The Promise of Secular Humanism: Towards a Better Way of Life

In my previous essay, I explored the implications of life without gods and the supernatural. Acknowledging that the abandonment of traditional religion requires a complementary philosophical system, I will present secular humanism as a rigorous and applicable framework for human flourishing. This brief overview will not be exhaustive; it will present an outline for this methodology and present concise arguments in its defense. In sum, a life based on the application of one’s reason, ethical individualism, and democratic participation can facilitate a life of joy, freedom, and achievement.

The Humanist Epistemology

A secular humanist’s epistemology (theory of knowledge) is built upon three essential components: reason, methodological naturalism, and skepticism. First, reason is the foundational pillar that the other components work from. Reason is the capacity of human beings to create abstract thoughts and/or conclusions based on the concretes of reality. It is the emergent faculty of our brains that allows us to conceptualize and systematize the world. The humanist believes that reason, or our ability to perceive and then conceive, is purely natural and without the need for “faith” or “revealed wisdom.”

Philosopher Harry Binswanger has delivered a series of lectures emphasizing this point, basing his conclusions off of the principles of an Objectivist epistemology. In Binswanger’s estimation, perception (taking in information via the senses) is the “given” in our understanding of the world, in that it requires mere physical processes. Abstraction and conceptualization, which turn our perceptions into knowledge, are processes that require discrimination and systemization of the “raw material” of perception. This is where reason comes in. Nearly anyone can perceive a quasi-spherical red object or a vibrational difference in the atmosphere with their senses; it requires reason for the concretizing and systemizing process of conceptualization to understand that it is an apple or a song.

Faith by-passes the entire process of knowledge, by appealing to “revealed” truths that one accepts without the steps of perception, concretization, and abstraction. It treats knowledge as a top-down proposition, akin to Plato’s “forms” or Kant’s “pure reason.” This is a completely inverted understanding of epistemology. As Aristotle, Locke, and others have rightly noted, knowledge is a bottom-up process, requiring ever more complicated levels of thought to arrive at our conclusions. Therefore, it is essential within a humanist understanding to properly acknowledge the importance of perception and reason to epistemological questions.

Second, it is important to base our perception on a solid foundation, which in this case is methodological naturalism (MN). An astute summation of methodological naturalism comes to us from the RationalWiki:

Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method. Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses. To avoid these traps scientists assume that all causes are empirical and naturalistic; which means they can be measured, quantified and studied methodically.

MN does not rule out the possibility of the supernatural, but rather recognizes the complicated and often problematic investigations of the supernatural. This view is contrasted with philosophical naturalism (PN), which holds that the natural world is all there is and no supernatural exists. While some humanists hold the position of PN, it is more philosophically and intellectually honest to accept MN.

Having said all that, it is important to note that MN does not ignore supernatural claims altogether. When a faith healer says he can cure cancer or a psychic claims to know intimate details of your life, these are specific, testable claims that can be refuted by the scientific method. Even more broadly, when a religion makes specific claims about the natural world (God created the world in six days, God stopped the Sun in the sky, Jesus rose from the dead), these can also be debunked by scientific investigations. What MN cannot do is refute God or supernaturalism all together, seeing as these concepts are too broad and amorphous to be falsified, a key component to the scientific method. Therefore, Humanism’s dedication to MN, and its lack of confidence in supernaturalism and gods, is based on the simple logic of Occam’s Razor. If a phenomenon can be explained by natural means, it is therefore unnecessary to attribute them to supernatural means. Additionally, if a phenomenon we attributed to the supernatural is proven to be true, it is then added to what is natural.

Finally, a humanist epistemology benefits from a healthy dose of skepticism. For this perspective, we turn to the master of skepticism himself, the Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume explains the fallibility of the human mind:

The essence and composition of external bodies are so obscure, that we must necessarily, in our reasonings, or rather conjectures concerning them, involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities. But as the perceptions of the mind are perfectly known, and I have us’d all imaginable caution in forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hop’d to keep clear of those contradictions, which have attended every other system.

