Atheism, Humanism and the Neo-Humanist Statement

March 22, 2010

Paul Kurtz has drafted a new statement of humanist — or as he prefers to call it, "Neo-Humanist" — principles and values. (Hereafter, this will be referred to as "the Statement.") The Statement can be found on his web site.

One can see from his web site that a number of distinguished individuals have endorsed the Statement. Some of these individuals apparently contributed to the wording of the Statement. Paul Kurtz graciously sent the Statement to me Sunday evening, inviting me to endorse it (in my personal capacity). Unfortunately, I cannot — not as the Statement is currently written.

I say this with hesitation and regret because Paul is a scholar and philosopher who is rightly esteemed for his past writings and his many contributions to humanism. Moreover, there is much merit in the Statement, and I agree with many of its assertions. But I believe the Statement has too many flaws.

One major problem is the Statement’s aggressive criticism of atheism or the "new atheism." Looking at the abstract for the Statement, one finds the startling assertion that: "On the one end of the spectrum are traditional religious beliefs; on the other the ‘New Atheism.’" This equation of traditional religious belief with the new atheism is inappropriate and tendentious; it implies that the new atheism is as dogmatic and as pernicious to humanity as traditional religious belief. Granted, there could be some atheists who are dogmatic in their beliefs, who reject the possibility of God outright, without bothering to consider the evidence, but this is not a characteristic of the writers usually labeled as the new atheists or the individuals who identify themselves as supporters of the new atheism.

The Statement also sets up what I consider a false contrast between the "negative" characteristics of atheism and the "positive" contributions of humanism. I believe this contrast is largely based on semantics. Atheism can be described as positive. It seems to me that eliminating false hopes and helping ensure that a person’s beliefs reflect reality is as positive an activity as anything else.

When I first read the Statement and its abstract I thought that perhaps I was hastily misreading it. But the Appendix, which I urge everyone to read, helps clarify the Statement’s intent, and from the Appendix it becomes apparent that the Statement is intended to be harshly critical of atheism. The Appendix characterizes the new atheism as a "challenge" to secular humanism. In my view, the new atheism provides additional support for secular humanism to the extent it helps confirm the validity of the naturalistic outlook. I am not aware of any of the new atheists attacking humanism

The Appendix also tries to tar atheism with the brush of Communism and totalitarianism by asserting that "One should not overlook the fact that the old atheism had a strong impact in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, insofar as it was allied with Marxism, including its totalitarian versions." I was under the impression that it was the religious conservatives who strived to associate atheism with Communism — but now humanists are supposed to adopt this smear tactic? Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot killed in the name of, and for the sake of, Communism, not atheism.

The Statement points out that some humanists are agnostics. True, but I’m not sure how relevant this is. Being a humanist does not imply one is an atheist, but it does imply one rejects the supernatural and it would seem to me that as humanists this is what we should emphasize — as opposed to highlighting the often relatively minor differences between the nonreligious who prefer to self-identify as atheists and those who prefer to self-identify as humanists.

Another major problem with the Statement is that it is at times far too vague. What is entailed exactly by the commitment "to support a green economy"? Does this rule out nuclear power? If so, why? And if humanists are committed to "progressive positions on the economy" what precisely is excluded by this mandate? After all, not many people describe themselves as being in favor of regressive positions.

Vagueness is a common fault in manifestos and declarations; after all, one is trying to achieve a consensus. But in the Statement vagueness is combined with a call to action in at least two areas: first, humanists should become actively involved in politics qua humanists, and two, they should promote transnational institutions, including an eventual world parliament. What is the political platform of humanists, beyond church-state separation and support for basic human rights, such as free expression? (These are not unimportant, by the way, and if the Statement had limited itself to endorsing activism on issues such as these, it would be less problematic.) Some of the major political controversies today in the U.S. involve health care, economic stimulus, and immigration. If there is a specific, detailed humanist position on these issues, that’s news to me — and I would also be interested in how one can argue for the proposition that there is a specific humanist position on these issues from the general principles of humanism.

We do live in a global community nowadays, at least economically, and there is general consensus that a person’s rights should not depend on her/his nationality, nor should a person suffer increased burdens because of her/his nationality. The Statement recognizes this welcome reality, and further appropriately observes that cooperation across the world is necessary to resolve certain issues. But the Statement urges an overly ambitious, if not utopian, solution to the lack of cooperation in certain areas, namely new transnational institutions, with a world legislature that can enact laws that apply worldwide. Idealism can be inspiring, but humanists take justifiable pride in being in touch with reality — and this section of the Statement hovers some distance apart from solid ground. How are we to bring about these institutions — especially in light of the all too evident shortcomings of the United Nations? Are the peoples of the world to rise up as one and tear down frontiers? Or will the nations that now show reluctance to cooperate on a limited basis suddenly decide to relinquish their sovereignty? And how is representation to be determined in the world legislature? Based on population? So 1.3 billion Chinese who will "vote" in an authoritarian system with fixed elections can outvote all the democracies in Europe and North America? Also, if indeed representation is to be based on population (and on what else could it be based if national borders count for nothing?) then the Statement’s call to limit population growth will be unavailing. If the number of bodies determine control of the world parliament, there will be a great incentive to produce more bodies.

And why focus on such lofty and unrealizable goals when there is much more immediate work to be done at the ground level? If and when the international community can succeed in bringing about an Iran or North Korea that recognizes basic human rights, or a China that allows free expression, perhaps we can begin to think about significantly greater unity among nations. Until then, calls for new transnational institutions may unintentionally serve as a distraction from goals that are challenging but still have some realistic chance of being achieved.

I offer these comments in response to Paul Kurtz’s own request for discussion and dialogue about the Statement. I think I have said enough to indicate why I cannot endorse the Statement as written. Perhaps a later version will attract my support. In any event, the Statement certainly merits review. Please look at Paul Kurtz’s website and make up your own mind about the Statement.