The New Humanism Yet Again

At the end of April 2007 a “gala celebration” is being staged at America’s oldest University – the one in Cambridge, Massachusetts – to honor thirty years of the Harvard Humanist chaplaincy. The event designs to bring together friendly but competitive visions of the unruly congeries of ideas we call, for simplicity’s sake, “humanism.” To spice things up, the Harvard organizers have decided to use the sexy phrase “New Humanism” to describe the agenda. and while I do not know at the time of this writing precisely what will be said by the wise and wizened who attend the conference, I can guess, and I can guess I’ll be right.

The new humanism will be called a bright and bold vision of the future. It will put an end to the rancorous disagreements of the old humanism concerning what humanism really is, or ought to be. We will hear that humanism is not the same as atheism, but not (of course) unfriendly to atheists, unless the atheists are “fundamentalist” about their unbelief. We will hear that humanism is more than science because while science might answer the riddle of life question it does not really address the meaning of life question. And we will hear that the era of non-cooperation is at an end. The new humanism will be all about healing, while the old humanism seemed to thrive on bad feeling and schism. Above all, it will be about building a table at which everyone can sit, no matter what their inclination, no matter how hard or soft their unbelief, no matter how high or low their tax bracket. The new humanism will be customized to have sales appeal to the seekers among us, people out there “officially” described as unchurched, unaffiliated, or just looking for cheaper gas prices, a virtual ingathering of lost and lingering tribes to create the New Un-Jerusalem.

I have no trouble with vision. In fact, I wrote an article in the lateish-nineties called “The Old Humanism and the New” as the inaugural editorial for the a then- new CFI periodical, The Journal for Critical Studies In Religion, charting what I took to be a way forward in the wilderness of an over-defined and fissiparous movement – which remains over-defined and fissiparous. But visions should be anchored in reality and history, and the notions (a notion is a quart short of an idea) I see coming out the humanist chaplaincy in Cambridge are anchored in neither.

Take atheism. As a label I habitually decline it. But the debate about the role of unbelief in the humanist movement is significant, formative, and imperative. Paul Kurtz has persistently reminded secularists that atheism doesn’t define humanism; but it’s a topic – whatever intellectual bruises its discussion may incur – we will never be able to avoid. As long as untried and untested adherence to belief systems exists (and I am not looking at my watch), the question of Unbelief will hound us. If it hounds different ones of us in different ways, ranging from those who find believers naïve and intellectually challenged to those who think ‘demythologized’ religious views are humanism wearing a different coat, that’s to be expected. It’s the price of unfettered intelligence – something most humanists qua humanists do believe in, just as we believe that the way to settle ideological differences is through spirited debate, not by reconciliation, forgiveness, or violence. But if we begin with the dogma that unfettered intelligence trends just as easily toward tolerance of naïve opinion and beliefs that cannot be squared with the demands of critical thought – and this is what I see the New Humanism doing – then I say show me the door.

I reject the idea that humanism is about bridging differences. Or that the way to do this, even if it were desirable, is to build the world’s largest dining room table. The difference between humanism and other life-philosophies is real and sometimes intense, and never tends toward intellectual detente with philosophies and beliefs it finds unworthy of the human spirit. That may sound a bit abstract, metaphysical even. But we shouldn’t fear the phrase, any more than we should fear words like “virtue,” “happiness, and “truth.” The humanist quest for those ponderables does not necessarily make for a life of intellectual comfort. But as Mill said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question.” The payoff of intellectual discomfort for humanism is science. Not being satisfied with religious explanation explains why science emerges within the humanist tradition as the agreed paradigm for understanding humanity and its role in nature and the cosmos. And it is why humanists anguish over the temptation to glorify the paradigm in a way that looks suspiciously like deification – a debate that for all its slings and arrows does not constitute a “split” in the movement. Science is not virtue. It is not happiness. And it is a way to only one kind of truth. Humanists should welcome the life disdainful of intellectual tranquility because it’s precisely this that keeps us on guard against the false comfort of the unexamined life, the life of faith.

Is it now heresy to say that humanism has never been about getting along, overlooking error, polite tolerance of all opinions, equal appreciation of all cultures, all faiths, all ideas? Do we now pretend that obscurity is clarity of thought, or that the gospel of social liberalism is the humanist agenda, or the stammering axioms of postmodernism are compatible with the examined life? I hope that is not what’s being said at Harvard, because if it is, the old humanism will need to reject it.

R. Joseph Hoffmann
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion
Center for Inquiry
Amherst, New York

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