Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Persistent Myth About Secular Humanism

Someone recently wrote to me that he didn't buy "all that secular humanist crap" I was finding myself interested in. Fair enough. But did this person venture into anything specific? As a matter of fact, he did. He wrote that secular humanists hold all philosophies and world views to be equally valid and that he disagreed strongly with this precept. The implication was clear: secular humanists possess no powers of discernment. I was surprised such an educated and intelligent person would resort to invoking so shallow a myth as to compel me to wonder what he really understood about humanism at all.

Still, this was not the first time I had heard this criticism of secular humanist philosophy. I consider myself a humanist, and in no way do I subscribe to the notion that all world views have substantially equivalent validity. People who hold this view of humanists are incorrectly extrapolating from the principle that no one world view explains everything that all world views are therefore equally valid. To be more precise about what humanism does in fact avow: all world views are fallible. That is to say they are subject to - in the secular sphere - critical and rational analysis. Opposing world views are no doubt possessed of varying degrees of enlightenment, which deems them, by definition, to be of varying degrees of value.

Something else this particular myth seems based upon is the notion that humanism is as rigidly dogmatic as any religion. While there are a number of stated principles humanists aspire to, it is much more accurate to characterize humanism as a method for reasoning and achieving understanding. It is not a compendium of dos and don'ts or intractable beliefs; it is a foundation for skeptical analysis and inquiry based upon rational examination. Secular humanists question the veracity of claims to possess knowledge about that which does not suffer rational examination well.

Much criticism of humanism comes from the religiously inclined because of its expressed resistance to explain the world in supernatural terms. To many, the very idea of not deferring to a specific deity in constructing its ideological platform is offensive. What we humanists can't understand is why this would offend anyone. We are not offended by the choice of others to believe in a god, but to quote from Paul Kurts' Affirmations of Humanism, A Statement of Principles: "We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence . . . and to look outside nature for salvation."

More often than not, criticism of secular humanists as undiscriminating purveyors of "anything-goes" intellectualism is a naked attempt to malign us, our intellects, and our principles. We, as much as anyone, welcome criticism so long as it is not offered as disparaging rhetoric.


  1. I think fundies try to lump all secular humanists together because that's what's always worked for them with regard to Christianity. If one is allowed to look objectively at any group of Christians, even within the same congregation, it will be easy to see a broad spectrum of political, social and theological views. But Christians try to downplay this -- they will ultimately resort to "we're all equal in God's eyes" or some such. Secular folks already know it's pointless to rally around one socio-political fad or another. Once we become honest about our lack of supernatural belief, it's pretty much impossible to get us to blindly accept any ideology or components thereof. So when a fundie says "You secular humanists will accept anything," that's what they're trying to shame us with.

  2. Simply brilliant Bill.

    I will post your post on my blog.