I am completely baffled by Michael Lind. He’s some think-tank scholar who regularly publishes in Salon, and somehow in all of his writings he’s managed to avoid clearly stating any principle he stands for. I understand he’s some kind of center leftist, he’s no fan of right-wing demagoguery, but then he publishes strange articles arguing that we shouldn’t mock Glenn Beck, or now, an article pissing on secular humanism. Why, I don’t know, and what he’d offer as an alternative is missing from his diatribe.
He has a peculiar view of the American condition, too. Apparently, the liberal/progressive element in the US is suffering from a “religious vacuum”, which he claims is being filled by three “new creeds”.
“Radical environmentalism”. Oh, really? This is a significant influence in US politics? Total nonsense. There are damned few radical environmentalists doing anything nowadays, and we need more of them: Edward Abbey is dead, and even there, he was afflicted with the curse of being called a radical, militant environmentalist (like the New Atheists are called radical and militant) just because he was passionate and eloquent. What Lind calls “radical”, I call “common sense” — a proponent of the basic changes we need to make in our culture in order to maintain a stable, sustainable society. And I see no sign that the environment is taken at all seriously by either the left or the right.
“New Atheism”. Again, let’s trot out the tired adjectives: The New Atheism, according to Lind, is simply “militantly anticlerical”, and the same old stuff served up by Madalyn Murray O’Hare. He completely misses the boat here; I think the primary attribute of the New Atheism is not anti-clericalism, which is merely a side-effect of its primary impetus, its emphasis on science and evidence-based reasoning.
Now here’s the thing: Lind claims that there are 3 “creeds” propelling the American left, but these first two he simply dismisses in a couple of sentences, so he must not think they can be that important. He’s really just setting up the object of his animus, the third “creed”.
“Secular humanism”. Oh, man, he doesn’t like humanism at all.
With less fanfare and more tact than the new atheists, “secular humanists” have attempted to provide an all-encompassing public philosophy based on science, as an alternative to moralities and political programs justified by supernatural religion. While the scientific naturalism that inspires it is true, American “secular humanism” is a naive and sentimental creed that, ironically, is too unworldly to serve as a practical guide to ethics and politics on this, the real planet of the apes.
And then he’s off. Most of his article is entirely about how impractical and foolish humanism is.
The bulk of the article involves taking a hatchet to Paul Kurtz, which is amusingly off the mark. Kurtz is an influential figure in the history of humanism, but…well, I just spent a fair amount of time with representatives from over 60 countries at the World Humanist Congress, and let’s just say he isn’t regarded with warm and loving admiration by a majority. That’s not to say he hasn’t made a contribution to humanist thought, but there are a great many humanists who would show up at a roast of Paul Kurtz with daggers and eager grins. Flail away at Kurtz all you want, Mr Lind! It just shows how unaware of contemporary humanism you are.
After beating on Kurtz for a while, the next phase of Lind’s criticism involves the whipping of straw men. How many times have you heard this before:
For all the variations, the common theory of human nature underlying contemporary secular humanism seems to be cosmopolitan utilitarianism, the conviction that human beings, if liberated from superstition by science, would behave less like selfish, scheming social apes and more like self-sacrificing social insects, giving their all for the good of the 7 billion members of the global human hive.
I don’t know any atheists or humanists who believe that religion is the sole source of all of our problems, and that abolishing it will usher in a new era of total peace and cooperation. We also don’t believe that philosophy risks changing all of human nature. We also don’t regard humans as purely rational actors who make decisions based on an intellectual and careful weighing of the alternatives.
Lind constantly harps on the fact that we’re all a bunch of apes, which is true, but he treads awfully close to the naturalistic fallacy — give up, he says, embrace your inner brute, or rather, his caricature of all apes as scheming, selfish creatures who care nothing for common causes. He insists that Hume is right and we cannot derive an ought from an is — and I agree — but that does not mean that “oughts” are illusory and to be ignored. He dismisses humanist goals as unrealistic fantasies, insisting that we should regard ourselves as nothing more than “half-crazed hooting howler monkeys”. He doesn’t seem to understand the difference between what is — a recognition of our true animal natures — and what we ought to do — aspire to be something better and greater than what we are now.
But here’s what bugs me about Lind. He claims at the outset that there is a “vacuum” at the heart of American liberalism, and implies that it is inadequately filled by his three “creeds”…but his entire essay is about tearing down these philosophies, and he offers nothing as an alternative. Well, except for his notion that we ought to treat the citizenry as a mob of monkeys.
I tried to dig deeper. He’s one of the founders of some think-tank called the New America Foundation, and I dare you to read their website and come back with a clear idea of what, exactly, the New America Foundation stands for — other than harvesting funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. Here, apparently, is what they do:
With an emphasis on big ideas, impartial analysis and pragmatic solutions, New America invests in outstanding individuals whose ability to communicate to wide and influential audiences can change the country’s policy discourse in critical areas, bringing promising new ideas and debates to the fore.
Good luck filling our purported vacuum with that. It’s purpose seems to be to pay pundits, which I guess is fairly typical for thinktanks. Contrast that with the purpose of the IHEU:
Our vision is a Humanist world; a world in which human rights are respected and everyone is able to live a life of dignity. The mission of IHEU is to build and represent the global Humanist movement that defends human rights and promotes Humanist values world-wide.
And the AHA:
We strive to bring about a progressive society where being good without gods is an accepted way to live life. We are accomplishing this through our defense of civil liberties and secular governance, by our outreach to the growing number of people without traditional religious faith, and through a continued refinement and advancement of the humanist worldview.
Humanism encompasses a variety of nontheistic views (atheism, agnosticism, rationalism, naturalism, secularism, and so forth) while adding the important element of a comprehensive worldview and set of ethical values—values that are grounded in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, informed by scientific knowledge, and driven by a desire to meet the needs of people in the here and now.
There is no illusion that human dignity will magically appear once we get rid of religion; it’s something we all have to work towards. But they also have ambitious goals and a world-wide network of organizations working — emphasis on actually working — to improve the human condition, which I think is a far better aim than promoting one parochial little thinktank thriving on corporate largesse and promoting yet more nationalism.
We’re also left with another interesting question. Why is Salon publishing this strangely nebulous agent of a mysteriously vague thinktank in the first place?