Healthy Humanism

June 28, 2011

Last week I was privileged to deliver an address to the Center for Inquiry Student Leadership Conference. My talk was delivered without reading from notes, to keep things lively. And the questions were terrific, as expected from such a special group of student leaders. I’ve had follow-up inquiries asking for more details. Below is the original text to accompany my slides that I had prepared for occasions requiring a formal presentation. This text may supply some key details omitted during my brief talk. Sharp-eyed folks will recognize how portions of this text are repeated from a couple of other presentations. I hope that their synthesis, along with some fresh ideas, supplies a broad perspective on what Humanism is capable of achieving. 

Healthy Humanism

What does a healthy humanism look like? A healthy humanism would be an all-natural, eco-friendly, and sustainable ethos – a lifestance that orients us to wise purposes and responsible principles. A healthy humanism should be an empowering and enriching way of life for everyone. A healthy humanism would not be designed for purely rationalistic emotionless beings, but real people who live richly emotional and motivated lives.

Religions take entire real people and all of their cognitive equipment seriously. That’s how religions have propogated and survived for so long. Can’t humanism do the same? Why would there be anything about human beings that humanism ignores? Shouldn’t humanism be the most human of all worldviews, especially since atheism, by itself, is not a complete worldview? Mere atheism is just a negative answer to a single question about god. Religions are far vaster things than their gods. People are practical and want simple gods, really, in order to obtain what they really want from complicated life — answers to life’s existential concerns and ways for managing social issues. Religions provide direction. Mere atheism is not a direction. Moving away from a god is not automatically moving towards anything else. Life gets tough, and unrelieved concerns don’t just fade away. No wonder so many atheists revert back to some religious stance later in life.

A complete worldview takes into account what all humans should naturally need and want from life. Humanism is a serious belief system that provides direction. But is it enough? Religious people often say that they enjoy a higher purpose and meaning to life. Their religious beliefs appear quite natural and reasonable to them because it’s so great to have a greater purpose to life.  Humanism can look unnatural and unreasonable, if humanism denies any higher purpose to life. Is humanism inhumanly cold towards the notion of having “higher purpose” or “higher meaning” to life? Is humanism psychologically unhealthy?

You can hear people can be heard to talk about “having a higher purpose in life.” Some say that they seek a “purpose higher than life.” Others talk about wanting a “higher purpose for life.” Can humanism endorse any of these ways of talking about a “higher purpose”?

Humanism agrees that people can find plenty of higher purpose in life, but humanism cannot see any higher purpose than life, and denies any higher purpose for life. It is easy to find a higher purpose in life. In fact, humanists are eager to show how there are many higher purposes in this life, purposes which elevate us above the tedium of ordinary existence. People naturally seek and find many higher purposes in their lives: all the entrancing, engaging, empowering, and ennobling things that make life truly worth living.

People should want to have a higher purpose in life – indeed, many higher purposes – because mere life, merely surviving by materialistic means, is not a path towards human dignity or excellence.  People like having a purpose-driven life, and they know that they weren’t meant to live degrading and disposable lives. Healthy Humanism is about the search for what makes life great and what makes for great lives, and humanism wants to extend the opportunity for a purposeful and worthy life to everyone.

Humanists find many worthy purposes; so many, in fact, that humanists can reasonably disagree about which are most important. Fortunately, there are reasonable ways for people to compare, evaluate, and adjust their purposes. That’s why humanists encourage free thought, free inquiry, and free societies. Life is not merely purposeful, but life is also “purpose-full” – abounding in worthy purposes – and furthermore, life is “purpose-thoughtful” – requiring careful management of our purposes.

Humanists celebrate the plentiful things that make life worth living, and encourage the principled expansion of these things to all. We now come to the next issue: Is there any higher purpose than life? This is a separate question. Why can’t the answer be “yes,” too? When people sacrifice themselves for others, or for social causes, or for moral ideals, aren’t they pursuing a higher purpose than life? Well, yes, they are pursuing something higher than their own life, but not something higher than life itself. We sacrifice for love, or duty, or principle – but these things are ultimately meaningful and truly worthy only in service to something alive. Other people and living things around us, and our causes and ideals, are part of life as a whole. What could possibly have priority over life itself?

Humanism recognizes how life depends on such things as hospitable planets, natural laws, and the basic energies of the universe. We owe our lives, in a sense, to the physical environment, but humanism cannot see anything having priority over life. We should revere and protect our planet, and whatever else upon which we may depend for our existence, but we do these things for the sake of life. Humanism cannot view life’s meaning and purpose as utterly dependent on something else, even a god.

For humanism, life is its own justification and has independent value. Humanism is dedicated to a purpose-full and purpose-thoughtful life for all. People who seek a higher purpose for their lives are not just seekers but also choosers. They want to be respectfully persuaded, and they want to be responsible for judging for themselves. If people want to be persuaded by reasonable evidence before them, if they want to judge the effects of a belief system on themselves and others, and if they want to choose the better path to human worth and excellence, then such people can be humanists. These people will also be questioners of authority, deviants from tradition, disturbers of conformity, and often reformers of society.

