Religion

Humanist Nature

Hello to all the humanists who are new to the site! I met so many awesome people at the New Humanism conference put on by the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, and I hope they all managed to find their way here despite the fact that I ran out of business cards to hand out.

The conference itself was a mixed bag: the highs were very high, and the lows were painfully low. I won’t go into too much detail here, and instead offer in-depth feedback directly to the organization in the hopes that future conferences might go more smoothly and better accomplish the goal of strengthening the humanist movement. I love the idea of having a large conference of nonbelievers right in my backyard, and a lot could be accomplished at such an event.

Highlights included Salman Rushdie (of course), who read from his most recent book on Friday evening and on Saturday he discussed the concept of humanistic Islam. That was followed by a panel discussion with Mr. Rushdie and two other men who were experts in Christianity and Judaism. The latter was Rabbi Sherwin Wine of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and he was, in a word, fabulous. One thing I love about these events is that there’s always at least one surprise speaker who blows you away, and Rabbi Wine was mine. He was hilarious, down to earth, engaging, and he made a ton of sense. There’s a very large number of humanistic Jews who find solace in the social aspects of their culture and wish to preserve that while also safeguarding their dignity by acknowledging their non-belief. Wine really helped me understand the use of humanism, while previously I was unsure that it was anything more than a dolled up, neutered term for atheist.

Saturday night I enjoyed the talk by Ned Lamont, the 2006 Democratic candidate for the Senate from Connecticut (he was beaten by Lieberman running as an Independent). He talked about his humanist uncle, and he was quite charming.

The panels were fun: The Future of Organized Humanism and the one I was on, The Next Generation of Humanism. I know the names are similar, as were the topics — I think the main difference was the age of the panelists. Following a bit of chatting amongst ourselves, the floor was opened to audience questions, and I swear to God (sic) third of the audience got up and rushed to the microphone. It was too bad that we didn’t have much time to either go into detail on the questions or to work our way through much of the line-up. Still fun, though.

So, this morning was a breakfast with E. O. Wilson followed by a session on “Humanist Education.” The aforementioned problems I had with the conference were serious enough that I just couldn’t work up the interest to go. Instead, I spent the morning outside in the 70-degree weather, playing flag football for two full hours and then riding my bike.

The only conference lowlight I’ll mention is one that may apply overall to the humanist movement, though I’m not sure: it was a disturbing trend of kowtowing to religion. As an example, there was a teleconference with a Southern Baptist convention, during which time Greg, the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard, referred to the planet Earth as “the Creation.” This was repeated in the conference pamphlet. The Creation? This came mere hours after one speaker criticized the way some people redefine “god” to mean “love” or “nature” — why use that language? It’s useless, and worse yet confusing. In addition, a number of the talks were sermons. I mean, they were really, really sermons just without the god. The syntax, the tone, and some of the message (such as pleas for money) made many in the audience noticeably uncomfortable. I sincerely hope that this was merely a one-time unintended effect, but I fear that it might be indicative of a more widespread trait in humanism.

I think that about covers it. I’d be interested to hear from other humanists about whether or not this sort of thing is the norm. Also, are there any nonbelievers out there who just don’t identify as a humanist? If so, why?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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22 Comments

  1. Yeah, I only did the gala thing, as you know, but my overall impression was the same. Even just at that one event, the speakers ranged from completely fabulous to droll and boring. (Ned Lamont was awesome, though. Who the Hell would vote for Joe "Douchebag" Lieberman over him? For anything?)

    I would definitely go to the next one, though. I feel like a lot of the problems came from this simply being the first huge event that Greg has had to manage. If they turn this into an annual event, it could be a really great thing for humanism and rational thought not just in Boston but across the country and around the world.

  2. I'm not keen on the 'humanist' label for a few reasons. I agree with the concept, but I hate the way that UK humanist groups market themselves, and for that reason prefer to not be associated with them. The other reason is that I think it's a misnomer. 'ist' refers to being for something – an example of that is the word racist, not 'against' one race but 'for' another. 'Humanist' suggests that there are people out there with differing worldviews who are not human.

