HUMANISM 101 | We Will Get Through This

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

There is a tear in the fabric of society and our cultural capital is spilling out. We all see it. The effects of global warming are only in the beginning stages. We live at a historical turning point and the future is quite unknown. But if history is any guide, we will get through this. Have courage.

The theocrats have enjoyed control of much of the US government. Still, the world is becoming more secular, but what does that secular culture look like? Sociologist Max Weber was worried about a “disenchantment of the world” with the loss of religion. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s cry, “God is Dead,” is actually a worried cry for what will replace God and prevent a descent into nihilism. Sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the word “anomie” to describe the loss of grounding, psychological despair and a lack of purpose during cultural upheavals.

This is why we need humanism. A humanist outlook is a solid antidote to the recent cultural upheaval, the nihilism, the anomie, and the disenchantment.

Humanism is not mere atheism, which describes what one doesn’t believe. It isn’t merely being a do-gooder. A hundred years ago a group of people saw the need for something to replace religion’s power to bind us together (the Latin term religio is thought to be derived from a word that means connect or bind), something to give us power, meaning, and joy in our lives, some kind of whole worldview that can bring clarity to the best we know. Something, as the Islamic scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith says, that we can ultimately rely on. They called that evolving, whole worldview humanism.

We need that integrated, whole view of life more than ever. It provides a vital center to our lives that both grounds us and inspires us. It provides an evocative whole story from which everything else emanates.

We want to get beyond our own anomie to devote our lives to profound ideals. As the philosopher John Dewey wrote, “We are looking for those ideals and ends so inclusive that they unify the self.”

Yet describing the evolving lifestance of humanism as a marketing “brand” is difficult. Brands are supposed to be focused and easy to understand, but we talk of a collection of foundational values that guide us toward human and global welfare.

Sure, we have our social agendas we can brag about, but every one of them is grounded in our worldview. There is no concern for nature until we see ourselves as part of nature. There is no economic justice until we choose to regard every person as possessing inherent worth and dignity. As my mentor Bill Jones said of his black humanist activism, “There is no oppression ethics without universal ethics.”

Ironically, modern humanism came about when philosophy was abandoning absolute foundations—yet it provides pragmatic foundations, seeing all we know as tentative, fallible, and probabilistic. That’s a tough sell when people want simple, certain answers. But it’s the right answer.

I found the Humanist Manifestoes when I was young and asked, “Who the hell are these people? This is everything I believe but said more eloquently and on one page.” I saw humanism balancing heart and mind, reason and compassion. We may not need religion but I think the world needs humanism.

The recent presidential election has shown that deception, authoritarianism, bigotry, and fear work to get votes—all the things that humanism has struggled to overcome. Humanism is the foundation, the bedrock on which we stand, a means to, as Dewey said, “unify the self.” I think its values also unify the good society—humanism is the fruit of the best that civilization offers.

Today our humanism and the American Humanist Association are challenged by the retreat from institutions, the retreat from science, the dumbing down of society, and the COVID-19 crisis. Yet many specialized activist organizations were first championed by humanists. We’ve been seen as the “seed” for the ACLU, the NAACP, and the National Center for Science Education. Our ideas have influenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the environmental movement. We have contributed to the advance of sexual freedoms, reproductive rights, death with dignity, and much more. But today almost all nonprofits are in pullback mode. Our voices are in jeopardy.

Now is the time to step up and support the lifestance of humanism. It’s the time to support the organizations that tell our story. The world needs humanism now more than ever—and humanism needs you.