In other words, perceptions are not knowledge. They can be twisted and contradicted from what is actually going on in the real world. This is why the process of reason is indispensable to our lives. Reason allows us to peel back the layers of “contradictions and absurdities” and come to a more accurate conceptualization of reality. As I noted in my previous essay, humans are emotional and messy, often led astray by our biases and misperceptions. Skepticism guides our thinking away from our initial perceptions and requires us to investigate deeper to best approximate our understanding of the world.

The Personal Level: Ethical Individualism

Moving from epistemology to ethics, a predominant theological and philosophical worldview focuses on the collective nature of human beings. In more fundamentalist strains, it can be a complete negation of a person’s thoughts, desires, and talents. For example, the ideologies of Islamism (the politicization of certain sects of Islam), fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, and orthodox Marxism require that the individual be subservient to the cause, or the “ideal” of the faith. In a secular lens, this type of view can be summarized by the 19th century philosopher, and founder of the term “altruism,” Auguste Comte: “The individual must subordinate himself to an Existence outside himself in order to find in it the source of his stability.”

This view wholly distorts our human nature. While some scholars quibble over the nature of group level selection (see Haidt), the foundational level of selection concerns the individual. Human beings, much like our primate ancestors and scores of other beings before us, evolved based on mostly individual changes which then added up over time. As Michael Shermer noted in his masterwork, The Moral Arc:

 “. . . the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that the discrete organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species . . . but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and there ought not to be subservient to the collective.”

This has profound ethical implications. While it would be unwise for us to directly extrapolate a system of ethics from biology, it is helpful to understand these conclusions and their relation to us as social creatures. Humans are inherently social; we desire communication and connection. However, that does not mean we should seek to achieve these connections through collectivistic means.

Building off of that, my personal view of humanism is built on the guiding principle of individual rights. As John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once said, “I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This notion is bigger than biology. It is also built on the Enlightenment principle of “self-proprietorship,” beautifully outlined by the English Leveller Richard Overton (as quoted by intellectual historian and philosopher George H. Smith):

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man.

In essence, your life belongs to you, to do with it as you see fit, so long as you do not violate the rights of another. This is a bedrock ideal within the Enlightenment political tradition and one that continues to expand the rights of all people.

In Overton’s time, they attributed individual rights to a sovereign God of nature (similar to Jefferson and the founder’s notion of “Nature’s God.”) While this tradition has historically been built upon that premise, it is equally valid to base these rights upon the virtue of being a thinking, sentient being with the capacity for reason. Philosopher Corliss Lamont described this concept’s classical roots and its modern application:

It is the Humanist view that if the individual pursues activities that are healthy, socially useful, and in accordance with reason, pleasure will generally accompany them; and happiness, the supreme good, will be the eventual result. This ethical doctrine goes all the way back to Aristotle and is called eudaemonism (Greek for happiness). It contrasts with hedonism, which holds that pleasure alone is intrinsically good, by putting primary emphasis on the sorts of activities that a person chooses; at the same time it assigns an important and pervasive role to pleasure. “Pleasure,” as Aristotle said, “perfects the activities,” yet remains secondary. The Humanist ethics, then, “recognizes that the intentional objects of human striving are, in point of fact, not pleasures, but pleasurable things. And by identifying the good with voluntary activities and preferred objects, which are publicly observable, it facilitates discovery, measurement and production of the good.”

Therefore, that which is in accordance with the overall flourishing of the individual, within the context of their own life and their relation to others, undergirds a humanist conception of rights. Supernaturalism and/or god(s) no longer remain necessary.

As mentioned above, a person’s relation to others must also be taken into account. Individualism does not imply a short-sighted selfishness. Rather, it represents a committed recognition to the dignity of each person as well as the need for social cohesion for the flourishing of our species. Lamont, again, elucidates this point perfectly:

Humanism, then, follows the golden mean by recognizing that both self-interest and altruism have their proper place and can be combined in a harmonious pattern. People who try to serve humanity must permit humanity to serve them in turn. Their own welfare is as much a part of the welfare of humankind as that of anyone else.

Our individualism must be grounded on an ethical promise to advance our own interests while seeking to advance the interests of society as a whole. Even though the Devil will be in the details (pun intended), it is the ethical project of humanism that protects individual rights while advancing all of humanity forward.

