Remaking Ourselves

HUMANISM HAS FAILED. This election has shown how our values were repudiated by many Americans in national, state, and local elections. There is still much to be learned, but for us it’s clear that a great many Americans do not embrace the core values from which everything else in humanism emerges.

I teach a class on epistemology (what we know and how we know it) and recently asked those attending if it was even pertinent anymore since Webster’s Dictionary says that  “post-truth” is the new word of the year. Is “truthiness” the new norm replacing critical reasoning?

Humanists have seen rough times before and survived. The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago was targeted and spied on by Mayor Richard Daley’s “Red Squad,” and the humanist group won a court judgement on the government’s actions.

Corliss Lamont, author of the classic The Philosophy of Humanism and a past president of the American Humanist Association, refused to answer Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953. He denied ever having been a Communist, but refused to discuss his beliefs or those of others, citing not the Fifth Amendment as so many others did, but the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. He sued the government for opening and not delivering his mail under the anti-propaganda mail law of 1962, and he won by a unanimous Supreme Court decision (Lamont v. Postmaster General) that the law was unconstitutional (the first statute the Supreme Court found unconstitutional due to the First amendment).

AHA founder Edwin Wilson told me the story of how during the McCarthy era two young men in black suits with crew cuts came to the AHA office saying they were “interested learning about humanism.” He said they might as well have had “FBI” painted across their chests. Having nothing to hide, Wilson let them go through everything. They never identified themselves, of course, but one of the young men told him with a wink, “I came here to bust you, and now I’m one of you.” We have known authoritarianism, survived, and we will this time as well.

We seculars have been successful in growing our numbers, but have failed by talking only to ourselves and not reaching a larger audience. It’s a lot easier to capture the low-hanging fruit in our own liberal backyard than trying to reach everyone.

There are hard times coming for humanism and many challenges for us with limited resources. There will be losses and maybe all we can accomplish is what’s known in addiction work as “harm reduction.” I think one of the biggest things to do is to think of how we can reach the broader populace of the United States and have them gain an appreciation of our high values.

How do we reinvigorate values of tolerance, critical reasoning, truth, education, justice, freedom, science, and compassion to a large number who reject these values? It’s easy talking to liberals about racism, sexism, environmental concerns, healthcare, and so on. But how do we reach the larger populace that is driven by fear and prejudice, and without skipping over our secularism? How can we market our noblest ideals? Fear is the most visceral and powerful motivator and is presently leading our culture, while humanism asks us to get beyond our fears and embrace values of universal concern toward the greater good.

Arguing why the Bible and God are manmade myths is easy work. It’s harder to figure out how to get the woman down the street from me—who posted a confederate flag on Facebook after she says she learned it wasn’t about slavery at all, but about Christian freedom—to embrace our universal higher values?

I think the challenge of shaping our culture toward humanist values is as difficult as the problem of consciousness and the origin of the universe. How can we be transformative to the greater culture? It’s the question we all should be asking ourselves in these challenging days.