it.

As I said, there are better explanations of the four great evils. The industrial farming of animals, for example, is better explained as a consequence of population growth, greed, and unfettered markets. (Laissez-faire capitalism, by the way, is an ideology that humanists have fairly consistently railed against.) Yes, Nazism and Stalinism are products of secular modernity, but this hardly makes them humanist. Both ran roughshod over basic human rights—and basic humanist principles. (I wouldn’t call them products of the Enlightenment either—at least not in any straightforward sense.) Yes, they cast off their supernatural trappings, but they remained stupid, cruel, and inhumane ideologies. In fact, both became ideologies that explicitly reject many humanist principles. Mein Kampf and the humanist manifestos express radically different—indeed, almost polar opposite—philosophies. Don’t believe me? Check them out.

You point out that Nazis and Stalinists “believed in (some version of) humanity.” But what does this even mean? The same is true of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. If believing in some version of humanity is all it takes to make one a humanist, then everyone is a humanist—you included—and the term fails to denote a difference that makes a difference.

We must certainly understand and take responsibility for “our shadow.” This is precisely why it’s important to understand what humanism really is, grasp what its consequences really are, and use the term accurately and responsibly. When you come to understand how the term is really used—as opposed to how you’d like to use it—I think you’ll agree that the claims you’re making are quite unjust.

Yuval, your challenges to humanism are the most sweeping in a generation. They have the potential to be enormously influential, and humanists should confront them. I for one am committed to hearing out cogent objections and changing my mind if the arguments turn out to be good ones. I hope that you are equally committed to considering counterarguments, and if indicated, changing your mind.

It’s still possible for you to examine this issue and revise your understanding of humanism. You can still avoid ways of talking that cause great harm. If you care about your causal shadow, I beg you to do two small things: (1) read up on humanism and (2) walk back any claims that then strike you as inaccurate.

Please take a few minutes to peruse my short essay “Getting Humanism Right-Side Up: A Reality-Based Mattering Map and Alternative Humanist Manifesto.”1 I believe it will open your eyes to a profoundly progressive strain of humanism.

Warm regards, Andy

Y. N. Harari

Dear Andy,

Thank you for your thoughtful e-mail and for the additional material. I have great sympathy for the humanist cause as you define it, and it would pain me to do any harm to the reputation or efforts of the humanist movement. I believe that humanism as you define it has been and still is one of the most beneficial movements in history. There are, however, two problems I would like to raise: one historical, the other substantial.

First, the historical problem. By the term humanism you seem to refer to the twentieth-century humanist movement that goes back to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. In contrast, I use the term to refer to a much wider historical current, which goes back at least to the late medieval and early modern Italian humanists (for instance, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man” from 1486). In this broader sense, “humanism” refers to the epochal shift in authority from God and scripture to humanity—and in particular to human reason and human feelings. I would succinctly define humanism as “the belief that human feelings are the supreme source of authority—whether in politics, economics, ethics or art.”

When I talk of the “worship” of humanity, or of humanity being “sacred,” this is what I am referring to. Worship doesn’t mean erecting statues and dancing and making sacrifices in front of these statues. It means looking at something with deep respect and awe, because it is a source of authority and meaning. This is how Muslims look at the Qur’an—and how humanists look at human feelings. Humanists regard human desires and feelings with deep respect and awe because they are the source of value in life and what determines our highest aims.

From this perspective, the key texts of humanism include not just the twentieth-century humanist manifestos but also much older texts such as Francis Bacon’s “The New Method”; the writings of Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Hume, and Rousseau; the American Declaration of Independence; the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; and even The Communist Manifesto.

This broad understanding of humanism is not some new invention of mine, but something that is very common among historians in general. When I did my BA in history twenty years ago, when my professors talked about “humanism” they usually talked about Pico della Mirandola, Bacon, or Locke rather than about the 1933 Manifesto.

In this broad sense, humanism can boast great achievements such as the flowering of modern science and modern liberal democracy. But it cannot shirk responsibilities for the bitter fruits of Communism, Nazism, and ecological destruction. The humanist vision of utilizing the world for the benefit of humanity and perfecting humanity itself resulted not just in overcoming plagues and famines but also in subjugating the environment to human needs and in the Nazi and Communist projects to create perfect humans and perfect societies. (Note that both Nazis and Communists argued that their projects were not just aimed at perfecting humanity, but also that they were based on the most updated scientific theories. Nazism saw itself as firmly based in the theory of evolution, while Communists declared that Marx was a scientist and that Communism was the most accurate of all sciences.)

