James Croft addresses the critics of humanism


It’s very good. Read the whole thing.

But what about the argument that contemporary Humanism is becoming a cult, with its own unquestionable dogmas? Is the board of the AHA donning robes and preparing the thumbscrews? Of course not. In fact, steps like this show that organized Humanism is becoming more Humanistic. Humanism means more than a commitment to skepticism and freethought, and more than not believing in God (and the more I do Humanism the less I think that even matters). It means working to promote the dignity and worth of all people; fighting for the oppressed and the marginalized; working together for a more just world; and striving to bring out the best in ourselves and in others. Humanist organizations should seek to uphold these positive values at all times, and in disassociating themselves with the increasingly cringeworthy behavior of Richard Dawkins, the American Humanist Association showed a commitment to them.

Of course freethought, skepticism, and intellectual debate are central to the Humanist project. We should be vigilant against any tendency toward groupthink or cultishness. But for too many years, organized Humanism has focused on freethought and skepticism to the detriment of the broader panoply of values the tradition should uphold. It has promoted – even lionized – figures who are rightly well-known for their contributions to science and skepticism, but who are not good representatives of the fullness of our tradition. People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins became darlings of our movement at a time when it was focused far too much on defeating religion, and far too little on defeating injustice. That is now changing, and some in the movement don’t like the change. They want to hold onto their heroes, and resist the criticism they receive. New battle-lines are forming, and with this decision the AHA has chosen a side.

Good for them that it’s the right one.

I know what side I’m on. I’m relieved at one decision we made years ago. When the late Ed Brayton and I were discussing what to call this network, we both shared the goal of making it inclusive and committed to broader concerns than just “there is no god”, and we went back and forth on appropriate names; we quickly ruled out anything with “atheism” or “atheist” in it, because even then we could see the divisions becoming deeper and there were a few too many people calling themselves atheists that we did not want to be associated with. When Ed came up with “freethoughtblogs”, we said “PERFECT!” and I immediately bought the domain. And here you are. And here we are, able to easily distinguish ourselves from those people.

I recently renewed the domain registration, by the way.

Thanks, Ed, for your foresight.

Comments

  1. ardipithecus says

    Humanism is a political movement, not a religious one, so defining it in religious terms does some not-good things:

    It creates an ambiguity
    It shuts out people who are religious and humanist.

    I know people who are Christian, Muslim, and Sikh who also embrace humanist political values. I also know of members of those religions who are the opposite; who use their religion as a tool for enhancing their social status, or a cudgel to punish people who do not behave as they think people should behave.

    Humanism needs to be as inclusive as it can be without losing it’s humanism.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Ed Brayton was a great guy.
    He asked the blog readers for contributions to his health expences, it helped some but obviously not enough.
    I feel a lot of guilt that I did not contribute more. He is sorely missed.

  3. says

    I’ve always been critical of secular humanism, but from the opposite direction. “Humanism”, as a label, has no teeth. There are some good organizations like AHA, but there’s also the Council for Secular Humanism, a sub-organization of CFI, which is now merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Dawkins and many of his defenders have openly proclaimed humanist values. And as James Croft points out, some have even criticized AHA’s decision as a “betrayal of humanist values”.

    Well, if humanist values can’t unambiguously condemn transphobia, then what good are they?

    Kudos to AHA for trying to make the case that humanism is still relevant.

  4. says

    I agree that defeating religion is not the be all or end all of Humanism, but religion or at least religious extremism does power some of the social justice issues we need to address today.

  5. KG says

    Freefromthoughtblogs was rather popular back in the day. Then Paula Myers…

    So “feministhero” thinks it’s a clever and effective insult to refer to PZ as if he were a woman. That really tells you all you need to know about “feministhero”.

  6. says

    Also, “feministhero” was formerly known as “sjwslayer”, and was banned. I see he has been active since, posting noise that was automatically shuffled off into the spam folder. This one dribbled through, I guess — pass enough shit, he gets some anal leakage.

  7. PaulBC says

    People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins became darlings of our movement at a time when it was focused far too much on defeating religion, and far too little on defeating injustice.

    I’m curious what time period this spans. Dawkins received his (now revoked) award in 1996. I think Harris came into prominence later.

    If memory serves, I got very interested blogs about evolution around the time of Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005). I used to glance at talk.origins on Usenet from time to time before that, but not on a regular basis. That time period was also around the peak of anti-Muslim hysteria in the US, which seems to me a more likely reason that Harris got so much attention. Christopher Hitchens also benefited from widespread hatred of Muslims. So I saw those names show up in the crosstalk, but they were not driving the debate I was interested in reading about.

