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?