Varieties of Humanism

Michael Servetus, Nov. 4, 2007

 Robert B. Tapp

ŇThis world is a bridge; build not a house thereon – but pass overÓ medieval Christians and Muslims

Luther – A mighty fortress is our god//PattonŐs Man is the earth, now We are the Earth (hymn 303)


I have frequently described the relationships between humanists as similar to the lovemaking styles of porcupines. They relate to each other very carefully. Others suggest that organizing humanists is like herding cats!

On the other hand, these are quite exciting times for humanists in the developed parts of the world.. To be sure, in the larger scene people are dominated by a vision of Islam as almost identical to Islamism. And on the American scene various kinds of Christianity have almost been obscured by the political and social successes of the Christian Right, that politically successful blend of evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics who would have us believe that the whole of ethics is to prevent abortions or happiness for homosexuals.

But think of the bestsellers that have emerged in the last few months. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything; Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and Letter to a Christian Nation; Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. And not as visible but surely as important, Victor Stenger, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.

While most Americans would not vote for an atheist as their president, one member of Congress has come out as a non-theist, and many of the books I have just mentioned not only are selling well but have had good reviews. This is indeed an interesting time of polarization in the culture and a time of great difficulty for those who claim any kind of middle position, In fact one of the things we want may want to discuss tonight is the position most sharply articulated by Sam Harris that liberal Christians do us a disservice by fronting for, and thus covering up for, fundamentalist Christians.

Within our own community, let me cite some interesting examples of growing cooperation. In April, more than 1000 gathered at Harvard University to celebrate 30 years of Humanist Chaplaincy there. Numbers of major humanist speakers appeared, and a Cultural Humanist award was given to Salmon Rushdie. At the June meeting of the American Humanist Association, an award was given to Paul Kurtz -- who left that association many years ago to found the competing organization known as the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism in the time of its origins. Another example, is this book The Case for Humanism: an introduction -- written by two scholars associated with Kurtz, Lewis Vaughn and Austin Dacey and subsidized by the Institute for Humanist Studies—a relatively new organization founded by and staffed by several people who left Kurtz's organization for that new group. Maybe the porcupines are tired of their old method of lovemaking.

What I want to do this morning may seem like a circling -- from the shared to the separating and then back to the shared. But first I need to say something about the nature of humanism. Partly for the benefit of some non-humanists who might be here, and partly to flesh out the understanding of some of the old-timers among us.

As I move among different audiences, one thing has become increasingly clear to me. Words mean what hearers think a speaker intends. Let me repeat that, because it is central to some of the things I will be saying this morning: words mean what hearers think a speaker intends.

When I am at among colleagues at the University and describe myself as a humanist, most of them would then place me as not any kind of a scientist but rather someone with a focus on matters in the humanities – in literature and the arts. In Christian, Jewish, or Muslim circles, if I call myself a humanist I am thought to believe in nothing and maybe even worse, to possess no morality.

In a UU church, most of you will understand me to be a naturalist in philosophy who focuses on values in this world. And as one aware of the problematic roles that religions have played in supporting those modern values that have emerged since the Enlightenment and the development of modern science.

You will take for granted that I am nontheistic, agnostic, atheist-- one who believes that we have but one life in this one world. You will also assume that my naturalism views science as the best way to know this world; and that means starting out from a skepticism regarding all assertions until they can be tested by reasoning and experiment. You will also assume that my label humanist involves a rejection of any dualisms that contrast the material and spiritual. You will correctly assume that I am skeptical of all faith claims, and that my focus is on what humans do rather than what they say they believe.

Given this commitment to science, you would be correct to assume that my humanism embraces Charles Darwin as one of the greatest minds of all time. By the beginning of the 19th century, thanks to David Hume and Immanuel Kant, the only remaining argument for God's existence was the fact that the world seemed to exhibit design. After Darwin's 1859 publication, however, it became clear that as organisms and environments interacted, the changes that emerged were subject to natural selection, and what it had previously been viewed as separate and unchanging species were seen now to be branches of a single tree of life. Whether one viewed the fossil record or simply the results of human domestication of animals, there was no longer any reason to posit a cosmic designer. Modern geology had shown the antiquity of our earth, making such natural selections feasible. As George Wald once put it, given enough time the impossible becomes inevitable.

