We’re almost a week away from the American Humanist Association’s 79th Annual Conference, “Distant but Together: A Virtual Celebration of Humanism” on August 8, 2020. The schedule is packed with humanist and atheist experts from across the country who will discuss values and principles that undergird our community.
The AHA is excited to host Rev. Dr. David Breeden and Jé R. Hooper for a joint presentation that will examine the European roots of what is traditionally considered humanism in the United States and explore how humanism can both embrace the universalist impulse of the European roots of the movement and move beyond those roots to embrace a multiplicity of other cultures.
Rev. Dr. David Breeden is senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. He has an MFA in poetry from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, and an MDiv from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Breeden serves on the board of the UU Humanist Association and is chair of the education committee of the American Humanist Association. He regularly blogs on humanism and freethought and has published poetry, novels, and theological writings.
I had the opportunity to speak with Breeden about his talk with Jé Hooper and what he hopes virtual conference attendees will take away from their presentation.
Meredith Thompson: How would you describe the European foundations of humanism?
David Breeden: I see the foundations of European humanism as: liberalism, rationality, capitalism, and individualism. How are these different from the European foundations of Christianity? Well, not much. And therein lies the problem and the challenge for Euro-American humanists.
“Cracked and collapsing” might be the most apt phrase to describe the European foundations of humanism today. And Euro-American structures of capitalist liberalism in general. Unfortunately, there’s no 800-number to call to get that cracked foundation looked at: Can it be fixed or does it need to be replaced entirely? The wreckage and death of the current pandemic have called out the pretenses of Western thinking. Those pretenses look anemic at the moment.
The focus on individual salvation that developed slowly in Europe under Roman Catholic hegemony eventually gave us the idea of individualism and individual liberty. That’s a potent and lovely and dangerous idea.
Thompson: What effect has colonialism had on humanism in the US?
Breeden: I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I don’t think there was an overarching European plot to create concepts such as terra nullius or whiteness in order to conquer the Western Hemisphere and enslave Africans. Rather, the aggressive nature of Christianity and the aggressive nature of the ur-capitalism that existed in fifteenth-century Europe created the conditions in which all cultures not European could be thought of by Europeans as exotic and “other.” Nonhuman. Not really “there” in a human sense. And therefore exploitable and expendable.
As a both colonized and a colonizing nation, people and institutions in the US in some ways suffer from both the colonial trauma of the oppressed and the PTSD of the oppressor. This isn’t to deny that many people—such as African Americans and Native Americans—haven’t suffered more historically than the children of oppressors. It’s merely to say that oppressors are coarsened and denatured by their social strictures and structures. The greatest victim of our history is the United States itself.
In order to liberate others and ourselves we must escape the partial explanations and narrow focuses of essentialism. Reason and rationality are methods, not virtues. All human beings everywhere and for all time have had them and used them.
US humanists must deny the lie that the Euro-American ways of thinking and being are superior to other ways of thinking and being. If we can do that, we can become adults at last. Or at least get a good start toward that.
Thompson: What are some things humanism inherited from its European foundations that you’d like to see improved? What would you like to see emphasized?
Breeden: First and foremost, I’d like to see Europe and many of her colonies learn humility. Christianity from its birth in the travels of Paul has been about universalization and hegemony, based on the assumption of superiority. The Euro-American attack on all cultures was, as stated in the Book of Common Prayer, aimed at the outcome that “all nations and races may serve you (god) in harmony around your heavenly throne.”
Universalizing everything from capitalism to liberalism flows from this myopic brutalism.
The most serious threat to humanism is and has always been the accusation that humanists rely too heavily on reason and rationality. This all, despite the clear fact that Euro-American humanists are much closer to the skepticism of David Hume than the optimism of Auguste Comte. Much closer to the cynical cosmopolitanism of Diogenes than the hegemonic totalitarianism of Paul.
As I see it, the true believers in QAnon conspiracy theories are looking for coherence in reality as much—if not more—than serious philosophers or cosmologists. We can in one way look to the Frankfort School and its offspring as the creators of the current swing toward anti-reason and anti-science. Yet then QAnon folks, like everyone else, are seeking ways to find a shared epistemological reality.