    My impression of the “movement” of which they were “darlings” was always that it was primarily a bunch of white men, mostly bearing animosity from a Christian upbringing in a Western nation, ignoring that this singles them out as a small subsegment of humanity with a particular perspective, out to prove that they are right about stuff, and they they had arrived at their conclusions purely by rational, objective means. Their rhetoric is catnip for anyone who considers it important to think: “My hatred of X is not just my feeling. X is objectively bad.” All that changes is X. And I guess trans is the big one now.

    There are in fact many scientists who are excellent at debunking creationism and can do so through education rather than polemic. But their focus is very different, though it usually rejects belief in the supernatural (at least as a useful explanation) it does not pick a fight with any particular religion. I am not even sure Dawkins had a useful role in the criticism of Behe and Dembski, but there were enough other competent people involved that his contribution was superfluous.

    I followed the AHA statement to its page of ten commitments and these are all values I can get behind (or would if I wasn’t so lazy). The only one that even touches on Dawkins is critical thinking, and that looks like a waning faculty in his case. How old are these commitments? Were they the same in 1996 when he received the award?

  8. anthrosciguy says

    My late mom was a lifelong Methodist, and I can guarantee you that she and PZ would get along far more famously, and agree on far more, than PZ and any number of atheists.

  9. PaulBC says

    AHA has some other very interesting material, including paths from various world religions. But I found an unfortunate typo in their brochure about Catholics.

    Strive to end the major causes of human suffering as urged by Pope John Paul II and by Pope Paul IV

    I had guessed they meant Pope Paul VI, and they have a correctly labeled quote from him in a sidebar.

    But what if they really meant Pope Paul IV? I knew absolutely nothing about him before reading the Wikipedia page. OK, a typo (I hope!)

    He curbed many clerical abuses in Rome, but his methods were seen as harsh. Paul IV had some hundred of the Marranos of Ancona thrown into prison; 50 were sentenced by the tribunal of the Inquisition and 25 of these were burned at the stake. Paul IV may be considered the instigator of one of the most wretched periods in the history of the Jews in Italy – the period of the ghettos, which dragged on for three centuries.

    They should get a better proofreader.

  10. says

    Things to keep in mind: the new atheism was largely a journalistic invention, and it came on much more gradually than most people realize. I was active in anti-creationism in the 90s, with almost no fanfare or attention at all; I was doing debates all that time, and in fact, one of my first extracurricular ‘events’ in 2000 was a conflict with an itinerant preacher who was lecturing on Jesus & evolution when I first moved to Minnesota. None of this made it into the press. It was all ho-hum egghead vs Man of God nonsense.
    Then 9/11.
    I was getting invited to conferences on the problem of religion, suddenly, and all too often they devolved into fist-shaking at Islam. The press started paying attention.
    Then Sam Harris and The End of Faith in 2005. Harris rode that anti-Muslim bandwagon hard, and sympathetic journalists helped him along. Harris’s success emboldened John Brockman to let Dawkins publish The God Delusion, which Dawkins had been suggesting he do for many years before that, but Brockman had always demurred, saying the public wasn’t ready yet. This is where everything really took off. Wired running cover stories, inventing the “Four Horsemen” also helped. At that point, it was off to the races.
    Dawkins had always been a resource for anti-creationists, but had done little for that conflict. I note that the Kitzmiller trial was also in 2005; Dawkins made no contribution to it, although I’m sure he was cheering for the right side. There were a huge number of people trying to popularize and educate citizens about science, and many of them were Christians (see Ken Miller, for instance) and were making bigger contributions to the debate than Dawkins — Stephen Jay Gould was, once upon a time, far more influential in the US, at least, but he was more of a humanist. Had he lived, I doubt that he’d be part of the anti-Muslim attack squad. It’s too bad. He would have been a good counterbalance to the extremists.
    9/11 sucked all the air out of the room and inflated the contributions of more strident atheists (like me!), and I think that hurt the movement in the long run.

  11. says

    I was raised Unitarian Universalist, and we considered ourselves humanists, whether we believed in God or not. If you believe in a non interventionist god it kind of makes no difference whether there is a god or not.

  12. says

    My father and paternal grandmother were unitarians. What that meant, unfortunately, is that my religious upbringing was the domain of my mother’s Lutheran family. The existence of my dad was sufficient to make me question everything, though, so I guess I avoided the worst of it.

