Humanism and Its Discontents

Joyce Carol Oates was presented with the 2007 Humanist of the Year award at the 66th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association in Portland, Oregon, on June 8, 2007. The following article was adapted from her acceptance speech and the Q&A that followed.

Humanism–like “the humanities” and indeed all of the arts–has sometimes seemed, amid the turbulence of history, a frail vessel bearing us onward along a treacherous stream.

We must imagine our distant ancestors discovering death–baffled and terrified by death–and needing to ascribe to this natural phenomenon a supernatural explanation. As T.S. Eliot observed, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Especially, humankind can’t bear the crushing evidence of a reality that limits human delusions of immortality and omniscience. A primitive fear of the unknown and of death–a disbelief that “this can’t be all there is”–has prevailed, tempting us to believe in a deity that will guarantee not only our immortality but our worth and will likewise unite us with loved ones in the afterlife, as in the country and western classic “May the Circle Be Unbroken” (In the sky, Lord, in the sky).

And yet there still seems to be a powerful need in many (most?) people to believe in literal evil, good, God, heaven, and hell. Terms we might interpret as metaphorical have acquired an eerie Platonic realism.

Recently in San Francisco, when interviewed on Michael Kresnick’s popular radio call-in show, Book Forum, I inadvertently aroused the anger of a number of individuals who called in to protest my passing remark that I didn’t believe in evil–that I thought of evil as a theological term, not adequate to explain, nor even to suggest, psychological, social, and political complexities.

When we label someone as “evil,” we are implicitly identifying ourselves as “good.” The issue on the show was Islamic suicide bombers, who are surely motivated by political passions and so to call them merely evil is to fail to understand the phenomenon of terrorism. Though I said repeatedly that I wasn’t defending terrorism but rather was questioning the terms in which it was being discussed, it seemed to make no difference; my critics remained angry and unplacated.

As a novelist I tend to be sympathetic with persons who are religious, though I can’t share in their convictions. It has always been something of a mystery to me that intelligent, educated men and women–as well as the uneducated–can “have faith” in an invisible and nonexistent God.

Why, instead, is humanism not the preeminent belief of humankind? Why don’t humans place their faith in reason and in the strategies of skepticism and doubt, and refuse to concede to “traditional” customs, religious convictions, and superstitions?

One hundred years ago a gathering of secular freethinkers may have consisted of a majority of individuals who believed in the “perfectibility” of humankind. Following Charles Darwin’s revolutionary work, scientists and educators like the distinguished T. H. Huxley believed in both biological and social/moral evolution. The optimism of the turn of the twentieth century is expressed in H.G. Wells’ youthful Utopian work, though there is a check to that work in Wells’ brilliantly conceived and executed “scientific romances” (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The War of the Worlds). By 1920 a more cautious note is sounded in Wells’ monumental The Outline of History: “Human history becomes a race between education and catastrophe.” By 1945, in The Mind at the End of Its Tether, the former Utopianist was predicting the destruction of human civilization, in a tone comparable to that of Sigmund Freud’s late, melancholy essays in The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. In fifty years, in the wake of not one but two devastating world wars, the Holocaust, and the revelation of the Nazis’ genocidal agenda against Jews, the “perfectibility of mankind” would seem to have been turned inside-out.

And yet humankind, and humanism, prevails. And in succeeding generations I would like to predict that humanism–a secular, ethical analogue to traditional religions that lifts its gaze no higher than reason–will be the preeminent belief of humankind.

* * *

Question from the audience: I was first introduced to you by your 1969 novel, Them, and was blown away by the skill and the emotion and understanding that came across. Do you have a favorite among your works?

