NeoHumanism: A Center for Intellectuals?

I have happily signed Paul Kurtz’s statement on the principles of Neohumanism and hope to review the document on this site in a week or so.

It’s enough to say, read it and understand that it comes at a critical moment in the history of the humanist movement. It calls upon freethinkers to do something they almost never have to do–except with respect to the totally inconsequential question of the existence of God: Make up their minds.

For those of us whose humanism is not limited to the Big Question, or whether the First Amendment is inspired writ, or whether civilization commenced with Darwin, there is plenty in the statement to think about.

A warning: it is a very long piece of work so bring a sandwich and a glass of Pinot Grigio with you to the read.

Readers should also have a look at the response of the Kurtz-founded Center for Inquiry, penned by lawyer turned guru Ronald Lindsay (a status he seems to think came with the parking space) and the Huffington Post‘s comments on the statement.

Writing on the CFI website Lindsay recorded that he could not “in good conscience,” sign the statement, though he was pained by having to refuse. (Flash: Jiminy Cricket is dead.) The reason for CFI’s demurer probably has as much to do with New Directions and with the growing rift between Kurtz and the New Regime, which is really not so much a “new” crew as a raft of rudderless old sailors from Buffalo trying to reinvent themselves as first-class seamen on the backs of Celebs like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Prediction: It will never work.

Which brings me to the two things we already know about freethought–a quaint and sometime polite word that can mean everything from muscular disbelief and cantankerous opposition to God, incense and apple pie to quiet disapproval of dogma, (religious) holidays and divine inspiration.

One is that freethought thrives on contrarian impulses. The whole “Who says so?” attitude of many secular humanists leads to purist rigor, one-upsman-ship, even soteriology: The God I don’t believe in is bigger than the God you don’t believe in. The harm religion did me was more serious than the harm religion did you. The full-frontal unbelief I represent is truer and purer than the unbelief you’re espousing. Reason saves, faith enslaves. (That’s pretty good: try it on a coffee mug.) In the past, I’ve used the word “Pharisaic” humanism to describe this posture, but because the culprits don’t know who the Pharisees were the allusion has not become…code.

For all their principled reliance on evidence and fact, in ordinary discourse atheists ( at least the cranky ones) are more prone than almost any other single group to denounce the views of others as mere opinion. So, as happened in the case of the Neohumanist Statement, Write a manifesto, get a zucchini for a thank you.

When CFI ran its Blasphemy Day competition, awarding prizes for the most obtuse display of tasteless rhetoric against religion, I suggested that prizes should be given on the basis of how many things an avowed atheist doesn’t believe about God–and no fair saying “any of it, or Him.” It’s ok not to believe in talking snakes, but you still have to believe in gardens, Babylon and human predecessors. My premise was that anybody who doesn’t believe in God should at least know something about the subject. Otherwise, not believing in time or in the molar mass of an element–both bloody difficult to see–may as well be next on your list.

The second thing you can count on among freethinkers is that they can’t laugh at their own positions. My theory is that this is because there are so many of them that if they started laughing they could never stop. They take their belief with the same seriousness a Pentecostal takes the surety that Jesus loves him and his Christian comic book collection.

I once repeated a Woody Allen joke in front of a heavily atheist audience, having just told it the week before at a local, liberal temple. “I don’t believe in an afterlife but just in case I’m taking a change of underwear.” My Jewish audience was tickled pink. My atheist friends looked at me as though to say, “Are you saying you do believe in an afterlife”? Twice-born atheists can make an outsider feel as unwelcome in the Temple of Bright as a secular humanist would feel in a tent meeting down in Tuscaloosa. (You know, where Groucho says they take the elephants because it’s easier to remove the ivory there).

That’s why, as far as I’m concerned, any call for humanists to recognize that humility and humor are at least as important as being bright and right is a welcome change from the arrogant, carping, smirking, puerile atheism that is becoming the face of the base.

It’s hard to imagine that the attention-getting strategies of a CFI will ever add up to a coherent vision or a systematic approach to problem solving. Saying you’re for science and reason is a bit like saying you’re for peace. Who isn’t?

But how do you get there? And at the end of the trip, do you get the good life or just the T-shirt?

About these ads

24 thoughts on “NeoHumanism: A Center for Intellectuals?

  1. I had to, for the good of my conscience, sign it (after a pot of plunger at 2 in the morning). Where are the guru’s criticisms? I had a look but couldn’t find…

    It’s certainly comprehensive but no words wasted and nothing left out. It’s idealistic without being unrealistic, it’s critical, but constructive rather than destructive, it’s about prospering together in happiness and harmony (and good humour), it’s about children, it’s about the environment… it’s about continuing in constructive dialogue emphasizing our common values. It’s about inviting people from different points of view to join ‘in bringing about a better world in the new planetary civilization that is now emerging’.

  2. Well I would have laughed at the Woody Allen joke!

    Honestly…if only all the ‘atheists are such a pain’ moaners wrote like this I wouldn’t say a word against them. But they don’t, so I do.

  3. For all their principled reliance on evidence and fact, in ordinary discourse atheists ( at least the cranky ones) are more prone than almost any other single group to denounce the views of others as mere opinion.

