“I’m a What?” Eliciting Latent Humanism

I was invited recently to address a group of college students who were curious about humanism.  They had been sampling different “faith options” over the course of a semester, hearing from a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist monk, and a Mormon minister. Could I present the humanist point of view, the organizer asked, then answer questions about it, all in a non-proselytizing way? “Sounds like fun,” I said, “Count me in.”

Preparing for the session, I surveyed some classic attempts to define the humanist outlook. I came up with a list of the important figures in humanist history, another of the essential humanist texts, and a third of the standpoint’s core principles. I then faced a problem that often flummoxes humanists: how do we present what we’re about in a way that is both illuminating and compelling? Is there a way to do this that speaks directly to young people searching for a philosophical-spiritual home? The exercise proved challenging, but also, I think, fruitful.

I wanted, of course, to win over my audience. (Who doesn’t?) I wanted to show that the case for humanism is rock solid—that humanism is the most sensible and rational “faith option” available. But every time I laid out the case—we philosophers reach reflexively for arguments—it felt wrong. It took me a while to realize that, for this occasion, arguing was probably counterproductive.  These kids weren’t asking to be persuaded.  And humanism—which is in some ways the better part of common sense—does not need special pleading. I then had a curious thought: what if, deep down, they’re already humanists? I didn’t know that this was true, of course—I still don’t—but I decided to proceed as if they were. Could I help them understand their own latent humanism?

Suddenly I was reminded of a comedy routine by “country comic” Jeff Foxworthy.  “If you think that loading the dishwasher means getting your wife drunk,” Foxworthy would deadpan, “You just might be a redneck.” “Do you own a house that is mobile and five cars that aren’t?” he’d ask his audience, “If so, you’re probably a redneck.” Foxworthy played shamelessly on the hillbilly stereotype, and his rural fan-base loved it.

I can’t match Foxworthy’s comedy, but I can use similar prompts to convey what humanism is about. So I formulated some indicators of humanist identity, and sequenced them to produce a certain effect. I call the result “the humanism test.” For what it’s worth:

The Humanism Test

If you believe that … you just might be a humanist!

  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 for a rich, rewarding life full of joy and creative fulfillment, and as free as possible from pain and suffering.
  3. We stand a better chance of progressing toward this goal if we 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, superstition, 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.

Presenting these indicators of humanism to a mixed-faith audience proved interesting. I had Catholics, Jews and atheists come up afterwards and tell me they hadn’t realized they were humanists. “Can I believe in God and still be a humanist?” one young woman wanted to know. “Sure,” I replied. “Many humanists find that, over time, their need for a God fades away. They end up feeling that their humanism has freed them to outgrow God. But other humanists remain believers, and that’s OK.”

Most of the indicators proved congenial for all. The room that day was filled with believers—Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, self-styled “Christian Buddhists,” etc—yet humanist tenets (1) through (5) formed the basis of a robust consensus. This is a sign, I think, that humanist ideals have gained real currency—enough, in fact, to make them very difficult to deny. (In his new book, Steven Pinker shows that the “humanitarian revolution” of the 17th and 18th centuries did a great deal to spread these ideas, reduce violence, and otherwise humanize our species.)

Indicator (6), however, did prove controversial. The students with religious backgrounds could see that it presented a challenge to their religious faith, and this caused some consternation. To their credit, they asked me to clarify what I meant by “blind faith,” “wishful thinking,” and “tribal loyalties.” I clarified as follows: blind faith is tenacious belief in the absence or (or in the face of) the evidence. Wishful thinking is believing something because you want it to be true, or merely because you think it is beneficial to so believe (as opposed to having real evidence that it is true). Tribal loyalty involves placing the interests of an “in group” ahead of those in some “out group”—a willingness to identify with one faction, even at the expense of others.

The ensuing discussion was striking. These were smart, well-educated college kids who had internalized many humanist ideals. They had a high regard for inquiry and open-mindedness, yet they had little awareness of how things like faith, wishful thinking and tribal loyalty close minds. They simply hadn’t been asked to reflect on the fact. To be sure, they were (vaguely) aware that, in the minds of others, these things tend to create obstacles to mutual understanding; it just hadn’t occurred to them that comparable attachments in their own thinking probably have the same affect. Simple questions sufficed to elicit the relevant insight: Do you like it when someone else’s dogma, faith, wishful thinking, ideology and/or tribal loyalty blocks the path to mutual understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation? (No.) Would you prefer that others avoid such attachments? (Yes.) Shouldn’t we observe the same restrictions that we would have others observe? (Yes.) Doesn’t tenet (6) follow directly from these answers? They got the point.

I came away from the experience convinced that educating young people about the obstacles to fruitful inquiry goes a long way towards advancing the humanist cause. Making fun of religious nonsense may score us debating points, but the real lever-point is helping people understand how inquiry works. People empowered to see for themselves how nonsense—both religious and secular—inhibits moral progress are in a better position to help us realize our shared humanitarian ideals.

I think this way of framing our philosophy has some nifty qualities. For one, I think it captures most of our core convictions. Also, it’s relatively succinct. Third, the tenets are carefully framed to invite the approval of decent people who do not yet identify as humanists. Fourth, the framing is inclusive of both secular and religious humanists.  Fifth, the tenets are sequenced in a way that displays the “logic” of our position. Finally, this formulation has real power to elicit latent humanism.

I invite readers to take the humanism test for a drive. What do you think? Does it express your core convictions? Are the tenets formulated properly? Is the set reasonably complete? What do your (humanist and nascent humanist) friends think? Is it a useful tool for humanist self-discovery? Can we use it—or some variation of it—to improve understanding of, and sympathy for, our cause? Is it something to try out on your evangelical brother-in-law over Thanksgiving dinner?

Finally, where is the humanist humorist who can give this test the comic flair that allowed Foxworthy’s shtick to go viral?  (Jon Stewart, where are you?)  Have at it, friends!