Why I am not a humanist - Atheist Foundation of Australia

Finally some honesty and a solidly worded philosophical essay on the the tenuous relationship between atheism and humanism.

Why I am Not a Humanist
Author:
Nigel Sinnott

No, I have not forsaken three quarters of a lifetime's atheism and found myself a god or a guru. But I would like to set out my reasons for being profoundly unhappy - as I have been for 25 years - about belonging to a movement with the general label "humanist".

Until the 1940s what is now called the humanist movement was known as the freethought movement. In its broadest sense it did and does encompass a spectrum from militant irreligion through rationalism to groups of agnostics, some of whom regarded themselves as religious. The older word, "freethought", aptly described the common denominator of these disparate organisations, namely, that they attracted people who insisted on the right to follow their own line of musing and reasoning, specifically on religious matters, instead of accepting some dogmatic, supernatural creed.

The word "humanist" began to catch on in freethought circles in the 1950s, perhaps because it had connotations of the Renaissance and the university. (The Renaissance humanists changed stylised, rather rigid mediaeval forms of art and literature to naturalistic representation and more free expression; they also encouraged a reawakened interest in scientific inquiry. At universities the word humanist had long signified a student of the liberal arts, classics and philosophy, as distinct from engineering or "hard" sciences. The 1950s and '60s also witnessed a boom in secondary and tertiary education, so "humanism" had - or seemed to have - an educated, refined image which old working-class secularism allegedly lacked. The generic term "rationalism" had sometimes been used for the broad freethought movement, but some of the new humanists found rationalism an arid word, connoting an exclusive devotion to reason, despite the fact that sensible rationalists avoided any claim that reason was the only good in human life.

By the 1960s, however, "humanist" in a new sense had come into its own. During the period from 1959 to 1966 a large number of new humanist societies were formed, especially in Britain, and some rationalist organisations cashed in on the vogue word and changed their names to "humanist". For a while, "humanist" was flavour of the month. But fashions are fickle things, and the popularity of humanism has waned since the 1960s just as that of secularism did after the 1880s.

I do not wish to decry the 1960s. The period had its faults, such as the narcissism of the "me generation" and venal gurus who pandered to mass naïveté. But it was also a period of relative prosperity and full employment, of new-found freedom for the young; a time of optimism, unselfish idealism, experiment, protest and worthwhile change. I am glad I was young then, rather than now.

If humanism is no longer a band-wagon word, there is little pragmatic argument for its retention as a name for the freethought movement in general. My main contention, however, is that humanism is now more of a liability than an asset.

The people who promoted the word humanism in the 1960s had their merits. They knew what was politically relevant at the time and how to campaign on particular issues. However, they often seemed to have a horror of anything they perceived as "negative". Hustlers and some politicians show the same tendency today. Humanist had a "positive" ring to it, despite the fact that what unified the movement was its disbelief in supernaturalism and its rejection of authority in philosophy, two thoroughly negative - but valuable - features.

I strongly assert that the search for and maintenance of truth, which is often negative, is more important than contrived efforts always to seem "positive".

My principle objection to humanism is the implication by its promoters that freethinkers do - or should - "believe in Man". I dissent from this on two grounds. It is reminiscent of "I believe in God", and I contend that the freethought or rationalist movement should not be promoting an ersatz religious mode of thinking but offering a radical departure from it by saying that the whole concept of "believing in" (in the dogmatic religious sense) is erroneous. Belief, for a freethinker, should be tentative, and open to amendment and reasoned argument. Atheists rightly regard "Jesus saves" as a flatulent slogan; "Man is the measure of all things" is immodest, unscientific bunkum, and it is high time someone said so.

The cult of Man with a capital M is only a slight improvement on the cult of God. It still leaves a lot to be desired, women for instance. If the Christians' idea that they belong to the same exclusive club as the creator of the universe sounds to us infidels as monstrous conceit, I can only add that I find almost as pompous and egotistical the notion that man is some marvellous pinnacle of evolution; that because Homo sapiens has produced Einstein and Michelangelo we can forget about the Nazis, the Crusaders and the Khmer Rouge; or that a Gothic cathedral, an air-conditioned office block or the mausoleum of some ancient megalomaniac justify our destruction of the world's forests, some of the most biologically valuable and breath-takingly beautiful places on earth.

Worse still, the adulation by some humanists of the human intellect (unique as it appears to be) encourages the old-fashioned nonsense that men and women are specially set apart from other living organisms and, worst of all, that the human race has an evolutionary destiny (formerly God's permission) to conquer and subdue nature.

"Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things" wrote Swinburne, my favourite poet. The words are marvellous rhetoric, intended to shock mid-nineteenth century piety, but today, if taken seriously, they would be a recipe for an ecological nightmare. If any other species of animal had caused a quarter as much destruction of life (including annihilation of whole species), degradation of landscape, fouling of the seas and pollution of the air as humanity has, we would have declared such an animal - however smart and intelligent - to be dangerous vermin and would be spending vast resources on destroying it.

It seems to me to be callous and smug to adulate Humanity with a capital H. Yes, we can devise elaborate instruments and drop them on the planet Mars. Meanwhile, half the members of our own species are starving or nearly so. Another half, women, are often treated as drudges and serfs. Intelligence does not necessarily produce wisdom or goodness. It took brains and education to design the gas chambers at Auschwitz; skill to timetable the cattle trucks.

In addition to "Man's inhumanity to man" there is humanity's massive, cruel exploitation of non-human animals for food, clothing, experiments and what passes for amusement. Protests against exploitation of animals have come from many quarters, but within the freethought tradition from Shelley and Henry S. Salt. More than half a century ago Britain's National Secular Society added a better deal for animals to its aims and objects. Yet not so long ago (this article was first written in June and July 1987) a humanist said to me, "I don't think animals have anything to do with humanism." We were talking about the concept of animal rights. I certainly want nothing to do with that sort of retrograde human chauvinism.

Unlike humanists I am not very proud of my membership of the human race. Yet I hope I am a good freethinker; I would like to think I am a reasonable rationalist; and I am very sure that secularism offers a happier prospect for humanity than the hells on earth created wherever religious zealots obtain power.

More than a hundred years ago the militant freethought movement started a campaign to make the public aware that it was possible to limit family size. It was probably the most valuable thing the movement has ever done. Freethinkers promoted birth control because they realised that resources for human consumption were finite. They hoped that small families would reduce poverty and give ordinary people more control over their lives. It is not surprising that religious conservatives have always opposed birth control: they know - consciously or instinctively - that over-breeding in a human population makes for political and economic instability, poverty and anxiety, just the conditions in which supernatural religion flourishes. Orthodox religion is a more cynical business than some humanists imagine.

I want the world to be a place fit for my grandchildren, where they will have space to move, freedom and time to think, wilderness to admire; a world where people can live in harmony with plants and animals. I do not want them to be forced to elbow their way through an overcrowded, stressed, war-riddled civilisation that has degraded the face of the earth into either ugly cities or vast, intensively farmed monocultures. It would only be a matter of time before such a society destroyed itself.

If we want the first sort of civilisation in the future, rather than the second, we may have to forgo a few fancy gadgets or devise more sensible alternatives; we will need to control our human numbers, put world poverty and land misuse before national privilege, nuclear war-toys and space research (without blunting our scientific curiosity), and change the emphasis of our throw-away, consumer society. Above all, we will need a more sensitive, perceptive view of the role of the human race on this planet, one which will understand the right of other animals to breathe free in the air we at present pollute, one which will appreciate the value - practical and aesthetic - of plants, trees and wilderness.

In creating a better world the freethought movement, if it gets its priorities right, has a useful part to play. The movement can promote a reasoned, scientific approach to problems; can ensure that human beings have more personal control over their minds, bodies and lives; can support freedom of speech and expression against efforts by the far right and far left to muzzle society; it can oppose new superstitions and pseudo-science and continue its historic role of exposing the restrictive, irrational and essentially totalitarian pack mentality encouraged by orthodox religion.

We have seen the religious ethic of faith and universal love produce - in reality - hatred, intolerance and barbarism. For this reason, I think we should be wary of any general answer to the world's complex problems which is restricted to human considerations limited by the virtues and vices, diligence and greed, foresight and folly of just a section of humanity, the privileged middle class of the richer industrialised countries.

What has become pressingly important today is humanity's need to realise - and take action on the fact - that we do not stand apart from other living organisms. We are a part of nature: we can only "conquer" nature by destroying the natural world and ourselves with it. Homo sapiens badly needs a sense of ecological humility, combined with curiosity and intellectual integrity. We do not need blinkered conceit dignified as humanism, or evasion of the facts of life and death sanctified as religion.

Revised by N.H.S., 23 November 2001.

