Humanism’s Selective Memory Problem

June 5, 2016

Debbie Goddard is CFI’s VP of Outreach, marking her 10th year with our organization. As someone who has worked for so long to strengthen humanist communities big and small, she had some truly insightful tough love for the wider humanist movement.

The theme of her talk boiled down to humanism’s odd position as a movement that chooses what issues to work on according to where we can oppose religious privilege and overreach. If it’s not fighting the bad guys, what is it for?

It’s this lack of an affirmative focus, Debbie said, that lays the groundwork for some of the humanist movement’s blind spots. And what keeps this blind spots obscured is an incomplete understanding of “Enlightenment values,” the vaunted concept upon which humanists hang their hats.

She spoke of the stereotype version of the Enlightenment that humanists attach themselves to, a “caricature” that only recognizes the bits about science, empiricism, and individualism. This caricature ignores the parts of the Enlightenment that embraced the study of social sciences and psychology (“how humans work”), and the belief that emotions and logic work together, that our reasoning brains are supposed to be subservient to our passions.

If we had a more complete embrace of Enlightenment values, said Debbie, then we could get ahead of what she called “secondary advocacy,” one taking positions when the bad guy is clearly religion or pseudoscience. And we could begin to incorporate the knowledge gained from the social sciences, so we could understand humans and how they’re shaped by society.

She recommended that we as a movement focus much more on local groups and campus organizations, where people on the ground can get leadership training, and be more flexible in effecting change.

This was an important talk, and I hope more people get to hear Debbie talk about this issue. She points out how we sometimes allow ourselves to believe that our irreligion “inoculates” us from things like racism and sexism, when too often we aren’t looking honestly at the structural problems that allow those things to arise. Ironically, our movement that values individuality so much can wind up minimizing our differences.

And how can we celebrate our differences if we aren’t acknowledging them?