Why I am not a humanist - Atheist Foundation of Australia

Finally some honesty and a solidly worded philosophical essay on the the tenuous relationship between atheism and humanism.

Why I am Not a Humanist
Author:
Nigel Sinnott

No, I have not forsaken three quarters of a lifetime's atheism and found myself a god or a guru. But I would like to set out my reasons for being profoundly unhappy - as I have been for 25 years - about belonging to a movement with the general label "humanist".

Until the 1940s what is now called the humanist movement was known as the freethought movement. In its broadest sense it did and does encompass a spectrum from militant irreligion through rationalism to groups of agnostics, some of whom regarded themselves as religious. The older word, "freethought", aptly described the common denominator of these disparate organisations, namely, that they attracted people who insisted on the right to follow their own line of musing and reasoning, specifically on religious matters, instead of accepting some dogmatic, supernatural creed.

The word "humanist" began to catch on in freethought circles in the 1950s, perhaps because it had connotations of the Renaissance and the university. (The Renaissance humanists changed stylised, rather rigid mediaeval forms of art and literature to naturalistic representation and more free expression; they also encouraged a reawakened interest in scientific inquiry. At universities the word humanist had long signified a student of the liberal arts, classics and philosophy, as distinct from engineering or "hard" sciences. The 1950s and '60s also witnessed a boom in secondary and tertiary education, so "humanism" had - or seemed to have - an educated, refined image which old working-class secularism allegedly lacked. The generic term "rationalism" had sometimes been used for the broad freethought movement, but some of the new humanists found rationalism an arid word, connoting an exclusive devotion to reason, despite the fact that sensible rationalists avoided any claim that reason was the only good in human life.

By the 1960s, however, "humanist" in a new sense had come into its own. During the period from 1959 to 1966 a large number of new humanist societies were formed, especially in Britain, and some rationalist organisations cashed in on the vogue word and changed their names to "humanist". For a while, "humanist" was flavour of the month. But fashions are fickle things, and the popularity of humanism has waned since the 1960s just as that of secularism did after the 1880s.

I do not wish to decry the 1960s. The period had its faults, such as the narcissism of the "me generation" and venal gurus who pandered to mass naïveté. But it was also a period of relative prosperity and full employment, of new-found freedom for the young; a time of optimism, unselfish idealism, experiment, protest and worthwhile change. I am glad I was young then, rather than now.

If humanism is no longer a band-wagon word, there is little pragmatic argument for its retention as a name for the freethought movement in general. My main contention, however, is that humanism is now more of a liability than an asset.

The people who promoted the word humanism in the 1960s had their merits. They knew what was politically relevant at the time and how to campaign on particular issues. However, they often seemed to have a horror of anything they perceived as "negative". Hustlers and some politicians show the same tendency today. Humanist had a "positive" ring to it, despite the fact that what unified the movement was its disbelief in supernaturalism and its rejection of authority in philosophy, two thoroughly negative - but valuable - features.

I strongly assert that the search for and maintenance of truth, which is often negative, is more important than contrived efforts always to seem "positive".

My principle objection to humanism is the implication by its promoters that freethinkers do - or should - "believe in Man". I dissent from this on two grounds. It is reminiscent of "I believe in God", and I contend that the freethought or rationalist movement should not be promoting an ersatz religious mode of thinking but offering a radical departure from it by saying that the whole concept of "believing in" (in the dogmatic religious sense) is erroneous. Belief, for a freethinker, should be tentative, and open to amendment and reasoned argument. Atheists rightly regard "Jesus saves" as a flatulent slogan; "Man is the measure of all things" is immodest, unscientific bunkum, and it is high time someone said so.

The cult of Man with a capital M is only a slight improvement on the cult of God. It still leaves a lot to be desired, women for instance. If the Christians' idea that they belong to the same exclusive club as the creator of the universe sounds to us infidels as monstrous conceit, I can only add that I find almost as pompous and egotistical the notion that man is some marvellous pinnacle of evolution; that because Homo sapiens has produced Einstein and Michelangelo we can forget about the Nazis, the Crusaders and the Khmer Rouge; or that a Gothic cathedral, an air-conditioned office block or the mausoleum of some ancient megalomaniac justify our destruction of the world's forests, some of the most biologically valuable and breath-takingly beautiful places on earth.

Worse still, the adulation by some humanists of the human intellect (unique as it appears to be) encourages the old-fashioned nonsense that men and women are specially set apart from other living organisms and, worst of all, that the human race has an evolutionary destiny (formerly God's permission) to conquer and subdue nature.

"Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things" wrote Swinburne, my favourite poet. The words are marvellous rhetoric, intended to shock mid-nineteenth century piety, but today, if taken seriously, they would be a recipe for an ecological nightmare. If any other species of animal had caused a quarter as much destruction of life (including annihilation of whole species), degradation of landscape, fouling of the seas and pollution of the air as humanity has, we would have declared such an animal - however smart and intelligent - to be dangerous vermin and would be spending vast resources on destroying it.

It seems to me to be callous and smug to adulate Humanity with a capital H. Yes, we can devise elaborate instruments and drop them on the planet Mars. Meanwhile, half the members of our own species are starving or nearly so. Another half, women, are often treated as drudges and serfs. Intelligence does not necessarily produce wisdom or goodness. It took brains and education to design the gas chambers at Auschwitz; skill to timetable the cattle trucks.

In addition to "Man's inhumanity to man" there is humanity's massive, cruel exploitation of non-human animals for food, clothing, experiments and what passes for amusement. Protests against exploitation of animals have come from many quarters, but within the freethought tradition from Shelley and Henry S. Salt. More than half a century ago Britain's National Secular Society added a better deal for animals to its aims and objects. Yet not so long ago (this article was first written in June and July 1987) a humanist said to me, "I don't think animals have anything to do with humanism." We were talking about the concept of animal rights. I certainly want nothing to do with that sort of retrograde human chauvinism.

Unlike humanists I am not very proud of my membership of the human race. Yet I hope I am a good freethinker; I would like to think I am a reasonable rationalist; and I am very sure that secularism offers a happier prospect for humanity than the hells on earth created wherever religious zealots obtain power.

More than a hundred years ago the militant freethought movement started a campaign to make the public aware that it was possible to limit family size. It was probably the most valuable thing the movement has ever done. Freethinkers promoted birth control because they realised that resources for human consumption were finite. They hoped that small families would reduce poverty and give ordinary people more control over their lives. It is not surprising that religious conservatives have always opposed birth control: they know - consciously or instinctively - that over-breeding in a human population makes for political and economic instability, poverty and anxiety, just the conditions in which supernatural religion flourishes. Orthodox religion is a more cynical business than some humanists imagine.

I want the world to be a place fit for my grandchildren, where they will have space to move, freedom and time to think, wilderness to admire; a world where people can live in harmony with plants and animals. I do not want them to be forced to elbow their way through an overcrowded, stressed, war-riddled civilisation that has degraded the face of the earth into either ugly cities or vast, intensively farmed monocultures. It would only be a matter of time before such a society destroyed itself.

If we want the first sort of civilisation in the future, rather than the second, we may have to forgo a few fancy gadgets or devise more sensible alternatives; we will need to control our human numbers, put world poverty and land misuse before national privilege, nuclear war-toys and space research (without blunting our scientific curiosity), and change the emphasis of our throw-away, consumer society. Above all, we will need a more sensitive, perceptive view of the role of the human race on this planet, one which will understand the right of other animals to breathe free in the air we at present pollute, one which will appreciate the value - practical and aesthetic - of plants, trees and wilderness.

In creating a better world the freethought movement, if it gets its priorities right, has a useful part to play. The movement can promote a reasoned, scientific approach to problems; can ensure that human beings have more personal control over their minds, bodies and lives; can support freedom of speech and expression against efforts by the far right and far left to muzzle society; it can oppose new superstitions and pseudo-science and continue its historic role of exposing the restrictive, irrational and essentially totalitarian pack mentality encouraged by orthodox religion.

We have seen the religious ethic of faith and universal love produce - in reality - hatred, intolerance and barbarism. For this reason, I think we should be wary of any general answer to the world's complex problems which is restricted to human considerations limited by the virtues and vices, diligence and greed, foresight and folly of just a section of humanity, the privileged middle class of the richer industrialised countries.

What has become pressingly important today is humanity's need to realise - and take action on the fact - that we do not stand apart from other living organisms. We are a part of nature: we can only "conquer" nature by destroying the natural world and ourselves with it. Homo sapiens badly needs a sense of ecological humility, combined with curiosity and intellectual integrity. We do not need blinkered conceit dignified as humanism, or evasion of the facts of life and death sanctified as religion.

Revised by N.H.S., 23 November 2001.

Views: 843

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

In truth all individual life forms are not exactly of equal value. But one can say that all species are of equal value. The distinction between individual and species is a critical one. One must look at the value of a living being from the biological perspective, hmmm novel thought, science...?

In the food pyramid, life forms at the bottom of the pyramid are very numerous whereas those lifeforms at the top of the food chain are fewer in number. This is what makes a single polar bear more valuable than a single deer, or a single deer more valuable than a single blade of grass. However take all the grass from a hillside and you end up with Haitian proportioned soil catastrophy.

There is no such thing as absolute value, all is relative. Humanists BELIEVE in absolute values, which conveniently seem to be same values as those of other religions... So I'll let the Humanists duke it out with other BELIEVERS on who got morality first, the religious folk or the non religious folk. But IMO the point is moot.

