Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

Defining tradition in this context as the shared identity and historically conditioned behaviors of a community, tradition is to the spiritual survival of the individual as the genetic traits are to the physical organism. A surviving community is the seat of our capacity for self-transcendence and the means for realizing our “immortality.” Tradition, broadly conceived, provides the template for our psychological development – working upon the inherited biological equipment, of course, and directing the evolution of the structure we call the self. It imprints the master program by which the socialized individual regulates and evaluates the “project” of his or her life. And it stamps that Iife with a sense of meaning beyond its own physical space and duration in time: Its chance to participate in a social future and achieve the self-transcendence that gives life its meaning. While analogies have their limits, it is my contention that this sense of social identity gives ultimate significance to human life and that this identity is inseparable from the collective life of a community replicated through time – analogous to the genetic programming that some biologists theorize is the basis of sacrificial behavior in the lower animals, a provision born of natural selection that enhances the chances that the “sister genes” of the self-sacrificing individual will survive. While our cultural inheritance does not lend itself to such an elegantly patterned progression as the biological, and is far more plastic and mutable, its importance for us is that of an essential “second nature;” and, despite its plasticity, the social persistence of its acquired traits is impressive.

With this conception of the essential place of tradition in on-going life, we are prepared to examine the specific cultural attributes that give rise to the demand for (and capacity to create and maintain), individual freedom of belief and conscience, that produced the Bill of Rights and the American traditon of civil liberties. We are interested especially in understanding the elements in this heritage that offer continuing support for the survival of freedom of conscience and humanistic democracy. And finally, we must ask whether contemporary humanism contains adequately the elements of a freedom-nurturing respect for tradition that can enable it to evolve the institutions and shape the social habits that can sustain a society that is both free and morally cohesive.

While the courage to defy dehumanizing conventions and sterile and regressive ideologies is a necessary and praiseworthy part of the temperamental profile of the humanist – and of the progressive democrat and the scientific worker generally – the ability to work at a common “project” sustained over many lifetimes is also a requisite for scientific and cultural progress.

As an American humanist movement, and more broadly as a humanist movement in the tradition of Western culture, we should use as advantageously as possible the resources of our particular heritage. Attention to this complex and pluralistic culture is not a parochial undertaking, despite the fear of compromising humanism’s universalism. To understand our past makes us better members of a world humanism that incorporates a wide array of cultural settings. Bluntly, if America is not a melting pot, but an orchestra of mutually interactive but distinctive ethnic and cultural communities, then we should no more suppose that a united world community can be achieved on the model of a planetary cauldron in which all cultures are fused.

The conditions of life and thought capable of producing a document as farreaching in its proffered liberties as the American Bill of Rights have occured only rarely in human existence. A long preparation in both America and Europe laid the foundation for the Revolution and for the flowering of dissent that both produced the event of 1776 and expanded because of it. It has been argued that the American Revolution was but the second act of a play on which the curtain had opened in England nearly a century earlier, in the Whig triumph of 1688. But as suggested earlier in this paper, we select a much more remote starting date. While no point in history can be the absolute zero milestone for anything, we take as our beginning the landing in England of William and his Norman army in the autumn of 1066. By act, the English people (already a highly diverse mixture of ethnic strains misleadingly labeled “Anglo Saxon”) became plebeians in their own land. This oft-told tale of conquest and assimilation, enacted with slight variations so ubiquitously in universal history, took an epochal turn for world civilization when the Norman French landed near Dover seven hundred nine years and nine months prior to the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence.

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