Framing Humanism Is Okay But Not At The Expense Of Honesty

Humanism is a strange collection of individuals in a stew of rationality, all of us looking for the truth for our world view. We, as Humanists, know we must work with believers and other theists to find common ground with the goal of bettering the human condition. Andy Norman, writing for the Humanist Network News, an e-zine of the American Humanist Association, tries to offer tips for dialogue on Humanism to non-humanists but does so by giving up honesty in the process.

Framing the word HumanismHumanism is a strange collection of individuals in a stew of rationality, all of us looking for the truth for our world view. We, as Humanists, know we must work with believers and other theists to find common ground with the goal of bettering the human condition. Andy Norman, writing for the Humanist Network News, an e-zine of the American Humanist Association, tries to offer tips for dialogue on Humanism to non-humanists but does so by giving up honesty in the process.

Norman, in his essay “Framing Humanism, or How to Win the Culture War”, starts out great by explaining how we as Humanists could do a better job of bringing in new people or at least getting our message out by the use of Framing (where we control the meaning of our message), but then my alarm bells start going off when I read this:

Principle (6) urges us to avoid tribal and ideological loyalties, and consistency requires that we apply this stricture to ourselves. The world does not need another ideological sorting mechanism—something that divides humanity into an in-group and an out-group, an “us” and a “them.” As its name suggests, humanism means to be inclusive. (The term’s main weakness is that it appears to exclude other species from the expanding circle of moral concern. Eventually, this weakness will have to be addressed.)

Framing Humanism, or How to Win the Culture War

I am very familiar with this line of thinking from my days debating a member of a local UU church. This is what he use to call having “Big Tent Humanism”. He wanted to open up the tent to any and all who call themselves Humanists except if you were also an atheist.

Norman, in his essay, lists six principles as a test for Humanism yet rails against excluding people. How can you have a test for something and not exclude people? This isn’t Tee Ball. You can’t have a test and everyone passes. Of course Norman knows that too. Just like my friend’s Big Tent, Norman’s “Framing Humanism” excludes people – specifically Atheists:

I don’t believe in God, but I think it’s a tactical mistake to, by definition, exclude theists from our ranks. What do we want to say to the billions of people who subscribe to humanist principles (like 1-6 above), but still cling to belief in God? ‘Sorry, but you must ditch your imaginary friend before you can join us?’ What do we accomplish by such exclusion? The first thing we do, whether we intend to or not, is erect a barrier to constructive dialogue. But humanism is, above all, a commitment to such dialogue. Real dialogue works a kind of magic, but only when participants set aside tribal loyalties and reason together openly, honestly and, dare I say it, in good faith. We want reason-giving dialogue to work its magic on them, of course, but the price is openness to the possibility that the exchange might change us as well. That’s the way dialogue works; it’s a two-way street. Framing humanism in a way that excludes theists in advance comes across as fearful of what they might teach us. Here’s an idea: let’s embrace our commitment to fearless inquiry and truly ‘walk the talk.’ In this context, that means avoiding a self-conception that creates artificial barriers to collaborative inquiry.

And let’s face it: our qualms about supernaturalism are hardly first principles of humanism. We don’t embrace atheism prior to investigative inquiry; our doubts emerge from investigative inquiry. Sure, many of us have traveled that investigative path, and we’re eager to broadcast our findings. It doesn’t follow, though, that it is wise to present our atheism up front. In fact, doing so is often unwise, for it suggests—falsely—that our skepticism about gods is a presupposition rather than an outcome of our inquiries. When we reinforce the impression that rejection of god is one of our axioms, we appear dogmatic, and afford others ready grounds for dismissing what we have to say. Our atheism is derivative—a conclusion, not a premise, of the arguments we need to share with believers.

Norman wants a Big Tent with a sign that reads “Atheists Need Not Apply”.

He falls into the same trap that gets believers and others opposed to atheists. Atheism is about the God question and nothing more. If you look closer, Atheism can’t be separated from Humanism.

Here is the AHA’s own definition of Humanism:

Humanism is 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.

“[W]ithout theism and other supernatural beliefs” is part of the definition of atheism too. An Atheist has a FAR shorter path to Humanism (and less need for redefining one’s beliefs) than a theist or other believer. Take out the atheism inherent in Humanism and what you have is generic humanitarianism.

I get that we shouldn’t lead with our atheism but I disagree that we should hide it or minimize it. That would be dishonest. One sure way to block a discussion is to be dishonest about your arguments.

Besides why is it my job to make discussions “easier” by hiding my atheism? I’m not the one who gets the vapors about my non-belief. It isn’t my job to humor the believer or protect their sensibilities.

To win any war, a force has to overwhelm their opponents with firepower. You don’t win a war by hiding your any of your weapons.

2 Comments

I don’t think he was saying, hide the atheism or that this in any way is anti-atheist. Just saying, we are going to promote the philosophy of humanism, which, yes, is a secular practical philosophy that rejects supernaturalism and theism doesn’t mean we are excluding atheists. It is just that it is our rationalism and our pragmatism that leads us to reject supernaturalism. Not our rejection of supernaturalism that leads us to rationalism and pragmatism. There are plenty of atheists who aren’t either rational or pragmatic to prove that point. What this means is that it isn’t atheism or lack of supernaturalism that we should be promoting. It is rationalism and pragmatism that is the point.

I think the problem is that there are people who are both atheist and humanists (I am myself). The question is what is more important to you. The promotion of atheism or the promotion of humanism? We can’t keep confusing the two, they are not the same. I don’t understand why being more interested in promoting Humanism somehow makes me anti-atheist. It’s a ridiculous notion. No one is preventing atheists from promoting atheism. But Humanists should also be allowed to promote humanism without being accused of being traitors.

Atheism only deals with the god question nothing more. That’s why I said Norman (and others) fall into a trap when they suggest we be dishonest about our atheism by being quiet. Humanism is my world view and atheism answers the religious question. I wasn’t suggesting that Humanism & Atheism were synonymous. And yes I have known and met some Atheists were neither rational or pragmatic.

Norman suggests that theists are Humanists and my response is no they can’t be since one leg of Humanism is non-theism. You take away that leg and you’re left with just humanitarianism.

I don’t know why there has to be choice between Humanism and atheism and THAT is my issue with Norman’s essay and many others like it I’ve read through the years.

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