Getting Humanism Right-Side Up A Reality-Based “Mattering Map” and Alternative Humanist Manifesto

WHAT IS HUMANISM? Some say it’s a godless worldview, a philosophy free of supernaturalism. But humanism is both more and less than that. More, because it is about affirming what we do believe, not just denying what we don’t. Less, because it is probably unwise to deny the designation “humanist” to those who share our core values but are unable, so far, to free themselves of god-belief. Guarding the gates to a grudging tribalism is no way to spread humanism; far better to welcome humanistic theists into our ranks, engage them in friendly dialogue, and allow honest inquiry to work its magic. They will overcome their religious attachments—or not—in their own time. Meanwhile, the community of people dedicated to honest inquiry will grow.

I am an atheist, but I choose to self-identify as humanist. Why would I define myself reactively, that is, in opposition to another’s viewpoint, when I can instead choose a proactive identity? Making atheism prerequisite for humanism just makes us appear exclusionary, reactive, and oppositional. It also feeds the myth, propagated by our cultural opponents, that nonbelief is a presupposition of our worldview—an initial doctrinal requirement rather than a contingent outcome of fair-minded inquiry. So let us be clear and also brand-savvy: our atheism, where it exists, is secondary; it grows out of prior—and deeper—convictions.

When we attempt to articulate our deeper convictions, though, a funny thing happens: they proliferate without end. We believe in human rights; we trust reason, science, and freedom of inquiry; we affirm the importance of justice, compassion, and tolerance; we actively promote education, creative expression, and democratic self-actualization. And so on. We gather these fine sentiments, and in an attempt to define what we’re about, bundle them into “manifestos.” These compilations—long lists of lofty principles and noble affirmations—are worthwhile. No doubt they add something important to our culture. But let’s be candid: these manifestos are also unwieldy, incomplete, and, to many a modern ear, banal. Each is a stew of concepts with positive associations, a grab bag of humanistic sentiments. Worse, these manifestos fail to differentiate our lifestance from other worldviews that claim these values. (After all, what outlook doesn’t claim truth and compassion as its own?) Those who seek an incisive understanding of humanism, then, may be forgiven for wondering: What is it that ties these humanist affirmations together? Is there a central thread or underlying commitment? Does the philosophy have a foundation, a touchstone of some sort? What anchors humanism?

It’s a fair question. It merits an answer, one that doesn’t brand us as reactive or oppositional. My proposal is this: at bottom, humanism is a commitment to developing a shared and responsible understanding of what really matters, and living accordingly.

I’d like to show that this formulation is both apt and advantageous. First, though, let’s explore its meaning. The phrase “really matters” implies that, when it comes to mattering, it’s easy to be misled by appearances. In other words, we often care about things that don’t genuinely matter, and fail to care about things that, as it turns out, really do. We discover such misdirected sentiments all the time. For example, a father can come to realize that his obsessive pursuit of career advancement was a mistake—he should have spent more time with his children. A politician can examine the evidence for climate change and reverse her opposition to renewable energy subsidies. A minister can grapple honestly with the problem of evil and lose his faith. The point is that critical reflection can, and often does, compel rational people to revise their affections; no one but a radical skeptic doubts that this happens, or denies that inquiry can straighten out our priorities.

A humanist, then, is someone who understands that it’s easy to be mistaken about what matters. We “get” that even our most cherished convictions can be wrong, and seek understanding with minds as resolutely open as we can manage. We strive to get behind the appearances, and then, in light of what we learn, to update our mental “maps” of what matters. Of course, this makes our worldview a shifting target: an ever evolving work-in-progress.


