MARCH 12, 2012 4:13PM

Framing Humanism Is Okay But Not At The Expense Of Honesty

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Framing the word HumanismHumanism is a strange collection of individuals in a stew of rationality, all of us looking for the truth for our world view. We, as Humanists, know we must work with believers and other theists to find common ground with the goal of bettering the human condition. Andy Norman, writing for the Humanist Network News, an e-zine of the American Humanist Association, tries to offer tips for dialogue on Humanism to non-humanists but does so by giving up honesty in the process.

Norman, in his essay “Framing Humanism, or How to Win the Culture War”, starts out great by explaining how we as Humanists could do a better job of bringing in new people or at least getting our message out by the use of Framing (where we control the meaning of our message), but then my alarm bells start going off when I read this:

Principle (6) urges us to avoid tribal and ideological loyalties, and consistency requires that we apply this stricture to ourselves. The world does not need another ideological sorting mechanism—something that divides humanity into an in-group and an out-group, an “us” and a “them.” As its name suggests, humanism means to be inclusive. (The term’s main weakness is that it appears to exclude other species from the expanding circle of moral concern. Eventually, this weakness will have to be addressed.)

Framing Humanism, or How to Win the Culture War

I am very familiar with this line of thinking from my days debating a member of a local UU church. This is what he use to call having “Big Tent Humanism”. He wanted to open up the tent to any and all who call themselves Humanists except if you were also an atheist.

Norman, in his essay, lists six principles as a test for Humanism yet rails against excluding people. How can you have a test for something and not exclude people? This isn’t Tee Ball. You can’t have a test and everyone passes. Of course Norman knows that too. Just like my friend’s Big Tent, Norman’s “Framing Humanism” excludes people – specifically Atheists:

I don’t believe in God, but I think it’s a tactical mistake to, by definition, exclude theists from our ranks. What do we want to say to the billions of people who subscribe to humanist principles (like 1-6 above), but still cling to belief in God? ‘Sorry, but you must ditch your imaginary friend before you can join us?’ What do we accomplish by such exclusion? The first thing we do, whether we intend to or not, is erect a barrier to constructive dialogue. But humanism is, above all, a commitment to such dialogue. Real dialogue works a kind of magic, but only when participants set aside tribal loyalties and reason together openly, honestly and, dare I say it, in good faith. We want reason-giving dialogue to work its magic on them, of course, but the price is openness to the possibility that the exchange might change us as well. That’s the way dialogue works; it’s a two-way street. Framing humanism in a way that excludes theists in advance comes across as fearful of what they might teach us. Here’s an idea: let’s embrace our commitment to fearless inquiry and truly ‘walk the talk.’ In this context, that means avoiding a self-conception that creates artificial barriers to collaborative inquiry.

And let’s face it: our qualms about supernaturalism are hardly first principles of humanism. We don’t embrace atheism prior to investigative inquiry; our doubts emerge from investigative inquiry. Sure, many of us have traveled that investigative path, and we’re eager to broadcast our findings. It doesn’t follow, though, that it is wise to present our atheism up front. In fact, doing so is often unwise, for it suggests—falsely—that our skepticism about gods is a presupposition rather than an outcome of our inquiries. When we reinforce the impression that rejection of god is one of our axioms, we appear dogmatic, and afford others ready grounds for dismissing what we have to say. Our atheism is derivative—a conclusion, not a premise, of the arguments we need to share with believers.

Norman wants a Big Tent with a sign that reads “Atheists Need Not Apply”.

He falls into the same trap that gets believers and others opposed to atheists. Atheism is about the God question and nothing more. If you look closer, Atheism can’t be separated from Humanism.

Here is the AHA’s own definition of Humanism:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

“[W]ithout theism and other supernatural beliefs” is part of the definition of atheism too. An Atheist has a FAR shorter path to Humanism (and less need for redefining one’s beliefs) than a theist or other believer. Take out the atheism inherent in Humanism and what you have is generic humanitarianism.

I get that we shouldn’t lead with our atheism but I disagree that we should hide it or minimize it. That would be dishonest. One sure way to block a discussion is to be dishonest about your arguments.

Besides why is it my job to make discussions “easier” by hiding my atheism? I’m not the one who gets the vapors about my non-belief. It isn’t my job to humor the believer or protect their sensibilities.

To win any war, a force has to overwhelm their opponents with firepower. You don’t win a war by hiding your any of your weapons.

Also published on iHumanism

Related posts:

  1. Practical Humanism
  2. Tooting my own horn
  3. National Atheist Party Is Too Thin For A Political Party

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I'm afraid we're going to have a long way to go before large numbers of people embrace Humanism. The latest polls show that a majority of the residents of Alabama and Mississippi reject the idea of evolution and embrace creationism. And that's just for starters...Good post!
Notice that Douglas' critique of my piece on 'Framing Humanism' relies on several logical errors. First, he suggests that the restraint I recommend in the expression of one's atheism (that is: put it front and center when it's useful to do so, but not when it's not) is tantamount to dishonesty. Clearly that's a misleading and unfair conflation. Nor do I do advocate that atheists "hide or minimize" their atheism. Would Douglas say that a gay man is guilty of hiding or minimizing his homosexuality, or worse, being "dishonest" about it, just because he opts not to make an issue of it in some situations? Even if there were no stigma attached to EITHER label, it would still make sense to be judicious about when and how one used that label to describe oneself. Second, Douglas pretends that my conception of humanism "excludes atheists." This charge is just silly, given that I admit to atheism myself. Third, Douglas argues from authority in his appeal to the AHA's definition, as if it were somehow the last word on a contested issue at the center of a diverse movement. But we all know that arguments from authority are fallacious. My point, of course, is that free thinkers have a right--and a responsibility--to rethink even their concepts of humanism.
Thanks for the comment Mr. Norman.

It is obvious that we have a different definition of Humanism - and that is the point I was making. How do I draw that conclusion? From this:

"I don't believe in God, but I think it’s a tactical mistake to, by definition, exclude theists from our ranks. What do we want to say to the billions of people who subscribe to humanist principles (like 1-6 above), but still cling to belief in God? ‘Sorry, but you must ditch your imaginary friend before you can join us?’"

And I am not resorting to an appeal to authority when I say that Humanism, by consensus, is non-theistic. I used the definition the AHA puts out in public since your essay was on the AHA website but you can also see it in Manifesto II, Corliss Lamont's 10 Points of Humanism, Fred Edword's Humanism in Perspective, the CSH Affirmations, Manifesto III, and even the IHEU's Amsterdam Declaration.

My personal view not in my post since it wasn't part of my response to your essay is that if you are going to going to church, sing hymns, and enjoy fellowship on Sundays without believing in a deity as most UUs do then why still believe in a God - why is that so much more important that you would want to quiet those of us who have come to the conclusion to be an atheist?

I agree we should find common ground with believers when we can but if they have a problem with my atheism and I'm not allowed to have a problem with their belief then I doubt common ground can be found.

I find it is better to acknowledge our differences and move on to other things.
Oh My Gosh! Is this argument still going on?!! I ran into this when I first had a discussion with humanists about 53 years ago!

Although academic humanists can sure spit every little hair in their discussions and debates over what and who a humanist is, I tend to assess their actual humanism based on what they actually DO as humanists. If their involvement is largely verbal instead of practical then they can call themselves humanists until the cows come home - but I won't.