The history of the the AHA perfectly illustrates the formation of a myth and the inability of those who believe that myth to realize that they are acting on the basis of beliefs not totally based on rationality. The first Humanist Manifesto appeared in 1933. It was an attempt to establish a new religion, one which would “formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.” They called themselves “religious humanists”; there is no getting around the fact that this was intended to be a secular religion. The first item in the manifesto is that “religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” The fifth states that “Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.”
The first manifesto was a brief, extremely confident document expressing faith in endless progress through science. That it appeared in 1933 is ironic, considering what was already beginning to happen in Europe. The second manifesto, issued in 1973, is vastly longer, vastly more dogmatic, and both troubled and troubling. It acknowledges in the Preface that “Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good.” It is far more direct than the first manifesto in asserting that “humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith.” They do not say that it has been proven that there is no God; it is enough to dare anyone to “prove” that God exists. Anything not scientifically provable at that precise moment in time, since scientific analysis is the highest value, can’t be accepted as fact. It’s worth noting that the first issue discussed is that of religion. Humanism is now against something, no longer presenting hopeful principles as goals to reach. In the short span of forty years, it has become a dogma.
As the second manifesto sets forth its principles, its first concern is with religion. They feel that “Even at this late date in human history, certain elementary facts based upon the critical use of scientific reason have to be restated. We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race.” They don’t provide any scientific documentation for this. There isn’t any they could provide. There aren’t any “elementary facts,” only opinions, nothing that could be considered scientific facts, elementary or not, that prove that God, the so-called supernatural, or anything else the humanists might lump into that category, does or does not exist. This is an unproven assumption, “everybody knows this,” although they don’t appear to realize that they aren’t being very “scientific” about it.
They next turn to ethics, which they separate from religion. That is a reasonable stance, if one were to accept that everything that can’t be weighed, measured, and mathematically proven isn’t necessarily subjective, which is one of their primary beliefs. One can’t do that with ethics, which, according to the criteria accepted by the humanists, must be subjective and a matter of values. So the question has to be—whose values? Those of the humanists, of course. Again, there is no appreciation of the fact that they aren’t applying their own criteria. Instead, they call on “reason and human intelligence,” no matter how subjective and value-driven that might be when not dealing with experimentation and mathematical proof.
The second manifesto still contains some of the idealistic values and goals that were expressed in the original manifesto. They are, however, tacked on at the end, well past the diatribe against religion. The two manifestoes are followed in 1980 by a “Secular Humanist Declaration,” the word manifesto having become old-fashioned. It is even longer and more dogmatic than the second manifesto.
Both the second manifesto and the declaration make a point of tracing the roots of humanism back to “philosophers, scientists, and poets of classical Greece and Rome.” The second manifesto includes, “through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to the scientific revolution of the modern world.” The declaration substitutes a much longer list, “ancient Chinese Confucian society, to the Carvaka movement of India, and to other distinguished intellectual and moral traditions. Secularism and humanism were eclipsed in Europe during the Dark Ages, when religious piety eroded humankind’s confidence in its own powers to solve human problems. They reappeared in force during the Renaissance with the reassertion of secular and humanist values in literature and the arts, again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the development of modern science and a naturalistic view of the universe, and their influence can be found in the eighteenth century in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.” This need to establish an ancestry, legitimate or not, is typical of certain kinds of Medieval documents which were legitimized by calling upon past authorities, and thus is unconsciously indulging in exactly that kind of medieval thinking they despise.
The declaration has dropped any claim to be a “religion,” although it still represents a secular religion. Instead, it stresses that humanism is “secular,” yet most of the “ancestors” they claim had no doubts about the existence of God, or, for that matter, multiple gods, spirits, demons and angels. As confidence has weakened, and dogmatism has strengthened, these documents have become longer and longer. Humanism now feels downright threatened by any aspect of religion or by anything that could possibly be considered supernatural. “Regrettably, we are today faced with a variety of antisecularist trends: the reappearance of dogmatic authoritarian religions; fundamentalist, literalist, and doctrinaire Christianity; a rapidly growing and uncompromising Moslem clericalism in the Middle East and Asia; the reassertion of orthodox authority by the Roman Catholic papal hierarchy; nationalistic religious Judaism; and the reversion to obscurantist religions in Asia.”