You questioned my statement that Nazis and Stalinists believed in some version of humanity and counter-argued that “the same is true of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. If believing in some version of humanity is all it takes to make one a humanist, then everyone is a humanist—you included—and the term fails to denote a difference that makes a difference.” Perhaps I should clarify this point. “To believe in humanity” means to believe that humanity is the ultimate source of authority and that serving the needs of humanity and perfecting humanity are the ultimate aims or “the supreme good.” This is true of Nazis and Stalinists, but it is not true of Christians, Jews, and Muslims—the latter think that the ultimate source of authority is God and Scriptures rather than humanity and that the supreme good is following God’s commandments rather than serving human needs or perfecting humanity.

You might well argue that Nazism, Communism, and the destruction of the environment are all based on misunderstanding and distorting the core humanist ideals. And you might have a point there. But that is a common problem for all influential ideologies and religions. Consider Christianity. As a historian, I would say that Christianity is responsible for great crimes such as the Inquisition, the Crusades, the oppression of native cultures across the world, the disempowerment of women, the persecution of gays, and so forth. A Christian might take offense at this and retort that all of these crimes were based on a complete misunderstanding of Christianity. Christianity preaches only love, and the Inquisition was based on a horrific distortion of this ideal. I can sympathize with this claim, and yet as a historian, I cannot accept it. Christians appalled by the Inquisition and by the Crusades cannot just wash their hands of these atrocities—they should rather ask themselves some very tough questions: What exactly in their “religion of love” allowed it to be distorted in such a way? Similarly, Marxists should ask themselves: What about the teachings of Marx led to the gulag? (My answer: belief in social engineering, in the wisdom of an avant-garde elite, and in the need for violent revolution.) I would recommend similar soul-searching for humanists appalled by the crimes of Nazism and Communism or by the destruction of the ecosystem.

Indeed, even if I go with the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, I can find there all the key ideas that could lead to environmental destruction and to totalitarian projects of human perfection. For example:

FIFTH point—“The way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs.” If all value depends on human needs, doesn’t this imply that cutting down a forest in order to provide food for humans is a good thing?

EIGHTH point—“Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.” Well, what if some humans have a more developed personality than others, or what if by some scientific method we can create a race of superior humans with superior personalities? Wouldn’t this make such humans more valuable than others? Shouldn’t we strive to create such superior humans by any means available to us?

TWELFTH point—“Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life.” Again, what if we could use scientific method to foster more creative superhumans? Would this justify harming less creative ordinary humans?

THIRTEENTH point—“Religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism.” Since humans are clearly the product of evolution, and evolution has not come to an end with the appearance of Homo sapiens, maybe the purpose and program of humanism should be to enhance not just human life but the human race itself? Why settle for scraps? Why just fulfill the limited potential of Homo sapiens, when we might create beings who are as superior to Homo sapiens as Homo sapiens is superior to chimpanzees? And wouldn’t such a project justify ignoring the needs and feelings of ordinary humans and other animals?

It is dangerously easy to reach from such maxims to the conclusion that humans should control and manipulate the environment for the fulfillment of human needs, and that we should strive to perfect human beings and human society by scientific means (and if you happen to believe in the “science” of Social Darwinism or the “science” of Communism, the results could be rather ugly). It is obvious to me that the authors of the Humanist Manifesto did not envision such interpretations, but then Karl Marx didn’t envision the Stalinist gulags either, and Jesus didn’t envision the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Let’s turn now to the substantive problem. Starting from your narrower definition of humanism and from the Humanist Manifesto itself, the main question I would like to raise is: How does it relate to post-humanism? Given the emphasis on science, reason, and human enhancement, what does humanism think about the possibility of using biotechnology to create superhumans or using computer science to create super-intelligent AI? What possible objections could humanism have to the creation of superhumans and AI and to transferring authority to such entities?

In the twenty-first century, humanism is in a double bind. It still has to fight the old battles against the biases and delusions of traditional religions such as Christianity. But it also has a new fight on its hands, against the dangerous potential of new technologies such as bioengineering and AI. My impression is that the humanist movement thinks too much in terms of the old battles, while neglecting the new battles. That is very dangerous, because despite the continuing problems posed by the traditional religions, the fate of humankind and of life itself will hinge on our attitude toward bioengineering and AI rather than on our attitude toward God and Scriptures. And while humanism has developed a very impressive arsenal of arguments against the pitfalls of traditional religions, I suspect humanism is extremely exposed to the temptations of technological utopias.

