Perceptions of Humanism

Dan Davis

I greatly enjoyed the dialogue between historian Yuval Noah Harari and philosopher A. P. Norman (“The Meaning and Legacy of Humanism,” FI, April/May 2018). Who would have thought that a debate over the definition of a single word could be so interesting and thought-provoking? Apparently the definition of humanism varies not only according to personal perception but also according to academic discipline.

Harari defines humanism as “a worldview that sanctifies humanity and sees humanity as the ultimate source of authority.” He suggests that secular humanism is a small subset within that category that may not sanctify humanity at all but instead views authority as “inherent in science.”

According to Harari, most historians regard humanism as a belief that morality and ethics are determined by humans rather than mythical beings, a concept with historical and philosophical antecedents dating back to the fourth century bce (Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things”). He maintains that this concept is broad enough to encompass an assertion 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.’” The shadow side of such an assertion is its potential use as a supporting argument for evils such as Nazism and Stalinism.

Norman responds that Harari’s characterizations are dangerous because they could “easily frighten religious know-nothings into scapegoating humanists” and “exacerbate anti-intellectual fervor” (which, of course, would be nothing new). He argues for secular humanism as the latest iteration of humanism’s evolution, which, in addition to relying on science and reason, is now expanding its moral concern to all sentient beings and the planet itself. He asks Harari to “cede the term humanism to self-identified humanists,” a request unlikely to be embraced by historians as a whole even if granted by Harari himself. Ultimately, the two scholars seem to have little or no disagreement about philosophical or ethical principles; they are primarily arguing over whose definition should be generally accepted.

On the surface, a religious fundamentalist’s definition of humanism would not be too different from Harari’s: a sanctification of humanity as the ultimate source of moral authority. Fundamentalists, of course, regard their god as the ultimate source of moral authority and therefore see any form of humanism as a repudiation of their divine dictator (punishable by eternal torture).

One fundamentalist perception of secular humanism was expressed in the April 12, 2018, issue of The Stream, an online journal that describes itself as follows: “The national daily championing freedom, smaller government and human dignity [sic]. The Stream offers a rich and lively source for breaking news, Christian inspiration and conservative commentary while challenging the worst in the mainstream media.”

The relevant article, by Senior Editor Tom Gilson, is titled “Secular Humanism’s Awful Inhumanity.” Gilson applies his own unique style of reasoning, distilled to the points below, to conclude that secular humanism is morally bankrupt (the observations in parentheses are my own):

  1. Secular humanists are atheists. (Apparently there are no non-atheists among us.)
  2. Some secular philosophers have argued that atheism “means” there’s no such thing as thinking. (Gilson is obviously conflating atheism with his peculiar interpretation of determinism.)
  3. Since some secular philosophers have argued that atheism means there’s no such thing as thinking, all atheists must be hard determinists who “don’t believe in thinking.” (I can’t even guess how he makes this leap.)
  4. Therefore, acceptance of secular humanism requires renouncing the existence of human choice and thought. (I must have forgotten that part of the Secular Humanist Oath.)
  5. Gilson writes, “Princeton ethicist Peter Singer says we have a duty to avoid ‘speciesism.’ We’re no different from any other animal, he says; in fact, an 18-month-old child has less mental power—and therefore less worth—than a chimp.” (Peter Singer said it; Peter Singer is a secular humanist; therefore, all secular humanists must believe it. Similarly, Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in their capacity as conspicuously pious Christians, have said their “holy” book justifies removing babies from their parents to be warehoused in chain-link enclosures; therefore, all Christians must condone this despicable practice.)
  6. Secular humanist atheism is “humanly impossible” yet “still they prefer it to God—any God, even the gracious God of the Bible, whose supreme love gives us the real worth and dignity that an empty universe cannot.” (Obviously he’s referring to the god of the Bizarro Bible, the only version depicting God as something other than the monster described by all the other versions.)

Gilson’s twisted logic and inane conclusions are weirdly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda regarding Jews. If his levels of distortion and delusion are anywhere near typical, our prospects for peaceful coexistence with fundamentalism are close to nonexistent.

Those of us who aren’t historians, philosophers, or fundamentalists perceive humanism as anywhere between “Who cares?” and some version or combination of the viewpoints described above. Even in the case of Norman’s perception (which probably approximates that of most Free Inquiry readers), the “human” component is problematic. A few of us (me included) are uncomfortable identifying ourselves as secular humanists simply because the term comes across as too human-centric, an impression enhanced by Harari’s definition.

As Harari suggests, Norman’s version of secular humanism doesn’t sanctify humanity at all but instead looks to science and reason for authority. Why, then, shouldn’t this version be removed from the definition of humanism entirely, since it seems to have evolved beyond its title?

I believe we should change the name of our life stance to one that better reflects its principles. Giving ourselves a new name would take a concerted effort, but it would not be without precedent. Awhile back, the term gay only meant happy and care-free. Non-straight males adopted the term as a non-pejorative title, and society accepted this usage within a surprisingly short period.

Probably the hardest aspect of a name change would be deciding upon the new moniker. The term bright has been proposed and largely rejected. I once favored naturalist (as in nothing is supernatural) but then realized people might confuse us with forest rangers or nudists. My current candidate is rationalist, as proposed by Norman, or, even better, secular rationalist. These titles have the advantages of clarity (unlike humanist) and the absence of a human-centric connotation. They also eliminate the historian/philosopher terminology conflict. Fundamentalists, of course, will continue to demonize us regardless of our chosen name, but stepping away from the “humanist” designation will at least confuse them further and provide one less target for their outrage.

As noted above, Norman is concerned that Harari’s definition of humanism provides an argument for those who would further demonize us. In the same vein, perceptions of humanism can’t be fully examined without addressing the determinism debate. Apparently the hard determinists among us have been noisy enough to create a perception, particularly among religionists, that their position is shared by all secular humanists. It doesn’t help that most of the religionists embracing this perception, such as Tom Gilson of The Stream, have a murky understanding of determinism at best.

  According to Gilson and his ilk, we’ve all accepted the theory that every choice and event is inevitable, predetermined by antecedent causes and conditions comprising links in an eternal causal chain. The Gilsonites self-righteously suggest that we’ve embraced this theory because it precludes the existence of free will and thereby absolves us of having to take responsibility for our actions.

Most of us are aware, of course, that not all secular humanists are absolute determinists, and even the hard-liners take pains to explain how they can—and do—accept responsibility for their actions. (Admittedly, I’m generally confused by these explanations.) Many of us, including me, believe genetics, experience, and prior conditioning create a probability that our responses to given stimuli will be predetermined, while still believing that elements of randomness and free choice can, and sometimes do, affect outcomes.

The extent to which predetermined factors control our behavior is not quantifiable and probably never will be. The debate over this issue is unresolvable, a secular equivalent to the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Proclaiming that the matter is settled seems more than a little pretentious and only provides ammunition to our detractors.

In any case, we’re all still secular rationalists. Let’s consider adopting that name.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis is a writer and a semiretired sales and use tax-consultant with a tendency to overthink things.


I greatly enjoyed the dialogue between historian Yuval Noah Harari and philosopher A. P. Norman (“The Meaning and Legacy of Humanism,” FI, April/May 2018). Who would have thought that a debate over the definition of a single word could be so interesting and thought-provoking? Apparently the definition of humanism varies not only according to personal perception …

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