Tags: atheism, ecology, humanism, morality, overpopulation

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Replies to This Discussion

Hear, hear. The noxious term the author was fishing for is human exceptionalism, aka homo sapiens über alles. This rot can be secularized to your hearts content, but's origins will always be -

Genesis 1:26 - And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

This meme is an arrogant, hubristic fantasy of man as part stromtrooper, part benevolant and patronizing dictator. It's why I have never really felt comfrotable with the term "humanism" - it just reeks of "we know what's good for you". As a species, we really need to find a bit of humility. Tyler Durden expresses it best -

"Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else."

On a side note - the theme that the terrestrial world is here for us to exploit as we see fit. All of these weenies baulk at the idea of sexual exploitation of beasts. Why ? If you're going to preach hogwash, show some consistency - exploit across the board. Why this squeamishness ? You're going to kill it, eat and wear it's leather anyway. Anti-bestiality bigots.
Listen to me! You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you, never wanted you, and in all probability, he hates you. It's not the worst thing that can happen. - Tyler Durden

Sorry for the side note, but you have to love that guy.
Your anti-bestiality point is pretty funny, but most likely this is another thing that comes from religion's antisexualism. Everybody knows what you do in bed is a much more important issue than enslaving humans and animals.
Brilliant essay, beautifully worded. One of the few posts I intend to keep.

Thank you.

On a side note, I have always abhorred the word humane for the very same reasons. Those reasons are also why I am a vegetarian.

Cheers
If theism is seeking meaning from the pursuit of knowledge of God, humanism is seeking meaning by the pursuit of knowledge of ourselves. It is not worship or deification of ourselves because deification only can arise in the pursuit of a deity. We are not deities in the classic sense of the word, we are pursuing an intimate self-knowledge.

To a humanist, meaning is not external. Neither is morality, or knowledge of good and evil. All our within the constructs of ourselves, our interaction with each other.

Being a humanist (nor being a theist) necessitates the exclusion or oppression of other species. Just because someone worships god does not mean they hate humans, or animals, or nature, or see themselves as above those things. Theists see god as separate and above humans and all living things. Atheists do not acknowledge god. But one, of course, can be a theist and a humanist.

Humanists, as I understand the term, do not see themselves as above nature, rather, as a part of it, one with it. To be a humanist, you are a naturist. You acknowledge our common ancestry with our natural relatives including all forms of life.

Really, the only people who are not humanists, are those who do not value human life.

Those who love violence against life are not "pro human" so they are not humanists.

Those who prefer and promote chaos in society to the detriment of those around them.

People bigoted against other humans and promote racial oppression and genocide are actively "anti human".

Sociopaths who use humans for their own pleasure at the expense of the other.


I think that is why the term "humane" and "humanity". Our humanism is what we all have in common, it is our respect for each other and our lives. Our "humanity" is our compassion, mutual respect, and desire for peaceful coexistence of all life forms. Thus, I don't really believe there are many "anti humanists" and I would guess even some of the most evil despots did their despicable crimes "for the overall good of humanity" in their twisted minds.

Personally, I would characterize myself as a "Secular humanist" and I would expect most people on this board would fall into that category.
Well put Ryan. I concur on this matter and also consider myself a Secular Humanist for argument's sake. Your rationale and logic on this subject makes it clear to at least myself and I would hope others...

+1
I find it both poignant and wildly funny that humans have reached a level of self-awareness where we can write a sentence like, "I can only add that I find almost as pompous and egotistical the notion that man is some marvellous [sic] pinnacle of evolution."

He makes a lot of interesting points but none of which I found very convincing. He seems overly concerned with labels.
This basically sums it up for me.

My principle objection to humanism is the implication by its promoters that freethinkers do - or should - "believe in Man"...Belief, for a freethinker, should be tentative, and open to amendment and reasoned argument. Atheists rightly regard "Jesus saves" as a flatulent slogan; "Man is the measure of all things" is immodest, unscientific bunkum, and it is high time someone said so.

I've always had difficulty accepting the label Humanist. Much of what Humanism seems to seek is good on first looking, but it's the name I just can't get down with: the arrogance of it; the exceptionalism.
Yes, I also have a problem with the term, for a couple of reasons.

To begin with, the term now has associated with it such a lot of baggage; ask anyone what it means to be a humanist and, just as when putting a question to an economist, you'll get a dozen different answers.

Secondly, there's a strapline that to some extent says it all: "having faith in humanity" with which I find it difficult to agree as humans, having escaped the bounds of the natural world, are proving themselves to be some of the most stupid and destructive creatures on the planet. I have no confidence that they'll be capable of ensuring their own survival.