Yours, Yuval

A. P. Norman

Dear Yuval,

You’ve given me much to think about and argued from premises I cannot readily dismiss. For this I thank you. In what follows, I want to acknowledge your insights, urge a deeper engagement with the challenge I’m raising, and suggest a kind of pragmatic resolution.

First, I’m compelled to concede that you have grounds for using the term humanism as you do. It’s true that academics have used the term to designate a broad cultural current with roots in the Renaissance and antiquity, and I’ll grant that that is precedent enough to give you the right to use humanism in roughly the way you do. It doesn’t follow, though, that it’s a good idea to think and speak of humanism as a humanity-sanctifying “religion.” For one thing, there are important differences between religious and secular ideologies. The similarities merit note, but the dissimilarities should not be brushed aside as irrelevant. (Indeed, these differences lead most humanists to insist that humanism is not a religion.) Second, there are important differences between secular ideologies and a system of thought that works very hard to prevent thinking from becoming ideological. (By “ideological,” I mean tenaciously resistant to rational revision.) Third, and most important, the term humanism has developed a new and salutary set of uses—uses that your depiction of humanism threatens to disrupt.

To elaborate: progressive thinkers in the early twentieth century recognized the need for a broad social movement emphasizing human rights, reason, and freedom of inquiry. They admired all of the works you mention—those of Bacon, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. They also admired the works of Plato and Aristotle, Da Vinci and Spinoza, Kant and Paine, Bentham and Mill.

They needed a word to designate central features of the philosophical orientation that had done so much to enlighten the world. For better or worse, they settled on humanism and began building a movement to spread these comparatively enlightened values. They authored the manifestos, pressed for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supported civil rights movements, and helped make women’s suffrage the rule rather than the exception. They helped inspire Gandhi’s efforts to throw off British colonial rule and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to end segregation. (King himself explicitly thanked the “thousands of humanists,” many of them white, who helped his civil rights movement.) Arguably, humanism’s emphasis on self-determination helped to dismantle European colonialism.

To accomplish these progressive reforms, humanists needed to inspire others and build solidarity. They needed to give other progressives a sense of purpose and belonging. They needed a named alternative to dogmatic religious affiliation. For all its seemingly species-centric imperfections, the label “humanism” was their answer. Lacking a better banner to rally around, they began advocating for humanism—not just using the term to describe a venerable past but using it also to prescribe and build a better future. (A better future, I might add, not just for themselves but for all of humanity: these reformers have consistently insisted that all human beings matter. On the whole, they also insist that other sentient beings matter—though their chosen designation has the unfortunate tendency to imply otherwise. The most recent manifesto—Humanist Manifesto III—hints that we need to extend our moral concern “to the global ecosystem and beyond.”)

In any case, hundreds of thousands of well-meaning progressive reformers have since found a sustaining and motivating identity in humanism. And here’s the point: this too is part of the history of humanism. This new usage extends far beyond a small circle of academic historians—it’s out there in the world, shaping people, movements, and trends. Given that the term has acquired these uses, you can’t responsibly characterize humanists as advocating the blind worship of humanity. To do so is to caricature. It’s inaccurate because humanists have always emphasized critical reflection; they’ve worked to end the practice of showing blind obedience to anything. Also, millions of people (including a healthy percentage of Europeans) now identify as humanist. To characterize them—your natural allies—in this way does them a great disservice.

Your characterizations of humanism as nothing less than the root cause of Nazism, Stalinism, and environmental destruction are also quite dangerous. They could easily frighten religious know-nothings into scapegoating humanists. Given the prevalence of humanists in higher education, it could exacerbate anti-intellectual fervor. What if your portrayals of humanism—backed by your substantial rhetorical gifts—were to inspire Mao-style thought reform, humanist witch-hunts, or intellectual purges in the West? Do you really want to run the risk that this becomes part of your intellectual “shadow”?

You write that “Marxists should ask themselves: ‘What about the teachings of Marx led to the gulag?’” Good point. Then you add, parenthetically: “belief in social engineering, in the wisdom of an avant-garde elite, and in the need for violent revolution.” Exactly: it is these addenda to the basic notion of human dignity, not the notion of human dignity itself, that led to the gulag. The Nazis too may have started out with some humanism-inspired ideas, but it was their addition of a lot of nonsense about Aryan supremacy, biological purity, and the inferiority of others that led to the Holocaust. Similarly, secular humanist ideals don’t by themselves yield industrial-scale environmental destruction. The real roots of your four great evils lie elsewhere.