From Darwin's time on, the biblical image of a creator looking upon all as good became incorrect poetry. Instead, all living forms were involved in struggles for existence. Authors of a recent book on evolutionary medicine saw many aspects of disease as actually side effects of an evolutionary process. Our human race has its enemies -- viruses, bacteria, parasites. Moreover, as we map more fully the varieties of life that preceded ours, the record is one of almost steady extinctions. Any designer would have earned his or her failing grade long before the emergence of homo sapiens.

The philosophical implications of evolutionary biology are enormous. Think of the new Creation Museum that has just opened in Kentucky. All known species of life coexisting from a recent creation.  Dinosaurs (herbivorous of course) and humans living side-by-side. While fundamentalists may deem this museum an answer to Darwin, the rest of us will a view it as a curious amusement park.

The implied subtitle to this talk is Becoming an effective humanist. Few of us were fortunate enough to have picked humanist parents. Even then, we eventually would have had to endorse this as our own lifestance -- to come out as a humanist, so to speak. Here it is essential to remind ourselves that atheism or unbelief or non-theism is not identical to humanism. At several points in Western history, foretastes of humanism have emerged. When Horace (1st cent BCE) said <I am a human and therefore nothing human is alien to me,> he was speaking for us. Similarly, when artists and writers in the Renaissance focused on this life instead an alleged future existence, they were speaking for us. More particularly, when thinkers of the Enlightenment ceased to revere the institutions of the past-- arguing instead for new political, intellectual, and religious visions--they were speaking for us.

As individuals, we entered into the humanist house via a variety of doors. For some of us, it might have been Bertrand Russell or John Dewey or Corliss Lamont. For others, it might have been Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan or Arthur Clarke or Kurt Vonnegut. For you and others, it might have been Albert Camus. For others, John Dietrich or Khoren Arisian or Kendyl Gibbons. But we eventually found our way to a series of humanist manifestoes that helped flesh out what we were dimly feeling. Manifesto was a great word in 1933. That document looked to the future and not the past. It build upon the disappointments of an economic depression, the unfulfilled expectations of a victorious world war and a League of Nations, the fantasies of divine interventions that remained just that. All those were replaced by the call to move out in to a modern world with modern values -- and transform both individual life and the social lives of humans. As Raymond Bragg said, it was <a developing point of view, not a new creed.>

Moreover, if we look carefully at the succession of manifestoes that humanist organizations have produced, the one thing that stands out is that they have avoided utopianism, focusing instead on real problems and realistic solutions. The other thing that must have struck readers of that first manifesto was the large percentage of signers who were Unitarian or Universalist ministers. They were articulating a humanism that could at the same time be religious. One need only look at the immediate critiques that emerged within both liberal and conservative religious circles to realize that this new religious humanism was both a different from, and threatening to, traditional religions. The calls to take science seriously, to make reason central, to shake off the past and experiment boldly-- all of these resonated poorly with the traditional religious backgrounds of the signers.

Looking more comparatively at the products of humanists in the more than 70 years since that first manifesto, the striking thing is the willingness to change and move in new directions. If the hallmark of traditional religions has been to conserve a treasured past, the characteristic of humanist has been a critical selectivity from that past and a continual generating of new alternatives.


An early outcome of the humanist manifesto was the creation of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Although comprised of a variety of nonreligious, anti-religious, and religious humanists the AHA was incorporated as a tax-exempt religious organization. Publications included a journal, The Humanist.

