The great humanist lion, Paul Kurtz, was honored by the American Humanist Association on Saturday, June 9, 2007, at its annual conference in Portland, Oregon. The following is adapted from his speech in acceptance of the AHA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
I wish to thank the American Humanist Association for its Lifetime Achievement Award. I have done many things during my life on behalf of humanism, but 2007 stood out as the fortieth anniversary (1967) of my assuming the editorship of the Humanist magazine and also the thirtieth year (1977) since I stepped down. That was quite an eventful decade.
I have lived what many of my friends think is an unbelievably active life. It is commonly thought that this is the time when people in their right minds should retire; perhaps I should have my head examined, for I am still at work. It is also the age at which reflective wisdom is supposed to develop, and so this would seem a good occasion for me to engage in some retrospective reflections about humanism.
One advantage of a long life is that I have known many of the leading humanists in the world–from Sidney Hook, Ernest Nagel, E. O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Albert Ellis, Andrei Sakharov, B. F. Skinner, Betty Friedan, Antony Flew, and Tom Szasz to Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Isaac and Janet Asimov, Peter Ustinov, James Farmer, Lloyd and Mary Morain, Bette Chambers, Elena Bonner, Vern and Bonnie Bullough, and so many others. Working with them on shared projects has given me an appreciation for the heroic dimensions of their personalities and for the importance of humor, wit, and an exuberant lust for life. All of the people named above would no doubt make A. H. Maslow’s list of creative actualizers, able to savor peak experiences.
It is also remarkable to see the shift in attitudes about humanism in the last half of the twentieth century. I remember well the celebrations of John Dewey’s ninetieth birthday in 1949, which I attended as an impecunious graduate student. At one such event Dwight Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University (being groomed for a run for the U.S. presidency), said (to paraphrase from memory): “Professor Dewey, you are the philosopher of freedom. I am the soldier of freedom.” Can you imagine a presidential candidate saying that today? At that time no one wished to be known as “anti-human,” so everyone claimed to be a humanist, even the Pope and the Marxists. The fact that humanism, more specifically secular humanism, came under heavy attack from the Moral Majority and fundamentalist preachers in the late 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s was a shock to most of us.
This no doubt was because humanism was considered godless, identified with atheism. Yet that isn’t the defining characteristic of humanism, which uniquely expresses a set of ethical values. Religious conservatives deny that humanists can be moral persons. They ask, “Is life worth living without God?” or “Can one be good without religious faith?” Yes! I respond. The refrain I sing is that life can be intrinsically good, overflowing with value. Its meaning is not found by withdrawing from the world in quest for mystical transcendence. In short, life has no prior meaning or purpose; it is pregnant with opportunities for each person to seize and act upon. And human being are, at their core, creative; they can initiate purposes, plans, and projects and bring them to fruition by their own powers of intelligence and effort. In my book, Forbidden Fruit, I say that humans need to consume knowledge of good and evil, but that the best fruit in the Garden of Eden is that of the tree of life. Because the chief good for the humanist is life itself: pulsating, throbbing, and full of expectations and consummations; a life in which moral conduct is exemplified. We do something not because God commands it, but because our ethical reflections indicate that it is good or right or appropriate.
But “what about the tragic?” asks the believer. “Is this not a vale of tears?” Perhaps at times; for we suffer defeats and losses, unrequited loves, and disappointments. We may experience severe setbacks and these may crush some individuals with their sudden intensity, as the twists of outrageous fortune are often unpredictable. There are people who endure lives of desperation, poverty, disease, or who live in despotic repressive societies. Yet there is the will to overcome adversity, and in the place of pain or sorrow, happiness and laughter can break through. One needs to balance the good with the bad, liberation against injustice, and love in the face of duplicity.
We are forever surrounded by naysayers, nihilists, negativists, the pallbearers of guilt, and fearful, depressed people. Yet ranged against the killjoys and theologians of the world are loving, kind, helpful, inventive, humanitarian, altruistic, and affirmative people who strive to improve the human condition and contribute to human happiness. They are the optimists in our midst who confront adversity and are willing to take risks to succeed. In my book, The Fullness of Life, I write that a person’s life is like a career. And it is a work of art. We constantly redefine our interests by the schools we go to, the occupations we select, our friends, the people we fall in love with, marry and even divorce, our children and grandchildren, our beliefs and convictions, dreams and aspirations, the plans we conceive and unfurl, and the beloved causes to which we dedicate our honor and even our lives. These are the Promethean virtues–the audacity to challenge the rulers or Gods on high and our use of the arts and sciences to better the human situation.
