Why I am Not a Humanist (Yet)

30 10 2010

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.

Yet, since this unexpected exchange, I’ve been wondering: why am I not already a Humanist?

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.

Secular religion

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.



14 responses

30 10 2010
James Gray

We both share an interest in community, but I am less interested in creating a “secular religion” and hope to find people who really do have an interest in thinking and becoming better people through better reasoning, emotions, beliefs, and actions.

You say, “When people seek meaning, most don’t turn to philosophy, they turn to music, art, poetry or religious scripture.”

People don’t even know what philosophy is. I personally do turn to philosophy for these things. It would be unreasonable to expect anyone to turn to philosophy without knowing what it is, but that’s exactly why we need a philosophical community in the first place. We need people who have learned a little about living a better life to be willing to share their knowledge — in a philosophical way.

31 10 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim, the positive aspects had not occurred to me of calling humanism a “secular religion”. 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” sounds like a good thing.

Perhaps we should even embrace the idea of humanistic moral dogma. (I am serious). One definition of dogma is “something held as an established opinion; especially : a definite authoritative tenet”. Humanism is presently a long way from producing anything authoritative.

But if there could ever be produced an authoritative “workable secular moral system”, it might be able to produce what could reasonably be called dogma. Calling it dogma might conveniently lead to conversations with theists about “Let’s compare your religious moral dogma to humanism’s moral dogma and judge which is more moral”.

31 10 2010
Mark Sloan

Also, I have suggested that the Institute for Science and Human Values somehow sponsor a forum (perhaps on an existing forum site like http://forums.philosophyforums.com/ focused on the topic of a workable secular moral system for humanists. But no response yet. Perhaps their ought to be a companion forum concerning a “secular religion” and its dogma derived from reason.

31 10 2010
Tim Dean

@James I’m very sympathetic to your ideas about advocating philosophy and good reasoning. I’ve just been too lazy/busy to post my own thoughts in support of yours – I will soon! But I agree that promoting philosophy is a Good Thing, but I think promoting the lessons of philosophy without forcing people to engage in the debate is also important. My missive about Humanism is more about the latter, although the former still plays a significant role in the formation of the Big Book of Questions.

@Mark I’m wary enough of using the word ‘religion’, loaded as it is. But I think ‘dogma’ is a dangerous word to associate with a rational enterprise like Humanism. Dogma implies rigid and inflexible beliefs that are not open to debate – and that is anathema to Humanistic values. I prefer the term ‘principles’, or something similar, to refer to what you’re talking about.

And I would be enthusiastic about a forum to discuss morality and secular religion – what it is, how it could work, the pros and cons etc. If someone sets one up, I’d go (if I could afford the airfare from the antipodes…).

1 11 2010

To what extent is it possible to build an institution that engages people’s emotions and gives them practical guidance on how to live which at the same time doesn’t involve any trade off with openness, skepticism, and an emphasis on rational inquiry? I suspect, although I could be dissuaded, that to sufficiently engage people’s emotions in this way must necessarily entail some sort of trade off, especially if a whole lot of our moral and emotional circuitry evolved because pro-social behavior was fitness enhancing. How does one square the view that morality evolved because it enhanced kin-group fitness with the view that you can engage people’s emotions in order to shape their behavior in a pro-social direction without involving some of what Haidt would call conservative moral sentiments, sentiments which tend to close off debate but are effective in shaping behavior?

1 11 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim, physics provides a familiar example of the comfortable existence of core dogma in an environment that emphasizes “openness, skepticism, and an emphasis on rational inquiry” (in Paul’s words). Physic’s central dogmas might be said to start with “momentum and mass/energy are conserved” and build from there. The existence of such dogmas in science does not inhibit “openness, skepticism, and an emphasis on rational inquiry”.

The dogma of a humanistic culture might consist of just the core statement of a presently hypothetical generally accepted secular morality such as we are both pursuing. Then heuristics for recognizing ‘moral’ acts (humanistic moral standards such as a version of the Golden Rule) would generally be the subjects of skepticism and rational inquiry to whatever degree suited the individual.

A set of authoritative principles (dogma) have been critical, in my view, to progress in physics. They might be equally useful in a humanist morality and culture. Some high quality dogma that “engages people’s emotions and gives them practical guidance on how to live” (quoting Paul again) seems to me to be a necessity.

1 11 2010
James Gray


I think Tim mainly just doesn’t like the word “dogma.” He already suggested a “little book of answers” which is pretty much what you are talking about.

1 11 2010
Mark Sloan

The forum about humanistic morality I was suggesting would be on-line only. No plane fare required.

1 11 2010
Mark Sloan

James, whether it is called a little book of answers or dogma or both is much less important than 1) it being a definite authoritative tenet and 2) emotionally engaging for average people. Without that emotional engagement for average people, anything like a humanistic religion is impossible.

The “Neo-Humanist Statement Of Secular Principles And Values” on the Institute for Science and Human Values website is, in my opinion, neither. We will have to do a lot better than that. I am optimistic that we can. (And I have the start of a candidate, but that is another story.)

2 11 2010
Nathan Bupp

“Also, I have suggested that the Institute for Science and Human Values somehow sponsor a forum (perhaps on an existing forum site like http://forums.philosophyforums.com/ focused on the topic of a workable secular moral system for humanists”

@Mark Sloan: I think this is a great idea Mark. This issue is of paramount significance in our modern, secular age. As American philosopher Philip Kitcher has recently observed, with great perspicacity, “No advocacy of disbelief, however eloquent, will work the secular revolution until (certain) facts are acknowledged. The temporary eradication of superstition, unaccompanied by attention to the functions religion serves, creates a vacuum into which the crudest forms of literalist mythology can easily intrude themselves…Secular humanism needs not only to be secular, but also to be humane…To achieve this, we must go beyond disbelief.”

Nathan Bupp, editor of the upcoming Prometheus Books volume “Meaning and Value in a Secular Age.”

2 11 2010
Mark Sloan

Nathan, the Kitcher quote mirrors my own concerns.

How about I email you my thoughts on the option of trying to convince the forum masters at Philosophy Forums to start something like a “secular humanist morality” forum? (Better name needed.)

My interest in the “Philosophy Forums” site is that there are consistent commenters that seem knowledgeable in moral philosophy and ethics. Such commenters are hard to find on public forums. I post as markus7 in the Ethics forum if you have any interest.

My Google search did not immediately find an email address for you. I could send a message to your Facebook page, or is there a better option?


2 11 2010
Tim Dean

Lovely quote from Kitcher. Hadn’t seen that before. Sums up my many concerns about atheism, religion and the vacuum that needs to be filled – a vacuum exacerbated by postmodernism and consumerism. Looking forward to seeing a positive alternative develop to fill that void.

3 11 2010
Nathan Bupp

@Mark Sloan:

Yes, let us communicate and friend each other via Facebook.

20 01 2011
Darren Osland

“Secular humanism needs not only to be secular, but also to be humane…To achieve this, we must go beyond disbelief.”

I’ve always had issues with the idea of “atheism” as a guiding principle in the sense that it’s based on a negative- the disbelief of one thing -without necessarily promoting a positive of belief (to me it’s no different to people who are anti-capitalism without putting forward a valid alternative system).

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