In 1952, an International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was formed with Julian Huxley as its founding president

Let's now turn to some of the varieties of  humanism. Within the Ethical Culture movementŐs American Ethical Union (AEU), there was a clear shift away from the former Kantian idealism to a more pragmatic and naturalistic philosophy.) Many members of Columbia UniversityŐs philosophy department facilitated this -- John Dewey, Horace Fries, Herbert Schneider, and Joseph Blau. They began using the term <secular humanism> and it appears in a 1961 decision of Justice Black. Today, more and more, AEU leaders and members described themselves as humanist, even with the adjective <religious.>

Within Unitarian and Universalist circles, a similar pragmatizing was occurring. Joint hymnals were produced with the AEU as well as children's educational materials. In 1961, Unitarians and Universalists officially merged and the founding documents illustrate this turn towards humanism, although the more common designation at that time was <liberal religion.> In 1966, I was fortunate enough to head a goals a committee for the new Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). That committee took a very empirical turn in conducting a US and Canadian carefully-sampled survey. At that time I used the term post-traditional to describe the now-dominant religiosity of this new denomination.

In 1963, Sherwin Wine, a Reform rabbi, moved further from his tradition to found the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ), a religion that would be  <beyond God.>

On the larger American scene, however, a new political strategy was emboldening and empowering evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics of the Religious Right. One of its formulations was that something called secular humanism, based on modern sciences, was rampant in public education. Moreover, this new philosophy was really a <religion> and therefore violated the practice of separating church and state. The power of that formulation is underscored by the fact that it is still in use today.

A new strategy now emerged among some humanists. Take up the challenge and argue that humanism is not a religion at all because it is thoroughly secular. This led to the 1976 founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal (CSICOP) as a defense of the sciences and the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) as an articulator of both humanist values and an emphasis on the distinction that humanism was democratic and not totalitarian. In other words, rather than argue about what they call you, embrace the label with your own definitions. The founder of these groups was Paul Kurtz, who had been editor of the AHA journal and the drafter of Humanist Manifesto II.

The UUA was clearly the largest collection of humanists, but a series of organizational problems had reduced its budget and lead a new generation of leaders to stress pluralism as a way to increase numbers. The result was that the Fellowship of Religious Humanists movement was moved to a more marginal position. This organization subsequently became the Friends of Religious Humanism and was recently renamed  HUUmanists. A series of informal polls indicates that perhaps at least half of the current members of the UU laity consider themselves to be humanists.

In 1982 leaders from many of these groups met to create the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) on the assumption that training a new generation of leadership together would be the most effective way to merge traditions and increased cooperation and reduce harmful competition. The Humanist Institute was created by NACH and the result has been the training of at least 100 leaders in an intensive three-year curriculum.

An more recent large organization is the Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS). So far, it has specialized in exploratory lobbying in New York State, in strengthening Internet communication, and in developing on line courses and other publications. In addition it has been a generous fund grantor to many of the older humanist groups for specific programs

The groups that we have listed vary among themselves in terms of intentions to preserve certain historical functions of religious groups. We've already spoken of the issue of coming out as a humanist, a practice common to all of these public groups. In the same sense all of these groups are committed to developing the humanism of their own members. I'll address later the problem of developing an ecumenical humanism that keeps each of us in touch with all of our groups.




The issue of transgenerational communication has historically been central to religious groups. How can parents ensure that their children will know the family tradition well enough to make rational choices as adults. In this, the UUA and the AEU have historically been the most successful, although the UUA in recent years has moved toward a more inclusive religious liberalism that treats humanism as one option among many.

Religious groups have also developed ways of celebrating life passages: birth, adulthood, full membership, marriage, births of children, death. In different ways the humanist groups have developed their own versions of many of these passages, and several have even developed standards for certifying members to be a celebrants of such life passages.

Another function of religious groups has been the development and sharing of aesthetic matters such as music, art, literature, and drama. Here too humanist groups have had mixed successes in developing distinctive aesthetic forms. Whatever tensions once occurred between pop culture and high culture are now almost things in the past, and this is reflected in religious groups particularly. Looking through a recent listing of Christian music, I search for Bach and drew nothing.

