A Secular Humanist Response to “Why I am not a Humanist”

By Doug Berger

I wanted to take the opportunity to write an essay in rebuttal to an essay written by Jane Haddam that was posted on her official website in 2003.

Jane is a published author of several mystery novels and freelance articles for various mainstream magazines.

I have had the pleasure of discussing the points made in her essay on an e-mail list called “sechum” at Yahoo Groups, on which we both participated. We debated and argued the points and I think it is healthy for Humanists to read reasoned critical essays about Humanism.

I really recommend you read her essay in full so that my thoughts don’t appear like I am taking things out of context.

Here is the link: http://www.janehaddam.com/chd/notahumanist.html

The main thrust of her essay is that she takes an exception with the Humanism being expressed by the main national groups, the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Council of Secular Humanism (CSH), on their website and in their official magazines. She feels that the groups exclude people with political philosophies such as her’s. Specifically she sees the magazines and websites promoting what she calls a “left-liberal” political agenda.

I first heard the word “left-liberal” in a posting from Jane on the e-mail list. She claimed that liberal publications use the term to separate themselves from Clinton Liberals who like former President Clinton are more centrists then classic Liberals.

In my research, most of the articles and essays using “left-liberal” came from obviously conservative websites and publications. I found one reference on a liberal website but the word was used more as sarcastic remark like when men say “Sorry, I’m just a pig” to women they insulted.

My conclusion is that “left-liberal” is used as a pejorative like “Liberal” is when used by people who don’t like Liberal politics. It is not just an alternative label as Jane claims.

Aside from that point, I feel Jane makes some points that Humanists should examine, but where I disagree with her is her insistence that a particular political viewpoint on an issue is an official view of all Humanists. I don’t agree that the lack of any one viewpoint from any magazine articles or books indicates anything about what the Humanist consensus is or what it should be. The magazines and books publish viewpoints that should, if anything, be rooted somewhere in the Humanist philosophy.

I also differ with Jane on what the Humanist movement should be about. She claims we should just be secular – dealing with only protecting the rights of secular people.

I don’t believe the Humanist movement will grow if we ignore our historic political roots. I don’t think that a majority of Americans would become Humanists if we just focus only on secularism or at worst, Humanism will become so generic it won’t stand for much of anything.

“At base, however, we’re still left with a situation where a secular American who believes, as most Americans do, that neither rights nor morals are entirely social constructs must put those convictions aside to join a humanist organization. The same is the case for Americans who are supporters of free market philosophies, or even modified free market philosophies. In fact, in some cases, secular Americans who hold views like that have to learn to keep their mouths shut.”

Jane brings up an interesting point about the nature of groups. I don’t feel that it is only limited to Humanist groups. Even in groups committed to a particular political position, some in the group will not have all their viewpoints expressed in the group. Look at the two major political parties in the US. You have a national platform, calling for specific action on some issues. These platforms were developed by the leadership of the party. I know that some of the planks in those platforms don’t make all Democrats or all Republicans happy. Those individuals choose to belong to the party because they find enough issues to support.

Organized Humanism doesn’t work exactly like a political party. We don’t have a leadership developing a platform. We do have more than one set of general overlapping principles that one can adopt if they find they agree substantially with them but we as a group developed those principles together.

I have observed some Humanists berating someone who had a different particular political viewpoint and I don’t agree that is the right thing to do. Humanists do and should argue and debate those issues rationally with all viewpoints included.

“If the secular movement wants to grow, it has to be a secular movement, not a left-liberal movement that tacks on secularism. That means not only making sure that the house organs publish more than one point of view when they address political questions, but that they spend more time concentrating on secularism than they do on politics. It also means doing something about the nearly monolithic cultural climate in secular groups and on secular discussion forums.”

I do agree with Jane that the national groups, the magazines they publish, and even some Humanists I have met do give the impression that one must be a liberal to be a Humanist. I agree that at least in the AHA, it does seem it is still 1968 and Humanists are suppose to battle “the man” and its oppression etc…

Where I do disagree with Jane is her insistence that Humanism should only be about the rights of secularists.

If I thought that was true I would jump ship and go back to calling myself an Atheist.

Humanism is a defined philosophy that incorporates reason, science, and logic to try and solve human problems. Humanists reject any supernaturalism for anything from morals to solutions to problems.

Humanism should include as many viewpoints on issues of interest to us. Humanist principles do not advocate and should not advocate one particular political viewpoint over all others unless that one viewpoint is seen as the best way to address the problem or issue.

I think the reason that Jane feels she doesn’t fit into Humanism and why she claims that Humanist thought is too liberal is because the Humanist philosophy, as a whole, is “left” of center in the political spectrum. A majority of Humanists probably are tentative liberals even if they shy away from the label as many of us shy away from the Atheist label.

As another list participant put it, if a Humanist who is a conservative wants to make an argument of an issue from their perspective then they should. The fact that hasn’t happened often enough is because conservatives are a minority within Humanism not because the principles dictate it.

Jane then makes the following point:

“I have no idea why a “[c]ommitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry…in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions,” as CSH’s What is Secular Humanism page puts it, should lead inevitably to support for assisted suicide or the conviction that there is no objective basis for morality–if you ask me, it should lead straight to the opposite conclusions–but I do know that I am not willing to support organizations that promote policies I think are wrong.”