  13. raven says

    Thanks, Ed, for your foresight.

    Ed Brayton was not only a good guy, he was a good writer and blogger.
    Who usually put up 5 or more posts just about every day.
    That is a lot of work.
    He did it well and made it look easy at the same time.

    Not forgotten and still missed.

  14. consciousness razor says

    PZ, #12:

    9/11 sucked all the air out of the room and inflated the contributions of more strident atheists (like me!), and I think that hurt the movement in the long run.

    Just to be clear on this…. One of the things that was implicit in your comment (but might be misinterpreted or ignored) is that it’s not the case that it all came out of nowhere after 9/11. Those seeds were laid in some pretty fertile ground. It did become a more politically important/salient issue for many people then, it got way more press, books were published, organizations were founded and expanded, etc. But the trend toward increased atheism among the general population in the US (and elsewhere) was already happening well before that, for a variety of reasons. In the 1990s, say, it wasn’t as much as the rather large change that we saw throughout the 2000s and 2010s, but it’s not nothing.

    For the most part, we’re also not a politically conservative bunch. So it’s probably true that some of it comes along for the ride with opposition to conservatives and all the terrible shit that they’ve been doing for a long time (whether or not it has anything to do with religion). Speaking for myself, it certainly didn’t make a great impression on me that they always peddled so much greed, hate, war, etc., while also thumping their Bibles and pretending to be the voice of morality itself. There were also plenty of other independent reasons to think religions are just plain wrong, but I don’t think the religious were doing themselves any favors by being so proudly and openly horrible in pretty much every way one can imagine.

  15. ORigel says

    I don’t really identify as a “humanist.” It is too often used as a mere euphemism for “atheist” and I’d rather call myself the latter. I am an atheist. I am liberal on social issues. I am a Social Democrat. Etc.

  16. kome says

    It’s kind of amusing to me that critics of wokeness, cancel culture, etc. never – and I mean never – point to any specific issue they have with any alleged cancellation. It’s always vague and generic concerns about thought policing and silencing and censorship, but they never say specifically about what. This is part of the rhetorical gambit to attack political correctness and wokeness; keep it vague and unspecified to make it seem like anything other than truly abhorrent thoughts (that are used to justify truly abhorrent behavior) are what’s being called problematic.

    Dawkins was just asking questions, his defenders say. Only in the vaguest possible sense, sure I guess technically he was asking questions. But specifically, he was questioning the humanity of an entire group of people. He was questioning whether it is justified to allow an entire group of people both to be acknowledged as fully human and to have some fundamental agency and self-determination of their own life. In what universe have those kinds of questions ever been useful for anything except as the groundwork for subsequent extermination of people? Only monsters think those kinds of questions should result in zero negative consequence of the person asking them.

  17. says

    #21: Correct. The atheist movement has a much longer history than just Sam Fucking Harris. 9/11 empowered its worst element.

  18. Akira MacKenzie says

    Let me guess: lonleyranger was a sock puppet for feministhero/sjwslayer?

  19. DanDare says

    I have recently been part of forming Humanists Australia. We emphasise the lack of “higher authority” and the need for scientific method to build knowledge.
    Here in Oz we still are battling the religious forces that try to control education and push “religious freedom” bills to help push for theocracy.
    At the same time we are pretty broad in trying to develop mem b ership thinking skills and work on social issues of all kinds.

  20. says

    You’d think he’d eventually realize that spewing obscene, transphobic and homophobic hate-rants is just proving my point.

  21. says

    Yeah, to me, it always feels like the anti-humanist atheists want atheism to mean nothing, aside from possibly an excuse to pat their own backs. Bigotry enabled by the name of science, rather than a supernatural authority. Basically the same problems that pushed me out of my church, but with a different coat of paint.

    Whole point of intersectionality is that different groups have experienced their own prejudices and we can stand together in solidarity and sympathy. Anti-humanists atheists seem like they’d seriously argue we should play Oppression Olympics and argue that our own problems are the only ones worth addressing.

  22. chrislawson says

    Bronze Dog — in my experience, anti-humanist atheists also object to the concept of intersectionality. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

  23. chrislawson says

    ORigel@22–

    Seconding Erlend Meyer. Humanist != atheist, even as a euphemism.