CLEARLY each of us harbors some understanding of what matters. Such understanding is invariably partial (in both senses: incomplete and biased). Imagine this understanding represented in a 3-D “topo” map, where the things that seem to matter a great deal occupy peaks and the things that seem to matter less occupy valleys. Such maps orient us in the world. We consult them, usually by attending to our practical/moral intuitions, and they provide immediate, valenced feedback: the kind of rapid assessment needed for real-time navigation. Of course, information about what matters to us is actually encoded across multiple platforms: our moral and practical intuitions, but also our genes and our brains, our dispositions and our sentiments, our habits and rituals, buildings and artifacts, stories and curricula, sacred texts and to-do lists. The distributed nature of the encoding, though, need not concern us here; because we act as if oriented by mattering maps, the metaphor is worth taking seriously. A mattering map, then, is just a virtual representation of what matters. (The concept originated with the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein; it has since become a useful tool for psychologists and behavioral economists.)

As a rule, humanists recognize that we have an obligation to continually refine and update our mattering maps. For this is the essence of moral growth. We understand that accurate mattering maps make more reliable guides to living well, and we take seriously the responsibilities of what we might call moral cartography. After all, what else besides an apt mattering map can guide us to a life that, on reflection, genuinely matters? Note though that the accuracy of a mattering map is not the only thing about it that counts: it matters also that it be shared and is relatively stable. Shared mattering maps have great power to resolve moral, political, and/or theological differences. They can orient us collectively and help us act in concert. Stable mattering maps offer the promise of sustainable meaning—a sense of purpose that is not “here today, gone tomorrow.” Few things are harder to face than the possibility that one has devoted a significant portion of one’s life to something that doesn’t really matter. Far easier to delude oneself, and cling tenaciously to the delusion.

Religious ideologies are best understood as crude, fanciful mattering maps—well intentioned but clumsy attempts to afford a stable sense of meaning and shared sense of purpose. People need to feel that they matter, and religions cater to this need. They do this by providing fellowship, belonging, and community—arguably elements of real mattering—but also by assuring their followers that they matter to God. (The central message of Rick Warren’s mega-successful book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is “You matter to God.”) Monotheisms have long peddled ideas that function in similar ways: God cares; we are God’s chosen people; you were made in God’s image; God sacrificed his only begotten son for you; you too can become an instrument of divine providence; you can matter by saving souls; and so forth.

The concept of mattering maps sheds a penetrating light on some of the most striking features of monotheistic religions. Consider the fact that religions induce modern, educated human beings to pretend to know things they can’t possibly know—that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead, that God created the universe in six days, that he rewards believers with everlasting life, and so on. How does Christianity get otherwise sophisticated and intellectually responsible people to engage in such pretense? Surely it is because the pretenses afford a shared sense of mattering—and with it, presumably, relief from existential anxiety.

But this only works for those capable of suspending disbelief. Thus, pretense-based mattering maps must take unusual steps to protect themselves against reality-based degradation. Religions, of course, are not the only ideologies with defense mechanisms—in fact, all ideologies have them—but religious ideation offers a stunning case in point. Consider the astonishing range of map-stabilization strategies that religions employ: they brainwash the young (“Raise children in the faith”); celebrate irrational obstinacy (“Faith is a virtue”); seduce believers with promises of salvation (“Live forever!”); and threaten doubters with eternal torment (a psychologically abusive and sometimes traumatizing form of mind-control). They discourage believers from engaging nonbelievers (“Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “Don’t listen to atheist devilry”); employ evasion and distraction (“God works in mysterious ways”); and even enjoin violence and intimidation (“Kill infidels!”, “Stone apostates!”). The felt need to protect religious mattering maps has spawned oppressive theocracies, bloody jihads, sadistic inquisitions, witch burnings, suicide bombings, fatwas, pogroms, and genocides. History teaches that people will do almost anything to protect their sense of mattering—especially if it is based on a fragile ideology. Consequently, ideologies develop playbooks full of scurrilous defense mechanisms.