A mistake often committed today by militant non-believers is to simply equate humanism with atheism. The recent books by our esteemed colleagues Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger–having enjoyed some well-deserved popularity–point out that belief in God is a “delusion” and that the Abrahamic “God” after all “is not great.” But the main thrust of humanism is not to simply espouse the negative, what we do not believe in, but what we do. I am a secular humanist because I am not religious. I draw my inspiration not from religion or spirituality, but from science, ethics, philosophy, and the arts. I call it eupraxsophy; that is the practice of wisdom as an alternative to religion. The convictions of a humanist eupraxsopher involve both the head and the heart, cognition and emotion.
In my view humanism first and foremost entails a set of ethical values. These were implicit in the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome; they were expressed in the efflorescence of the Renaissance; the emergence of modern science; the liberation of humans from bondage by the democratic revolutions of the modern world; the battles for human freedom and human rights; and the defense of freedom of thought and free inquiry.
What are these humanist ethical values and principles? (1) That the practice of ethics is autonomous and not derived from external commands, but is based on human experience and culture and modified by human intelligence in the light of the consequences of our choices; (2) that life–the here and now–for ourselves, our children’s children’s children, and the community of humankind, is good for its own sake; (3) that human beings have some power over their own lives and some responsibility for their futures; (4) that humanists have some confidence in our ability to solve problems by using reason, science, education, and by expressing good will; (5) that we recognize and tolerate pluralistic lifestyles without necessarily agreeing with them; (6) that we insist upon the right to privacy; (7) that we believe in an open democratic society; (8) that although we seek our own happiness and wellbeing, we are deeply concerned with the rights of every person; and (9) that we are profoundly committed to the wellbeing of humankind and the planetary community.
Relating this humanist stance to the current public mood in the United States, I am appalled by the apocalyptic scenarios that abound and that seem to afflict so many of our fellow citizens. The end-of-the-world dramas are especially troubling. Permit me to focus on two kinds of doomsday scenarios: religious and secular.
First are the scenarios endemic to theism from time immemorial, which are tied to the belief that the City of Man is sinful and corrupt. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and inflicted a worldwide flood in the days of Noah, and we are warned that he will do so again. The barbarians-are-within-the-gates scenario today rails against liberals, social democrats, feminists, secular humanists, gays, and would-be terrorists. They are said to debauch the social order. The only rescue is the Rapture if you are a Christian, or to wage jihad against the enemies of Allah if you are a Muslim. Many evangelicals predicted that in the year 2000 the end days would finally descend upon us. Nothing happened. Hal Lindsey’s prophecies in The Late Great Planet Earth did not occur. We are all too familiar with this form of paranoia and fantasy, out of cognitive touch with the real world. This scenario is given impetus today by the conflagrations in the Middle East, which allegedly are leading us on the path to Armageddon.
A second class of secular doomsday prophesies also abound today. Even humanists and secularists are infected by them–especially given sensationalist cable news networks and the proliferation of Internet blogs.
I will list only some of them:
- Global warming will raise the level of the seas and wipe out coastal cities from Florida and Manhattan to Bangladesh.
- A virulent form of the Asian flu will spread widely and kill millions.
- The mysterious death of the bees, which pollinate plants and trees, threatens to drastically
reduce our food supply.
- Earth will experience a devastating collision with an asteroid, which could destroy all life on the planet.
- The world economy will collapse.. Nuclear bombs will be exploded by Islamic terrorists.
- Runaway population will overtake the Third World, along with ecological devastation of large sections of the planet.
- A right-wing fascist coup d’etat will seize the American government.
- The United States will go to war with China.
- Science fiction and Hollywood films that portray the dystopias of the future, characterized by bleak and repressive thought-control, will become reality.
Now, I do not wish to minimize any of these threats. Many pose genuine dangers–such as global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions, or the real possibility of our economic decline. What I am concerned about is the pessimism and despair (provoked in large measure by the apprehensions of George W. Bush and evangelicals in his administration). The fear-mongers and pessimists of our time bear down on us daily with their dire forebodings.
