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May
31
2009
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 24 issue 1

Secular Humanist Convictions;
Reflections from an Octogenarian Eupraxsopher

Paul Kurtz


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 24, Number 1 (Spring 2008).


The year 2010 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism and the first publication of Free Inquiry magazine. It will also mark over forty-five years of my involvement in the organized humanist movement.

I live what many of my friends think is an unbelievably active life. It is commonly thought that the eighties are a time when people in their right minds should retire. Perhaps I should have my head examined, for I have not. It is also the age when reflective wisdom is supposed to develop (if one does not have Alzheimer’s). In any case, this is also a good time for me to reflect about humanism.

Being an octogenarian, of course, has its infirmities. I can no longer jog three miles a day—instead I do aerobic trotting for one hour everyday, though at a somewhat slower pace. I cannot get through the day without my spectacles and hearing aids. In the area of libido, George Bernard Shaw was right when he observed that it is a shame that romantic love is wasted on the young!

But octogenarianism also has its surprising virtues. Aristotle said in the Nichomachean Ethics that the best time to tell if a person has achieved eudaemonia (well-being) in a complete life is when one approaches the end of life. I have lived an exuberant life, fully engaged in the public arena, always busy in writing and lecturing. One advantage of a long life is that I have known many of the world’s leading humanists—from Sidney Hook, Ernest Nagel, E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Albert Ellis, Andrei Sakharov, B.F. Skinner, Betty Friedan, Antony Flew, and Tom Szasz to Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Isaac and Joan Asimov, Peter Ustinov, James Farmer, Elena Bonner, Vern and Bonnie Bullough, and so many others. I have gained an appreciation for the heroic dimensions of these humanist personalities as we worked on projects, as well as their humor and wit and their exuberant lust for life. All would no doubt make A.H. Maslow’s list of creative actualizers, able to savor peak experiences.

It is remarkable to see the shift in attitudes toward humanism in the last half of the twentieth century. I remember well the celebrations of John Dewey’s ninetieth birthday in 1959, which I attended as an impecunious graduate student. On one occasion, Dwight Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University (and being groomed for a run for the U.S. pres idency), spoke at an event honoring John Dewey. Can you imagine a presidential candidate doing that today? At that time, no one wished to be known as human. Everyone claimed to be a humanist, even the pope and the Marxists. That humanism, more specifically secular humanism, came under heavy attack from the Moral Majority and fundamentalist preachers in the late 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s was a shock to most of us.

This no doubt was because secular humanism was considered godless and was identified with atheism. Yet that is not the defining characteristic of humanism, which uniquely expresses a set of ethical values. Religious conservatives deny that humanists can be moral persons. They ask, “Is life worth living without God?” or “Can one be good without religious faith?” Yes! I respond. “Life is or can be meaningful on its own terms!” The refrain that I sing is that “Life can be intrinsically good, overflowing with value. I have found life wonderful. Every moment is cherished and counts.” That is why I have written so much in praise of exuberance.1 The exuberant life is a life of exploration and discovery, adventure and achievement, creativity and joy, pleasure and satisfaction. The meaning of life is not found by withdrawing from the world in quest of mystical transcendence. It is created by each of us as we reach out to new dimensions of living. In this process emerges the excitement, drama, and exaltation of living. Life has no prior meaning or purpose; it is pregnant with opportunities for each person to seize and act upon. Human beings are creative; they can initiate purposes, plans, and projects and bring them to fruition by their own powers of intelligence and effort. In my book, Forbidden Fruit,2 I write that humans need to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but that the best fruit in the Garden of Eden is that of the tree of life. In Genesis 3:22, 23, we read, “The Lord God said: behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—and thus Jehovah expelled Adam and Eve from Eden. Good riddance to a life of dependence and submission!

The chief good for the humanist is life itself: pulsating, throbbing, full of expectations and consummations. It is a life in which moral conduct is exemplified. We do something not because God commands it but because our ethical reflections indicate that it is good or right or appropriate.

But “What about the tragic?” asks the believer. “Is this not a vale of tears?” Perhaps at times, for we suffer defeats and losses, unrequited loves and disappointments. We may experience severe setbacks that may crush some individuals with their intensity—the twists of outrageous fortune are often unpredictable. There are people who endure lives of desperation, poverty, and disease, or who live in despotic, repressive societies. Yet there is the will to overcome adversity, and, in the place of pain or sorrow, happiness and laughter, delight, and joy can break through. One needs to balance the good with the bad, strive against injustice, and love in the face of duplicity.