The Societal Level: The Moral Instinct and the Moral Framework

In the last section, I mentioned the devilish details of the individual’s ethical relation to others, generally known as morality. In my view, our morality breaks down into two major components: the moral instinct and the moral framework. Our moral instincts are the product of natural selection, they “guide our behaviors toward the goal of survival and reproduction.” Base emotions like fear, hunger, dominance, and justice, among others, evolved over millennia so our genes could be passed on from generation to generation. This has not only made us successful biologically; it has made us successful morally. As such, actions which originally evolved to help direct kin began to help non-kin, especially once we developed our social systems.

Here’s a story to illustrate this point. In his book, Life Driven Purpose, Dan Barker recalls a story about saving a baby from being harmed at an airport. He was waiting to board the plane when he noticed that a woman had placed her infant “on top of a luggage cart, about three or four feet off the ground, and the father must have stepped away for a moment.” Out of the corner of his eye, Barker saw the carrier starting to fall to the ground, “made a quick stride to the left,” and his “finger tips caught the edge of the carrier as it was rolling towards the floor.” The mother quickly assisted him in leveling the carrier and thanked him for his action. Now, why would he do something so moral without much intellectual consideration? Barker explains:

We are animals, after all. We come prepackaged with an array of instincts inherited from our ancestors who were able to survive long enough to allow their genes–or closely related genes–to be passed to the next generation because they had those tendencies. An individual who does not care about falling babies is less likely to have his or her genes copied into the future.

The moral instinct compels us to carry out many actions without any logical considerations; we just act in accordance with our human nature. Acknowledging this aspect of who we are goes a long way to improving our ethical systems in the future.

Complementing the moral instinct is the moral framework, what we commonly call “ethics,” or a system of conceived principles that advance flourishing and limit suffering, not just in humans but in an ever-growing moral universe. One way to conceptualize the moral framework is philosopher Peter Singer’s “expanding circle.” Based on an earlier concept from historian W. E. H. Lecky, Singer’s expanding circle hinges on the “principle of interchangeable perspectives,” which requires moral agents to rationally defend their actions without prizing their own status over anyone else. In other words, it’s a more elaborate variation on the golden rule, but with a twist: make moral decisions among others as you would have others make moral decisions among you. The circle expands, as the metaphor goes, as we socially evolve to include more than just other individual humans. With time, it will include “members of our in group, to members of other groups, tribes, states, and nations, to all members of our species, to members of other mammal species, to all sentient beings, to the biosphere.”

Using the moral framework will challenge our culturally-ingrained notions of moral behavior, as it “puts morals more on a par with scientific discoveries than cultural conventions.”

Using the benchmark of advancing flourishing and limiting suffering, there are ways in which behaviors can actually be assessed as moral and immoral. “There really is a better way for people to live,” Shermer argues, “and in principle we should be able to discover that through the tools of science and reason.” Notice that he says both science and reason when discussing moral values, with science being the investigatory component and reason being the evaluative component. This is for a reason. Unbridled science (eugenics, atomic weapons) and unbridled reason (totalitarian philosophies such as Fascism and Marxism) can lead to immoral actions; it is only through what biologist E. O. Wilson called “consilience,” or a unification of knowledge, that we can make the best moral decisions. In all, the moral instinct and the moral framework serve as two equal sides of the ethical coin. The instinctual and conceptual both have a say in how we advance our lives and the lives of others.

The Political Level: Rights as Paramount, Science and Ethics Guide Policy

Finally, the political sphere, which combines individual and social concerns, becomes the normative framework for ensuring the flourishing of each component listed above. Democracy, the most successful and beneficial form of government, is predicated on the protection and/or fulfillment of rights through the “freely given consent of the governed.” These rights can be broken down into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are rights that the government cannot take away from you (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, etc.) while positive rights are those that are granted by the government, such as a right to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a living wage or pension system. The best encapsulation of both types of rights comes from President Franklin Roosevelt, in his “Four Freedoms Speech,” delivered in front of Congress in 1941. The “four freedoms” are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are negative rights while the latter two are positive rights. Our modern democratic tradition hinges on these ideals, which fit nicely into a humanist framework.