I would argue that these varieties of humanist organization and expression, as well as the humanist adaptations of religious functioning, are probably inevitable as well as useful. Too much ink gets spilled defending one style against another. At different stages of life, humanists will have different needs and seek out organizations that best meet those needs.

The best way to develop our own humanism is to become involved with our varied traditions – and to discover how other humanists are viewing our shared world. That way, we can avoid re-inventing the wheel. Subscribe to The Humanist and Free Inquiry. Read Humanism Today and Religious Humanism and Humanistic Judaism. Help combat anti-science by reading Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic.

I suggested that this talk would begin with themes that humanists shared, then describe some of the things that vary among us, and then return to shared items. Let me now come to that third section. I want to describe humanists in terms of what most of them take to be central -- individual and social values. And I want to describe humanists both as alliers and as pioneers in making these values more widespread in this world. They share many values with persons who would currently call themselves liberals and some values with contemporary conservatives. In these cases, the building alliances seems perfectly proper. My only caveat is that humanists ought to retain their own integrity and not pretend to share beliefs and faith positions that they do not really hold to.

A listing of such alliance-values would certainly include the commitment to reason, science, and freedom of inquiry. Also high on the list would be acting out of compassion. Similarly, there is a commitment to public education and to the rule of law. For many of us the rule of law rules out violence and militarism, stressing the role of police and peacemakers. Many non-humanists share our value of non-racism and our commitment to human rights and equal opportunity. Many share with us a commitment to the separation of church and state, and many agree with us that economic justice involves decreasing the inequalities of wealth that are now appearing.

So too we share with many in the commitment to building beauty into human history through all the arts. And almost above all, we share with many the view that ethics is measured by  consequences -- not by authority and not by intention.

There are however a number of values that humanists have pioneered. The values of death with dignity, and physician-assisted suicide.

Gender equality has been central for us and recent court decisions remind us that that battle is far from won. In the 19th-century, our women forebears produced a Women's Bible pointing to the sexism that had dominated many of the translations as well as the sexism inherent in many of the texts.

Similarly, we have been pioneers in matters of human sexuality. We started with biological honesty regarding both fertility and sexuality. This meant that the various appeals to natural law by traditional religious groups simply failed as we learned more about the actual conditions of fertility. Spontaneous abortions undercut any claim that every fetus was sacred.

The best current term to describe our attitudes toward sexuality and population is the desirability of a commitment to bear intended children. We also pioneered in recognizing the wide spectrum of sexual orientations within humanity and the need to treat all of these with dignity as long as they could be embodied without harm to others.

Another aspect of value pioneering is the exploration of critical humanist perspectives on cultural topics of the moment. Postmodernism, multiculturalism, ecology, bioethics are examples of this.

The overarching humanist value, embracing all of these other values, is the drive to move beyond tribalism, ethnicism, and nationalism. We've used various words to describe this: trans-nationalism, cosmopolitanism, world citizenship. Because of this drive to view life from a universal perspective, we have pioneered a kind of historical honesty. As we move beyond sectarian patriotism and religious parochialism, we can make this attractive and feasible for others.


BeethovenŐs 9th finale, on SchillerŐs Ode to Joy

Freude, schšner Gštterfunken

Joy, lovely divine light,

Tochter aus Elysium

Daughter of Elysium

Wir betreten feuertrunken,

We march, drunk with fire, 

Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.

Holy One, to thy holy kingdom.

Deine Zauber binden wieder,

Thy magic binds together

Was die Mode streng geteilt;

What tradition has strongly parted,

Alle Menschen werden BrŸder,

All men will be brothers

Wo dein sanfter FlŸgel weilt.

Dwelling under the safety of your wings.



Then TennysonŐs Locksley Hall (1942) (UUA hymn 143)

And Asimov(  editorial from AŐs Science Fiction < Surely science fictional themes and emotions can be expressed in poetic form now and then. Consider, for instance, the most remarkable example of science fiction poetry (in my opinion) that has ever been written.>