Even more serious, “New cults of unreason as well as bizarre paranormal and occult beliefs, such as belief in astrology, reincarnation, and the mysterious power of alleged psychics, are growing in many Western societies….These religious activists not only are responsible for much of the terror and violence in the world today but stand in the way of solutions to the world’s most serious problems.”
The enemy has been defined. It is necessary to do battle against these forces of darkness. The result is that humanism has redefined itself. No longer the champion of idealistic goals, it will stand and fight the enemy. It has become as dogmatic and fundamentalist as any of the fundamentalists it wants to fight, never suspecting that this has happened, or that it is pitting one set of myths against other myths. The rest of the document is full of contradictions. It asserts the right of free inquiry, not stating, of course, that “free inquiry” does not include the right to conduct scientific investigations in areas they don’t consider “scientific.” Ethics are still based on “critical intelligence,” as though only they are capable of using critical intelligence. Again, they call upon their “ancestry," now “Socrates, Democritus, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus, to Spinoza, Erasmus, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Bentham, Mill, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and others.” Later they add another list: “Protagoras, Lucretius, Epicurus, Spinoza, Hume, Thomas Paine, Diderot, Mark Twain, George Eliot, John Stewart Mill, Ernest Renan, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, Robert Ingersoll, Gilbert Murray, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Max Born, Margaret Sanger, Bertrand Russell, among others.” Never mind the eccentricity of the lists, that they overlap, or that many included on the list were devout believers in various forms of religion or spiritualism.
In addition to the attacks on religion a section on “Religious Skepticism” is included. This is wrongly named; it should be skepticism about religion. It lists the “sins” of religions, as though science has never made any mistakes. Humanity, in their opinion, must learn to live without religion or any other manifestations of the spirit, and they’re going to see to it that this happens. Humanism has become a campaign against the spirit. It has become the thought police. Significantly, the Conclusion states: “Democratic secular humanism is too important for human civilization to abandon.” As though that were under serious consideration. “We are nevertheless surrounded by doomsday prophets of disaster, always wishing to turn the clock back.” The enemy is at the gate. There is no comprehension that they have become doomsday prophets. The rest is yet another diatribe against religion.
The declaration is signed by a long list of outstanding people, mostly influential professors. Significantly, the declaration is conditioned: “Although we who endorse this declaration may not agree with all its specific provisions, we nevertheless support its general purposes and provisions,” although nothing of the sort had been added to the previous documents.
This is an excellent illustration of what happens to a myth. Initially there is naive optimism, cheerful goodwill, hope, everything is positive. Dogma develops. Dogma must be defended. The followers become True Believers in the One True Faith. The enemy is at the gate, and the dogma must be defended at all costs, everything depends on a defensive, negative stance against enemies.
Much of the current outcry against science which so upsets the humanists is not an attack on science itself, but on the misuse of science, on having forced it into the role of a faith and then allowing it to run rampant, as though science, a mere human endeavor, could do no wrong. Although it was not the only expression of the prevailing scientifically based myth of the past century, humanism, in all good faith, embodied it, swallowed it whole, and now seems to stand ready to die for it. It was a simple faith, a belief in what science could accomplish, and that scientific thought and method, considered by them to be vastly superior to all past systems, was all that was necessary. All that was needed was faith in endless progress through science. They declared science the highest human value and declared all other means of knowing merely subjective. They took scientific accomplishments as representing absolute truth, unchanging and whole. If that knowledge was incomplete, the blanks would be filled in time, but nothing understood by the humanists as true would be refuted or be superseded by future discoveries. They looked at all previous beliefs as mere myth and superstition, especially any belief in God or spirit because there was no place for them in a mechanistic universe. They denied all the wisdom and experience of the human past, except a tacked-on list of acceptable “ancestors,” never suspecting their own arrogance or human fallibility in doing so, or their built-in hubris. They certainly never suspected that they, too, were creating a myth.
