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Honouring our humanist heritage - Comments

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 1 by Steven Mading

Good point in the article. Too often a religion takes credit for the achievements of those who were moving away from the religion - mentioning their religion while dishonestly glossing over the fact that they were atypical in that they were leaning away from the mainstream of the religion at the time. A similar article for a US audience would be good. (It could talk about Thomas Paine - someone whom both the UK and the US can claim as their own.)

Wed, 23 Jun 2010 19:46:10 UTC | #483025

MAJORPAIN's Avatar Comment 2 by MAJORPAIN

Comment 1 by Steven Mading :

A similar article for a US audience would be good. (It could talk about Thomas Paine - someone whom both the UK and the US can claim as their own.)

I'm afraid this would only give the Texas Board of Education a longer list of people to remove from their textbooks!

Or, they will just start smear campaigns against them. I've seen this about some celebrities who have "come out" as humanists. The only exception I can think of is Alan Alda. Maybe because he is fairly low-key about it.

Wed, 23 Jun 2010 20:36:05 UTC | #483040

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 3 by Dr. Strangegod

I'll go one further: humanism goes back to the 16th century, and it intermixes with religion to such a degree that arguments based on recent decades are almost silly. I only think this for one reason; I'm about 100 pages into Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, a history of Western culture from 1500 to 2000 (he was in his mid 90s when he wrote it in the late 1990s, so the guy has some perspective). I would suggest this whole first section to everyone who reads or posts here. It is ALL about Luther and Erasmus and the Catholic Church and the rise of Humanism as Barzun defines it. It's an extremely eye-opening synthesis of historical knowledge and mature reflection. (He is now 102, by the way.)

Updated: Wed, 23 Jun 2010 21:03:24 UTC | #483047

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 4 by prolibertas

How are we defining 'humanist' here? Is it just any atheist or agnostic?

Wed, 23 Jun 2010 22:08:30 UTC | #483071

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 5 by prolibertas

I assume the author isn't thinking of Stalin and Mao as humanists. Does 'humanist' include deists as well (I've heard people like Thomas Paine being defined as 'humanist' for espousing enlightenment principles). Maybe the label needs a modifier, like 'democratic' or 'scientific' humanism. That would cut out communists and include enlightenment-deists. In any case this label needs defining.

Wed, 23 Jun 2010 22:26:21 UTC | #483074

Savant's Avatar Comment 6 by Savant

A link from within the original article to humanistheritage.org.uk provides this interesting definition:

Humanism is meant to be understood as that view of life which rejects supernatural explanations for reality, which is atheist or agnostic, which makes sense of the world using reason and experience, puts human welfare and fulfilment at the centre of its ethics, and which believes not in an ultimate meaning to the universe but in the capacity and obligation of human beings to make their own meaning and purpose.

Wed, 23 Jun 2010 23:15:46 UTC | #483080

NH King's Avatar Comment 7 by NH King

I always define "humanism" in it's loosest sense when people ask me. To borrow from Savant's borrowed definition, humanism "makes sense of the world using reason and experience, [and] puts human welfare and fulfilment at the centre of its ethics."

In this way, many theists are disarmed and find my goals to be similar to theirs. Once it's established that human welfare is our shared goal, they have a harder time defending the nasty dogmas of their religion and are willing to listen to reason.

I find it a better starting point than the explanation I have to use when I define myself as an atheist: "So as an atheist, what do you believe?" "You're an idiot." They always get so defensive.

Thu, 24 Jun 2010 03:55:22 UTC | #483132

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 8 by prolibertas

@ NH King

Good call.

Thu, 24 Jun 2010 06:07:48 UTC | #483143

cheesedoff17's Avatar Comment 9 by cheesedoff17

Reading people's comments on atheist blogs, it's obvious that not all atheists are humanists.

Thu, 24 Jun 2010 09:53:47 UTC | #483166

CleverCarbon's Avatar Comment 10 by CleverCarbon

Comment 9 by cheesedoff17 :

Reading people's comments on atheist blogs, it's obvious that not all atheists are humanists.

Many people forget that not all atheists are secular too.