So that's why I now self identify as a Bright. I like the simplicity of the definition, the positive nature of the word and it's lack of accumulated dross.
John D: Well - I don't know who Nigel Sinnott is, and after reading this rampling useless nonesense I really don't care to know.

I want to congratulate Nigel for having the talent to tell so many lies about humanism in one short essay. He has a real gift for defining the philosophy the way he sees fit and ignoring most of the modern writing on the subject.


Well how about you enlighten us then ? Give us something that is not "rampling useless nonesense [sic]".

Humanism is great in theory, usually a disaster in practice. I don't exactly see a life where the act of simply offending anybody is criminalised and having to walk on eggshells everywhere as necessarily a great leap forward. Any movement that as it's goal aims to please everybody is unrealistic (and arrogant and extremely presumptuous). At best it will fail, at worst it will foster universal resentment. Most likely accompanied by economic implosion from funding every feel-good cause that's walked in the door.

I agree with the author that humanism has deviated from it's origins in free thought and philosophical inquiry and has become largely a secular religion of appeasement and whenever I hear the word "humanist", John Lennon's Give Peace a Chance starts playing in the back of my brain. For the Humanism that we have now, the only way it could ever function is in a reality where supply is infinite, demand is limited and there are no issues with population, resources or space. We don't live in such a world.

What precisely would a humanist government do in the face of 9/11 or more recently, the Mumbai massacre ? I have never heard a coherent answer to that, other than mumbling about appeasement and tolerance. I'm sorry, but that gives me no confidence at all. It is largely humanist appeasement that is allowing Islam to encroach on Europe the way it is. It is this "tolerance" that allowed radicalised Islam to penetrate and corrupt moderate Islam in Britain and allowed home grown terrorists to be cultivated for the London bombings. This is not the opinion of some right-wing hate sheet. It is the opinion of British Muslims like Ed Husain who went through the radicalisation process himself as a teenager before coming to his senses. Contemporary Humanism has no answer to any of the ugly questions.

The author is bang-on about substituting faith in man for faith in god. There is by and large this Pollyanna delusion in the exceptionalism of the human species above all others, that it is somehow destined for divinity if we all just meditate and "give peace a chance". It may work for you and your hugging circle, but it is no recipe for us to salvage our future back from the precipice where it now hangs. You may find comfort in this perverse quasi-religious concept of "exceptionalism" - but it is just another grand delusion. I am humble enough to accept that life on this planet is purely the result of some biochemical lotto draw and that we have come this far not because of, but despite ourselves. Your optimism is endearing, and all the sweet humanist kids should get a pat on the head and a gold star and be sent up the back to make room for the smart kids up the front. They actually may have some practical ideas.

I'll leave it with 2 quotes that pretty much sum up contemporary humanism -

"Cynics regarded everybody as equally corrupt... Idealists regarded everybody as equally corrupt, except themselves." -- unknown

"Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem." -- John Galsworthy
John D.: I think Humanism has the best chance of working as a secular "guide" to decision making, compared to other groups and catagories. I think it is a useful tag.

I would like to be a Humanist - but it needs to grow some balls. As with a lot of -isms, I find I agree with 90% and then the wtf? clangers start dropping. For that reason I distrust the very idea of ideology itself - to embrace idealogy entails submission of one kind or another to something disagreeable.

PPS - I find that your elevating of animals to the level of we humans to be disturbing.

Why ? Just curious. But I never elevated animals to our status, I just knocked humans down a few pegs. Biologically, humans are the master race on our planet, but that in itself does not justify beliefs in "exceptionalism". We do need to learn some humility. Knocking us down is to also emphasise that we are animals as well, just with higher intelligence and a lust for control and order. As animals, Humanists have to stop pussyfooting around. How many dams do you think would have been built if Humanists had been in charge ? I expect much of what we take for granted would never exist either. As animals, Humanists need to become more territorial and bestial. They need to stop saying sorry and apologising for spilt milk. They need to stop accomodating everyone that has some kind of grief to bitch about. You can't fix everything.

Islam, specifically Islamism, is an excellent case in point and why I have no faith in the Humanist ideological status quo. Islamism is the very antithesis of Humanism - yet Humanists bend over backwards to be "tolerant" and "accomodating" and "respect diversity". What utter bollocks. Humanists have no balls, and until they grow some, they have no future.
This is what can happen when humans think the way you do: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1942950,00.html

No, this is not a Disney movie.

and we are animals as well.

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