Framing Humanism, or How to Win the Culture War

When you self-identify as a humanist, you assume certain risks. For example, a frightened fundamentalist may seek to scapegoat you for the secularizing effects of modernity.  This risk is specific to humanism, but other risks are generic. Any label can be used to typecast someone—that much goes with the territory—but there is another, more potent risk. When you share the news that you’re a humanist, people are apt to respond by asking “What’s that?” If you don’t have a coherent and ready answer, you look inarticulate and superficial. Aware of this risk, billions of humanists avoid daily opportunities to self-identify, thereby bypassing wonderful opportunities to discuss and promote our cause. This “identity-avoidance” is a very real phenomenon, and it could be our movement’s biggest obstacle.

I think these risks are worth assuming. (In the first installment in this series, I argued that standing for something adds purpose, richness and depth to life, and in the second, I tried to show that humanist principles are eminently worth standing for.[1] More on these points later.) Yes, we can assume the risks, but we can also be proactive about reducing them. By effectively communicating what we’re about, we make it harder to demonize or stereotype us. We also make it easier to have the courage of our convictions—to speak our humanism loud and proud, and if asked, to have clear and compelling explanations at the ready.

These are information design problems. They can be solved by a suitable framing of our philosophy. I’m a humanist, a philosopher, and an information designer. I think I can help. In this essay, I offer some suggestions for how we should frame our humanism. They won’t please everyone, but I urge my fellow humanists to give them a try. By positioning humanism properly, we can de-escalate the “culture war,” win the hearts and minds of those who’ve been sitting the war out, and help humanity realize its full potential.

Good designers take time to understand the constraints on their designs. They look at how the thing-to-be-designed needs to function. Then they create form that follows that function.  Can we make the key functional constraints on a humanist philosophy explicit? As I see it, we need to formulate humanism in a way that:

  • Affords a kind of moral compass (i.e. functions as a philosophy capable of orienting us properly in the world),
  • Inspires us to take pride in our philosophy,
  • Equips us to be effective ambassadors for that philosophy,
  • Creates the right first impression when shared with the undecided—the open-minded “conscientious objectors” to the culture war,
  • Is easy to share (so our movement can grow) and
  • Is hard to demonize.

Moreover, it is important that our framing of humanism “scales” easily. Here’s what I mean: There are times when we want to express our philosophy in a word. Other situations call for a phrase, a sound bite, a sentence, or an explanation of roughly paragraph length. Still other contexts allow for a treatment of essay or book length. We need ways of thinking and talking about humanism that expand and contract easily, equipping us for the full range of conversational situations.

In my last essay, I started in the middle of this spectrum, offering a paragraph-length litmus test for latent humanism. The presentation was light-hearted, but my six “indicators” represent a serious effort to articulate our worldview. To recap, I claim that humanists tend to believe that:

  1. All human beings possess dignity, worth and basic rights.
  2. We should strive to remake this world into one that affords every human being the opportunity to lead a rich, rewarding life full of joy and creative fulfillment, and as free as possible from pain and suffering.
  3. To make real progress towards this goal, we must understand what really works to promote human flourishing.
  4. To gain this understanding, reason, science and critical inquiry must be given free rein to discover the truth about the world, human nature, and what makes people happy.
  5. Moral codes function to protect freedoms, promote mutual cooperation and advance collective well-being; they should be designed (and occasionally redesigned) with that in mind.
  6. Fear, dogma, blind faith, wishful thinking, supernatural “explanations,” and tribal or ideological loyalties should all be avoided, for they tend to close minds, block understanding, and de-motivate the critical inquiry necessary for scientific and moral progress.

In the weeks and months to come, I’ll demonstrate that this “humanism test” scales up beautifully. Each of these ideas will be unpacked to reveal fascinating detail. I’ll examine them in turn, asking such things as: Where did this idea come from? What does it mean, exactly? What’s to be said for it? What obstacles did the idea have to overcome, and what obstacles does it face today? As we shall see, the answers to these questions form a rich and compelling tapestry—a worldview worth living by and living for (or dying for). Before expanding the philosophy by drilling down on individual principles, though, I want to clarify important features of my humanism test, and show that it also scales down elegantly—into handy, phrase-and sentence-length ideas.

Note first that the six indicators don’t quite add up to a definition of humanism. This was deliberate. The humanism test functions to convey understanding of what we’re about, but its form—indicators rather than criteria—also expresses something important. Principle (6) urges us to avoid tribal and ideological loyalties, and consistency requires that we apply this stricture to ourselves. The world does not need another ideological sorting mechanism—something that divides humanity into an in-group and an out-group, an “us” and a “them.” As its name suggests, humanism means to be inclusive. (The term’s main weakness is that it appears to exclude other species from the expanding circle of moral concern. Eventually, this weakness will have to be addressed.)

The humanism test employs indicators rather than criteria to express important aspects of the humanist attitude. We mean to be inclusive and non-doctrinal; we recognize that people progress through stages in their attitudes towards philosophical ideas; we are willing to show patience with, and tolerance of, difference. Moreover, we recognize that we ourselves (and our philosophy) are works in progress, that others might well persuade us to revise our thinking. We want our principles to initiate dialogue, not end it, and we’re open to learning from others. The humanism test is framed so as to express this attitude.

