Are Humanists Human?

March 1994

Keynote address, annual reunion of the South Place Ethical Society, London, September 24, 1989, by Nicholas Walter

My title sounds a silly question, because the obvious answer is yes, in that all the people here and all the humanists I know are members of the human species (though I do sometimes wonder). But it is meant to express some serious questions about the place of the humanist movement in human society and about the place of human beings in the humanist movement, and the answers to such questions are not so obvious.

I shall begin with one of Robert Louis Stevenson's Fables called The Four Reformers:

Four reformers met under a bramble bush. They were all agreed the world must be changed.

"We must abolish property", said one.

"We must abolish marriage", said the second.

"We must abolish God", said the third.

"I wish we could abolish work", said the fourth.

"Do not let us get beyond practical politics", said the first. "The first thing is to reduce men to a common level".

"The first thing", said the second, "is to give freedom to the sexes".

"The first thing", said the third, "is to find out how to do it".

"The first step", said the first, "is to abolish the Bible".

"The first step", said the second, "is to abolish the law."

"The first thing", said the third, "is to abolish mankind".

Our immediate reaction; to that, of course, is a laugh; but our next reaction, I hope, is a wince. The humanists, who began by wanting to abolish the Bible and then God, often seem to want to abolish a whole lot of other things, ending with mankind. Stevenson's general point is that reformers are interested in the world as they want it to be, rather than in the world as it is. My particular point is that humanists are interested in humanity as they want it to be, rather than in humanity as it is. And my questions are about the relationship between humanism, and humanists on one side, and humanity and human beings on the other.

For a start, what about this word humanism? I use it myself, but I often wonder about it. I remember how Marghanita Laski, the entertaining and infuriating unbeliever who died last year, used to say crossly: "I'm not a humanist, I'm human! I recall that none of my grandparents, who all lost their various forms of Christian faith early in their lives, and neither of my parents, who never had any faith to lose, ever called themselves humanists. Although I have never believed in anything above or beyond or behind humanity, have never suffered either from the painful disease of religion or the equally painful recovery from it, and have therefore been a humanist as long as I have been a human, I have never been happy with the term.

Indeed I didn't call myself a humanist for a long time. When I was young, I was taught that humanists were scholars in the Italian Renaissance at the end of the Middle Ages who turned from divine to human studies, in particular to the study of Classical Greece and Rome, but who were still Christians even though they contributed to the decline of Christianity. When I was a little older, in the sixth form at school, I was actually called a 'humanist', but this was only because I was studying the so-called 'humanities' rather than the sciences. The usage had to do with the theories of German educationists at the time of the French Revolution, who coined the word "Humanism" to express the ideal of a liberal education; it had something to do with the Ancient World (though we didn't lean much Latin or Greek), but nothing to do with religion. Indeed the so-called humanists around me were far more likely to be religious than the scientists, so I didn't much want to be associated with them or with the word.

When I was older still, at university, I learnt about other people called humanists--followers of the French thinker August Comte, the founder of a "Religion of Humanity" in which gods and goddesses were superseded by great men and women, or of the American thinkers C. S. Pierce and William James, the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism in which the truth was what human beings thought it was. Later I learnt about John Dewey and Walter Lippmann in the United States, and F. C. S. Schiller and Gerald Heard in this country, who added further and increasingly confusing meanings to humanism.

Finally, I learnt about the scientific humanism of J. B. S. Haldane and Julian Huxley, of Boyd Orr and Brock Chisholm. I soon realized that this was much the same as the ideas which I had been brought up with and which I agreed with. I found it expounded in books by people like E. M. Forster and Bertrand Russell, and in person by people like Margaret Knight and Hector Hawton. In the end, about thirty-five years ago, as a result of this long process, I began to accept "Humanism"--which was being adopted by the freethought movement at about the time in about the same sense.

Nevertheless, even though I was a humanist, I didn't become a member of any humanist organization. On the one hand, I certainly agreed with the propaganda of the Rationalist Press Association and the National Secular Society when I came across it, but I seldom went out of my way to look for it, because I took it so much for granted and because I was much more interested in political than religious arguments. On the other hand, I certainly didn't agree with the work of the South Place Ethical Society or the Ethical Union, I didn't like the meetings of the former and didn't go to the meetings of the latter, because I felt that so-called ethical people were trying to bully me, just as religious people had tried to bully me at school and university. I didn't like them much better when they began to call themselves "humanists", nor did I much like the new humanist movement which appearing during the 1950's and 1960's.

My main problem was that I couldn't see the point of emphasizing the obvious fact that one was human, or of expressing meaningless belief in humanity; the latter is surely as absurd as Margaret Fuller's statement that she accepted the Universe. (As Thomas Carlyle commented, "Gad, she'd better!") If I had to express my basic beliefs in one word, I might choose not humanism but something else--freethought (thought that is free from arbitrary authority or assumptions), or rationalism (the reliance on reason), or secularism (the concentration on this life in this world), or just atheism (the rejection of divine beings and supernatural events). Anyway, although I quite enjoy playing around with these and other words, I do wonder whether in the end they cause more harm than good. We have just been commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, which is the first public event I can remember, and of the pact between Hitler and Stalin which let the war begin. I recall that when this agreement was made between Nazism and Communism, saying so much about both of them, a British official is said to have commented, "All the Ism are now Wasms". I sometimes wish that all the Ism which have buzzed around the freethought movement during the past couple of centuries were Wasms and that we could get on with more important issues.

