Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Humanism, aspiration, and the labels one identifies with

BU theology student Mario Melendez tagged me in a post on Facebook, the content of which I copy here:
To my Humanist brothers and sisters: I found the following definition of Humanism in a Doctor Who related article...yes, I know, I am a geek. Anyway, the author (a humanist himself) said: "The basic idea behind humanism is that humanity can, against all the odds and in the face of overwhelming evidence, be good. In the absence of God or gods, we can achieve greatness. It’s faith for people without faith.
[Aside: on the idea of "faith for people without faith", see this weird article in the Washington Post.] I think the gesture of the quoted definition is laudable. However, I'd offer the term "aspiration" as an alternative to "faith", for the reason that aspiration in its common usage entails ongoing action -- we do aspire, whereas faith is a thing one has and not an action one does. Further, the common usage of "faith" implies several epistemic concessions which I am not convinced a responsible person should be casual about making. Finally, I'd recalibrate the superlatives. E.g.: Are we up against all the odds, or are only some factors stacked against us?

My version would then look like this:
The premise of humanism is that humanity can, against the odds, and in the absence of supernatural powers, achieve greatness. Humanism is the aspiration that takes the place of faith in the lives of nontheists.
There's a lot of cultural work to be done before the word "humanism" (note the lack of capitalization) is widely adopted as the general term describing the various species of aspirational ethical lifestances of nontheists. But it's work worth doing. We aren't losing on the matter of the facts; where we have a lot of catching-up to do is in the generational domain of labels, implied and imputed values, and cultural cachet.


I came across a quote recently, from a sermon the UCC preacher and pastor William Sloan Coffin, Jr. gave in 1984: "You can act in such a way that people identify you with something greater than yourself." Which led me to wonder under what banner or emblem or label should I be working to associate my actions with. Because I have made a commitment, as an activist and community member and community organizer, to atheism, I have already made it a habit to wear my Friendly Neighborhood Atheist shirt when doing charity, or to make donations (most recently, to a boy in need of tuition to continue attending his grade school in South Africa, and to a no-kill pet shelters) "in support of" the Boston Atheists or the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts. But the entity of "atheism" or even "a [congregational] community of atheists" might be the wrong level of scale to really serve as a rival for "faith". What, really, is the salient distinction between persons of faith and persons without faith -- faith vs. skepticism? Faith vs. aspiration? Naturalism vs. supernaturalism? Here I almost wish to list religion vs. irreligion, but I'm actually inclined to include nontheist forms of community under the heading of "religion"; I justify this by pointing to an anthropological and sociological conception of "religion", in which the defining features are the shared experience and explicit values of a congregation or more widely dispersed identity community.

In light of which, I'd like to reconsider Rev. Coffin's words: "Act in such a way that people identify you with something greater than yourself." What kind of thing is that greater thing? For the Christians I have known, the answer would not be "faith", but Christianity. This suggest that capital-H Humanism would be the appropriately-scaled counterpart, and not the ethical type of humanism, or the epistemic disposition skepticism, or the broad lifestance category atheism. I fear, that the consequences of an identity label *on this scale* will breed sectarianism. Are you a Secular Humanist, or a Humanistic Jew? No, I'm a Boston Humanist. (Or a Positive Humanist, or a Humanist Plus, or a Cantabrigian Humanist, or a Reformed Secular Humanist, or...)

If this kind of label proliferation (or though of in other terms: this kind of community sub-division) is inevitable, it would be prudent to pull back and reconsider the rationality of Coffin's exhortation to affiliate one's actions with something greater than oneself. Jack Miles, in his book God: A Biography, writes:
Philosophers of religion have sometimes claimed that all gods are projections of the human personality, and it may be so. But if so, we must at least recognize the empirical fact that many human beings, rather than project their own personalities upon gods wholly of their own creation, have chosen to introject—take into themselves—the religious projections of other human personalities.
This suggests a great definition for (lower-case, generic) humanism. Rather than projecting the best qualities of humanity onto an unknowable (and, in my view, fictitious) being outside of ourselves, humanists take these qualities into ourselves. Humans give the credit for human goodness to humans. We claim as our own, the highest values common to human experience and culture across all ages and nations; and we accept as our responsibility the need to come to terms with a universe in which all phenomena are natural, and all life is a rare and precious occurrence.

The greater something a humanist identifies her actions with is... humanity. Or more precisely, human potential. This is probably too tautological to serve an an effective rallying cry, but is nonetheless where this casual analysis brings me. This circularity does suggest that humanists (and nontheists of all persuasions) are at a distinct rhetorical disadvantage. It isn't "their" divine mascot against "our" other-than-divine mascot; it's their mascot, God, against our nothing. And this will be the rhetorical terms of interfaith engagement and all forms of intersectional contact, until open-minded persons of good will are successful in challenging the rhetorical status quo.

Let this be another place where I vote for the general adoption of the term "interpath" (a term that I credit to theology student Derek Lewis Knox). Here is Coffin's slogan, now filtered through the interpath lens and thereby greatly altered:

Let your actions be testimony to the value of humanism as an aspirational path.

Good advice. And, potentially, a banner for secular-minded people to wave in response and kindred spirit to theists waving the faith flag.


NB: It isn't just the secular community that has to find a way through these knotty questions of terminology. The modern obsessive personality known variously as "nerd" and "geek" suffers a similar identity crisis. Not to worry; science will sort it all out.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On the "solitary leaker", and ethical autonomy

In case you didn't know what you should think about Edward Snowden's leak of NSA data-mining activity, authoritarian NYTimes columnist David Brooks has done the thinking for you.

His advice? We needn't worry about the government! We just need to have the right kind of trust in the "series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world" that infiltrate and delineate our culture. It's Snowden and other "solitary" young men with spotty high school records we need to fear! Why? Because they are just the sort to take it upon themselves to puncture the useful fiction of our civic life.

The problem exposed by Snowden's leak is not the gross overreach of government monitoring of private communications, but "the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds." We haven't been betrayed by our elected officials; Snowden betrayed us when he broke the confidentiality he was sworn to: "He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter." War is peace; ignorance is strength.
So why was it so hard for Snowden to trust Big Brother? My friend Jonathan Figdor, the Humanist chaplain at Stanford University, sees clearly how Snowden (and any thinking person) might suffer a crisis of civic faith: Maybe those institutions and authorities lost credibility when they violated the trust we had in them... Like when the banks got bailed out, but the middle class and working poor got evicted from their homes; or when Bush gave his buddies in the top .5 of 1% enormous tax cuts on the backs of the poor and middle class; or when Bush trotted out Colin Powell to make an erroneous case for war in Iraq and sent a lot of American troops to die overseas under false pretenses. Please, David, don't pretend like you have no idea where this lack of trust in authority comes from. It comes from years of abuse.
Speaking of uppity reactions to years of abuse, I guess Rosa Parks betrayed us all when she slipped the bonds of social propriety and refused to go to the back of the bus. If that analogy seems absurd to you, perhaps:

  1. You are an authoritarian, and view Rosa Parks' civil disobedience as salutary only because the larger culture -- its media, schools, and other authorities -- has endorsed that interpretation as safe; or
  2. You are ethically autonomous, and recognize that there is among human beings a moral obligation to one another that precedes (and indeed, gives rise to) the civic obligation to the rule of law. 

The dogmatist, the absolutist, and the authoritarian agree: A person is only as good as his or her word.

The relativist, the materialist, and the Humanist offer that a person who keeps his or her word without having a clean conscience has become an instrument of an authority's convenience... which is as good as definition I know of dehumanization.