    A sweeping and rather insulting statement without a shred of evidence (or even a cherry-picked example) on offer would seem to put you in a rather… delicate position with respect to criticizing the purported failures of others to rely on evidence. I may not remember all that clearly what some ancient wandering preacher had to say about the Pharisees off the top of my head – the phrase “whited sepulchre” rings a bell, but the nuance escapes me at the moment – but I’m almost sure I remember the same preacher making some comment or other about motes and beams. Or was it sawdust and logs? Something like that. Surely you’ll remember the reference, you being an expert on the subject and all.

    That’s why, as far as I’m concerned, any call for humanists to recognize that humility and humor are at least as important as being bright and right is a welcome change from the arrogant, carping, smirking, puerile atheism that is becoming the face of the base.

    Again, you might have a little trouble claiming the high ground on this humility thing when you oh-so-humbly, with obvious good humor and no trace of venomous hostility, characterize those with whom you disagree as “arrogant, carping, smirking,” and “puerile.” Now if I were the sort of person to accuse someone with whom I disagreed of being arrogant, carping, smirking and puerile – and I assure you I am not – I would want to at least point to some specific instance of behavior consistent with the accusation. Say, hypothetically, by linking to this blog post.

  4. One is that freethought thrives on contrarian impulses. The whole “Who says so?” attitude of many secular humanists leads to purist rigor, one-upsman-ship, even soteriology

    I trust that the irony isn’t lost on you that you have just written a whole piece yourself telling others how to properly be a freethinker?

    The second thing you can count on among freethinkers is that they can’t laugh at their own positions.

    Then again, the loudest atheist I know is also one of the wittiest: PZ Myers. He clearly doesn’t take himself too seriously either.

  5. rjosephhoffmann

    Atheist comedians are better than Seinfeld.

    George Carlin: “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.”

    “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older; then it dawned on me – they’re cramming for their final exam. “

    • Don’t disagree; but the full frontal ones like Bill Maher who self-identify have a big target and the old crowd basically came out of ethnic comedy (e.g., Carlin on why Catholic cheerleaders were brighter than public school cheerleaders: because they had be be able to spell Immaculate Conception High School). But you’re still missing my point about laughing at your own positions, not the ones you’ve abandoned. Carlin (a “fatally lasped Catholic”) and Woody Allen (and Lenny Bruce) had more in common with the borscht belt than atheism.

      • I very much get your point. The thing is Woody Allen is a full-frontal atheist and so was George Carlin.

        Maher’s upbringing was Catholic until he turned 13, and he found out that his mother was Jewish (Hence making him a Jew according to Judaism) when he was in his teens.

        As a lot (Possibly even most) of the atheists you are likely to meet have deconverted from one religion or another, the fact that Carlin and Allen started from religious-ethnic comedy roots isn’t something that seperates them from mainstream atheism, it is something that they share in common with a huge chunk of the atheist population.

        Heck deconversion stories are something of a genre nowadays. Somehow we love to hear stories about how other people came to the realisation that we, personally, are right, and everyone who disagrees is a blinking idiot.

        I think it the sense of humility we get from it.

        Anyway, in order to effectively mock religious side of the argument, it takes some ability to laugh at ours. It is why for example, the Family Guy’s attempt at atheist evangelism failed so thoroughly – Bryan’s non-belief wasn’t made light of, and so the overall product became anvillicious, and thus sucked.

      • Another example I can raise is the Chaser’s War on Everything, which explained that though the team were all atheists, they were also hypocrites – so the show wouldn’t be on for the three weeks after Easter.

        There isn’t a lot of comedy tackling the centre of atheism as opposed to atheists, but that is because there really isn’t much to it.

        “There probably is no God, so umm, now what?” Is pretty much all you can do with it.

    • if ‘alter risiblity’ is supposed to mean changing what you laugh at, hopefully we can all be honest enough to admit to changing our minds … and that the bar is perceived to be set too high is too depressing a thought to let be a reality.

    • I love the phrase, alter-risibility. I’m certainly altar risibility esp if it refers to men in cassocks plying young men with communion wine. I admit I’m only working with impressions (speaking of which I do a great Groucho after a coupla Rob Roys) but I do think atheist humor is pretty lame because its target is too big–which is what makes the target-specific comics funnier. Also think that “humanist” and secular impulses to do much with (defending?) free expression accounts for the lameness of atheist humor, a little like going for the big belch instead of multiple tasteful burps. Less is more.

  6. I find the attitudes of the various religious “sects” (this term being all inclusive) towards the beliefs and practices of each other to be at least as interesting as any possible attacks from the atheist point of view.

    A polite approach would go like this…
    Everyone is wrong except thee and me and sometimes I wonder about thee.

    While it would be more correct to just say…
    I am always right and everyone else is always wrong. – God

  7. Pingback: NeoHumanism: A Center for Intellectuals? (via The New Oxonian) | The New Oxonian

  8. I see a new T-shirt flying through space – it’s a CSI t-shirt promoting science & reason as a candle in the dark… I hope the ISHV doesn’t devote too much energy to parallel paraphernalia.

  9. Pingback: NeoHumanism: A Center for Intellectuals? (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  10. I thought the Neo-Humanist Statement’s focus on global democracy was admirable. Who knew that preaching on our common humanity and actually taking efforts to codify such a sentiment would be so controversial?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s