However, humanism is established as the Ism of the freethought movement, not just in this country but around the world, and it is now the word used by most self-conscious non-religious people. Following my own principle, I have had to consider the movement as it is and not as I would like it to be, and this includes both humanism and the humanists. I worked out for myself a basic definition of humanism--a combination of the negative rejection of the idea of anything superhuman as a guide to thought and the positive recognition of common humanity as a guide to action. This was easy enough, but then I gradually got involved in the humanist movement, and eventually began working for it. This was not so easy, and it is my experience of humanists which has led to my question, Are the humanists human?

In asking such a question, I don't want either to attack or to defend humanism, but simply to discuss it among humanists, according to what I take to be humanist principles of free inquiry and open expression. What does it mean to call oneself a humanist, more than the basic definition I have just given? What is gained by adding an Ism to the obvious fact that one is human? Does it make one more human, or less? Does it actually add anything to Kathleen Nott's joke that humanism means being unkind to God and kind to animals? In the latter connection, indeed, what does it say about animals? Is humanism a form of what is now called speciesism--a sort of human patriotism? What does this say about our view of evolution? Do we attach a special objective value to the human species, as the only moral or rational form of life, or do we just give it subjective value because it happens to be our team? Does humanism have a positive meaning at all, or is it just a polite word for the negative attitude which use to be called infidelity or unbelief? Does humanism actually have any particular connection with humanity at all?

We all have our own answers to these questions, but whatever they are, what does it then mean to work for humanism though a humanist organization? We all have our own answers to this question too, but I shall put some which occurred to me when I was an outsider and which I am sure still occur to outsiders...

But, we are told, humanism is something more than old secularism or rationalism or ethicism or the old freethought movement altogether. At first humanism was a religion--the "Religion of Humanity", a fine phrase when Thomas Paine coined it back in the eighteenth century, but a silly nonsense when Comte adopted it in the nineteenth century, and an empty shell when Julian Huxley tried to strip it of revelation in the twentieth century. Religious humanism still exists, but it is very much a minority cult, even among humanists, at least in this country. The humanism is often used as a disguise for a religion of science, especially attached to the doctrine of evolution by natural selection; in this sense it is the same as 'scientism', the view than science has the sacred status which religion used to have. Then humanism is sometimes used--as 'secularism' was when G. J. Holyoake first adopted it in 1851--as a way of avoiding argument about religion and of saying that all men of good will can work together and sink their differences; in this sense Kenneth Kaunda made it the official ideology of Zambia (where there are public posters urging "Be Humanist!"). And humanism is sometimes used as an alternative to or substitute for religion, a secular faith to believe now that God is dead; in this sense it is the official public morality taught in Communist countries. But, like E M. Forster, I don't believe in belief, I don't want another faith, and I don't think many humanists do. For most people who call themselves humanists, surely, humanism is not a form of religion, or even an alternative to or substitute for religion, but a rejection of religion.

But now, we are told, humanism is analogous with religion. Well, that may well be true for some humanists, but not for others, and certainly not for me. My ideas about life, the universe and everything, which I am willing for the sake of argument or agreement to call humanism, do not play the part in my thought and behaviour that religion plays for other people. They are much less dogmatic and much more pragmatic. My humanism is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it says what I am, and not what I should do. For example, it would never occur to me to approach a problem as a humanist, in the way that religious fundamentalists approach problems as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or whatever--or indeed in the way that political fundamentalists do so as Marxists, socialists, anarchists, or whatever.

We are also told that humanism is a member of a wider class of things which includes both religious denominations and political ideologies, and that this kind of thing may be called a stance for living or a life stance. Well, again, that may be true for some humanists, but not for others, and certainly not for me. I can see what the life-stancists are getting at, but I don't think they have got it. I find both life and stance inappropriate words in this context, and I find such phraseology either meaningless or positively misleading. (Anyway, mightn't it be more accurate to say than humanism is a death stance or a stance for dying?) I have another problem, not so much with the content as with the style of the argument. I don't mind anyone saying that humanism is this, that, or the other, but I do mind being told that as humanists we have got to agree about it, and I mind very much being told that if I don't agree at least I mustn't disagree in public. If humanism really involves humanists treating other people in this way, then include me out.