I have been following the assisted suicide debate in the media and on some of the Humanism e-mail lists. The main arguments against assisted suicide have been based on religious morals not secular ones. Religionists believe that suicide is a sin and therefore should be against the law. Most Humanists believe that it is the person involved who should make the decision and the state should stay out of it. We think of it as a rights issue not a moral question much like most of us support a woman’s right to an abortion even if some of us, like myself, don’t like abortion.

There is another non-religious argument against assisted suicide that involves the potential of abuse. Some people feel that a terminally ill person could be manipulated to ask for assisted suicide or it could be used to free up health resources by unscrupulous health care people.

The question of an objective morality is one of those debates that just doesn’t seem to end because the answer isn’t clear. There are good arguments on both sides of the issue. Jane feels very strongly that there is an objective morality and she finds opposite views repugnant.

Individual Humanist views on those issues do differ but the public face (the magazines, websites, and books) has tended to express one particular viewpoint. I believe that other viewpoints should be published as long as those viewpoints are drawn from Humanist principles.

Someone, outside the Humanist movement, could draw the incorrect impression that what comes from the National groups is the “official” view of all Humanists. We should be emphasizing the fact that the Humanist consensus isn’t dictated from Headquarters.

“Second, both magazines, and their parent organizations, redefine several philosophical issues as conflicts between “church” and “state.” That practice extends to many of the smaller organizations as well, like the Institute for First American Studies. Abortion and euthanasia are presented as if no one could ever object to either if they didn’t believe in God. Questions about funding abortion through Medicaid or providing condoms to students in public schools turn on presenting the “pro” case as secular and the “con” as purely religious.”

While I do agree we need to be careful which issues we define into a conflict between church and state, unfortunately she mentions the three issues that in fact are a conflict of church vs. state. The pro side is based on a secular argument and the con side is based on God’s law.

Arguments from secularists against abortion, euthanasia, and condom handouts have been made but the Humanist consensus on those issues happens to be one based on the conflict between church and state. That is how the debate in the public is framed. Since the “con” arguments are based on religious or subjective tastes the argument becomes part of the “Church & State” debate.

“Third, both major organizations–and most of the small ones–hold fast to a philosophical and scientific paradigm that is out of date anywhere else on the planet. Science may have abandoned the blank slate and environmental determinism decades ago, but organized humanism still loves them both. That love has consequences. It means that organized humanism is still promoting “relativism” in morality, not merely by rejecting absolutism–which would make sense–but by denying that morals have any objective basis at all. It means that organized humanism denies any basis for political and civil rights except the whim of the society that chooses to grant them. In addition, most importantly, it means that organized humanism is still fatally attracted to social engineering. If environment is everything, and rights don’t exist except when society decides to give them to you, it makes sense to push for the control of children and their upbringing and education. That’s how you “effect change” for “the good of society.””

The issues she mentions in the quote above are issues that we Humanists debate a lot in person and on e-mail lists. Not all Humanists hold the same view on those issues. We don’t march in lock step with each other. In fact, those issues above aren’t even mentioned specifically in the various principles of Humanism printed by the AHA and CSH.

Viewpoints on both sides of the argument could be derived from the principles but these issues are political issues and in politics, you can have a wide range of thought.

“Organized humanism” doesn’t love the “blank slate” and “environmental determinism.” “Organized Humanism” isn’t promoting “relativism” or believing civil rights only exist on the whim of society. “Organized Humanism” is not fatally attracted to social engineering. Do some individual Humanists express those views? Sure. However the national groups don’t hold any of those positions nor would I want them to.

Again Jane makes the mistake in thinking that the national groups dictate the Humanist consensus or sanctions those views by publishing articles about them in their magazines.

I would go so far as to say that “Organized Humanism” doesn’t exist. Belonging to a group is not required to be a Humanist. There is no test or allegiance required. There is no political test either.

To be a Humanist all you need to do is read the principles. If you find you agree substantially with them then you are a Humanist.

As Jane found from personal experience, just because someone says they are a Humanist doesn’t mean they will act like one all the time.

I have met some Humanists who love the free market and think that Humanism should only be about protecting individual rights. They consider themselves Humanists because Humanists favor individual rights.

On the other hand I know some Humanists who are more liberal than I am. They are against war ‘period’. They believe we would be better off as a socialist state.

I can tell you that such ultra-liberalism is not reflected by a majority of Humanists I know or talk to. Using Jane’s arguments, one could complain that Humanism is too conservative since you don’t read any articles about building communes.

The point is that Humanism is not just about politics or only about one issue like rights. Humanism is a philosophy of life that helps find human answers to human problems in a rational way without the need for a God.

I think Jane’s essay expresses some problems with the public face of Humanism that should be looked at and changed if necessary. However, I don’t agree that organized Humanism is a political organization first, secular as an afterthought.

I don’t believe that non-Liberal viewpoints are actively excluded. Those viewpoints are a minority of minority philosophy. That doesn’t mean those ideas are invalid, only that such ideas are not supported by the same number of Humanists who support the opposite viewpoint. If you have many more people holding the same views then it naturally will be expressed in print.

Non-liberal viewpoints are needed to fill out our search for a consensus and they deserve the same respect we give Liberal ideas. We may not agree with them but we do need to listen.

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