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Why I Am a Humanist

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 14, 2008


A few months ago Mark Rowlands, over at Secular Philosophy, wrote a  twopart essay, followed by an update, on why he is not a humanist. Several people have asked me to respond, since this question comes up often, for instance whenever I say that I am more comfortable with the label “humanist” than “atheist” (although I am most certainly both, and proud of it). So let’s reconstruct Rowlands’ reasoning and try to see where, I think, he goes astray.

Mark begins by listing a series of definitions of humanism, mostly from dictionaries, all taken from the website of the Institute for Humanist Studies (full disclosure: I collaborate regularly with IHS and have designed an online course for their continuum of adult education). Arguably the best definition of those cited by Rowlands comes from the Merriam Webster:

“[Humanism is] a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.”

What is wrong with this? According to Mark, “humanism is simply an article of faith, akin to many religions.” Wow, slow down! All definitions of humanism include a clause about its rejection of supernaturalism, and religions (as opposed to, say, philosophies) do include a supernatural component. This is akin to the oft-heard, and quite silly, refrain that atheism is a religion. Atheism is a philosophical or epistemological position about the world. When it is militant and intolerant (as it sometimes is), it becomes an ideology. But most certainly not a religion. To call humanism or atheism a religion is a fundamental category mistake.

Why does Rowlands make this extraordinary claim, sure to astonish any self-reported humanist (such as yours truly)? He says that “the unquestioned article of faith contained in all of these statements is obvious: humans are the most important thing there is — at least in the known universe.” He then goes on to argue (quite appropriately) that there is no objective way to establish that humans are either “better” or “more important” than any other life form in the universe, case closed.

But wait, this may very well be a case of simply setting up a straw man for the pleasure of bringing it down with little effort. I don’t think for a moment that most humanists think of human beings as better or more important than anything else in the universe, and this position absolutely does not follow from, nor is it implied by, the tenets of humanism.

Let’s go back to the Webster definition, piece by piece: “[a] doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values.” Just because someone centers her values or way of life around X it doesn’t follow that she thinks X is objectively the best thing in the world. Think, for instance, of your family. Very likely, if you are a parent, you will concentrate your efforts, time, and resources on the welfare of your family. Most people, possibly even Rowlands, would grant that this is a perfectly good and honorable thing to do. But it absolutely does not follow that therefore you think your family is intrinsically more important than any other family on earth. It is most important to you, because it is your family, and that suffices to justify, socially and morally, your efforts on its behalf (though you should still set aside some of that effort and resources to help other people or causes outside your family).

Rowlands sees this point, but dismisses it with a rather forced example. He rewrites the various definitions of humanism by substituting “white people” for “human,” as in “a way of life centered on white people’s interests or values.” He wishes to show that one could pick any arbitrary group and the same philosophy would apply, showing that humanism is therefore a faith, and possibly a pernicious one. But as my example of your family should indicate, not all groups are equally worthy of special consideration, subjectively or objectively. “White people” is a biologically spurious and socially pernicious grouping, while “family” is a biologically natural and socially constructive grouping. There is a difference, and to ignore it is to fall for the postmodernist fallacy that anything goes.

Back to Webster: “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” “Usually” here probably refers to the fact that humanism started out during the Renaissance, when one simply could not profess atheism, until independence from religion began to be asserted three centuries later, culminating in the Enlightenment . It is precisely because of the rejection of supernatural nonsense and an emphasis on human dignity, worth and ability to pursue self-realization that I think humanism is the best positive philosophy we have. How can Rowlands not consider himself a humanist?

The real answer, I suspect, emerges from the third part of his commentary, the one where he addresses miscellaneous objections from his readers. Mark states “Matt m [one of his blog’s readers] wouldn’t extend the social contract to animals who can’t understand it. Well, my twelve month old son is an animal who can’t understand the contract. Should I not extend it to him? More generally: I’ve written two books on this – Animal Rights (1998, 2009) and Animals Like Us (2002).” Ah, that’s where the rub hits the philosophical pavement, so to speak. Rowlands has a problem with humanism because it is too parochial, it does not extend to the rest of the animal (but what about the vegetable and bacterial?) world. Some of my good friends are vegetarians (no kidding), and at least one close friend of mine has always pointed out to me that she doesn’t consider herself a humanist precisely for the reason implied by Rowlands’ comment on animal rights: it is too restrictive a notion.

But I wish to make the argument that it is the animal rights perspective — as laudable as it is — that misses the point here. First, let’s take care of Mark’s twelve month old son: it really should go without saying that there is an objective difference between an animal that is in the process of developing toward a full grown human being, with good chances of becoming a person, and an animal — say a wolf, to use Rowlands’ own example, who simply does not have the biological ability to do so. It does make a difference whether a being has the potential to understand the concept of rights or not: this clearly and objectively separates (without making them “better”) human beings from all other animals (including our closest primate cousins). It also makes human beings the proper recipients (and negotiators) of rights — an inherently human concept, incidentally.

Second, and more importantly, my example of why — and within what limits — our own families are more important than others to us shows the fallacy in Rowlands’ argument: humanism, with its centering on the human condition, does not imply the negation of the ethical status of other living beings, just like our justified but admittedly subjective interest in our own family does by no means imply that other families are not important in an absolute sense. Indeed, many humanists are supporters of animal rights, and they base their support on their compassion as well as their logic, not on the whims of imaginary supernatural beings (at least some of whom allegedly tell us to do with animals what we wish, since they were created to serve our needs).

This is why I am a humanist.


Skepnews – 8/5/08

Posted in Skepnews by Skepdude on August 5, 2008

  • UFO crashed 150 million years ago. According to the anonymous sources, it crashed approximately 150 million years ago during the age of the dinosaurs. – What, you have a problem with anonymous sources eh?
  • Cheap atheists? – Campaigners hoped to raise the raise the £23,400 necessary to buy a prominent two-week slot on a “bendy bus” by collecting £5 pledges from atheists online. A specially-created website had attracted only 877 pledges when its deadline passed on Thursday, far short of the 4,678 people needed.– Ok, so here’s my excuse: I was on vacation and didn’t hear anything until now. But seriously, come on atheists, get your shit together, it’s a numbers game, divided we fall!
  • Animal rights nuts attack scientists In the off-campus incident, a well-known molecular biologist and his family, including two small children, were forced to escape a smoke-filled house using a second-story ladder after a firebomb was intentionally set, Santa Cruz police said. One family member sustained injuries requiring brief hospitalization, and police are calling the firebombing, which occurred shortly before 6 a.m., a case of attempted homicide. About the same time, a car belonging to a researcher parked at an on-campus home was also firebombed, destroying the vehicle. – Hey at least the rats are safe now. I say, when they find these morons, don’t throw them in jail. However, next time they need a drug, after say a particularly gruesome car accident, they should be denied all kind of drugs/medical procedures which was at some point in it’s development tested on lab animals. Bunch of hypocrites!