Thu, 24 Jun 2010 12:32:31 UTC | #483196

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 11 by Dr. Strangegod

prolibertas, Savant, NH King - Those are all extremely modern and highly questionable ideas of humanism that distort the reality. That was the point of my first post. Humanism is not equal to atheism or rationalism or secularism in any way, which is what your definitions are actually defining. There is a sense in which 'humanism' is used these days as a softer, nicer, and more cowardly way of saying these other three things, but I find that annoying. They all address different issues: humanism has nothing to do with rational thinking or rejecting supernaturalism. I am a humanist when it comes to ethics and social policy, an atheist or naturalist (a word with 1000 meanings, unfortunately) when it comes to the existence of the supernatural, a rationalist when it comes to preferred ways of thinking, a secularist when it comes to government and social policy, and a... I don't know, mechanist?... when it comes to the structure of life and the universe. These are all different viewpoints that can easily converge and overlap, but need not. For me they are all of a unity, but it is important to understand the differences and shades of meaning. There are plenty of Christian humanists and secularists, or Jewish secular humanists, for example. Again, no crap, read the first 80 to 100 pages of Barzun's book for a historical perspective.

AdamSplitter - I have a hard time seeing how that would be possible. You can be a believer and still promote secular principles in government and social policy, but I don't see how you could be a nonbeliever (my preferred term over atheist, no hyphen) and promote anti-secular principles. That would be like saying, "Allah does not exist, but hey, go ahead and rule my country as an Islamic theocracy." Possible, I suppose, but unlikely. Hmm... Okay, thinking about it, there may be some young Iranians who are internally aware that religion is bullshit but still for some reason support theocracy. I guess that's possible, but what a poor confused human they must be.

Thu, 24 Jun 2010 13:55:56 UTC | #483220

Logicel's Avatar Comment 12 by Logicel

Lucas, could be wrong but an atheist who is not secular would be a Mao/Stalin type where religion would be forbidden therefore dissolving the wall between state and belief/lack of god belief. A secular state based on enlightenment principles does not take any side, neither believing or non-believing, it is neutral.

Updated: Thu, 24 Jun 2010 14:42:34 UTC | #483232

Savant's Avatar Comment 13 by Savant

@ Lucas-

I note with interest that you lament the "1000 meanings" of the word 'naturalist' but you are unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of multiple meanings for the word 'humanist'. Language is natural and fluid and can never be reasonably expected to conform to the largely arbitrary boundaries which you have proposed, regardless of its history. Such concepts are referred to by cognitive science as "contested", and any meaningful dialogue which uses them must start with some agreement as to their meanings within the context of that dialogue.

That was my understanding of the purpose of your earlier post - to spur a discussion which would lead us to consensus on the meanings of the words we are using, in particular on the meaning of 'humanist'. I fail to see how such an endeavour can be aided by dogmatically defending one's own personal definitive boundaries for the words in question (as opposed to giving fair consideration to other people's interpretations) or by passing value judgments such as "cowardly" which are as unfair and unwarranted as they are inflammatory and insulting.

I have a friend who insists that the correct usage of the word 'barbeque' refers only to a pork roast which has been smoked, shredded and smothered in BBQ sauce. That's what the word means in the part of the country where he comes from. Here, where he and I both live now, barbeque is used much more generally to refer to anything cooked on a grill. Why should we change our own local interpretation of the word just because someone with a different lexicographical background (and a strong sense of self-importance) steps into our purview?

Thu, 24 Jun 2010 15:04:59 UTC | #483242

Marcus Small's Avatar Comment 14 by Marcus Small

Interesting discussion, I agree with Lucas, Humanism is word, indeed a tradition with a long history, and it is a tradition which continues to develop without design. Comment 5 by prolibertas

Maybe the label needs a modifier, like 'democratic' or 'scientific' humanism. That would cut out communists and include enlightenment-deists. In any case this label needs defining.

I disagree, keep it wide. Defining people out is what orthodox Christians have been doing since the council of Nicea. It seems to me that's how dogma develops its power, by saying who is in and who is out.

If the church is controlled by thought policed in cassocks, and I say at its worst it can be. Does Humanism offer an alternative by using the same methods?

Thu, 24 Jun 2010 22:32:14 UTC | #483369

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 15 by ZenDruid

To Lucas, and others discussing the nature of 'humanism',

I associate Humanism with human rights, pretty much as Paine set forth. Abolition of slavery, equal status for all races and both genders, essentially agreeing to the premise that all humans are equal.