On the interpretation I am offering, humanists have, for millennia, been quietly assembling and promoting a responsible, evidence-based mattering map—an alternative outlook that can serve all of us in our struggle to live meaningful lives. Humanism, in other words, proposes to provide a mattering map capable of aligning our intentions, not just with those of our fellow humans, but also with the facts. Humanity needs a shared and reality-based mattering map, otherwise our life projects will forever be at cross-purposes—with each other, with reality, or both. Trying to live a good life guided by a pretense-based mattering map is like trying to navigate New York City with a map of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

To fully realize its promise, though, humanism must afford not just a guide to mattering, but the mattering itself. The humanist worldview is a great start, but our projects and communities must also afford real purpose. What makes humanism unique, of course, is that it proposes to do this without the delusions, moral disorientation, or skewed priorities that so frequently attend pretense-based mattering maps.

The accompanying “Big Picture Mattering Map” is my attempt to capture, in brief, what centuries of patient inquiry have taught us about genuine mattering. Each element represents a hard-won truth, one that sheds important light on what does and doesn’t matter. Like guardrails on the road to a life of real mattering, each principle blocks one or more seductive, pretense-based detours. (See if you can identify the most seductive detour blocked by each element: it’s both fun and instructive!)

Click to view larger image. Click to view larger image.

At its best, humanism inoculates us against ideology, conferring a kind of immunity to the most seductive strains of pretend mattering. I am suggesting that it can also provide a relatively clear view of the mattering landscape—one that can actually orient us morally. It can help us live lives that truly matter.

I invite you to dwell at length on the map. Notice that the concept of mattering is like a thread that ties together humanism’s disparate elements. Consider the possibility that honest mattering is in fact our core commitment. See if this way of viewing things lends clarity and coherence to your outlook. And consider the value of being able to foreground what we’re for: being against religion is curmudgeonly, but being for honest mattering is noble and inspiring. Isn’t it time we supplemented our longstanding “No!” with a resounding “Yes!”? Let’s turn humanism right-side up.

The reframing should empower us to come out of our respective closets: to own our humanism with pride and purpose. It also repositions us culturally: Why languish in the niche market for rational philosophies (where no one is buying anyhow), when we can compete in the bustling mattering market (where demand is robust)? The recasting should open hearts and minds to our message, and make humanism a contender for real mindshare. Best of all, if we successfully reframe the culture war as a choice between honest and dishonest mattering, we can’t help but win in the end.

Take pride in your humanism. Share it with confidence. We stand for nothing less than a world in which pretend mattering has been rendered obsolete, not just by evidence and logic, but by forms of life that afford well-being, creative fulfillment, and honest-to-goodness mattering for all.

  • Hank Rodgers

    Number 5, the “I matter more”, is NOT an illusion but an essential part of all Nature. We first need to know the answer to “for whom” or “to whom” to answer the questions of “mattering”. Once we put the old religions and superstitions aside, along with similar, unsupported, “new age” substitute philosophies (which too often mimic religions), we know who matters most.

    • I don’t dispute that we tend to *feel* that our interests matter more than the like interests of others. That much is surely innate, and a product of natural selection. But subjectively *feeling* that one matters more is not the same as really, objectively mattering more. “Matters to me” and “matters as such” are not identical concepts, and once one has come to grips with that distinction, the two cannot be conflated. At issue here is the latter. Are there any *objective* grounds for thinking that I matter more than you do? I don’t believe so, and to say otherwise, it seems to me, is deeply unhumanistic….

      • wolffg

        Where does Nietzsche say, “helping sentient creatures matters”?

        • Fair criticism, to be sure. It was probably misleading to attribute the idea, expressed this way, to Nietzsche. My thought was this: Nietzsche felt that there was a confident, assertive, life-affirming stance on the other side of nihilistic despair. My formulation of #9 is meant to express a similar conviction, only in a more measured, semi-scientific way.

          • frank

            What about money? Does money fit in anywhere on this mattering map? Seems I’ve seen it where money matters more than you do. Maybe #7?

      • cellsatwork

        “matters as such”, “objectively mattering more” have no real meaning – you can’t show that something matters objectively, without ultimately appealing to how we feel about it.

