The Humanevangelist: Humanists against Human Nature

What a summer. The worst of human nature is bustin’ out all over.

Just when you thought the Middle East couldn’t get any worse, ISIS set up a blood-soaked caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Hamas provoked yet another pointless war with Israel, Russian-backed goons in Eastern Ukraine shot down a passenger plane, and Russia’s army is partying like it’s 1956 all over again. All the while, tens of thousands of children fleeing drug gang violence in Central America have been attacked by mobs at the U.S. border, hunted by the governor of Texas, and packed into isolated desert camps in the Southwest.

And then there’s Missouri—the Shoot Me State. Following the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown, Ferguson feels like Watts all over again—not just in the lingering violence, but in the waves of vile racism that have reverberated across right-wing media ever since.

What’s a humanist to do? I have three suggestions.

1) Nil Desperandum!

Or, as Neil Young sings, “Don’t let it get you down, it’s only castles burning”—whatever that means. It’s human nature to focus on the negative. Indeed, research suggests that the negativity bias makes itself apparent in three-month old babies. Still, as humanists we have a commitment to rise above our instincts and remain rational.

For all the misery and horror in the world, keep in mind that on the whole humanity has never had it so good. In the United States, unemployment is falling, stocks are rising, and violent crime is at historic lows. Religion is losing its grip on the world: the unaffiliated now make up the third-largest group in the religious landscape. Poverty remains a scourge, but globally it is receding. The number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by half from 1990 to 2010. Despite regional upticks, armed conflict of all kinds is way down since 1990. As a former international journalist, I know all too well that the news serves as a global gunk filter. It’s easy to lose perspective. Even in the trouble spot with the highest homicide rate in the world in 2013—South Sudan—99.94 percent of people escaped becoming murder victims. Globally, the homicide rate is an order of magnitude lower.

Perhaps the most telling fact is this: over the past decade, obesity surpassed starvation as a global health problem. Worldwide, things have never been better.

2) Remain Passionate about Justice

Of course, the case for complacency is no better than paralysis by pessimism. Another unfortunate facet of human nature biases our view of the world in favor of us, our kin, and our tribe—whatever that may be. This is evident in everything from “the coach’s kid always plays” syndrome in youth sports to the Sunni versus Shi’ite slaughterhouse in Iraq. The former is completely attributable to our genes: we’re programmed to favor our own kids. What’s extraordinary in humans is our tendency to balloon that instinct into fictive kinship within ideological tribes.

At its most extreme, this tendency can be exploited to induce young people to commit suicide for the benefit of their fictive kin. During WWII, the Imperial Japanese Army made this explicit in the kamikaze program. Young pilots were trained to fly their planes directly into enemy ships for the sake of the emperor, the divine “father” of the nation. Half a century later, al-Qaeda turned the same trick, getting young men to fly fully loaded passenger planes into buildings for the sake of an entirely fictive heavenly father.

Humanists have the same instincts as anyone else, but we embrace our entirely real connections with all of humanity to take a principled stand on justice. So, whether it’s alleged police brutality in the Midwest, or terrorism followed by disproportionate military retaliation in the Middle East, we stand for human rights, for justice, and for peaceful co-existence.

3) Temper Your Passions with Reason

Even when we’re able to fight off instinctive tribalism, human nature drives us toward ideological stands. It is yet another facet of human nature: the use of creeds as social cement.

If fictive kinship exploits our genetic bias toward close relations, ideological hegemony pops up from our evolved tendency for dominance hierarchies in our social groups. We may preach equality, but we crave leadership—and some of us burn with ambition to be leaders. The ring that binds us in groups is often ideology—a commitment by members to the same set ideas. Familiar examples are the apostolic creed, the Koran, and Marxism.

But humanists are also liable to become trapped in ideology. Examples could conceivably include pacifism, blanket opposition to nuclear energy, or, say, unquestioning support of Israel. None of these positions is inherently anti-humanistic, but they can become ideologically resistant to reason.

It’s one thing to oppose a new full-scale invasion of Iraq, for example, but quite another to stand against use of force to save the lives of tens of thousands of Yazidis. To react to the Fukushima disaster with concern is understandable, but to oppose any type of nuclear generation in view of the impending climate catastrophe may simply be irrational. To support Israel may be entirely appreciable and even admirable, but to give it unquestioning loyalty may be to undermine the very principles that make it admirable.

I’m not suggesting that there is one correct position on every public policy question, much less that I know the answers. I’m only saying that we need to guard against our tendency toward ideological hegemony in groups and instead have the courage to reason our way to the best stand we can in light of available information—even if that pisses some people off.

We long ago left the veldt and filled the world. Yet, human nature is much as it was when we roamed the African plains in small, closely related bands. Humanism, by contrast, allows us to rise above instinct, myth, and superstition to forge a better world. Apply it wisely!