Humanism without adjectives

ROBERT ASHBY, Executive Director of the British Humanist Association but speaking here in his personal capacity, suggests that we need neither religious nor anti-religious humanism (see his site).

This conference is timely, and has the potential to be important – thank you to the organisers, and let us hope that a deeper dialogue between branches of the humanist family can be established.

This meeting in Friends House is located rather appropriately. The Quakers have long been friendly to humanists of all persuasions. The last surviving Ethical Society at Conway Hall is but a short walk away, as are the site of the Positivist Church of Humanity (Rugby Street, operating between 1870 and 1932), and most importantly the site of Ronge’s Humanistic Association in Tavistock Square. There, between 1854 and 1856, one would have found the first self-styled humanist organisation in Britain.

My aim is to dip into the vast range of historical and current humanisms, demonstrate the confusion and desperation that surrounded the development of modern Humanism, and to pin down what might be the common humanist ground that is shared by all, regardless of the adjectives that are used to qualify Humanism. Then I will suggest that this common ground is more important than the secondary differences, and that all who are genuinely humanists should be able to embrace this commonality with enthusiasm, and that our organisations should be able then to cooperate on shared issues rather than fear or fight each other.

For this talk I am especially indebted to the late Nicolas Walter, whom I remember with great affection and some fear! His little book Humanism, What’s in the Word is the only rigorous account that I can find, and I commend it to those of you wanting more detail.

Humanism and humanist are words with the most complex and cloudy histories. We are hampered by the range of similar but unrelated words, and by dissimilar nuances of meaning. Translation to and from French and German also creates a little havoc for the unwary. Much of the history has been retrospectively applied.

Today in English, there are many qualified forms of Humanism in explicit existence: secular humanism, scientific humanism, ethical humanism, religious humanism, Christian humanism, the Humanist Party, transhumanism, and (of course) post-humanism.

Whatever anti-religious people may say, we must admit that, for most of its
development, humanism and humanists have been religious to some degree and in some sense or other. It is simply incorrect to claim that there is a non-religious humanist tradition (it is a secular or atheist tradition instead, which certainly does not always overlap the humanist tradition). Humanism, now and in the past, is not synonymous with atheism or agnosticism, but may contain atheists and agnostics. These points, I hope, are not controversial. There are also subtle differences between religious humanism and humanist religion – perhaps the Sea of Faith is closer to the latter phrase, humanist religion.

Let us sample some British senses of the words “humanism” and “humanist” from the last two centuries.

In 1859, George Jacob Holyoake described his use of the term Secularism, writing that its leading ideas are “Humanism, Moralism, Materialism, Utilitarian unity”. Note that the ethical and material aspects are stated separately, rather than implied by the meaning of humanism. In fact, he defines humanism as “the physical perfection of this life”. Today this would bring to mind the ghost of eugenics, or the idea of a GM human.

The British Humanist association’s precursor the Ethical Union was led by Stanton Coit. In 1907 he declared that he liked the term humanism “more and more” but felt it was unsuitable for the title of a movement, partly because “within humanism there are many points of view”, and partly because it could be non-ethical or even anti-ethical – points that are still unresolved if one analyses the interests and views of BHA members today. Coit, as many of you will know, ran the Ethical Church – a
non-theistic church with its own hymn book and week-by-week service guide – and he continued to use the word God as indicative of the noblest good, and the phrase “the Religion of Humanism”. For Coit one could almost read Comte.

In 1902, the aims of the West London Ethical Society included, “Without denying or affirming a life after death, or a reality beyond experience, to teach that we ought to make our moral ideas and our moral life independent of these beliefs”. The Oxford philosopher F C S Schiller wrote in 1908 that humanism meant “the deepest and most thorough reconciliation of science and religion which it is possible to conceive”. And, as late as 1935, that “striving for the control of nature may be denominated humanism”. Meanwhile, William James had felt that “humanism is perhaps too ‘whole-hearted’ for the use of philosophers”.

In the 1920s, F J Gould’s use of the word humanism – simply as a convenient contrast to theism – confused things further. At that time, the lingering Positivists stated, “We are both Positivists and Humanists” and that “we welcome all to the Humanist name”. J A Hobson, an important figure in the Ethical Union, was described as “a rationalist and a humanist to the core” (again, notice how those words are separate, and rationalist is not implied by humanist). He often referred to humanism as “an organised ethical religion”, and called for the reconciliation of
rationalism and humanism via the Ethical movement.