There is probably something to the hypothesis that a human-centric worldview tends to excuse the exploitative use of “sub-human” animals and the environment. This, I think, is the legitimate core of your critique. It’s worth noting, however, that contemporary Darwinism—itself a product of humanism—rejects any superiority scale that would license the categorization of other animals as less evolved, inferior, or sub-human. (They’re just as evolved as we are, only to other niches; indeed, they’re better adapted to their niches than we are—and this is the only notion of “better” that the science can endorse.)

Yes, early cultural appropriations of Darwinism—most notably social Darwinism—provided convenient rationales for Aryan supremacists and exploitative capitalists, but a fuller appreciation of the Darwinian view of life is profoundly humbling—perhaps more so than Copernican cosmology. Remember, too, that scientific humanism replaced a religious mythology where God created us in His image, placed our planet at the center of Creation, and gave us “dominion” over terrestrial life. Talk about a “dangerously easy” rationale for plundering the environment! God Himself sanctioned its exploitation and commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply.” These words are still used by the American religious Right to justify slashing resources to family planning programs.

Exploitative attitudes toward the environment and convenient excuses for pillaging predate humanism by tens of thousands of years. Humanity didn’t need the philosophy of humanism to begin privileging itself. If we want to understand root causes, then we have to examine the matter more carefully. How about this one: Darwinian principles entail that self-care is an utterly basic biological impulse, one that got modified, in the course of mammalian evolution, into a complex concern for self, kin, friends, and tribesmen. I grant that expanding the circle of moral concern to the rest of humanity—perhaps humanism’s essential legacy—doesn’t go far enough, but it was a significant step in the right direction.

Has the philosophy of humanism nevertheless exacerbated problematic attitudes? Perhaps. But a causal claim like this needs more than prima facie plausibility. It needs evidence. Yes, humanism’s chosen designation appears to privilege humanity, but is the causal link really there? Did per-capita environmental destruction accelerate as humanist ideas spread? Even if so, mightn’t industrialization be the better explanation? In a matter like this, it’s no small task to separate causation from spurious correlation.

Has humanism—initially a force for moral progress—nevertheless become inhibitory of moral progress? It depends on your definition of humanism. If it involves treating human interests as the ultimate source of meaning and value (your definition), quite possibly. If it involves “the greater good of humanity” (the AHA’s definition), probably not, but perhaps in some ways. If it involves understanding and promoting what really matters (my definition of humanism in “Getting Humanism Right-Side Up: An Alternative Humanist Manifesto”), almost surely not.

I hope I’ve said enough to persuade you that you need a better term for the phenomenon you find problematic. By all means, decry the assumptions that tend to sacralize humanity in its individual, collective, and “more highly evolved” forms. Condemn sapiens-worship to your heart’s content. I’ll join you. The ideas of self-proclaimed humanists, though, are not the root of the phenomenon you deplore. Indeed, we humanists are your natural allies.

You write that “This is how humanists look at human feelings … with deep respect and awe because they are the source of value in life … human feelings are the supreme source of authority” and meaning. I think you’re on to something here: many people today are captive to an outlook that sees all value as rooted in human desire-satisfaction. (Materialism and consumer culture are two dark manifestations of this idea.) But this idea infects more than just self-identified humanists. In fact, the vast majority of self-identified humanists have transcended the delusion that only human feelings matter. We don’t kick puppies because we know that, generally speaking, it’s wrong to cause suffering. Reflective humanists tend to regard all sentient beings as worthy of some moral consideration. (I confess that my efforts to translate this insight into an all plant-based diet founder, time and again, on weakness of will.)

Self-identified humanists also understand that mindless deference to human emotions is a really bad idea: combine it with greed, the will to power, nationalism, or other forms of tribalism, and the results are usually disastrous. I think we humanists understand this as well as anyone. In fact, our emphasis on reason, tolerance, and human rights is a pretty direct indication that we recognize the need to temper human desire.

It is not self-identified humanists who exacerbate an unhealthy tendency to worship or s
acralize humanity. It is plain old human nature: our selfish, greedy, tribal selves. And here’s one of the truly admirable aspects of the philosophy of humanism: many of its tenets function to temper humanity’s worst impulses. Tempted to dehumanize others? Sorry, human rights and dignity are too important. Tempted to demonize and wage war on “them”? Sorry, all humans are your brethren. Tempted to suppress speech you deem blasphemous or hateful? Sorry, censorship is prohibited. Tempted to use state power to advance your religious agenda? Sorry, we need to maintain the wall of separation. Tempted to indulge in dogmatic, ideological thinking? Sorry, you have a responsibility to think critically, even about your own cherished beliefs. Tempted to amass great power or wealth? Sorry, but we all matter, and all matter equally. Tempted to factory-farm animals? Sorry, but other sentient critters matter too. Tempted to treat nature as a mere means to our ends? Sorry, but this pale blue dot is our lifeboat; we need to treat it with some reverence.

