Philosophy may be defined as an exercise in getting conceptual leverage on reality. Humanism is a philosophy and I find it important first to examine what we mean by Humanism before going on to use it for the leverage it brings on human life and its problems. This is particularly necessary because we are in a transition period when several differing definitions are given to Humanism. I speak from my own experience in coming within the last six years into an institutionalized setting for my Humanism.
At first I was struck by how frequent and intense the “anti-definitions” were: that is, Humanism defined by what it is not or what it is against. Such Humanism is against God, against Bible, against any suggestion of any reality other than the one accessible to our senses. I even began to discern a certain obsession with the negative: what I call a “trans-meta-super-paranoia!” This may be defined as a tendency to bristle whenever one of those Latin or Greek prefixes gets used. I was particularly interested in how some Humanists related to Jesus-writing articles that proclaimed him one month as not historical, the next month as not original, the third month as irrelevant. I would think to myself. Well, I guess now that they have got that off their chest, they will move on. But no! off they would go again on the cross as a phallus or Jesus as a code name for a mushroom cult, or whatever. And while they were doing this I was saddened to see them missing out on the powerful positive impact that Jesus can have on one’s view of the world and relationships. Existentialist Karl Jaspers named him as one of the great “paradigmatic” figures of the human race, along with Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius. In general, I would propose a dialogue with the great religious traditions rather than this “negative courtship.”
I can see some point to an intellectual rearguard action against fundamentalism in the United States because fundamentalism here swings a lot of political clout. But I would suggest that my fellow Humanists take to heart the warning of the English poet, Edwin Muir, in The Good Town: “I have seen good men made evil wrangling with the evil/Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.” We share our human natures with these opponents and Humanism will fall as they, prey to ambition, power struggle, prejudice, and irrationalism as the religions have.
On the other side, I heard humanists defining themselves as “Scientific Naturalists” but saw very little coming to grips with modern science for the building of their philosophy. What exactly did they learn from going to nature via science to solve the major problems of our human life? I didn’t see very much. Nature speaks with a multiplicity of voices and permits opposing support for monogamy or polygamy, for or against abortion, for or against differing views on race. Is race a matter of melanin synthesis or lactase persistence or Rh-HL-A immunology, or is it a cultural phenomenon based on certain recognition-signals? Science can increase our understanding but in the end we have to make a human decision about these things.