From the 1930s onwards the confusion grew deeper, with yet more shades of meaning to humanism, and contributions from T S Eliot, Colin Wilson, F R Leavis and many others. Humanism was applied to many writers and cultural figures, and was adopted by a few such as E M Forster, who was especially interesting as he was actively in touch with those who moulded the BHA out of the Ethical Union. But, like Huxley’s, Forster’s sense of humanism would not please tough secularists today. He flirted with what P N Furbank called a “purely humanistic religion, personal, fraternal and sentimental”.

Forster added an emotional depth to his sense of humanism: one of his characters “cared for the universe, for the tiny tangle in it that we call civilisation, for his fellow-men who had made the tangle and who transcended it. Love, the love of humanity, warmed him”. And, “Give me life, with its struggles and victories, with its failures and hatreds, with its deep moral meaning and its unknown goal!” And, after “Only connect!”, the phrase, “Live in fragments no more”.

Even more obliquely, Forster hoped for a celebration of humanism, rather than a campaign: “Humanism could be better honoured by reciting a list of the things one has enjoyed or found interesting, of the people who have helped one, and of the people whom one has loved and tried to help”. Oblique, but rather useful. BHA publishes some of Forster’s humanist essays, which might be of especial interest.

Gilbert Murray wrote in 1944, “By a Humanist I mean essentially one who accepts it as the special duty of Man, whether he has a Friend behind phenomena or not, to raise life to some higher level and redeem the world from its misery”.

In 1945 that desperate Anglican report Towards the Conversion of England said “Humanism is the word now commonly used to describe that view of life which sees in man the source of all meaning and value, instead of God”. A good definition, perhaps, but the report did go on to call humanism “the Age-Long Lie” and even “the root of sin” and “a specious and threadbare creed”!

In 1949 Cyril Connolly wrote despairingly in Horizon magazine of “man, betrayed by science, bereft of religion, deserted by the pleasant imaginings of humanism”. Here humanism has a clear sense of future fulfilment, the march of human progress.

Sir Julian Huxley, perhaps goaded by his repeated bouts of clinical depression, wrestled with humanism in increasing darkness of thought. His humanism was “a religion of life”, defined as “human control by human effort in accordance with human ideals”. He looked forward to “a socially-grounded humanist religion”. In 1957 Huxley even wrote of “Transhumanism” – “the human species can, if it wishes transcend itself” – and this term is still used by some people, notably in California, who aim that man will transcend his humanity and effectively become superman. It will come as no surprise to learn that they like cryogenics.

When the Ethical Union and Rationalist Press Association were debating over several years whether or not to form the British Humanist Association, Huxley said that “humanism seemed to be the best term available”, as if it was a fallback position, not the first word of choice. Interestingly, BHA’s first director, Harold Blackham, stated in a piece for New Humanist that the term humanism was “adopted and adapted” simply to “enlarge the scope” of the Ethical movement – more for business than philosophical reasons. He was neither interested in preserving religion, nor in criticising it, but wanted to spread a new concept of humanism, freshly defined, here and internationally. Given the complexity already surrounding the term, it is no wonder that he did not achieve universal clarity.

In 1954 Blackham had written that “Humanism is the commitment to defend, revise, and develop the irreversible ideas and ideals which have made the modern world and are now challenged and threatened”. Humanism “requires the creation of a personal life of one’s own and of a world, a humanist civilisation. Therefore humanism is a call to all men, a vision of what is to be achieved”. Humanism stood in opposition to a world of ideals “bred in despair or in destructive passions”.

The Ethical Union’s 1956 report aimed to increase the appeal of Ethical Societies and stated, “Humanism is a universal, evolving religion of human fellowship and service which is based wholly and progressively on human knowledge and experience, independent of speculations and beliefs about God and the supernatural. Humanists aim by purely human means to help themselves and their fellow men to know, love and do the right in all relations of life. They believe in Humanity and its potentiality for greater nobility and enjoyment of life by the good and wise use of increasing knowledge of man and his environment”. That phrase “independent of beliefs” about God was chosen with great care and is important.