  24. says

    I’ve said for a while now that defining myself by what I don’t believe is a wholly inadequate delineator of identity. Thus, at best, I’d include ‘small-“a” atheist’ in a subcategory of the attributes that make up my self-description. Also, though I object to many of the things that people do in the name of religion, I find calling myself an anti-theist equally inadequate, especially since as a humanist (if I must adopt a label) I’m willing to work with progressive-minded religious people who share some of the same beliefs in social justice and inclusiveness, even as I continue to have deep skepticism about their beliefs in deities, the supernatural, etc., and have a commitment to rational thought, the scientific method, and philosophical inquiry as well as to unfettered creative expression in the arts, which religions have often hindered. (My degrees are in music and philosophy.)

    It’s interesting to me that when I first declared, quite a few years ago, that defining myself by what I don’t believe just won’t do, I got quite a few butt-hurt comments back from some of the people I’d met in atheist groups, who seemed to think that I was some kind of wishy-washy, unreliable compromiser with the evil religionists. They seemed to feel that my main, nay, only focus should be on stamping out religion. Behind that seemed to be a conviction that everyone who’s religious is so for the same reasons, that they’re all the same sort of deluded, fanatical sheep: in short, a lack of understanding of the variety of reasons people profess religious belief, many of which do not lead them to impose their beliefs on others (which is why I can and do have friends who are believing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus – I study North Indian classical music – and Buddhists.) There was a lack of depth of thought and nuance in these atheists no less troubling than that found in religious fanatics.

  25. PaulBC says

    kaimatthews@37

    Thus, at best, I’d include ‘small-“a” atheist’ in a subcategory of the attributes that make up my self-description.

    I would go with agnostic for myself, though most likely my views on the existence of God are indistinguishable from many self-identified atheists.

    I also don’t think I’m going with the softer a-label out of cowardice, though others can reach their own conclusion. It’s more that I don’t see anything actionable about the distinction. There are many things for which I have a working assumption but do not claim complete knowledge. I welcome surprises. I’m not expecting to be surprised on this one, but I am sure that before I pass on I will be surprised by any number of things I feel quite certain about right now

    The humanist distinction is actionable, though. If my values are centered around the well-being of other humans and defined by consequences in this life, I will definitely reach very different decisions than if I’m holding out for some other reward. Honestly, I think that if there were a God, it would be rude and ungrateful to dismiss the world around us as second rate. It’s hard for me to see how that makes anyone a better person.

  26. John Morales says

    PaulBC:

    I would go with agnostic for myself, though most likely my views on the existence of God are indistinguishable from many self-identified atheists.

    I also don’t think I’m going with the softer a-label out of cowardice, though others can reach their own conclusion. It’s more that I don’t see anything actionable about the distinction.

    You would?
    Yeah, I’m sure it’s cowardice. You don’t want to commit. Simple as that.
    And, if you truly didn’t see a difference, you wouldn’t pick the wishy-washy term as preferable.

    ‘Atheist’ is just too harsh for the likes of you to apply to oneself.
    Sounds so… definitive.

    (But sure, you would — presumably, if pinned on the matter, but not actually just yet — declare that you find no problem believing in the possible existence of a magical sky creature that has ridiculous attributes)

    Honestly, I think that if there were a God, it would be rude and ungrateful to dismiss the world around us as second rate.

    What a load of rubbish, on multiple levels.

    It’s hard for me to see how that makes anyone a better person.

    You mean it’s impossible — were it merely hard, it would be doable.

    (Because honesty and forthrightness has nothing to do with being a better person, right?)

  27. PaulBC says

    John Morales@39

    (Because honesty and forthrightness has nothing to do with being a better person, right?)

    It helps, but it’s not the only thing that matters. You can be honestly and forthrightly a complete asshole.

    Anyway, I am not sure what you’re saying about my statement, or just ignoring it. Christian views of the afterlife are predicated on the notion that the reality we’re experiencing now is a weak and imperfect substitute for some sort of eternal life that we’re allegedly entitled to. That strikes me as nonsense, and not only nonsensical, but ungrateful. It’s just super-weird that anyone considers it a sign of virtue to ignore the good you see and hold out for someone’s fantasy.

    That was my point. Sorry I did not express it as directly as you believe I should have. Is it “impossible” or merely “hard” to see? I leave it open that my judgment is incorrect and I could be persuaded otherwise. That might make me a worse person (who’s keeping score?) but that was not my point.

  28. John Morales says

    Paul:

    It helps, but it’s not the only thing that matters. You can be honestly and forthrightly a complete asshole.