We are forever surrounded by naysayers, nihilists, negativists, the pallbearers of guilt, fearful and depressed people. Yet ranged against the killjoys of the world are loving, kind, helpful, inventive, humanitarian, altruistic, affirmative, and positive people who strive to improve the human condition and contribute to human happiness. They are the optimists in our midst. They endeavor to live a full life, confronting adversity by taking advantage of new opportunities and willing to take risks and succeed. In my book, The Fullness of Life,3 I said that a person’s life is like a career; it is a work of art. We are responsible (in part) for who and what we become. We constantly redefine our interests by the schools we attend; the occupations we select; our choice of friends and the people we fall in love with and perhaps marry or divorce; our children and grandchildren; beliefs and convictions; dreams and aspirations; the plans we conceive and unfurl; the beloved causes to which we dedicate our time and talents and sometimes even our lives. These are the Promethean heroic virtues of audacity and our challenge to the rulers or gods on high, and our use of the arts and sciences to better the human situation (see my recent book Promethean Love4 about my philosophy). In my view, humanism first and foremost entails a set of ethical values. These were implicit in the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. They were expressed in the efflorescence of the Renaissance; the emergence of modern science; the liberation of humans from bondage by the democratic revolutions of the modern world; the battles for human freedom and human rights; and the defense of freedom of thought and free inquiry.5

A mistake often committed today by militant nonbelievers is to simply equate humanism with atheism. The recent books by our esteemed colleagues Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Vic Stenger—now enjoying some well-deserved popularity—point out that belief in God is a “delusion” and that the Abrahamic “God” after all “is not great.” But the main thrust of humanism is not to simply espouse the negative—what we do not believe in—but what we do. We should not begin with atheism or antisupernaturalism but with humanism. I am a secular humanist because I am not religious. I draw my inspiration not from religion or spirituality but from science, ethics, philosophy, and the arts. I call it eupraxsophy; that is, the practice of wisdom as an alternative to religion. The convictions of a humanist involve both the head and the heart, cognition and emotion. These are our rational-passional core beliefs.

What then do I mean by humanist ethical values and principles? (1) Ethics is autonomous and not derived from external commands. It is based on human experience and culture and modified by human intelligence in the light of the consequences of our choices. (2) This life here and now, for ourselves, our children’s children’s children, and the community of humankind, is good for its own sake. (3) Human beings have some power over their own lives and some responsibility for their futures. (4) Humanists have some confidence in our ability to solve our problems by using reason, science, and education and expressing good will. (5) We recognize and tolerate pluralistic lifestyles without necessarily agreeing with them. (6) We insist upon the right to privacy. (7) We believe in the open, democratic society. (8) Although we seek our own happiness and well-being, we are deeply concerned with the rights of every person. (9) We are profoundly committed to the well-being of humankind and the planetary community.

May I relate this secular humanist stance to the current public mood in the United States. I am appalled by the apocalyptic scenarios that abound and seem to afflict so many of our fellow citizens. Permit me to focus on two kinds of doomsday scenarios: religious and secular.

First are the scenarios endemic to theistic religiosity from time immemorial, the belief that the City of Man is sinful and corrupt. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and inflicted a worldwide flood in the days of Noah, and, we are warned, He will do so again. “The barbarians are at the gates” scenario today fingers liberals, social democrats, feminists, Satanists, secular humanists, gays, and terrorists. They are said to debauch the social order. The only rescue for us is “the Rapture,” the return of Jesus (if you are a Christian), or the hellfires of jihad for the enemies of Allah (if you are a Muslim). The way to salvation, say devout Christians, is to entrust your life to Jesus—or the Old Testament for Chassi dic Jews, the Koran for Islamists, or the Book of Mormon for Mormons. Many evangelicals predicted that in the year 2000 the end days would finally descend upon us. Nothing happened. Hal Lindsey’s prophecies in The Late Great Planet Earth did not come to pass. We are all too familiar with this form of paranoia and fantasy that is out of cognitive touch with the real world. This scenario is given impetus today by the conflagrations in the Middle East, which allegedly are leading us on the path to Armageddon.

A second class of secular doomsday prophesies also abound today. Although they are grounded in fact and represent real problems that need attention, even many humanists and secularists are caught up in worry over worst-case scenarios—encouraged by sensationalist cable news network program commentators and Internet blogs. I will list only some of them:

  • Global warming will raise the level of the seas and wipe out coastal cities from Florida and Manhattan to Bangladesh.
  • A virulent form of the Asian flu will spread widely and kill millions.
  • The mysterious death of the bees, which pollinate plants and trees, threatens to drastically reduce our food supply.
  • There will be a devastating collision with an asteroid, which could destroy all life on Earth.
  • Financial collapse will destroy the United States.
  • Nuclear bombs will come into the hands of Islamic terrorists.
  • The survival of humankind is threatened by runaway population in the Third World and ecological devastation of large sections of the planet.
  • A right-wing fascist coup d’etat will seize the American government.
  • There will be war with China.
  • Drawing on science fiction, Hollywood films and popular novels portray the dystopias of the future, bleak and repressive thought-control.

Now I do not wish to minimize any of these threats. Many pose genuine dangers—such as global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions, and/or a real financial crisis. What I am concerned about is the pessimism and despair (in reaction, no doubt, to George Bush and the evangelicals in his administration). The fearmongers and pessimists of our time bear down on us daily with their dire forebodings.