Some have criticized me for not making atheism a requirement for humanism. In fact, in my last essay, I deliberately suggested that believers can be humanists. But don’t humanists, by definition, reject the supernatural? That depends on how we choose to define humanism. It is certainly true that many humanists are atheists. It is also true that the American Humanist Association defines humanism as a worldview “without supernaturalism,” and there is much to admire in its definition of humanism. There are good reasons, however, not to view atheism as a requirement for humanism.

I don’t believe in God, but I think it’s a tactical mistake to, by definition, exclude theists from our ranks. What do we want to say to the billions of people who subscribe to humanist principles (like 1-6 above), but still cling to belief in God? ‘Sorry, but you must ditch your imaginary friend before you can join us?’ What do we accomplish by such exclusion? The first thing we do, whether we intend to or not, is erect a barrier to constructive dialogue. But humanism is, above all, a commitment to such dialogue. Real dialogue works a kind of magic, but only when participants set aside tribal loyalties and reason together openly, honestly and, dare I say it, in good faith. We want reason-giving dialogue to work its magic on them, of course, but the price is openness to the possibility that the exchange might change us as well. That’s the way dialogue works; it’s a two-way street. Framing humanism in a way that excludes theists in advance comes across as fearful of what they might teach us. Here’s an idea: let’s embrace our commitment to fearless inquiry and truly ‘walk the talk.’ In this context, that means avoiding a self-conception that creates artificial barriers to collaborative inquiry.

And let’s face it: our qualms about supernaturalism are hardly first principles of humanism. We don’t embrace atheism prior to investigative inquiry; our doubts emerge from investigative inquiry. Sure, many of us have traveled that investigative path, and we’re eager to broadcast our findings. It doesn’t follow, though, that it is wise to present our atheism up front. In fact, doing so is often unwise, for it suggests—falsely—that our skepticism about gods is a presupposition rather than an outcome of our inquiries. When we reinforce the impression that rejection of god is one of our axioms, we appear dogmatic, and afford others ready grounds for dismissing what we have to say. Our atheism is derivative—a conclusion, not a premise, of the arguments we need to share with believers.

You’ve probably noticed that my six indicators are sequenced in a way that sketches one such argument. Of course, they don’t quite add up to an argument for God’s non-existence. Such arguments are plentiful, but they seldom change minds. It is not hard to explain why: religious belief is more a matter of emotion than of reason. Also, as philosopher Daniel Dennett has observed, literal belief in an actual God has given way, in much of the world, to belief in belief—the idea that it is important, for moral purposes, to believe in God (or say you do), even if, intellectually, you can’t quite take the belief seriously.

My six indicators link up to form an argument aimed at this last refuge of theism. Its conclusion should be plain: theism and faith are probably obstacles to moral progress. I sometimes prefer to leave this unspoken, and allow people to draw the conclusion for themselves. This time I’ll make an exception.

I’d like to nominate this conclusion—that theism and faith are probably obstacles to much-needed moral progress—as a worthy, sentence-length formulation of humanism’s core idea. Long before western thinkers were free to explicitly reject God, humanists dared to entertain this heretical possibility. From Socrates to Hypatia (both put to death), from Hobbes to Spinoza (both driven from their communities), from Bruno to Galileo (burned to death and convicted by the Inquisition, respectively), from Hume to Paine (both reviled for their views), from the deistic refugees of war-torn Europe to the soaring rhetoric of “the great agnostic” Robert Ingersoll, from the authors of three Humanist Manifestos to the four horsemen of the “new atheist” apocalypse—humanists have time and again prodded us to consider the possibility that we just might be better off without God. I call this heretical thought the humanism hypothesis, and I offer it, in interrogative form—Better Without God?—as the phrase that best captures the spirit of the humanist project.

“Better without God?” lacks the alliterative flair of Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein’s marvelous catchphrase “good without God.” But what it lacks in mimetic fitness it makes up, perhaps, in forthrightness. For “good without God” understates our case. For we have strong indications that theism is morally disorienting. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have argued this point with great force, and there is much to admire in their books on the subject. But it can hardly be denied that their aggressive approach doesn’t work for some, and actively alienates others. By contrast, Daniel Dennett has called for more investigation, arguing that, despite the arguments of his fellow horsemen, we don’t really know what would happen if humanity were suddenly deprived of supernatural comforts.

I suspect that our species will eventually prove to be better off without god. That makes me a humanist. But I don’t pretend to know this. Nor should anyone else. There is considerable evidence that god-belief has salutary placebo effects, and it could be that these benefits more than compensate for the harms religions cause. It is likely, too, that propensity for religious belief helped strengthen coalitions of our ancestors, aiding their survival. If, by waving a magic wand, we could banish supernatural delusions, would we better off? We don’t really know. Not yet.  Those who say otherwise are as guilty of going beyond the evidence as those who claim to know that, on balance, religion is a force for good.

At any rate, it would be a tactical blunder to frame humanism as the bald assertion that we’re better without God. Regardless of its intellectual merits, the phrase projects an attitude that would seriously inhibit its uptake. It would open us to charges of arrogance, insensitivity, stridency and dogmatism (not all of them fair, of course), and make our case comparatively easy to dismiss. Why should we continue shooting ourselves in the foot? Expressing our hypothesis as a question makes it harder to ignore.

What we really need is clear, careful inquiry. Does belief in God make people happier? Does it make them better people? Does theism orient us properly in the world, providing a reliable moral compass? Is it the best available way to afford people comfort, assurance, strength and guidance? Is it the best way to provide a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging? Or can we do better?  Might humanist principles be the alternative we need? Let’s find out.