People who believe these things—those I call humanists—have a pretty decent track record of not committing genocide. We consistently opposed totalitarianism and supported the environmental movement. Yes, humanity generally has built a system of industrial food production that is profoundly inhumane and utterly unsustainable. We’re polluting the planet, changing the climate, and driving many species to extinction. No doubt human-centric prejudices are part of the problem. But are Nazism, Stalinism, and environmental destruction all rooted in humanism? Even on your definition, this oversimplifies. And given prevailing usage, it vilifies.

You’re quite right that the early Humanist Manifestos contain some unfortunate, species-centric language. Even Humanist Manifesto III claims that “ethical values are derived from human needs and interests”—conspicuously neglecting the needs and interests of other sentient beings. But here’s the neat thing about humanism: it’s self-revising. As a rule, humanists take critical challenges seriously and revise their thinking. We don’t treat our manifestoes as gospel; we work and re-work them. In fact, Humanist Manifesto III makes clear that it, too, is a work in progress: “The lifestance of humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience … continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideas, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understanding advance.”

Humanist manifestos get superseded every few decades. (Compare that to the way religions cling to sacred scripture for millennia!) Perhaps it’s time to update humanism again. Your concerns about biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and our “post-human” future are a welcome stimulus to do this. (Our “transhumanist” cousins tend to be bullish on the possibilities of technologically enhanced human beings; they’ve been urging us to pay attention to these questions for a while now. You may well be right that it’s time to address them in earnest.)

The American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” I think this is an admirable lifestance and don’t see anything sinister in this aspiration to pursue “the greater good of humanity.” I think we should seek to improve both our condition and ourselves. Not at any cost, of course, but all else being equal? Why not? When you seek and share historical knowledge, are you not seeking to improve humanity? Were a genomic intervention to safely and painlessly spare unborn children crippling handicaps, will you denounce it as eugenics run amok? Surely not. Yes, the project of “perfecting” humanity can become sinister. But doesn’t it become sinister the moment it starts abusing sentient creatures and destroying the environment? Why not improve what we can improve and cherish those we can’t? The former needn’t preclude the latter.

You write that “humanism can’t shirk responsibility for the bitter fruits of Communism, Nazism, and ecological destruction.” But this is exactly the kind of causal claim that becomes problematic when your definition of humanism is problematized. Put differently, if your definition is challenged, you can’t use the term humanism to make such claims—not without begging the question. You must first redeem the definition. You made a decent preliminary case for allowing this usage—historians do in fact use the term as you do—but all things considered, I think, academics should refrain from stereotyping humanism in this way. Especially given that a relatively harmless (if less felicitous) alternative exists. “Humanity-sanctifying worldviews can’t shirk responsibility for the bitter fruits of Communism, Nazism, and ecological destruction” isn’t as sexy a claim, but it has the merit of being defensible.

Should a person of good will adopt your definition of humanism, recognize the dark shadow of humanism so understood, and work to overcome its baleful effects? Or should such a person adopt my definition of humanism and work to advance the humanist cause so understood? What’s a reasonable person to do?

Why treat it as an either-or? Why not both-and? It seems we need two words here. Under the circumstances, it seems best to cede the term humanism to self-identified humanists, and for your purposes, use a designation such as “humanity-sanctifying worldviews.” I’m asking you to make this small adjustment to your usage patterns, and in this way, work with us—your natural allies—to serve the greater good.

Humanists have long sought to replace religious ideologies with scientific humility. This makes your question “Why not call it scientism?” worth asking. One answer is that “scientism” has become a term of abuse. Another is that it’s hard to rebrand a movement mid-stream. More important, science combats unreason in the realm of facts but has yet to address unreason about what matters. For these reasons, I prefer “rationalism” to “scientism.”

Perhaps the humanist movement needs to rebrand itself as a movement for rationalism. I’m open to that possibility. But the ideas and values we both cherish have long been championed under the “humanist” banner, and that fact merits some respect. We can’t just equate humanism with the worship of humanity—not without doing serious harm to a significant force for human and planetary wellbeing.




Yuval Noah Harari and A. P. Norman

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian. A. P. Norman is a humanist philosopher and frequent contributor to Free Inquiry