        • I think we can make real sense of objective mattering. While it is true that the minds of conscience creatures have a constitutive role to play in making things matter (see principle 8), it does not follow that there is no important difference between “really matters” and “only seems to matter.” We frequently discover that something that seemed to matter really doesn’t, or that things that didn’t seem to matter really do. For example, we can learn that a charitable contribution to famine relief was actually misappropriated, and that it never actually made the famine-relieving difference it was meant to make. These discoveries are not merely arbitrary shifts in preference: they represent real discoveries about what matters. Can anyone doubt that feeding the hungry really does matter more than indulging a Pokemon fettish?

          • cellsatwork

            We can certainly discover that our actions have unforeseen consequences, and change course accordingly. But that’s true even if we don’t believe values are objective. Arguments that values are objective always end up appealing to examples like the one you provide, that seem irrefutable. But just because values are widely shared doesn’t make them objective. After all, we all share an evolutionary history, so why wouldn’t we have similar values? And I can certainly imagine some psychopathic outliers who might well dispute your example.

            Now I can guess what your next move would be about the psychopath…but you end up going down a rabbit hole searching for some solid ground. And I think the difficulty arises because you’re searching for something that doesn’t exist. Occam’s razor. I think belief on objective value is the last vestige of mysticism – the last thing that remains one God and magic and all that have been dropped. Give it up and all the difficulties and contradictions of ethics (as theory) just disappear too.

            And you know, it’s not so bad once you drop this last supersition… after all, most of us *do* roughly share similar values and, personally, I think they’re kinda beautiful.

          • Alan G. Jones

            Yes. Avoid dualisms as we do absolutes. Drop essentialist terminology.

        • MikeS

          Your claim is just totally false. Take an ethics class at a university to see numerous attempts throughout history that show it is possible to offer very plausible objective theories of value that contain no notions concerning how you, or I, feel about it. Just because there is no universal agreement on which one of these theories is correct does not mean there are no such theories, or that these theories have no meaning. Imagine if people had thought the same about descriptions of physical reality. “Hey, your theory is opposed to Aristotle’s; thus, there is no objective description of reality. Therefore, any such theories of reality have no meaning unless it subjectively means something to me.” When Norman uses “matters as such,” he is referencing objective values. His claim is that some values, especially the important ones, are objective and to think otherwise is not humanistic. I agree.

          • cellsatwork

            Those theories have meaning, of course, but statements about objective values have no meaning if you believe that all such theories of moral realism are false. And it’s pretty common (normal?) to be a moral subjectivist and a physical realist.

            Ethical theories always end up in contortions around seemingly hard examples that contradict either the theory or our intuition. And I think that’s simply because our values are no more than evolved, contingent phenomena. It’s a bit funny to be a thoroughgoing naturalist for every aspect of reality, and yet somehow to suppose that our values derive from another realm of timeless moral truth.

          • Thanks for your input MikeS. For years, I’ve been teaching the kinds of ethics classes you talk about here, and you’re quite right that there are many plausible ethical theories whereon values turn out to be more than merely subjective–that is, more than mere matters of arbitrary likes and dislikes. It is objectively, measurably true, for example, that we end up better off when we restrain our selfish impulses; this is not just an opinion, it is a *fact* that is testified to by thousands of studies. There’s a dogma afoot that morality is rooted in subjective preferences, and it is bolstered by an untenable standard of objectivity. You’re also right that we employ a double standard: in the physical sciences, disagreement is understood not to refute claims to objectivity, but in ethics, disagreement is quite reflexively thought to nullify all claims to objectivity. Why should the fact that a psychopath disagrees with us about right and wrong count for any more than the fact that a pscyhopath disagrees with us about the existence of (say) angels? We dismiss the latter easily: why not dismiss the psychopath’s ethical opinions as well?

          • cellsatwork

            Physical theories can be tested against reality. How do you test a moral claim against reality? You can think through the consequences and implications, but all you’re really doing is thinking in deeper/broader way about your own preferences. You still end up referring to some fundamental preferences to justify your claim. You prefer people not to suffer, be more equal, live long lives, contribute to knowledge, whatever. Those are still subjective preferences which are often in conflict, and to which different people apply different weights.

