I was recently contacted, much to my surprise, by a representative of the new US-based Humanist organisation, the Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV), founded by none other than Paul Kurtz. Apparently, they had come across a missive I’d posted in the past about the Great Adventure of building a workable secular moral system that can, one day, displace supernaturalist religion as a moral compass in today’s society. Evidently, the ISHV shares a similar vision, and they invited me to contribute some suitably spirited language to their upcoming journal, The Human Prospect.
After reading the ISHV’s Neo Humanist statement of secular principles and values, it was readily apparent that I share virtually all the same values as Humanism (at least of the ‘Neo’ variety), and yet I have never found myself identifying with the Humanism movement. Why?
It’s not that I wouldn’t want to belong to a movement that shares my values, and explicitly seeks to spread those values (not that I can even imagine what it would be like to be amongst a group of people who all agree with me on most things). But I presume it would be a buoying experience.
It’s also not that I disagree on any particular points of value or principle. Certainly, I have slightly different views on the origins of morality and the meaning of terms such as ‘wellbeing’, but they’re hardly showstoppers.
So, why am I not a Humanist?
Actions and words
When exploring the ISHV website, the answer eventually struck me: I believe the movement embodied by the ISHV is not the right sort of movement that I envisaged filling the void left by the retreat of supernaturalist religion.
This is not because Humanism advocates the wrong values. Not at all. Instead, I think it’s because Humanism appears to me to be more of a rational and intellectual endeavour rather than an emotionally engaging lifestyle-guiding endeavour.
Existing religions aren’t just systems of beliefs and values. More importantly – much more importantly – they’re systems of rituals and practices that serve as a guiding framework for steering our behaviour. The beliefs and values just sit in the background and act as the justification.
Humanism is, first and foremost, a system of beliefs and values, which are somewhat distant from any clear practical guidelines on how to actually live by those beliefs and values. Like much philosophy, Humanism is largely about justification rather than practical decision making.
This it not terribly surprising if you consider the roots of Humanism. It was always advocated by people who, by and large, were already living the values they made explicit through their various manifestos. They simply put them on paper for others to see. But this approach was never going to be very persuasive to those who didn’t already share rationalist, secularist views.
Humanism currently preaches to the converted, and it needs to begin converting the un-converted.
Words to actions
Still, I do believe that Humanism could form the foundations of a broader, popular, lifestyle-guiding movement that could satisfactorily fill the vacuum left by supernaturalist religion. Although, to do so, it would require a few tweaks and additions. And I’m sure there would be many ways of doing this, but here is my take:
First, drop the ‘Neo’ from Humanism. I understand there are some political reasons for rebranding Humanism, but I can’t tell you how uninterested most people are (myself included) in that kind of wheeling and dealing. There’s a bigger picture here; consider how silly ‘Neo Humanism’ is going to sound in 50 years time. Humanism ought to be as timeless as many of its core values. Flagging it as a reactionary movement will just make it look dated awfully fast.
Second, if Humanism seeks to reach out and bring people under its umbrella, it needs to have a greater emphasis on outreach to the broader public rather than dialogue and debate within the Humanist community. Presently, websites like the ISHV look like a pseudo-academic sites, staid, formal and exclusive, rather than engaging, inviting and inclusive. Compare it to this engaging example of modern Christianity.
This doesn’t mean Humanism ought not have an academic wing. But that can’t be the only wing. There needs to be an emotionally engaging and inspiring outreach wing that is the voice of Humanism to the world at large – and, ultimately, to most of Humanism’s adherents.
Because, frankly, most people are largely uninterested in engaging day-to-day in academic debates. What most people yearn for is clear, comprehensible and motivating guidelines on how to live a good life. Many have already turned from supernaturalist religion, and many are finding consumerist hedonism is deeply unsatisfying. These people yearn for something inspiring to latch on to.
There is nothing stopping Humanism from satisfying both aspects, as do religions with their academic theology compared to their popular communication through places of worship or other media.
Thirdly, lifestyle-guiding movements need to encourage bottom-up, grassroots, community action. Certainly, most religions these days are centralised, but they didn’t start off that way. They began by giving people a platform for conversation, for engagement, for interaction with others like them and the broader public. Humanism could do the same by helping facilitate grassr00ts movements around the world. But these wouldn’t just be discussion groups, as it appears many Humanism branches are, but groups that get engaged with the community.
Start community gardens, hold fetes and public barbecues, organise social work and charity drives, offer courses in community centres etc. Be present, be visible, be friendly. This might seem petty compared to the lofty vision outlined in Humanist manifestos, but I strongly believe that this kind of community engagement is what makes movements stick, i.e. don’t just tell people how to live a good life, show them.
Words to books
One major challenge with this approach is that most people simply don’t want to – or don’t have the time to – engage in major philosophical debates in order to find the values they want to live by. Humanism, to its credit, is an open and largely pluralistic movement that encourages discussion and debate – as it should. But most people just want answers they can be confident in, not piles of questions, uncertainty and debate. However, this doesn’t mean Humanism should become dogmatic – there needs to be a middle way.
One way I think this could could be managed is what I call the Little Book of Answers and the Big Book of Questions approach.
The language of moral philosophy might be reason, but the language of morality is emotion. When people seek meaning, most don’t turn to philosophy, they turn to music, art, poetry or religious scripture. Likewise, the Little Books of Answers would be written in an engaging, inspiring tone, offering simple guidelines on how to live a good life and brief explanations and justifications. It would be a guidebook to life, a mix of wisdom and philosophy.
However, for each point in the Little Book of Answers, there would likely be a voluminous background of rational philosophy, debate and even uncertainty. This material would appear in the Big Book of Questions, linked point-by-point to the content in the Little Book of Answers. Should someone want a deeper justification of a particular point, or would want to question or challenge it, this is where they’d turn.
In fact, unlike dogmatic religions, Humanism does and should encourage people to question and challenge the very principles of Humanism – but not everyone will want to do so. But if they do, the Big Book of Questions will detail the debate – but will also show how that individual can engage in that debate. If they have a strong objection, or a better solution, there would be a mechanism to enable them to participate in the debate – such as through websites and organisations like the ISHV. Consider the Big Book of Answers like the discussion page on a Wikipedia entrry, with the Little Book of Answers as the entry itself.
Not everyone likes the term ‘secular religion’, and I understand why, but I do think it helps us to see what we’re aiming to achieve. We don’t just want a cold rational philosophy and institutes that hold discussions and fora, we need an institution that engages people and gives them a practical guide for how to live a good life and helps them reach out and engage with the community and the world at large.
But we don’t want to compromise on the openness, the scepticism and the emphasis on rational enquiry – but we should acknowledge that these don’t need to be the only entry point into Humanism.
I look forward to seeing how the ISHV develops, and I am enthusiastic about potentially working with them to promote Humanist values. I’m sure many people might disagree with my take on how Humanism could progress, and I’m more than happy to engage in debate about the best way forward. Like many, I’m interested in reducing the amount of irrational and supernaturalist belief in this world, and I increasingly believe that Humanism might just be the answer. Perhaps, one day, I might even call myself a Humanist.