Transcending Sects (But Not Sex!): Humanism as Anti-Tribalism


He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in.

–Edwin Markham

In prior installments of this series, I attempted a kind of overview of the philosophy of humanism.  The idea was to articulate humanism’s core principles and present them in a useful way. We can call five of these the principles of dignity, well-being, understanding, inquiry, and openness. To recap:

  • Dignity: We recognize the dignity and rights of every human being.
  • Well-being: We work towards a world that affords well-being for all.
  • Understanding: We see ignorance as a major obstacle to long-term well-being and seek to replace it with understanding.
  • Inquiry: We celebrate the search for understanding—inquiry—and abhor efforts to curtail it.
  • Openness: We seek to overcome the fears, dogmas, and tribal loyalties that frustrate the quests for understanding and moral progress.

I added a sixth principle, one expressing an understanding of what moral codes are for. They function, it says, to protect our most basic interests, promote mutual cooperation, and advance collective well-being. By making these functions explicit, we invite reflection on how we can adjust our moral codes to better serve these ends. We might call this last idea the principle of moral function.

I argued that this six-principle formulation has some nice features, among them that its elements link up to form a felicitous argument: each principle is individually hard to deny, yet taken together, they add up to a compelling case for abandoning the divisive superstitions of humanity’s tribal past.

I declined, however, to present these principles as definitive of humanism, arguing that we don’t need another “ism” that divides people into warring camps. By interpreting them as indicators of, rather than conditions on, humanist identity, we can include in the project all who wish to advance worthy ends, whether or not they find themselves ready to forsake more sectarian loyalties. Yes, human beings have a deplorable tendency to factionalism, but we can’t overcome it by forming a tribe of anti-factionalists, riding into battle against religious sects. To coin a phrase, we humanists are committed to transcending sects (no, not sex, but sects). The dissolution of inquiry-corrosive tribalisms requires (among other things) an attitude of inclusion, respectful engagement, patience, and humility.  In many ways, it is this attitude, more than the principles, that defines humanism.

We will examine this attitude more closely in coming installments of Brainstormin.’ But first we must ask: Does embracing an inclusive humanism mean forsaking confrontation? Must we tiptoe about and moderate our convictions to avoid offending believers? Not at all. Our commitments to inquiry and constructive engagement encompass a wide range of behaviors that can challenge and provoke. Indeed, our principles often require us to make others uncomfortable. Greta Christina’s category of “fierce humanism” is far from being oxymoronic—true humanism is fierce when it needs to be. If humanism is centered on what Greg Epstein’s humanist chaplaincy calls “An Ethic of Love,” we must not forget that certain situations require tough love. Namby-pamby, feel-good kinds of love have their place, but so too do assertiveness and conviction. Again, we will explore this tension more fully at a later date.

As I see it, the six principles listed above provide a reasonably comprehensive summary of what humanists stand for. If you compare the moral content of these principles with those of, say, the Ten Commandments, humanism’s comparative maturity stands out clearly. If you really want to understand humanism, though, it is also important—perhaps more important—to understand how humanists embrace these principles. For a humanist’s relationship with her core principles is quite unlike a believer’s relationship with the core tenets of his faith.

And herein lies a critically important fact about humanism. Long ago, humanist thinkers discovered a truly revolutionary truth about the proper role of core convictions in a well-lived life. The discovery solves an ancient problem, and will someday help humanity outgrow its childish fascination with destructive ideologies. This makes humanists the bearers of a great gift to future generations—an insight we would do well to make explicit, and actively impart. Articulating this truth goes a long way towards explaining what humanism is, and why it is the philosophy of the future.

Tune in to the next issue of Brainstormin’ to learn more about what might, in the end, prove to be humanism’s signature contribution to posterity.

Andy Norman teaches philosophy at Carnegie Melon University and received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in Free Inquiry, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, and dozens of journals. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife of 20 years, two fascinating kids, and a dog that couldn’t care less about Frisbees.