            To consider the issue from another angle, it seems clear that we can explain the emergency of altruistic preferences quite readily using evolutionary theory. So the claim that these preferences also happen to correspond to objective moral truth would seem to require very strong justification since it seems to be extraneous to an understanding of the existence of morals. And we should be doubly suspicious of claims that makes us feel good – that our preferences are not arbitrary and we are not simply imposing our will on others when we uphold them.

            Anyway, I don’t suppose I will convince you 🙂 And I don’t think that your project is dependent on moral realism – in practice people have similar enough moral preferences to make the effort to think them though worthwhile.

          • Yes, testing moral claims does involve thinking about personal preferences, but not *just* about personal preferences. For one thing, the preferences of others matter too. For another, it is not enough to think about preferences. Morality is about doing things that promote flourishing, and there is much more to flourishing than the satisfaction of preferences. There is another sense in which the emphasis on preferences is misleading in a way that dupes us into thinking morality is fundamentally subjective: for there are actual facts of the matter about works to promote flourishing: some behaviors really do work well, and some behaviors really don’t, to promote flourishing. These are testable causal relationships, and in principle subject to scientific investigation and understanding.

    • wolffg

      I agree. “Mattering” is not an otherworldly Platonic Idea but a process that happens in individual sentient creatures in particular environments at particular times. Try as our intellects might, human beings cannot rise “above” the rest of nature, as religions always promised.

  • Guest

    I don’t dispute that we tend to *feel* that our interests matter more than the like interests of others. That much is surely innate, and a product of natural selection. But subjectively *feeling* that one matters more is not the same as really, objectively mattering more. “Matters to me” and “matters as such” are not identical concepts, and once one has come to grips with that distinction, the two cannot be conflated. At issue here is the latter. Are there any *objective* grounds for thinking that I matter more than you do? I don’t believe so, and to say otherwise, it seems to me, is deeply unhumanistic….

  • Bob

    I consider myself an agnostic and a selective atheist when it comes to super naturalism, tribalism, mysticism and new age drivel. Still, I am reminded of T.H. Huxley’s famous quote: “The known is finite, the unknown infinite. Intellectually, we stand on an islet in a vast ocean of inexplicability, It is the business of each generation to reclaim a little more land.” It is a big universe and a tiny (thus far) human knowledge base. (Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog for his brilliant defense of natural selection, is the coiner of the term “agnostic.”

    • Hank Rodgers

      Well said!

  • Hank Rodgers

    Guest: Still, true “objectivity” (i.e. from some point of view with no special or personal interest) would require some entity capable of that. “God” has been considered so capable, but we have rightly dispensed with “Him”.

    • I agree with the spirit of your remark Hank, but urge you to consider the merits of slightly revised language usage. Yes, there is an ideal of objectivity that requires, impossibly, a point of view freed of all interest. I think we can all agree that objectivity in this sense is unattainable. Indeed, not even the most well-established principles of science count as objective in this sense. But once we’ve gotten used to this, it makes sense to start talking instead about more subtle and realistic concepts of objectivity. For example, ideas that have been diligently cross-checked for unreasonable bias are surely *more* objective than arbitrary preferences. I think it is important that we acknowledge that relative objectivity matters…

  • Alan G Jones

    As how (the ways) we make and revise our maps matters most, critical thinking (modern science) and pragmatism are on my Mattering Map. Critical thinking skills (especially assumption testing) are used to sift for evidences, to form and evaluate understandings, and to revise understandings (what matters) as appropriate. The pragmatism of James’ and Dewey uses a critical (scientific) thinking style to avoid absolutes and to replace the language of either/or thinking with ways to look for what may work best under various and changing conditions. Metaphysically relativistic, it’s really an anti-philosophy that can help humans set aside arbitrary distinctions, religious and other ideologies used by authorities to control expressions of empathy within and among societies.