    But the conference sounds like it was great, I'd like to hear more about YOUR talk!

  3. I guess I just wish the Humanists acted a wee bit more like Humanists. That is being inclusive and treating every attending as equals. I talked with 4 different people that came "looking" for something from the Humanists, and sadly told me they did not find what they wanted. One example is a mother that was attending with her son. He's an atheist and she talked him into coming as he felt the need for some "community" to connect with. Thankfully between skepchick and my giving him the JREF forum site I think he found what he was looking for.

    But, I think it would have been way better if they had practiced the "values" that Humanists stand for. It isn't a religion, but it is a group of people commited to behaving in a moral way for the good of all mankind. It just wasn't reflected in this conference.

  4. I have always found the idea of an "atheist" church a little strange. Humanist churches seem to support the idea that you have to have some religion – even if you don't believe in a god you still have to have a church to go to.

    Having said that I have no experience of humanist churches so I understand I could be reading them wrong. I am just not really interested in church-type gatherings I guess.

  5. Also, are there any nonbelievers out there who just don’t identify as a humanist? If so, why?

    *raises hand*

    Why? Because they have yet to give me a good reason that I should identify as one. Until then, I default to not being one. If someone can give me a good reason to do so, I'll consider it.

    But until then, it seems to me that "humanism" as it is generally considered is essentially a substitute for church/mosque/temple for the nonreligious. It gives the rituals and community that many crave, just in a secular manner. There's a minor problem with this in that it gives a little credence to those who claim that atheist is just another religion, but that's more a problem with them than the humanists themselves.

    Personally, I abhor ritual and tradition. It's just not who I am (being pseudo-autistic probably has a lot to do with it). With that in mind, I just don't see any reason to join up with humanists. Of course, as I said before, if there's something about it I'm interpreting wrong or something I don't know, please clue me in.

  6. I don't like labels, and I'm not much of a joiner, either. I like Nica Lalli's (http://www.nicalalli.com/) idea of just saying "I"m nothing" when people ask me about my religion. In fact, I wrote an article for this site some time ago that I called "Why I am not a Skeptic," but Rebecca changed the title.

    I do relate to the ideas of humanism, though, and I like much of what Paul Kurtz (the most well-known humanist to me) has to say about many issues, and I like Free Inquiry magazine better than most of the other nonbeliever rags that are available today.

    There's no reason we all have to agree or conform, however, to create a unified force in politics and in society. The Jews are a great example of what to follow — from Hacidic to Conservative to Reform and even secular/atheistic Jews — the differences are huge and yet they generally all band together as a unified political lobby. E Pluribus Unum may no longer bet the national motto of the United States (sigh), but it still contains a lot of wisdom.

  7. What Writerdd said. (For reference.)

    I could say that I possess some of the aspects that this particular ism describes, but I wouldn't refer to myself as a humanist because it would not be a entirely correct label for me. My thoughts are simple on this matter – the whole Thoreau-ish "living in accordance with Nature" business. It's easy to say that I'm an atheist, because that clearly means one thing: I do not adhere to religion. Someone would have to ask me the specifics of my worldview. But they rarely do anyway.

    Kittynh said something that should be noted that I've given much thought to lately, though I'm not sure exactly what she's talking about. Humanists, atheists, agnostics, et al. may not derive their morality from a deity or be guided by religion, but they are no more or less moral or good on an interpersonal level than most religious people. Just less hypocritical than preachers or hand-Bible-wavers. I feel no more compelled to join a group of Humanists than a Movie club or the Girl Scouts, but again, as Writerdd said, as political force in society – for separation of church and state, and leaving science classes alone already, sharing views and debates is good. If I wasn't lacking so much sleep from four Lilliputian kittens bouncing around, I'd explain this better.