Blackham was clearly the driving force for this new form of humanism but his definitive statement, arrived at by 1966, would not suit some BHA members today: “Essentially, it is an alternative to religion, an entirely different way of taking and tackling the world… Humanism, then, as an alternative to religion is a permanent and genuine cause, a movement, a programme, a shared vision and activity, a broad social and educational reform movement or party.”

At the same time, people were beginning to use “humanist” purely as a more pleasant -sounding synonym of “atheist” – increasing the muddle, for surveys would indicate that only a small proportion of atheists are in fact humanists – perhaps up to a third. (In case you wonder, I am definitely an atheist, and I hope I am, and aspire to be, worthy of the label humanist.)

BHA then moved towards the statement of its then President, A J Ayer: “Humanists think: that this world is all we have, and can provide all we need; that we should try to live full and happy lives ourselves and, as part of this, help to make it easier for other people to do the same; that all situations and people deserve to be judged on their merits by standards of reason and humanity; and, that individuality and social co-operation are equally important”. Again, he gives a this-world focus, and stresses humanism without needing to bring in the idea of God.

The continued conflict about meaning and implication has perpetuated heated discussion within BHA and kindred organisations such as the National Secular Society about the meaning of the word humanism, and – most importantly – its interaction with religion and the limits of its tolerance.

So much for the past. What about the present? What might we learn from this confusion? One thing is apparent to me: here were many minds, academic and lay, trying to mould various strands of philosophy and various social attitudes into a coherent system of beliefs, and a system that will have poetry and popular appeal. At times their attempts read rather desperately; but they do contain remarkable elements, and they do take risks with language, avoiding a dryly rational presentation – vitally important if humanism is to flourish.

What is at the heart of humanism? What is the common ground on which all humanists stand, blinded by minor differences to the sight of our shared
foundation? Here I will speak personally, not officially, and some of you will
understand why.

A humanist without adjectives follows something quite simple but of vast grandeur and importance. A humanist without adjectives takes courage and inspiration from something inclusive and positive, not something exclusive and negative. This humanist might be seen as a combination of three elements:

1. Temperament: someone who is optimistic, retaining faith in the human race and its potential, who likes people, seeks solutions, who is willing to be happy here and now, and is even willing to see others happier than himself.

2. Appraisal: someone whose examination of the world and consideration of voices and authorities leads her to think – and think to the bone – that this life is the only life we will know, as part of an entirely natural universe without guidance from supernatural powers, and without a fixed destiny, but with her shared humanity being more important than secondary differences from other people.

3. Undertaking: someone who recognises that his happiness and freedom depend on the happiness and freedom of others, and who is prepared to take some responsibility for bringing this about. The extent of this moral undertaking can be frightening, but it is inspiring.

And a humanism without adjectives is simply the synergy born of the cooperation and energy of many humanists, and the implications of this for civilisation and the world we inhabit, its present and its future, its religious and non-religious citizens. Most of us travel our different paths towards humanism on our own. This solitary journey is another unique aspect of humanism – marking it out from all religions. Because humanism is founded on knowledge, not beliefs, for its appraisal of the world, and because it is founded on natural human sensibilities and desires to cooperate and help others, a person can become a humanist without needing a label for it, without needing to read a particular book, listen to a particular type of teacher, meet other humanists, or be a member of a particular group. Because one might arrive at humanism also bearing some metaphor and imagery from a religious past does not mean one has arrived at a “religious humanism” which differs in substance from humanism.

So, all this shows that when we are talking humanism or doing things through a humanist organisation, we should be able leave aside any other interests that may not compatible with humanism – such as indiscriminate hatred of religion and religious people, or the use of religious concepts as emotional props but without their true religious meanings. In this way our common ground is not obscured. After time, we will forget that these side-issues were ever important.

Humanism without adjectives is stronger, nobler and larger than any of its muddled subdivisions. It does not need religiosity to give it passion or emotion. It does not need to hide behind distortions of religious ideas and phrases. It does not mind sharing a world with religions and superstitions, or working to benefit everyone, not just humanists.

Today, humanism is under threat from forces more destructive than theism: anti-human postmodern relativism, universal cynicism and greed, a lack of moral courage, and “the best lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Let all genuine humanists and we who aspire to humanism cooperate in our humanism. We will not truly be humanists unless we do.

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