It took a dismally long time in US history for emancipation to come about, or the Equal Rights Amendment and Civil Rights Act. Long stories.

Anyway, the American experiment tested the concepts of the 'humanizing' Scottish Enlightenment, with an interesting variety of results.

An individual can be religious and humanist, but it stands to reason that the main trend of religious tradition will always oppose the advancement of liberty.

Fri, 25 Jun 2010 03:07:55 UTC | #483400

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 16 by Dr. Strangegod

Logicel - Eh, maybe. I don't really consider secularism enforced by fascism as secularism. But I weary of -isms. You are correct that a secular state is neutral. I think that's the big point we need to make to believers; that we are pushing for a neutral stance, not an anti-belief stance.

Savant - Don't lecture me on language. The comment about "naturalism" was a joke meant to highlight the bigger joke of arguing word meanings to begin with, and it mirrors a joke Barzun himself makes in his book. I was just trying to add a historical perspective because I think far too many people are confused these days about what humanism is, yourself included. Seriously, read what Barzun has to say about this. Your local library should have it if you're in the US. I'm sure he's not the only source, but he does a good job of condensing it all.

I am not at all "unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of multiple meanings for the word 'humanist'." I was just pointing out that yours was wrong. Nor was I "dogmatically defending one's own personal definitive boundaries for the words in question." Again, I was just pointing out the original meaning of a word. And yes, I'm often inflammatory and insulting, and about that I am unapologetic. But I wasn't trying to insult you or anyone else here, so calm down. I do think most people are cowards and I'll call them on it when I feel like it. One example of cowardly behavior is atheists who are afraid to proclaim themselves atheists and use "humanist" as a less offensive way to weasel out of the question when asked by believers. That's just lame, and the Out Campaign is designed specifically to combat this cowardice. I like "nonbeliever" instead of "atheist" because I think it's more accurate and more general, covering a range of lack of belief. I'm not against god, nor am a really against belief, as much as I just don't believe or think that believing is a useful way to go about thinking.

Your friend is right about BBQ. You should change how you use "BBQ" because how you use it is wrong. I'm sympathetic, because I've always thought BBQ was a flavored sauce. But I was wrong. It is a whole preparation process. American food corporations have tried to bottle the flavor you get with that process, but nothing compares to the real shit.

I'm no fascist about hard definitions of words, but the relativist and subjectivist attitude you seem to be taking toward language is, I think, unwise and unhelpful.

ZenDruid - I tend to do the same. In a modern sense, "humanist" sort of means "supporting of human rights as they are defined by liberal western culture." I'm fine with that. Eleanor Roosevelt was the prime mover on this back in the day. I just sat in on a class this past spring about "Religion and Human Rights," so I've got a lot UN/UDHC stuff on the brain. It's funny you mention emancipation, as that is one of the four main themes that Barzun suggests define the modern era (1500-2000).

Updated: Fri, 25 Jun 2010 17:12:40 UTC | #483579

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 17 by prolibertas

@Lucas A wise man once said, words are our servants, not our masters.

"One example of cowardly behavior is atheists who are afraid to proclaim themselves atheists and use "humanist" as a less offensive way to weasel out of the question when asked by believers".

I prefer humanist over atheist because I'd rather identify myself by what I do believe, not by what I don't. There's something sad about identifying only by what you don't believe in. So how about you ask people why they identify as they do, as opposed to getting on your high horse and deciding for yourself why they identify as they do.

Thu, 01 Jul 2010 10:43:29 UTC | #485413

Quintin_S's Avatar Comment 18 by Quintin_S

I was going to say something about the meaning of the word "humanist" as used in the article, but Lucas alread seems to have spoken for me quite admirably. Atheism and humanism are two completely separate and unrelated stances on the world, but they are not mutually exclusive.

As a secular humanist myself (obviously — what else would I be doing here otherwise?), I count all humanists as my allies, and that includes religious humanists. Humanism is a well-grounded, rational, realistic and hope-filled view of the world, and I count anybody who takes its principles to heart as my brother or sister.

I personally think that we should be humanists first and atheists second; after all, I think we can all agree that whether or not we're given to irrational beliefs, the world we live in is the world we choose to live in, and it's immoral and ridiculous to expect God to save us from ourselves.

Wed, 04 Aug 2010 23:54:06 UTC | #495974