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Why Humanism Is Important to Today’s Political Discourse

Barry F. Seidman

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 4.

 The late Edward Said once said that “Humanism is the only, and I would go so far as saying, the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” Indeed, humanism represents the binding social, political, and cultural thread that can unite people of different cultures, beliefs, and values into a common framework of respectful coinhabitance, while at the same time, articulating a vision of a shared humanity in which all the peoples of the world can prosper. Humanism, with its foundations in Enlightenment principles, critical thinking, the scientific method, and an ethical worldview, is the ideal philosophy for executing all human socio-political endeavors.   

But yet, some members, and even leaders, of today’s humanist organizations in America refuse to accept the inevitable conclusion that progressive politics follow naturally (in the Enlightenment sense of the word), from philosophical humanism. Yet this truism has been understood as such since at least the first Humanist Manifesto was drafted in 1933 and indeed right up to Humanist Manifesto 2000. It seems, however, that many humanists tend to want to have their cake and eat it too. While some applaud the manifestos that they have identified with and based their personal philosophies on, others complain about the very existence of such documents—believing that if we follow them “blindly” we shall become as dogmatic as religionists. We think this is absurd, as this kind of thinking smacks of postmodernism. We have been around humanists for a long time now; whatever humanists do, they certainly never do it “blindly.”

Postmodernism, perhaps even more so than theology, is a philosophy most Enlightenment-based thinkers despise. Postmodernists claim that there is no objective reality, thus no objective morality. In other words, we make our own reality; thus, anything goes. What humanists rightly point out in defense of Enlightenment thinking of course is that there is such a thing as objective reality, and, thus, by understanding human nature and seeking the unifying concept that runs throughout Enlightenment philosophy—evidence—an ethical philosophy can (and has) evolve(d).

For evidence-based, Enlightenment-inspired people, the philosophical insights and affirmations articulated in the Humanist Manifestos exist as guidelines we humanists must follow if we are to be true to our worldview. The insights and affirmations in these manifestos concerning the economy, international human rights, individual rights, human interconnectedness, and so forth are far from dogmatic “scripture.” Rather, these documents consist of a set of reasoned principles, based on experience and evidence, gathered by many philosophically, scientifically, and socio-politically minded people since Aristotle first wrote.

How does this apply to the here and now? Let us offer an example of where humanists must be actively engaged. As of this writing, Americans have just witnessed an election which if valid* tells an amazingly disturbing story. There are over a hundred reasons we can offer to show that the Bush administration has acted nonhumanistically ever since it began to use 9/11 as a reason to put forth its radical right-wing agenda for America. Their lies about weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, homeland security, the Patriot Act, and what happened on 9/11 (and why) are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet George Bush has won four more years as president.

Never in American history has so dangerous and un-American an administration built such support for its “leadership,” and it was done in spite of the evidence showing its un-American ways. Indeed, this president ought to have never made it to Election Day, as he should have been impeached for any number of crimes and misdemeanors, of which the preemptive invasion of Iraq is but one.

How did this happen? It is simple. It all comes back to evidence. To reiterate, humanists insist on evidence before making decisions about anything from medicine to creationism to buying a car, and we also must insist on evidence in politics. But evidence is not a word Americans embrace. Instead, they embrace “faith.” I am not just talking about faith as in the belief in a god or even the kind of religious beliefs (or misbeliefs) blinding those millions of fundamentalist Christians who voted for Bush on “social issues.” I am instead talking about a sort of political faith “virus” that seems to have infected conservative America even among nonbelievers.

To illustrate our point, the Program on International Policy Attitudes and Knowledge Networks just released a study called “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters.” What they found is appalling for twenty-first century America. Steven Kull, director of PIPA, reported, “One of the reasons that Bush supporters have these beliefs is that they perceive the Bush administration confirming them.” According to the study, 82 percent of Bush supporters perceive the Bush administration as saying that Iraq had WMDs (63 percent) or that Iraq had a major WMD program (19 percent). Similarly, 75 percent say that the Bush administration said Iraq was providing substantial support to Al Qaeda.

Bush supporters also believe(d) that Bush favored multilateral approaches to various international issues—the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69 percent), the treaty banning land mines (72 percent); and, regarding global warming, 51 percent incorrectly assume he favors U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol, according to the study. And whatever happened to Abu Graib? These findings were only a partial list of misinformation Bush supporters took for granted—or shall I say, on faith.

Part of the reason Bush supporters believed these lies is no doubt due to the right-leaning agenda of the television media like Fox News and radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. And of course, many folks (and churches) in the so-called Red States were more interested in fundamentalist ideas about marriage and sex than the economy or war. But what of those Bush supporters who did know the facts and who are not Christian fundamentalists? Kull explained, “To support the president and to accept that he took the U.S. to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about prewar Iraq.” 

Ah! Suppression of facts in favor of beliefs—again, faith.

I think it is fair to say that the most maligned concepts in America today are evidence and truth. When the leader of the most powerful and, therefore, potentially dangerous nation on the planet—of all time—acts so in contrast to the humanist ethical world stance, not only are humanists in trouble but indeed all of humankind. When so many American citizens are not privy to or do not care about evidence, we are in even bigger trouble. Of course, there are those people, some who even dare to call themselves humanists, who actually acknowledge the evidence but in fact enjoy the direction the Bush administration is heading this country. It is these people, more than any terrorist organization, that we should fear the most.

In closing, here is a quote from Albert Einstein:

A human being is part of the whole called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. . . . Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. . . . We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind if to survive.

Humanism is that manner of thinking, but we must do more than think, we must do.

 *There is some evidence as of this writing that the exit polls, which on election night had Kerry overwhelmingly winning in a landslide—taking Ohio and Florida—were correct and that the vote was hacked by the Republicans. If this is true, it would be the most damning evidence we Americans might still choose to ignore. We hope not.

Barry F. Seidman is New Jersey coordinator for Center for Inquiry–New York.

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