Aspirations for everyone?

Aspirations for everyone? – Up front: news and opinion from independent minds

Fred Edwords

While recently chairing a panel discussion on Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III, I was asked to explain what is so special about this new statement: “Aren’t its ideas essentially what everyone believes?”

My immediate response was Whimsical. I suggested the questioner may have been hanging around Humanist circles too long and perhaps needed to get out more. But then I took the question more seriously and launched into an abbreviated version of what follows.

Too often we Humanists have stated our values in negative terms, spelling out what we don’t believe and what we are against. This has led some people to regard Humanists as habitual naysayers with nothing positive to contribute. Therefore, those of us on the drafting committee for Humanist Manifesto III committed ourselves to the goal of preparing a document that would express Humanism not only in concise but in positive terms.

One feature of positive wording, however, is that important negatives are rendered implicit rather than explicit. As a result, some people don’t immediately notice them. Indeed, positive wording has such an agreeable quality that it can leave the impression that they don’t. But that becomes apparent only when it is realized that the affirmation of a positive statement logically requires rejection of its opposite. Furthermore, Humanist Manifesto III sets forth “the conceptual boundaries of Humanism”–and boundaries, of necessity, exclude as well as include–whether judgmentally or not.

Interestingly, though we attempted to eschew all negative wording, we found no way around “without supernaturalism” in the first sentence. We wanted to make it clear that Humanism is exclusively on one side of what AHA Executive Director Tony Hileman terms the theistic divide. More broadly, Humanism doesn’t rely on or accept any supernatural interpretations of reality. It is, using the expression of Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, a “bright” lifestance (an identification gaining some acceptance right now).

Beyond the first sentence, we couldn’t avoid a few more minor negatives that are also really positives, such as “not what we must believe,” “unguided evolutionary change,” and “without resorting to violence.” Furthermore, we found a way to be positive “even in the inevitability and finality of death.”

Humanist Manifesto III is divided into six basic statements. The first is epistemological. “Knowledge of the world,” we say, “is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.” Conspicuous by their absence are such sources as revelation, authority, tradition, and mystical inspiration. These may result in ideas, to be sure. So also may “new departures in thought, the arts, and tuner experience.” But at the end of the day each becomes “subject to analysis by critical intelligence.” When we take this approach, of course, we place an important limitation on what we are willing to class as knowledge. And this is an unacceptable limitation to billions of traditionally religious people around the world.

Our next point deals with humanity’s place in the world. “Humans are an integral part of nature,” we say. This necessarily means that humans aren’t separate from or above nature. Humans haven’t been given dominion over nature by some higher power nor are they the pinnacle of evolutionary history. In fact, humanity is “the result of unguided evolutionary change.” Neither creationists nor progressive evolutionists can agree with this. Humanism is at odds with any form of creationism.

As for ethical values, we see them as “derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” This view is incompatible with the notion that ethical values come fully formed from some higher metaphysical source. Furthermore, within this context of need, interest, and experience we find our fulfillment in life not only from “the joys and beauties of human existence”–as also do advocates of some other lifestances–but from “its challenges and tragedies” as well and, yes, “even in the inevitability and finality of death.” Like all successful species, human beings have evolved an ability to withstand the struggle for existence. Additionally, as thinking animals, humans find meaning in that struggle. So we Humanists invest ourselves here rather in a promise of a hereafter. Moreover, as Corliss Lamont argues in The Illusion of Immortality, knowledge of the finality of death “liberates all our energy and time for the realization and extension of the happy potentialities of this good earth.” This idea is central to Humanist thought. As Kurt Vonnegut sums it up, “Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you’re dead.”

Avoiding the nihilistic boundary on the other side, however, we remark: “Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.” This means we aren’t atomized “rugged individualists” in pursuit of exclusively egoistic goals. “The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives.” Therefore we not only support individual liberty and opportunity but also the social good.

In thinking of those who don’t entirely share our Humanism, we are “committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views.” We also eagerly seek out all with whom we find common cause. So Humanism is a generally tolerant outlook–but not completely so. Those espousing inhumane views won’t receive our respect, and those acting on such views won’t be greeted by our complicit silence. Furthermore, when we say we “work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society,” this necessarily means that we stand opposed to violations of those rights, to closed societies, and to theocracy.

Regarding the natural environment, we consider it “a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.” Unsustainable policies which ravage the environment–usually for the short-term gain of affluent groups–will find Humanists in strong and vigorous opposition. We do this “with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals.” That is, we don’t view humans as impotent and aren’t waiting for cosmic rescue from some heavenly parent. In Humanist Manifesto II this idea is famously phrased in the negative: “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.” Now we declare it in the positive: “The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.”

Clearly, in Humanist Manifesto III’s restatement of Humanism, we offer meaningful positives which, when affirmed, logically disconfirm their opposites. This disconfirmation, however, is often more apparent to others than to ourselves. insiders can be too close to see it, imagining that positive language conceals the negatives. It doesn’t. It simply gives first priority to what we advocate and aspire to. Our identity is put out front; our sense of meaning and hope is forthrightly presented. This helps us reach a broader audience. The result is the energetic advancement of good ideas in the world that can contribute toward the ideal of making life better for all.

Fred Edwords is editor of the Humanist.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Humanist Association

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