    Joshua, being a Connecticut native I followed the Lamont-Lieberman race closely. Lieberman did a good job over many years representing Connecticut on a local level – that's what the CongressCritters should do! "Douchebag" is harsh in light of his CT history. But, yes, his stance on Iraq, especially, was not honorable, among other things. Reading about Lamont left me cold too – his ties to business, his history, made me think of him as a poser. Had I been in CT it would not have been a slam-dunk vote in my mind. We shall see. (And this coming from a Clark, Dean supporter.) :-)

  8. Well, a lot of otherwise reasonable-seeming people went batshit insane in the aftermath of 9/11. Hard to say whether the event and the times made them that way or just gave them an excuse to unleash the craziness that always dwelled under the surface, but at any rate Lieberman wouldn't be the only public figure to have completely lost it in the last six years. (John McCain comes to mind.)

  9. Rebecca asked if there are non-theists who do not identify as humanist.

    I would say that a true realist would probably not identify as a humanist. Maybe even a true naturalist.

    For example, I believe that world peace is possible and that it is something to strive for. I consider this to be a "leap of faith" for me and an expression of my humanist beliefs. All evidence to date suggests that world peace is not possible.

  10. One more for the non-believer non-humanists. While I agree with many of the elements of humanism, I am not an adherent of all its commonly associated aspects. (I'd rather not go into specifics) Umm, is there such a thing as an à la carte humanist?

    More generally though, I'm not particularly keen on adopting or accepting labels, for myself or anyone else, unless there is some compelling temporary need for oversimplification. And I definitely am suspicious of any large organized group claiming to be of like mind. (again, I'll pass on the finer points) This does not preclude mixing with such a group on occasion to see whether anything noteworthy is being discussed.

  11. Rebecca said,

    Wine really helped me understand the use of humanism, while previously I was unsure that it was anything more than a dolled up, neutered term for atheist.

    Wine helps me understand many things. Also gin and tonic. And Young's Double Chocolate Stout.

    I can point you to the first place I encountered the word "humanism." See page 508 of I. Asimov (1994):

    I've never been particularly careful about what label I placed on my beliefs. I believe in the scientific method and the rule of reason as a way of understanding the natural Universe. I don't believe in the existence of entities that cannot be reached by such a method and such a rule and that are therefore "supernatural." I certainly don't believe in the mythologies of our society, in Heaven and Hell, in God and angels, in Satan and demons. I've thought of myself as an "atheist," but that simply described what I didn't believe in, not what I did.

    Gradually, though, I became aware that there was a movement called "humanism," which used that name because, to put it most simply, Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills.

    If that's what humanism is about, count me in. Half of it is just a positive statement of the non-theism which results from rational skepticism: If you rule out this "supernatural" which never shows its face, that leaves human beings as the cause of and solution to human problems. (Of course, one must make rational allowances for things like diseases which are not of human origin but still can be alleviated by human effort.) The "leap of faith" part, the belief which makes this a "belief system", is the claim that humans are worth the trouble and have a shot at doing the job right. I confess this is not strongly supported by any scientific evidence. Still, of all the unsupported claims to which one could lend partial credence, this doesn't sound like a bad choice.

    I suppose it's entirely possible that people have managed to ruin the word "humanist". So it goes. In that case, I'll have to fall back on another old standby:

    Q. What church do you go to?

    A. I'm a Dresden Dolls fan.

  12. What Infofile Said:

    Personally, I abhor ritual and tradition. It’s just not who I am (being pseudo-autistic probably has a lot to do with it). With that in mind, I just don’t see any reason to join up with humanists. Of course, as I said before, if there’s something about it I’m interpreting wrong or something I don’t know, please clue me in.

    My reply:

    Yes– I mostly don't care for most ritual or tradition either. I strongly believe in taking apart a tradition to see if there is anything of value behind it before blinding following it.

    However, this conference got me to thinking more about all of the people who DO value their religious traditions for lots of reasons, including non-theistic reasons. Also, it's quite possible to be religious and non-theistic.

    Humanism can be a big umbrella that includes atheists (like me) and UU's and secular jews, and secular muslims, etc.. who are emphasizing a positive belief that we can come together and solve our problems. Humanism is not about a set of rituals. I can agree with religious humanists about the statement "God's work is done by people," even though I don't believe in God(s).