During my lifetime, I have been witness to the many awesome dislocations and conflicts that we have endured in the twentieth century. I was a four-year-old child when the stock market crashed in 1929, and I lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. By way of contrast it was also the time of the Charleston Rag, New Orleans jazz, and the talking movies of Jean Harlow, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges. It was also the beginning of Social Security and other reform measures. I visited the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows and saw the GM exhibit, which depicted the superhighways that were to be built after the war–and they were.
I remember vividly the fascist Nazi and Japanese regimes of the ’30s and ’40s. I enlisted in the Army during World War II, experienced the bombings of London and saw graphic films of the devastation of Rotterdam, Warsaw, and Moscow by Stuka dive bombers, and later, the destruction by Allied bombers of Dresden and Bremen. We were aghast at the tyranny of the Stalinist Gulag and were horrified by the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were disturbed by the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China, but also pleased by the rebuilding of Europe, the subsequent democratization of Germany and Japan, the creation of the United Nations, and the liberation of the former colonial empires. The Cold War and the fear of thermonuclear destruction was a constant reminder of what we all faced, though fortunately it never transpired. Then came the Korean and Vietnamese wars, and the unexpected collapse of the Soviet empire. And today we are embroiled in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Balance these events with the emergence of a Third Industrial Revolution in Japan and South Korea first, and now in China and India. Many Cassandras of doom in the past had forecast that mass famines would overtake Asia–they have not occurred. In the twentieth century we were astonished at the great breakthroughs in medicine–antibiotics, surgery, transplants. These have steadily reduced pain and suffering, extended life spans, and provided for the healthy enjoyment of leisure time for wide sectors of the population. New inventions and a plethora of consumer goods have continued to pour forth at a rapid pace–automobiles and airplanes, refrigerators and washing machines, air conditioning and central heating, radio and TV, cell phones and computers. The Information Revolution is transforming life in incredible ways. The Green Revolution has increased food production enormously. The goal of universal education for all children is accepted throughout the world. The feminist revolution has made great gains. The extension of equal rights to blacks and other minorities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons continues. Certainly not without opposition, but progress is nevertheless seen everywhere.
Especially important is the rapid growth of scientific discovery, which has dramatically enlarged our understanding of the biosphere and the cosmos. The promise of new technologies for the amelioration of life continues to entice us: nanotechnology, the biogenetics revolution, and the emergence of transhumanism.
So, I respond to the scenarios of the doomsday prophets with a third scenario of the progressive improvement of life everywhere on the planet Earth. I do not deny the need to conquer poverty and disease, the serious problem of diminishing energy resources, the destruction of the natural ecology, and the continued extinction of other species. Nor do I discount the possibility of natural disasters or major wars in the future. But we need to be aware of the fact that humankind has managed to survive and persevere in spite of these regressive events.
This third scenario does not project a doomsday future, but is instead hopeful about the ongoing, long-range, gradual improvement and enhancement of life for more and more people on the planet.
There are no panaceas–only the continued extension of the ideals of the Enlightenment. The time is ripe for a New Enlightenment drawing on the principles of secularism, naturalism, and humanism. It is the last that I especially wish to emphasize, for we are living at a time in which scientific discoveries have radically altered our understanding of nature and life, and have provided us with new powers to fulfill our ends. However, the public’s understanding of the methods and outlook of the sciences and the cultivation of critical thinking are vital if democratic societies are to survive and flourish.I submit that also essential is some appreciation for the principles of Planetary Ethics, over and beyond the ancient chauvinistic, religious, racial, ethnic, national, or gender differences and animosities of the past.
There are two key humanist principles that we now need to promote and defend in the ethics of the future. First, is the need to develop our moral obligations to the broader global community over and beyond nation-states. This means that we should consider every person anywhere on the planet equal in dignity and value.
Second, each person is responsible for his or her own future and that of society, but in addition we all have a stake in the future of humankind on the planet. This means the application of reason and science and the principles of ethical humanism–a concern for improving the lives of everyone on the planet as far as we are capable of doing, and most important the resolve to work for these goals. Herein are the convictions of a humanist at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Humanism, I submit, still has great promise for humankind. We need to work together to help create a better world. That has been the beloved cause to which I have devoted my life; and I trust that fellow humanists share many or most of these ideals.