Humanism is centrally concerned with responsibility. Life is responsible for the plenitude of meaning and purpose. People are responsible for the human impact on not just humanity but also on all other life. Humanists take responsibility for the huma
n impact on all life and for enhancing the worth and excellence of all people’s lives. We are responsible for life — no one or nothing else can be burdened with the responsibility. Any belief system that tries to deny these responsibilities or shift these responsibilities elsewhere has an opponent in humanism. Humanism is a responsible way, perhaps the most responsible way, to find higher purpose in this life.

Many religious people have a humanistic outlook, but they still feel like they can’t leave religion behind. They are worried about giving up their dependence on God. They are worried that having only a scientific and naturalistic worldview won’t be enough. So often we hear it said that naturalism could never support essential human needs, human aspirations, and human ideals.

This fear of scientific naturalism takes many forms. Some people want to believe that they are divine because they have an inner spirit that is already part of the supreme reality. Some people like to make nature into a person, something that has its own life and takes care of creation. Other people prefer to worship a God that exists beyond the natural world.

We also hear that a humanism grounded on the cold reality of science could never nourish the vital spirit of morality. Is the scientific picture of reality one of rigid determinism, with every event lawfully forcing the next event without any chance for decision or freedom? Does scientific knowledge expose us as just complicated machines? Is the spark of consciousness just a meaningless by-product of brain processing? Is a naturalism without God only able to support a modest humanism reduced to the scale of earthly matters and merely human frailties? Is naturalism unable to inspire us, guide us or console us? Does our entire destiny and meaning amount to just death and oblivion?

I wonder whether these are fair complaints to make against naturalism. By all means, judge human nature harshly. We are still unworthy of our marvelous habitat and we have not lived up to our natural potential. But judging nature is another matter and deserves more care. And it is only fair to judge us as a living part of nature. As our knowledge of nature’s secrets has grown, haven’t we been growing right along? We are made greater, for our knowing how much greater is our natural home. A serious perspective on life takes a fair and proportionate measure of a life. Stand up straight and let a mark be made, to show how tall you can stretch, to a height worthy of a human being. From that height now, survey all you can see, everything for which you care, that tiny sphere of what you call your life. Now, let’s lift our eyes even higher from worldly diversions toward the eternal whole. Mounting up upon nature’s heights, nature can inspire us, guide us and console us, if only we would understand.

By taking the supremely natural perspective, must naturalism’s message be really so different from religion’s? If the spirit common to religions had but a few propositions, they would sound something like this:

That life is ultimately about a relationship, a connection with what is most supreme.

That there are two worlds, one seen and one unseen.

That the unseen world is the supreme world, and it holds the true power and destiny of all.

There is something essential in us that can survive in new lives.

That what survives of us is what is truly best in us.

That what rightly survives of us is the nobility of virtue, knowledge and wisdom.

That we should not prize the dark peculiarities of personality and ego, but the lasting light that shines through us.

So might the religious spirit speak if it had but few words. What can our knowledge of nature say on these matters? A natural perspective can tell us similar things:

That the unseen world of nature’s energies shape life and life’s beauties in endless new forms.

That every life is interrelated, woven and composed of nature’s vibrant cords.

That your essential energy cannot be lost or destroyed but only recycled with perfect efficiency.

That there is a kind of afterlife, as the consequences of your conduct has influences far into the future of life.

That our virtue, knowledge and wisdom are inherited from prior generations, and we can pass them on to next generations.

That our spark of consciousness dims when the body dies, yet the finer part of our character can be woven into new lives.

That each person should long consider the shortness of life, and the smallness of self-importance besides the immensity of the whole.

The core messages of religion and naturalism do not sound so different, really. Should it even be a surprise that they might converge on a common-sense morality designed for the essential needs for life?

But we may be forgiven for failing to hear such harmonious chords. By fighting over knowledge for so long, religion and naturalism have stopped talking about wisdom. Indeed, both religion and naturalism themselves make a great show by distracting us with claims that only it can provide what the other cannot. But life is rarely a zero-sum game in the long run. Does a religion’s claim that you must desperately want your personal immortality, lest you be selfishly immoral, really make sense? Does a science’s claim that you must sternly regard morality as illusory, lest you be irresponsibly foolish, really make sense? It is time to wisely take a stand on what we all can know to be our common responsibility.

We must at least take care of the genuine human needs of life, this one life that we know we share. And what can we all know? Like the essence of religion, nature’s deep ways tell us that you are more than you may appear, even to yourself. Nature shows how its supreme reality recycles everything and preserves what is necessary. Nature reveals how its real powers are available for you to conduct what is best through you into the future where everything must go. Nature tells you that you can have all of the meaningful life to which you are deserving, but not an ounce more, for the energies of life must be distributed fairly. And you waste your natural energies at your peril, for your selfish pursuits only rob you of your rightful destiny.

These are humbling messages, but they are reassuring. Together they say that you have arrived into the world where you belong and that you belong to the world that produced you. That you have no right to hope for a better afterworld until you have made this world better. That you are not entitled to fear death until you have feared to fail at life.

This is truly a message of responsibility and purpose worthy of every human. We might call it “A Natural Faith,” if only we weren’t so reasonably sure of its promise. And we’d all be wiser for making it a humanistic promise to keep.