    I'm not ashamed to call myself an atheist, but I'm proud to call myself a humanist.

  13. Whether the language or its speakers we blame

    How odd to give an absence of something a name

    But more to the point: Default positions require no labels. "Ist" labels only need be invented for for those who do something in addition to simply breathing and digesting (i.e. hobbyist, pianist, sadist), or for active dissenters or those who would needlessly pervert an established view or idea (i.e. racist, theist, anarchist).

    Of course, we're social creatures who have a compelling need to be a part of a community, so we constantly invent unnecessary labels for ourselves (i.e. humanist, atheist, skeptic). Besides, it would make for a bunch of very dull conference T-shirts, if you didn't have something snappy to call your group.

  14. Sam: Why do you think some people use the Null Set symbol for atheism? ;)

    I realise that I haven't addressed the question Rebecca posed, so to do so I don't really consider myself a Humanist, either. Maybe a humanist sympathiser. Certainly, secular humanists and I see eye-to-eye on most things, and I doubt an outsider (or even the vast majority of insiders) would be able to tell any difference whatsoever.

    When labels are appropriate, I'm either an atheist or an apatheist, depending on how flippant I feel at that given moment.

  15. Apatheist?

    I like that.

    On those rare occasions when the fairly religious ask me what I am and I'm actually paying attention, I tell them that if they just have to have something to refer to a person who doesn't think like they do, "Atheist", "Agnostic", "Naturalist", "Materialist", and "Heathen" are all appropriate. But I also point out that "Outlander", "He who walks in shadows", and "Larry" are just as useful.

    I then encourage them to refer to me as a "Swashbuckler". It's fun to say, and it fits me well, as I often wear tights and frilly pirate shirts.

  16. While I have a certain sympathy for the humanist movement I see it far too much as simply another religion to feel comfortable claiming to be one. Personally, if I must have a label, I am happy sticking to atheist, as I have been one for a lot longer than it has been fashionable to be one. In the process, being open about it and happy to explain to people where I stand most people who come to know me and seeing that I am not some ogre or godless monster have been willing to listen when they have asked about my position on religion and belief. Fortunately, though it probably helps living in the UK, I have over the years, managed to get quite a few people to openly and seriously look at their beliefs. Some to the extent that they end up realising how irrational the basis for those beliefs are and now label themselves atheist, if anything.

    The problem with much of the humanist movement, is that in, intentionally or otherwise, mimicking religion, they leave themselves, and by association atheists, open to the accusation by believers that it is simply another belief system, instead of a non belief system. Additionally, like many actual religious moderates, many humanist often argue against rocking the irrational boat of religion, talking about accommodation even when it is obvious that accommodation is simply seen by the fundies as appeasement to be exploited.

  17. John, I have no problem with the way Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris talk about religion, but it's not my style. I think, were I to actually write a book on this topic, it would be more like Nica Lalli's "Nothing" or Hemant Mehta's "I Sold My Soul on eBay".

    While I generally agree with the "three musketeers" of "New Atheism", I come from a different background (I used to be a fundamentalist Christian and I still have friends and family who go to those churches), and I am not a scientist or philosopher, so what I have to say on the topic is much more based on personal experience than on academic evaluation.

    I haven't hit upon what I think is the right balance for communicating about atheism. I have found that both the acerbic atheists and the friendly ones show an incredible lack of understanding about the religious mindset and what it is like to be a devout person. (Even in Hemant's book where he goes to churches, his sections and those written by the christian editor of his book are largely talking across each other with little or no mutual understanding.)

    Just some things that keep rolling around in my brain…..

  18. hi folks: your blog is very interesting! this is my first posting….

    i just learned about 'Skepchick' at the Harvard Humanism conference. After reading Rebecca's write up of the event and several of the other comments, I felt it might be useful to respond….

    I attended the entire conference and missed only 2 hours of the proceedings (about an hour from 2 different sessions). While this is my first posting on this site, i am not new to humanism. I've been a humanist for over 10 years.