This weekend I attended an Amnesty International slow motion cry fest film festival. Although AI is useful as a source of information, they are hopeless to accomplish real change. Their movies kept rambling on about how PRECIOUS HUMAN LIFE IS.

I disagree, in the context of the millenium. Back in the paleolithic, humans were rarer, therefore each individual life was proportionately more precious. Now humans constitute an overabundant species, similarly to the growing population of Canada Geese! We are pooping everywhere, and causing conflict... we have that much in common. Not only is our overpopulation damaging to our sustenance and quality of life, it is also the cause of many of our social ills.

These indentured slave children and underpaid immigrant workers are a DIRECT result of market forces, even from a biological perspective, OFFER AND DEMAND rules apply. There are so many cheap humans around and corporations just love this situation as it plays in their profitable favour.

From a real estate perspective, this is equivalent to a byers' market, the resource (human labour) is plentiful and cheap (when not free), so the buyers (the powers corporate-governmental) have the upper hand, no wonder the powers that be continue with natalist policies and feed the children policies. It completely plays into their corporate plan, especially internationally, and the churches know this full well and have used it to keep people down for a couple of millenia. PRECIOUS, hell no, the majority of humanity has simply become cheap production units.

The best way to transform society from a 'corporate market' to a 'humane market' is to not provide them with plentiful cheap labour. If we all stopped procreating (to what extent remains to be negotiated) the inhumane powers that be would pardon my language shit themselves. Without mobs of cheap labour offering themselves up for corporate slavery and government submission, the value of human life would go up, and all would be happier.

The issue of procreation has been a religious taboo for far too long. In the context of North America, I would suggest immigrant descendants stop procreating completely, long enough for first nations populations to catch up and attain a point of equilibrium. This would halve the population of North America within a little less than a century...

Fun quick world population breakdown:
Polar Bears : 20,000
Orcas: 100,000
1970 Harp seals: 1,500,000
Deer: 1,000,000
Canada goose: 3,000,000
Horses : 58,000,000
Cows: 1,500,000,000
Humans :6,800,000,000
Rats: estimated at equal population with humans
THAT's our value...
I must admit that I took your Disney comment and ran with it.

I do think that viewing animals the way you do is a very slippery slope and I was not insinuating that you would be one to torture animals, but your attitude is a reason I have heard over and over again from those who see nothing wrong with the meat industry and those animals are certainly tortured, so why is it okay to torture cows and chickens and pigs and not dogs, again?

and truly, I do not see why a baby is more important than a dog.

I do appreciate your point of view on other issues, John, just not this one.

http://www.atheistnexus.org/group/humaneatheists/forum/topics/let-t...
The other point of the link I provided (Abused No More) was that animals other than humans do not ever do the horrific things humans do. Some humans are good, but I think a good percentage are not.
Ripping a bird to shreds because the dog has be bred to do something that resembles that, is a far cry from keeping animals to torture and abuse and enjoying it, and the act of watching their suffering being one's entertainment (and for an extended period of time)...

Only humans do that.
Some humans are good, but I think a good percentage are not.

Ripping a bird to shreds because the dog has be bred to do something that resembles that, is a far cry from keeping animals to torture and abuse and enjoying it, and the act of watching their suffering being one's entertainment (and for an extended period of time)...

Only humans do that.


Do you think that humans that engage in torture and abuse are evil, while those that refrain from it are good? There are fully-caused psychological dysfunctions(for example, those resulting from trauma or neurological defect) that are the interaction of genetics and environmental factors that explain such behavior. Human and other animal behavior arises on its own(the result of biology and experience), not due to the will(good or evil) of some non-material self.
"good" was a very poor choice of word on my part, I'm a lifelong atheist, so your comment about good and evil as if I was a theist is a strange one to me.

As previously stated I do not like the word humane.
Daniel offered "kind", but that is not a strong enough word for me. compassionate is what I should have said, not good.


I apologize if you perceived that I was suggesting that you're a theist. That was not my intent. As I'm sure you've seen for yourself, "good vs. evil" type thinking is not exclusive to theists. Compassionate is a better word. Where does compassion come from? I'd say awareness. Some humans are more aware and more sensitive than other humans. This awareness and sensitivity often results in what we call compassion.

so everyone who eats meat from factory farming, and therefore approves of the treatment of animals in that realm are psychologically dysfunctional?