    • I think I understand and agree Alan. James and Dewey fashioned a pragmatist philosophy that was meant to combat ideological fixations of all kinds. Pragmatism is, in a very real sense, an anti-ideology. I view humanism as an extension of this pragmatist project, only we are now in a better position to clarify how it works, and why it’s so important.

      • Alan G. Jones

        Yes, very good. But how can we clarify, how can we explain humanism using the vocabulary of dualisms? Has anyone furthered Dewey’s and Bentley’s attempts to replace terminology that assumes the absurd metaphysics?

  • John Stewart

    I was just listening to some lectures about post-modernism, and it sounds as though there are a lot of scholars who blame humanists for putting their white, male, free market, Christian values ahead of everyone else’s. How would those critics relate to the humanist enterprise outlined here?

    • Nice question. I’ve shared these ideas with a few postmodernists academics, and at least one saw the long arm of Eurocentric, logocentric privilege at work in it. He couldn’t really explain how, though. I suspect that my conviction that we really can inquire together about what matters, and arrive at determinations that are more than merely subjective, struck him as insufficiently postmodern. I think a lot of postmodern philosophy is nonsense, so I identify more strongly with modernism. At any rate, I’ve worked hard to learn from postmodern philosophers, so I view my stance as post-postmodern. Not that I embrace that label…

  • Jim Clark

    Great article but I think it is still a debatable point whether Iron Age theocracies like Islam and Christianity are best countered by pleasant inclusion or more direct public criticism. Always think back to how effective public humiliation was in quickly degrading the KKK from a quite prominent main stream group (including major politicians and at least one President) to a backwater club for hill billys within a few months. Many people fear public humiliation as much as death itself so not surprising that they leave a group in droves if it can be painted as sub-normal. Pretend mattering will certainly not last because actual mattering is moving towards humanity regardless of what humanity does. Am talking about pending problems with climate change, over population, scarcity of natural resources, etc.

    • Good point Jim. I concede that public criticism and even ridicule have important roles to play in combating ideological lunacy of all kinds–religious and otherwise. I recommend combining a pleasant inclusiveness toward open-minded religious liberals, and a more stridently critical stance towards closed-minded theocrats. On your secondary point, it’s not clear to me that the eventual triumph of reality-based mattering is pre-ordained. Seems to me the outcome has yet to be decided…

  • frank

    Admittedly, it feels good to think that we (and all life forms) are “literally” kin, as suggested by #3. But is it correct in any meaningful sense? It seems fishy to call all DNA based life forms kin. Kin is normally used to classify one’s immediate family. Kith and kin expands on this to include friends. But to call all life forms kin seems to take this to the far side of anything useful and perhaps worse to suggest that we (and all life forms) share the same interests or common fate. For that matter, to be “life affirming” along these lines seems to occlude the importance of facing the need to compete for survival. In the sense I’m driving at, my life is more more important to me, than it is to you. And your life is more important to you than it is to me. That seems more like the natural order of things. Clearly we all share the common ground of wanting to survive and lead lifes that matter to someone, but to everyone, or every living thing? Might we use a more useful idea than kinship to form the classification of all living things?

    • Fascinating suggestion Frank. The concept of kinship with all life forms certainly does stretch the concept far beyond its usual application. Perhaps this stretches the concept too far, maybe even to the breaking point. But maybe not: neither Darwin nor Sagan was completely free of self-interest, but each developed an outlook that embodied a kind of reverence for *all* life. Surely this is an ideal worth aspiring too, even if we can be forgiven for feeling that our individual lives are more important than the lives of, say, ferns. (Or mosquitos.)

  • resipisence

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of exerting more brand control. Which Christians and Muslims will not identify as humanists? Only the extremists, the fundamentalists and the crazies.

  • Andy

    As I posted elsewhere, we can claim any religion we want, or none, as it suits each of us, but we should all be humanists.