Even more recently, we have been told that humanism is a eupraxophy--or is it an eupraxophy? The same objections apply even more strongly. Are all the old words so worn out that we must coin a new one, and if so must it sound so peculiar? I wonder whether anyone who seriously proposes the adoption by humanists of such a term as eupraxophy is thinking of them as human; and whether, if we seriously offered it to the wider public, we would be thinking of them as human. As Winston Churchill said in rather different circumstances in 1941, "what kind of people do they think we are?" I find it hard enough explaining what I mean by 'humanism' and why I work for the humanist movement without wanting to make a complete fool of myself. Again, I have another problem, which is that the advocates of such terms as life-stance and eupraxophy are active and influential in the world humanist movement, and are trying to impose them not just on their own circles but on national and international organizations. As I said before, if humanism really involves this kind of thing, then include me out.

From the opposite perspective, we are sometimes told that the trouble with humanists is not that they are too sure but that they aren't sure enough what humanism is. I think there is something in this, but I don't think it matters much. Isms are only labels, and I see humanism as simply a rough indication of our destination rather than a full description of our identity--the address on the envelope rather than the text of the letter--and I don't think it matters if we don't agree or don't know exactly what we believe. Of course I accept that argument that there should be some common understanding of what we mean, but I reject the argument that there should be certainty and agreement about everything.

Here I must say that I am worried about the tendency for humanism to develop from a basic position into a complex ideology with a whole series of doctrines--about life and death, women and children and old people, sex and contraception and embryo research, religious and moral and scientific education, school worship or "worthship" (another awful word) and separate schools, evolution and right and left brains and the paranormal, race and nationality, censorship and ceremonies and counseling, and so on. I am impressed by the Dutch Humanist movement, for example, which is about ten times the size of ours in a country about ten times as small, but am alarmed by some of its features. It has become one of the pillars of society--and you remember what Ibsen said about the pillars of society. I am worried about the tendency among humanists to show intolerance to people who challenge either the general ideology or one or other of the particular doctrines. If there is any value in humanism, apart from the truth of its basic position, it is surely that humanists differ just as much as other humans and that we say "Vive la difference!"

All this sort of thing reminds me of why I didn't like the word humanism when I was young and didn't want to join the humanist movement when I was older. Not that I want to follow the argument put by some freethinkers that the word causes such trouble that we should drop it altogether; I think we are stuck with it and should make the best of it. Nor that I want to leave the movement to which I have given so much time and energy. But I must confess that I find myself drawn towards the mysterious new organization which calls itself the Humanist Party. No, I don't like what little I have been able to discover about its origins or methods, and I don't have any wish to join it. But I do like its basic statement of the meaning of humanism--'Nothing above the human, and no human above another'. I wish I had thought of that! Does humanism have to mean any more than that?

But it is time to stop asking questions and to start giving answers. In my view, then, humanists should think less about humanism and more about humanity--as it is rather than as it should be. Humanists should behave in a way which is human and which will appeal to ordinary humans outside our movement. Let us remember that about half the people in this country never voluntarily take part in any religious activity, and that about a quarter have no religious belief at all. If humanism means what it is meant to mean, these tens of millions of people are humanists without knowing it--rather like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere's play Le Bourgois Gentilhomme, who spoke prose without realizing it.

But they will not become humanists if we copy the mistakes of all the religious and political ideologies, and try to bully or bewilder them into humanism. Humanism should not be an evangelizing or proselytizing system like all the others, but should be a place where people can take refuge from such systems and become who they are. Our job is not to convert people to humanism but to encourage them to be human. Nothing is gained by just exchanging one orthodoxy for another...As Tolstoy said: "Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change himself". Stevenson wrote another Fable, The House of Eld, which is too long to quote here, about a country where people wear fetter on their right legs until a reformer shows that this is a superstition--so they wear fetters on their left legs instead! A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill School, opposed moral education as much as religious education because, even if it was based on facts rather than fantasies, it is just as oppressive of children. As a former child, I sympathize. I wonder what he would think of trying to get humanism into agreed syllabuses of religious education or into school assemblies. To quote a final fable, one of James Thurber's Fables for Our Time, about the bear who turned from alcoholism to teetotalism: "You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward."

I must end by saying that, despite all the other things I have said, I still prefer humanism to all the other Isms, and I still prefer the humanist movement to all the other movements I have known. Most of my best friends are humanists and most of the people I admire are humanists. I always enjoy visiting the local groups in the British movement, and meeting people from other countries in the international movement. I do actually agree with most of what most humanists say humanism is. I have simply tried to voice some of the things which worry me about it and them and which worry many other people whose voices we never hear. To take (today as) a final example, what sort of humans meet in central London on a pleasant Sunday to talk about being human?

So what is the final answer to my original question? I find it in the German thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche. Just over a century ago he published a book whose title says all that I have been trying to say: menschliches, allzumenschliches--Human, all too Human. My criticisms of humanists only amount to saying that they are much the same as everyone else--yes, they are human, all too human. Nietzsche tried to persuade humans to become superhuman, but he was all too human, too, and collapsed under the strain. We must not make the same mistake. We must be neither too human nor too inhuman. We must recognize that we are just human and not pretend to be something more. What matters is not humanism, but humanity--not the humanist movement, but human movement.

--Ben Dell
Managing director of the Rationalist Press Association