Tuesday, December 18, 2012


A Major Humanist Failure


By Norm R. Allen Jr.


Many humanists are of the opinion that humanism is in every possible way superior to religion. Moreover, many humanists believe that humanists are necessarily better than religionists. This is not surprising. Despite the fact that humanists stress the importance and power of critical thinking, there is a tendency of people in general to believe that their worldviews are superior to the worldviews of others.

However, some humanists have written and spoken about the ways in which religion has been more successful than humanism. In my personal experience, religionists tend to be more caring. For example, at gatherings that religionists host, there is likely to be someone available to greet and welcome those that might be new to the meeting. Such is usually not the case at humanist gatherings.

Religionists are also more likely to make visits to hospitals, hospices, etc. to brighten the days of friends, relatives and even complete strangers. Humanists, on the other hand, are less likely to make such visits or to want to receive them.

Many humanists seem to lack even simple courtesy and hospitality. In many nations, such as the Philippines, China, and nations in Africa, etc., hospitality is regarded as an integral part of national identity. In the Southern part of the United States, hospitality was considered to be a major virtue. However, among many humanists, it seems to be sorely lacking.

If organized humanism is to grow, humanist leaders are going to have to start stressing the importance of common courtesy. Moreover, humanist leaders are going to have to start stressing the importance of generosity.

Many, though not all, studies show that religionists tend to be more generous than nonreligious people. There are numerous religious hospitals, orphanages, schools, pantries, etc. Comparatively speaking, there are few such humanist institutions.

This is understandable. After all, most people are theists. Still, many studies show that religionists give to secular organizations at much greater rates than do nonreligious people. This might be the case because religions seem to place far more stress on humanitarianism than do humanists. After all, many humanists point out the fact that there is no God to save us, and that “we must save ourselves.” However, they do not necessarily put their money or their actions where their mouths are.

Humanists have impressive conferences on humanist ethics, science, critical thinking, etc. However, it might be a great idea to have conferences on the importance of caring, hospitality and common courtesy.  These are simple virtues that many humanists take for granted, but are in short supply among humanists.

It would also be a good idea to identify and learn about great humanist role models, such as the  great 19th Century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll. Ingersoll did not merely critique the Bible and organized religion. He was a humanitarian. He gave money to worthy causes, including civil rights for African Americans.

Ingersoll also extended common courtesy to his fellow human beings. For example, when the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass needed a place to stay in Ingersoll’s town of Peoria, Illinois, Ingersoll offered to allow Douglass to stay at his home.

This might not seem like a big deal to many, but such a basic, kind gesture is often hard to find among self-professed humanists. Though humanism and humanitarianism are not one and the same, it seems that every conception of humanism should have at least some kind of humanitarian component. Furthermore, simple kindness and common courtesy are among what Paul Kurtz referred to as “the common moral decencies.” That is to say, one should not have to be a humanist to understand that such virtues are terribly important in any society.

This raises a serious question. Which is most important, humanism or humanitarianism? Are they equally important? Religionists have raised their profile and greatly increased their numbers throughout the world through humanitarianism. It is clear that humanitarianism and religion are not mutually exclusive. Why should humanitarianism and humanism be mutually exclusive?

Some humanists believe that humanists should not feel compelled to follow religious models. However, why should this be the case if religious models have worked? Religion only survives because its adherents feel that it has genuine value and that it in many ways improves their lives. One way religion improves lives and furthers its survival is through caring, common courtesy and humanitarianism.

Some years ago, there was an excellent book called The Arrogance of Faith, by Forrest Wood. It was an excellent critique of the Bible and its defense of slavery. However, as humanist activist Verle Muhrer of Kansas City once noted, we could also speak of “the arrogance of humanism.” Humanists must become more humble and admit that religion is in some ways better than humanism. We should also remember that Ingersoll talked about the importance of cultivating a “caring rationalism.” We have the rationalism down pat. However, rationalism without caring makes for a cold, cold world, and actually stifles the growth of the worldwide humanist movement.


© Institute for Science and Human Values