Joyce Carol Oates: That’s a difficult question to answer. It is an interesting question because we tend to invest so much of our emotion and spirit into the work that we are involved in at the present time. Given the deep immersion into successive projects, it always seems what was done most recently looms the largest. So my latest novel, which is called The Gravedigger’s Daughter, is very close to my heart. It’s a fictitious account based upon my own grandmother’s life. My grandmother had been the child of German Jews who came to this country in the 1890s, but they didn’t settle in a large city or in the Jewish neighborhood. They went to a rural area in upstate New York, north of Buffalo along a snow belt, a kind of horrific place to settle for anybody. They changed their names and sort of decided they wouldn’t be Jewish anymore and just erased their background.

And so as a girl, I had a wonderful grandmother, and she was the quintessential woman who lives for other people–very warm, very loving, and very generous. It never occurred to me when I was a girl that my grandmother had no background, no personal history. She never talked about very traumatic things in her childhood. This concept that people would come from another country having suffered so much and decide that they couldn’t deal with it any longer and therefore expunge their memories is what the novel is about. What is the price that we pay for that kind of expunging of memory, where you are living in the present and in the future in America where we tend to invent and reinvent ourselves? This is the great question in the book. I guess I feel very close to that.

Q: I noticed that nobody uses the “A-word”– atheist–for you. Perhaps it is a step beyond nontheist or humanist. Do you identify as an atheist?

Oates: That’s a good question. I have met Christopher Hitchens once or twice, and he has a book that I’m sure you’ve either read or are aware of titled God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He is very adversarial, very eloquent, and very funny in his interviews. And, of course, he is very much a self-declared atheist.

I’m not averse to acknowledging it, but as a novelist and a writer, I really don’t want to confront and be antagonistic toward people. As soon as you declare that you are an atheist, it’s like somebody declaring that he is the son of God; it arouses a lot antagonism. I’m wondering whether it might be better to avoid arousing this antagonism in order to find–not compromise–some common ground.

My good friend, Peter Singer, will declare that he is an atheist and there is a certain bluntness about him. He’s also an animal rights person who will stand up and say very matter-of-factly, “I don’t especially like animals.” So it’s a matter of personal style. Singer has also said there was a time when saying you were gay was confrontational. I think it depends upon the context and on what you want from your audience. My friend Norman Mailer has always felt that when you stand up before an audience, you have to arouse them, maybe to indignation or annoyance. And so he says things that accomplish just that. I’m simply not very confrontational.

Basically, I have characters who present different points of view. Some of them are extremely atheistic and irreverent, and mock religion, which seems very easy to do given the sort of cartoon or caricature aspect of people who have blind faith. Hitchens points out this comic aspect very well, and he is very funny about it. But if you do that, you demonize people and turn them into ridiculous objects. Again, I’m not sure that’s a really good idea, because though you can say religion poisons everything, the fact is that religion seems to be hardwired in our species.

As I suggested in my earlier statements, people are baffled and terrified by the idea of death. They don’t want to be extinct and they don’t want to think that their possible extinction renders their entire lives without worth. Therefore, they project their wishes to some metaphysical zone and create a deity who assures them (and people like them) they’ll live forever. As for the rest of us, we’re going to hell so we don’t really matter. But the deity seems a pure invention to us. I mean, for most of us it seems touching and poignant and childlike as an adventure. But to others it is an archetype lodged deeply into the unconscious. I think we all have this archetype in the unconscious, and to root it out and discuss it in a rational way is very healthy and very good. But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to wave a red flag and annoy other people because we do have to live with them, even the very antagonistic and messianic fundamentalist Christians in our country.

Q: I have a question with regard to your description of H.G. Wells’s evolution, from his early writings to his later work. I’m wondering if that reflects your notion that as one ages and moves on to more mature levels, one becomes more cynical about possibilities.

Oates: No, I think it was basically the time that Wells was living, not the fact that he got older. He lived through World War I and World War II, and then the evidence of the Holocaust was revealed. That is what I was indicating, that the end of the nineteenth century seemed to be a time when intelligent people could be very optimistic and actually believe in the perfectibility of humankind. Now it sounds like a bad joke. But, again, I didn’t mean that as people got older they got more cynical. It was just the period of time.

Well, thank you very much. And don’t get cynical.