Reason and the scientific method have proven themselves to be sound methods for discovering realities we can agree upon across cultures. Reason and the scientific method assume contingency and error. As Karl Popper pointed out, to claim something is “proven” by the scientific method is to say that by definition that thing can be falsified or denied by continuing research. This implies humbleness. It’s a far cry from Paul’s “I have seen The Way and the only way is the way that I have seen.”
The signature and lasting contribution of the Western mind to all of humanity is the non-instrumentality of other living things. All sentient beings have inherent worth and dignity. That is a big and an ethical idea. May it flourish long after the cultures of the Western world have been forgotten!
Thompson: Can you describe ways in which humanism can move beyond the European roots to embrace other cultures?
Breeden: Back to that cracked and collapsing foundation I mentioned earlier. The unshakable foundations of humanism originate not in Western thinking but in the human psyche and the human imagination; not in any limited and contingent geographic space over-determined by biases, motivations, and desires, but in an unencumbered way of thinking, doing, and being that embraces both freedom in thought and responsibility in action.
When we focus on the humanism of a particular region, we create a myopic and muzzled humanism. When we limit ourselves to ideas almost exclusively from the Near Eastern monotheisms and the post-Socratic Greeks, we sink our own humanism—and consequently our humanity—deeper and deeper into the jingoistic mire that serves as the dominant political discourse of nationalists in both hemispheres.
No, there is no “view from nowhere,” but we can learn to tell ourselves that any view we take isn’t complete and is therefore open to conversation.
Just because the term “humanism” originates in European languages doesn’t mean that the humanist impulse arose solely there. Quite the contrary. One of the most humanist statements of all time is the [Roman] playwright Terence’s: “Nothing human is foreign to me.” Terence’s work is a treasure in the Western literary canon. But remember: he was African; he was “the other” that saves Euro Americans from themselves. This is how that humanist cosmopolitanism imagined by Diogenes can operate. Where did Diogenes get his ideas? He was clearly looking beyond the boundaries of Greek thought.
In cultural terms, respecting and learning without appropriating is the key. When we realize the intensely provincial nature of most human ideas, we have stepped into a path toward understanding that that partial understanding is all any of us can ever manage. That, in contrast to the incredible richness of human thought.
The question of any cultural assumption is “why?” We won’t find the truth in any thought until we’ve taken Occam’s razor to it. Occam’s razor shaves closest when we pull in as much cosmopolitan thinking as possible.
For example, when we stop mindlessly saying “god” and begin to qualify that by saying, “the gods of the Mesopotamian monotheisms,” we’ve taken to heart a profound reality. And we’ve begun to grow into adults.
Thompson: What do you hope virtual conference attendees will take away from your presentation?
Breeden: New eyes. Or at least newly opened eyes. Evidence suggests that humanisms appeared all over the world in antiquity. Most people interested in religions already know about Confucianism, Taoism, and Mohism. Certain sects of Hinduism, such as the Carvakas. But we are learning that the Aztecs practiced a version of virtue ethics, one more social and collective in nature than the Western versions.
Humanism is about liberation from provincialism.
One of the horrors of what we in the Western world have unleashed is our correlation of individuality with essence. For example, we have claimed there is a difference in essence between females and males. We have claimed that there is a difference in essence between Christian and atheist. We have claimed that there is a difference in essence between European and other. We have claimed that there is a difference in essence between black and white. And on and on.
Well, what is essence and what is other in this paradigm? I’d say, frankly, that there is no definable difference between essence and cultural indoctrination.
In the face of the incredible richness of human thought, we do well to walk humbly with our own ideas, asking “why?” with every step we take. One of my scholar-heroes when I was in grad school was Edward Said. He wrote this:
By humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake’s mind-forg’d manacles so as to be able to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding and genuine disclosure. Moreover, humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies and periods: strictly speaking, therefore, there is no such thing as an isolated humanist. (Orientalism)
No such thing as an isolated humanist. That’s our future . . . if we choose it.
Don’t miss Rev. Dr. David Breeden and Jé R. Hooper’s session at the AHA’s “Distant but Together” virtual conference on August 8, 2020. Registration is free! To secure your spot today, go to conference.americanhumanist.org, and look for more speaker profiles in the coming weeks.