During my lifetime, I have been witness to many awesome dislocations and conflicts. I was a four-year-old child when the 1929 stock-market crash occurred, and I lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. By way of contrast, this was also the time of the Charleston rag, New Orleans jazz, and the talking movies of Jean Harlow, Laurel and Hardy, and The Three Stooges. It was also the beginning of Social Security and other reforms. I visited the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows and saw the General Motors exhibit, which depicted the superhighways that were to be built after the war—and they were.

I remember vividly the Nazi and Japanese regimes of the 1930s and 1940s. I enlisted in the Army during World War II—I experienced the bombings of London and saw graphic films of the devastation of Rotterdam, Warsaw, and Moscow by Stutka dive-bombers, and later, the destruction by Allied bombers of Dresden and Bremen. We were aghast at the tyranny of the Stalinist Gulag and were horrified by the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were disturbed by the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China, but also pleased by the rebuilding of Europe, the subsequent democratization of Germany and Japan, the creation of the United Nations, and the liberation of the former colonial empires. The Cold War and the fear of thermonuclear destruction was a constant reminder of what we all faced, though fortunately it never transpired. Then came the Korean and Vietnamese wars and the unexpected collapse of the Soviet empire. Today, we are embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Balance these events with the emergence of a third industrial revolution, first in Japan and South Korea and now in China and India. Many Cassandras of doom in the past had forecast that mass famines would overtake Asia—they have not occurred. In the twentieth century, we were astonished at the great breakthroughs in medicine—antibiotics, surgery, organ transplants. These advances have steadily reduced pain and suffering and extended life spans. New inventions and a plethora of consumer goods have continued to pour forth at a rapid pace—automobiles and airplanes, refrigerators and washing machines, air conditioning and central heating, radio and television, cell phones and computers. The Information Revolution is transforming life in incredible ways. Technology has increased food production enormously. The goal of universal education for all children is gaining wider acceptance throughout the world. The feminist revolution has made great gains. The extension of equal rights to blacks and other minorities, including gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons, continues—not without opposition, but progress is nevertheless seen everywhere.

Especially important is the rapid growth of scientific discovery, which has dramatically enlarged our understanding of the biosphere and the cosmos. The promise of new technologies entices us: nanotechnology, the biogenetics revolution, the emergence of transhumanism and the “new singularity” promise new applications for the continued amelioration of life’s problems.

I respond to the scenarios of the doomsday prophets with a third scenario of the progressive improvement of life everywhere on the planet Earth. I do not deny the need to conquer poverty and disease; the serious problem of diminishing energy resources; the destruction of the natural ecology; and the continued extinction of other species. Nor do I discount the possibility of natural disasters or major wars in the future. But we need to be aware that humankind has managed to survive and persevere in spite of these regressive events.

This third scenario does not project a doomsday future, but is instead hopeful about the ongoing, long-range gradual improvement and enhancement of life for more and more people on the planet Earth.

There are no panaceas—only the continued extension of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Secular humanists are calling for a New Enlightenment today, drawing on the principles of secularism, naturalism, and humanism. It is this last that I especially wish to emphasize. We are living in a period in which scientific discoveries have radically altered our understanding of nature and life and have provided us with new powers to attain our goals. However, the public understanding of the methods and outlook of the sciences and the cultivation of critical thinking are vital if democratic societies are to survive and flourish.

I submit that also essential is some appreciation for a planetary ethics over and beyond the ancient chauvinistic religious, racial, ethnic, national, or gender differences and animosities of the past.

There are two key ethical humanist principles that we now need to promote and defend in the ethics of the future. First, we must extend our moral obligations to the broader global community over and beyond nation-states. This means that we should consider every person anywhere on the planet equal in dignity and value.

Second, each person is responsible for his or her own future and that of society, but in addition we all have a stake in the future of humankind on the Planet Earth. This means the application of reason and science and the principles of ethical humanism—a concern for improving the lives of everyone on the planet as far as we are capable of doing. Most important is the resolve to work for these goals. Herein are the convictions of a secular humanist at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Secular humanism, I submit, still has great promise for humankind. We need to work together to help create a better world. That has been the beloved cause to which I have devoted my life. I trust that you share many or most of these ideals.

Notes

  1. Paul Kurtz, Exuberance: The Philosophy of Happiness (Los Angeles: Wilshire Books, 1977).
  2. Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988).
  3. Paul Kurtz, The Fullness of Life (New York: Horizon Press, 1974)
  4. Promethean Love: Paul Kurtz and the Humanistic Perspective on Love, ed. by Tim Madi gan (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006).
  5. See Paul Kurtz, ed., The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism (London: Pemberton Books, 1973)

Paul Kurtz is the founder and current chair of the Center for Inquiry, the editor in chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


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