    Well, there you go. It was hard for you to see it, but now you do see that it helps.

    Anyway, I am not sure what you’re saying about my statement, or just ignoring it. Christian views of the afterlife [blah]
    […]
    That was my point. Sorry I did not express it as directly as you believe I should have.

    I took you to mean that one couldn’t imagine a better world if there were a God, that is, pretty literally. Anyway, your clarification is still a vacuous one; either this world is not worse, or Heaven is not better, and since it is a premise that Heaven is better, it follows this world is not as good. So you’re thinking that it’s rude to be consistent in one’s beliefs, essentially.

  29. lotharloo says

    I have to give that lady some credit. About possible excuses for Dawkins statements, never I imagined “language barrier” would be among them.

  30. says

    PaulBC @38:

    “The humanist distinction is actionable, though. If my values are centered around the well-being of other humans and defined by consequences in this life, I will definitely reach very different decisions than if I’m holding out for some other reward. Honestly, I think that if there were a God, it would be rude and ungrateful to dismiss the world around us as second rate. It’s hard for me to see how that makes anyone a better person.”

    “Humanist” is more meaningful simply because it can imply a broad set of progressive concerns for the well-being of humanity (even if some people constrict its meaning to “fight against religion”.)

    I agree that the conceit of an afterlife tends to lead people to devalue the here and now, the only life we have (an afterlife is merely wishful thinking, something for which we have zero evidence), just as belief in divine intervention or karma or any other mechanism that allows one to abdicate responsibility for one’s own agency leads to passivity and a lack of empathy for other living things. “Ah, well, it doesn’t matter if we suffer now, because loving Jeebus means we’ll have a comfy afterlife!” or “We don’t need to take care of the biosphere because God promised he wouldn’t destroy the world again!” or “It doesn’t matter if the Earth becomes a hellhole with mass extinctions, because we’re goin’ ta heaven!”

  31. PaulBC says

    John Morales@42 I thought what I wrote was pretty clear, and of course it was vacuous. It takes either more effort or pre-existing expertise to contribute anything new.

    I was referring to the idea (a central tenet of Christianity) that God is holding out on us. It seems ungrateful to me. An ordinary human life, supplied with basic needs, engaging work, and social connections is enviable. I feel no need to say “What? Is that all?” like a spoiled brat. (Things could take a turn for the worse and I might feel differently about it, but this reflects my current outlook.)

    It’s true that many people are born destitute or oppressed their entire lives and have every reason to demand something better. However, the same belief is used mostly to tell them to shut up and wait their turn, so it doesn’t do much good in that case either.

    (An old point, and not rocket science, but the main driver for my humanism.)

  32. PaulBC says

    lotharloo@43

    I have to give that lady some credit. About possible excuses for Dawkins statements, never I imagined “language barrier” would be among them.

    “Two nations separated by a common language.” Maybe that explains everything! (Doubtful, thought, since Dawkins has plenty of critics in the UK as well.)

  33. says

    [My attempt to avoid this discussion foiled by self-spiked punch…]

    I can’t agree. I think Croft is a thoroughly decent human being and have nothing against him, but he continues to engage in the same conflation he long has.

    But for too many years, organized Humanism has focused on freethought and skepticism to the detriment of the broader panoply of values the tradition should uphold.

    Freethought and skepticism have historically and intellectually been aligned with – essential, in fact, to – humanism. Croft is attempting to identify freethought/skepticism with the bigotry of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc., which is false. His larger purpose is to distance humanism from atheism/skepticism/freethought and bring it closer to religion. But this fails to address the epistemic immorality of religion and its apologists and ignores the central contribution of skepticism/freethought. The values of humanism necessarily include skepticism and freethought; humanism is necessarily in tension with faith.

    People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins became darlings of our movement at a time when it was focused far too much on defeating religion, and far too little on defeating injustice. That is now changing, and some in the movement don’t like the change. They want to hold onto their heroes, and resist the criticism they receive. New battle-lines are forming, and with this decision the AHA has chosen a side.

    Again, there’s a slippage here. There’s no fight for justice that doesn’t include an epistemic element (as I’ve argued at great length). And religion isn’t only an epistemic danger but politically one of the greatest social and political threats of this moment. The claim that religion and injustice can be cleanly separated in this way is false.

    The AHA has (righteously) chosen a side against bigotry. Not, as far as I understand, against irreligion, or skepticism, or freethought.

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