L’Humanisme: Thoughts From A Humanist in France

Frustration is the lot of the humanist in America. If you’re reading this, I hardly need convince you of that. I thought, therefore, that I would bring you a bit of cheer from beyond the ocean.

First, keep in mind that although I am American and grew up in the United States, I have lived in France and travelled extensively around the world for over 25 years.  During that time, I’ve seen the United States slip steadily into a culture that increasingly denigrates rationality and anything vaguely scientific in favor of superstition and emotion.  This is most decidedly not the case outside of the States, particularly in Europe, and this shift in American attitudes has served to hammer ever deeper the wedge that exists between American and European cultures.

As an American, this saddens me. As a Frenchman, this worries me. As a humanist, I thought I’d offer some cheer to those of you who don’t have as much of an opportunity to put things in an international context. So here are three cheery bits to consider.

Cheery Bit #1:  God may have created the world in seven days, but dieu had nothing to do with it.

Creationism? Come on. I suppose there are seven or eight people in France living in some hole somewhere who actually believe in the biblical creation account. There might be more, but they’d be hard pressed to admit it. A normal French person (as in someone who is not institutionalized) would no more admit to believing in creationism than he would admit to believing in Santa Claus. This is much the case in the rest of Europe, for that matter.

I have seen polls and things published in various places that indicate some level of doubt about evolution in Europe, but based on my totally unscientific and statistically invalid personal experience, any doubts about evolution refer more to its mechanics and spring from a general incomprehension of statistics and probability theory. Most people don’t really understand either, when it comes down to it (I’m a college professor, and believe me when I say that most people don’t really understand probability). However, whereas this background noise of  ignorance drives people to posit some divine response in the United States, it does no such thing among educated Europeans, who tend to assume that some other, unidentified mechanism may be in place (don’t forget that Lamarck was French).

Cheery Bit #2: Human beings have rights just because they’re human beings.

I recently became a French citizen after about a year of administrative hoop-jumping. The ceremony consisted of me being asked to go pick up some papers at the local police station (no pledges of allegiance or genuflecting to symbols). The papers consisted of the following:

  • A document proving that I was now a French citizen
  • A letter from the President, reminding me that I can now vote … ostensibly for him (don’t hold your breath, Nicolas)
  • The words to the French national anthem (my French friends all giggle when I tell them that)
  • A one-page document explaining the rights and duties of a French citizen
  • A copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written after the Second World War to establish a universally accepted basis for human rights, without recourse to religion. It begins with “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” They are not endowed with rights by a creator, they are simply born with them, because they are human beings.

The French like this document, and they are proud that the Déclaration des Droits de L’Homme et du Citoyen, one of the French republic’s founding texts, served as a basis for it. I’d point out that Eleanor Roosevelt was proud of it as well and campaigned strongly for its adoption by the United Nations. I don’t hear much about the document in the States, but in Europe, schoolchildren learn all about it and they give you a copy when you become a citizen.

I like that.

Cheery Bit #3: Moral Ambiguity

OK, this one is a bit more vague and undoubtedly more personal, but for me it is an important element of humanism. American culture has somehow embraced a viewpoint in which the world is painted in two clearly defined shades: black and white. There is good and there is evil—both are immediately recognizable albeit open to individual interpretation, although if you define them differently than do I you are probably evil.

In my book, this is antithetical to a humanist philosophy, largely because human beings are extraordinarily diverse and shaped by cultures with different underlying tenets. I do think some things are fundamentally good and others are fundamentally evil; however, I certainly don’t think that all things necessarily fall into these two categories, and even less, all people.

I am, of course, engaging in hyperbole to make a point: the contrast knob isn’t set quite so absolutely back home, but once you’ve lived on the Continent you realize that it’s been turned up to a level that’s high enough to hurt your eyes after a while.

It makes a certain degree of historical sense. Just about every country on continental Europe has to deal with a pretty weighty 20th century history. The great underlying question in France, for example, is “What would I have done during the occupation?” It’s a hell of a question.  While just about everyone likes to think that he or she would have been a valiant resistance fighter, the truth of the matter is that there were far more who collaborated in one way or another than there were those who resisted. As such, if everything is black and white, then a fair chunk of Europe’s modern history is resolutely black. In these circumstances, gray is a hell of a lot easier to live with. It is no coincidence that France gave rise to the existentialist movement: you are what you do..

But enough of philosophy–what does this mean concretely? For one thing, it means that French films have a lot less closure—the good guy doesn’t blow off the bad guy’s head at the end because the good guy isn’t entirely good and the bad guy isn’t entirely bad. This can actually be a bit annoying from a purely cinematographic perspective, because films just end, often in what I would consider to be the middle, but it does mean that you have to understand someone before drawing any conclusions. You can’t just tell by the color of their hat. As the author Louis-Ferdinand Céline said, “It would be so much easier if there were some way to tell the good from the bad.”

So there you have it: no creationist hogwash, underlying human rights that didn’t have to be endowed by a creator, and recognition that moral issues should be considered carefully, even when the consideration is introspective. I don’t mean to imply that there is some paradise for humanists hidden away in Paris. There is no paradise, neither celestial nor earthly. For after all, paradise can only consist of other people and as Sartre pointed out, hell too consists of others.  However, neither Sartre nor Lennon had much to say about purgatory and if you want a break, think about a trip to Europe.

For my part, I plan on taking you on trips from time to time around the world to discuss places and sites and events that might be of interest to you. I look forward to it.