MJ, I appreciate your willingness to voice an individualistic stance. I would say that you’re a well-qualified philosopher, in the historical sense of one who seeks to get to the bottom of things. For most of its history, philosophy was closely tied to what is now called “science.” As various branches of science matured and became sufficiently understood, philosophy backed off. Once the job of philosophy was finished with a given discipline, or close enough to being finished, it moved on to other matters. Today, philosophy is no longer associated with most branches of science, except for those that have not yet matured. We have yet to get to the bottom of cognitive science, for instance, and philosophers still play a key role in the struggle, along with researchers in many other fields.
There was a time when a Ph.D. degree signified an expertise in philosophy. Someone who’d earned a Ph.D. was an expert at working toward getting to the bottom of their subject, as “Ph.” stands for “philosophy.” Current Ph.D. degrees, however, usually do not signify study of the philosophy of a given subject, since most academic subjects have long since been divorced from philosophy. Today’s Ph.D. recipient is simply an expert. Forget about philosophy—time to earn a living in the real world.
I say all this because people tend to see philosophy as having been played out. It’s been replaced by the sciences, and I see this as a terrible mistake. Philosophers are still needed—perhaps now more than ever. It’s a dying art. (I’m hoping to encourage you here to continue speaking out.)
My own pet peeve with science is the ubiquitous overconfidence of its practitioners. A valid theory is different from a theory considered to be objectively true. Through trial and error, physical- or thought-experimentation, and study, scientists narrow things down to what can casually be thought of as “truth.” But professors especially need to remember that every one of their theories are potentially temporary. Eventually even Darwin may be completely superseded. Einstein would never have discovered his outrageous theories had he accepted Newton’s point of view as being literally true. Einstein would have remained a simple patent inspector.
As for the central point of your above essay (as I see things), it would appear that an overzealous dogmatism threatens to strangle many serious thinkers, which is indeed worrisome. But it’s human nature to at times overstate a point of view, especially in dire circumstances. Certain people (including me) are worried about the fate of current governments that seem to be slowly and insidiously turning away from secular rule and leaning instead toward eventual theocratic rule. I’m old enough not to worry about my own fate, but I do worry about future generations. In an extremely literal sense, paranoid schizophrenia is right now overcoming the American population, at least in the red states (or is it the blue?—I’m not very good with colors.) Religious fundamentalism will continue to spread unless a drastic stance is taken by all who understand what’s going on. Almost no one takes the proper public stance. We need to clone Sam Harris, or at least publicly acknowledge the importance of the risks he takes. I don’t know if I would have the guts to stand up in front of a crowd of people and speak about the matters he covers.
New to the board and came straight to the science topic. Interesting stuff here.
tyhts, you said: “My own pet peeve with science is the ubiquitous overconfidence of its practitioners.”
I’ve seen these sentiments before and am always amazed at the conflation of a process with human nature. Humans do stupid things from time to time. I think the beauty of science is that it transcends individual scientists. It has this wonderful self correcting aspect; remember the phlogisten theory. I understand your concern with some scientists being overconfident in their own theories. But that isn’t a problem with science as a whole. Its a problem with people.
BTW: I work in a science lab at school and know quite a few biologists and ecologists. I think I would be safe to say that many, maybe most, are pretty humble in the face of nature’s mysteries. But they do what they do because they believe they can find the answers to questions.
Dave, I absolutely agree with every word you’ve said in your beautiful post! We still need philosophy as much as we ever did, especially in these dreadfully hysterical political times. I’d like to recommend a wonderful little philosophical text by Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus at Princeton, called “On Bullshit.” Not exactly what one expects from a retired philosophy professor at a dignified university, and the NY Times had fun reviewing it. It’s exactly the kind of philosophical warning the times we’re in call for, and I’m thinking of sending copies to all my friends.