    – to the person who skipped out on the E O Wilson event sunday morning, — you missed a fascinating presentation on an unusual topic, by one of the world's most eminent scientists. too bad!

    – One view that seemed to be recurring in the prior comments on the conference is that humanism is some form of religion. conversely, many comments seemed to think of it just as another term for atheism ("a neutered form of atheism" Rebecca said). Both of these views are seriously mistaken, in my view.

    I am an atheist, as are most humanists i've ever met or heard about (some are agnostics). But humanism is a philosophy that includes MUCH more than just being atheist. it is important to realize that atheist only states what you DO NOT believe in, god(s). But what DO you believe in? this is where the principles and values of humanism come in. Now also let me point out that NOT all atheists are humanists. For example, the group American Atheists and the group Freedom from Religion Foundation are exactly that: atheists but not humanists.

    – to repeat, one can easily be an atheist but not a humanist. however, it is nearly impossible in my view to be a humanist and not an atheist/agnostic. non-belief in god and supernatural concepts is pretty much a basic starting point for humanism.

    – humanism is a philosophy of life, or a life-stance, as they often say in europe. principles and values such as compassion, peace, social justice, human rights and freedoms, equality and secular ethics are essential parts of almost every humanist's belief system. in fact summing all the humanist values up simply as "secular ethics" is a pretty good rule of thumb. these principles/values are not inherent in mere atheism, which is simply a negation of theism. i am not saying that atheists are not ethical or have no valules, i merely mean that as a stance, atheism does not include such values. the values come from somewhere else — most likely their secular ethics. That is why i often say that many atheists really ARE humanists too, because that's how they live their lives, even though they do not profess to call themselves "humanist."

    – humanism is a naturalistic philosophy, of course, hence the non-belief in supernatural beings. whereas atheism starts and ends right there, and does not include any additional philosophy, values or principles for life. as i said, atheists can have values but ethics and values dont arise from atheism per se.

    – humanism is not a religion in the usual sense, although some humanists such as Ethical Culture Society, do call themselves "religious". but it's vital to understand that they are trying to re-define to he word religion to include non-theistic belief systems. so they are a non-theistic, humanist "religion". but this view is more the exception than the norm amongst humanists. most humanists i've ever read about or known do not consider it a religion, as the term is commonly used.

    – getting back to conference at Harvard, someone noted that some speakers sounded like preachers. i would agree with this, but mainly in the Saturday evening gala event, which was clearly the weakest part of the conference. it is unfortunate if that was the only part you attended. but even that had some good parts, in my view, such as Ned Lamont's talk on Corliss Lamont. By the way, books by Corliss Lamont would be helpful in explaining what humanism is and is not. He and Paul Kurtz were/are the 2 major pillars of 20th century American humanism.

  19. Pat99, I was going to write what you just posted. I'd just add that The American Humanist Association tends to have religious humanists, and Paul Kurtz's Council for Secular Humanism tend to be non-religous humanists.

  20. As for the jewish analogy, I'm not sure. I mean Raban was murdered by a very religious jew. People band together when they have common concerns. I'm loath to the idea of alot of lobbies but obvious there are issues that justify joining one lobby or another. In my case, if somebody tried to force school prayer down students throats, I'd join the secular lobby. If somebody tried to ban the reading of the bible at a public school or even the inclusion of a small group of religious books in a school library, I'd join in with the religious wack job lobby. Basically, I believe we need to recognize that religions do have a role in world affairs whether we like it or not, and I think personal choice is not something to be frowned upon? What about the annoying evangilist at the school? Ummm, well, if you leave things alone, it all balances out eventually.

    I like Taoism. It does not force me to commit on the God question and indeed accepts either assertion. It satisfies my need for some kind of spirituality and also my need to be independent in thought. Its kiind of a non-religion kind of religion; at least the way i practice it.

    I don't really know what a humanist is but i emotionally don't like the sound of the term. I probably am a self denying humanist.

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