Are you saying they're "bad" people? I think a lot of this kind of consumption comes from lack of awareness and lack of sensitivity. I for one have found it challenging to completely give up meat(vegetarian) or all animal products(vegan). I have tried- both vegetarianism and veganism. I'm still trying. I may die trying. I'm not as compassionate as I'd like to be in this regard.
Whatever you can say about things animals do, name one animal other than humans that has invented and/or detonated a nuclear bomb.
A house cat does not need to be treated like a human, because for one thing, they wouldn't appreciate a lot of the things that humans care about. House cats are just as happy sleeping on a worn out pillow as a fancy cat-bed, and have no concept of money or status. And with medical treatment sick animals don't know why they are being poked and prodded. Not that I'm saying don't give medical treatment...

Other than that, humans being equal or not equal to animals: how is this measured? Humans are pretty useless to the ecosystem. If humans vanished, a lot of species would benefit. The only ones that would have a problem would be house pets, livestock, cockroaches, rats, and parasites that live on humans. There are 6 billion or so humans. I would put an endangered species ahead of a human. Other than that, a person saying that humans are more important than animals is just self-serving.
Here's how I see it: if I was in a burning building, I would save the baby first and the house cat second for several reasons.

1) The instinct for species preservation. It's there, bitches.

2) A human child has more social and economic potiental than a cat.

3) I view the situation through the human perspective. Being that I am human, this is the only perspective that is relevent enough to matter.

This is true even if the cat is a hand reared Siberian tiger cub as part of a special breeding program. Some people might be upset if I managed to save the baby but circomstances prevented me from rescuing the cub, but no one in their right mind would priase me for rescuing the tiger cub first if it interfeared with my ability to save the child. I am not a feline. I am not going to live my life viewing the world through the feline perspective, or the equine perspective, or the porpose perspective, or the bacterium perspective, no matter how compassionate or ecologically minded I may be and I doubt anyone of you could say differently about yourselves. Is that self-serving? Maybe, but if it makes you happy, we're all equally meaningless here.

Much as I fancy the idea of inter-stellar travel, I seriously doubt we're ever going to make it much farther into the universe than the fourth rock from the sun, maybe the asteriod belt if we really apply ourselves, but fact is we're probably never going to escape this solar system. Though there may be hominids in the future Homo sapians are probably going to die out on the same rock where we started, if not in the next hundred years than probably in the next ten thousand or million if we're really lucky, but sooner or later we are going to run out of fuel and we are all going to die out - just like every other species. Earth will become unhospitable for complex lifeforms long before the sun snuffs itself out. Once plate techtonics stop the whole world will be just another Mars. Listen up ladies and gents, we're all going to die - species, planets, stars and all - and the only way to find meaning in this big nilhism machine called the universe is to have a little perspective about our place in it. I may not be any more important to the universe than a cockroach, but I'm human baby and though it may not be the best game in town it's the only one I'm equipped to play.
Although I could assume I would save my own baby before my own cat (I assume this based on the biological instinct of saving one's own blood line first) I am not so certain I would use the same logic on a stranger's baby. I might indeed chose my own cat, I'm not too sure about that. I am NOT of the opinion that humans need saving ALL the time, at ALL costs, death is not wrong or bad.

I would also suspect that in any given danger to life situation, the DEGREE of difficulty in saving each victim will play a role.

To state unequivocally that one would save the baby first, without considering the variations, I find quite presumptuous, presumptuous towards ones own anthopocentric view of the world.

I've watched (on tele admittedly) people risk their lives to save a wild animals I am sometimes astounded at what some humans will do to save completely unknowns.
"good" was a very poor choice of word on my part, I'm a lifelong atheist, so your comment about good and evil as if I were a theist is a strange one to me.

As previously stated I do not like the word humane.
Daniel offered "kind", but that is not a strong enough word for me. Compassionate is what I should have said, not good.

Do you think that humans that engage in torture and abuse are evil, while those that refrain from it are good? There are fully-caused psychological dysfunctions(for example, those resulting from trauma or neurological defect) that are the interaction of genetics and environmental factors that explain such behavior. Human and other animal behavior arises on its own(the result of biology and experience), not due to the will(good or evil) of some non-material self.


so everyone who eats meat from factory farming, and therefore approves of the treatment of animals in that realm are psychologically dysfunctional?

Maybe if a dog was smart enough to keep a bird and torture it for a long period of time it would. Yeah... the more I think about it the more it seams plausible.

So one needs to be "smart" in order to have the desire to torture.

Ha ha... yep. It would look alot like this. I think it is a good things dogs aren't that smart!

So one should only have compassion for a being who in your view is "smart".

plenty of unintelligent humans and what about the mentally challenged?

And I never said dogs should rule the world, but then babies shouldn't either, and babies aren't very smart, dogs are smarter than babies, so again why is a baby more important than a dog?
Thank you Stephen. That's how I read his comments as well.

RSS

About

line

Update Your Membership :

Membership

line

line

Nexus on Social Media:

line

© 2018   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: The Nexus Group.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service