Lorac, I agree with everything you’ve said, too. Especially that science has “this wonderful self-correcting aspect.” I’d say that at least 99% of the scientists I’ve known are pretty humble and love science because it’s so wonderfully challenging. Right now I’m utterly thrilled by the new discoveries in astronomy. Wow! It should have been impossible to discover other planets, much less see them because the stars are so much brighter than the planets and they’ve just managed to actually see two of them! This is truly inspiring science. That’s really thinking one’s way through to accomplishing the impossible.
What I’m objecting to is the way the concept of science gets misunderstood and misused to try to win the debate between science and religion which has gone on now for well over 100 years. The problem with this kind of debate is that the point is winning the debate, and the truth be damned. It’s gone on for so long, positions on both side have become so hardened, that this has corrupted the way we think about everything. There really are such things as facts. Facts and opinions are not the same thing and they don’t have equal value. Truth does matter. By now we’ve reached the point where we can’t seem to discuss anything without debating it, from politics to mad cow disease, so we can’t resolve any social or even medical problems in a rational way. There has to be some way out of this mess! That’s why I like Sam Harris’ book so much. He’s truly looking for the way out.
From my point of view as a former Catholic and now atheist, what I have read of secular humanism, or humanism, is that it deals with the mortal realm and dismisses the afterlife as not relevant.
This is the single most important thing the United States government did with the disestablishment clause. A secular government that treats all people in its territories in the same way is the ideal. We have been working on it for the entire history of our country because someone always comes up with another prejudice.
Right now it is homosexuality or transgender persons’ civil rights.
We still do not value women or Black people as we should, nor other minorities or those with injuries or abnormalities from birth.
We cannot decide between the precedent law of after birth for a ‘person’ to exist v a RELIGIOUS view that the blastocyst WILL become a person - even though the risk to the woman’s life and health is 400 times greater for any injury, disease, or complication of pregnancy the closer to full term she carries it. Shouldn’t she be the one who GIVES life? What if the incipient life she carries develops severe deformities that endanger its own life or the quality of it? How can anyone demand that she submit her own flesh and blood to suffering and herself suffer emotionally, financially and physically as well? This to me is an ethical issue. It is also a mental health issue, as few people who are mentally healthy will ASK for this kind of torture!
I truly think that men know their only hope of immortality is through a woman’s womb. That and fame, perhaps. What drives the abuse and control of women in nearly all religions is the fact that women can be suborned to procreate - lesbian or not.
They are the ones who are held hostage through their emotional ties to their children, driven to seek powerful males to protect them and yet accused of golddigging and seduction when they succeed. Because of our physical lack of strength, but our endurance to bear children, we survive. Because we’ve been brainwashed to think motherhood is the highest calling and a ticket to heaven, we can become a rotting corpse to a husband who once loved us for all they care if we won’t or cannot do so. We can be psycologically scarred by any inability to reproduce that calls into question our ‘womanhood’; just as inexplicaby as men who are gay are considered ‘effeminate’ and can be killed for so much as asking the wrong guy - he isn’t a man or gentleman - for a date.
Secular Humanism may have started as a ‘new’ philosophy based on scientific inquiry, the marvels of technology and progress. It is, however, a very good basis of evaluating the effect of laws and government when used with a study of human nature. It is also a better way than promising gifts in the afterlife - as even politicians know they have to follow through on their promises. Ethics has to come in as a study on the amount of harm v good any action creates. It has to answer who benefits and how much, what is compromised and what lost, then finally if the balance is acceptable for the future.
Consistency is also something that is completely overlooked in religions. Everyone prays for something, it doesn’t happen. Get over it. God said no. Right. How about thinking about how the situation developed and finding a way to prevent it? How about studying how to correct it as it is?
Logical, rational thought and ideas are what we have to thank for the billions of humans - and their collective suffering - that we have alive today. We have to expand that rationality or irrational beliefs and impossible expectations will destroy our planet.
We have to teach respect of women, the benefits of a small family through contraception and economic and educational decency for all persons. It’s all or none. We are all on this one wet spinning ball.
(Gee, now I know why Bush is pushing for moon and Mars exploration and colonization. Does he think he can escape?)