Humanist scholars such as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Paul Kurtz all stress the importance of a healthy democratic society based on the bedrock of political rights. Dewey, in his essay, “On Democracy,” wrote of the necessity of negative rights:

While the idea is not always, not often enough, expressed in words, the basic freedom is that of freedom of mind and of whatever degree of freedom of action and experience is necessary to produce freedom of intelligence. The modes of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are all of this nature: Freedom of belief and conscience, of expression of opinion, of assembly for discussion and conference, of the press as an organ of communication. They are guaranteed because without them individuals are not free to develop and society is deprived of what they might contribute.

Negative rights ensure that individuals are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience and intelligence to fulfill the needs of themselves and others. To implement these values, a democracy requires a strong separation of church and state and a free press, so that all citizens can implement the values they hold dear without violating the negative liberties of others.

On the other hand, Hook notes of the “positive requirements of a democracy” in his essay, “Democracy as a Way of Life.” Among the various requirements, the most important to this discussion is Hook’s notion of “economic democracy.” He explains:

By economic democracy is meant the power of the community, organized as producers and consumers, to determine the basic question of the objectives of economic development. Such economic democracy presupposes some form of social planning, but whether the economy is to be organized in a single unit or several and whether it is to be highly centralized or not are experimental questions. There are two generic criteria to decide such questions. One is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization makes possible an abundance of goods and services for the greatest number, without which formal political democracy is necessarily limited in its functions, if not actually endangered. The other is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization preserves and strengthens the conditions of the democratic process already mentioned.

Like Dewey, he’s leaving options open to the citizens of democratic societies, such as whether to be more capitalist and less socialist or vice versa. In doing so, Hook defends the principle of positive rights in the same fashion that Roosevelt did: to advance human flourishing.

Lastly, we come to Paul Kurtz and his thoughts on democracy from his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism. Kurtz reaffirms the considerations made by Dewey and Hook but also emphasizes the value of discourse and participation to a functioning democracy. “. . . a political democracy,” Kurtz writes, “can be effective only if its citizens are interested in the affairs of government and participate in it by way of constant discussion, letter writing, free association, and publication. In absence of such interest, democracy will become inoperative; an informed electorate is the best guarantee of its survival.” Each of these views on democracy require citizens to use reason, from protecting their liberties and organizing their economies to discussions among others and petitioning the government for a “redress of grievances.” None of these things happen by virtue of a god or how many prayers a person can say. Rather, democracy is a human-centered, action-oriented enterprise that protects rights, builds economies, facilitates discussions, and encourages achievements.

With that in mind, a functioning democratic society relies on both science and ethics to inform our public policy. With such contentious issues as abortion, the death penalty, law enforcement overreach, sex education, vaccines, and stem cell research, it is essential that we apply our best thinking to these social problems. With only science as a guide, a government falls privy to overbureactization and malfeasance, and at worst, enacts policies which violate individual rights (eugenics, forced sterilization, genocide). This is why an ethical component, based on the application of reason as well as the guidepost of human flourishing, should always play a core role in shaping policy. It will not always provide us with easy answers, but it is far better than leaving our democracy to the whims of crackpots, religious fanatics, and overzealous central planners.

Conclusion: Humanity’s Future

Like so many ages before us, our age falls prey to barbarism, mysticism, hero worship, tribalism, superstition, and flat-out nonsense. To avoid these trends, we need a philosophy of life that prizes reason over faith, knowledge over ignorance, freedom over tyranny, and most importantly, humans over dogmas. Secular humanism is exactly that kind of philosophy. It is a way of life that puts human beings at the center of their own destiny, no longer chained to the whims of fundamentalist religion or totalitarianism. Its openness to new ideas and diversity of thought allow for a more enlightened religion, one that is compatible with humanism’s core principles. If one has left gods behind, it gives you the framework to live a moral and fulfilling life. The beauty of humanism is that it isn’t much of an “ism” at all; its essential values allow for a multiplicity of worldviews to coexist together, in something akin to Robert Nozick’s notion of a “utopia of utopias.” By leaving society free, open, and dedicated to human flourishing, all people can live among one another with more peace, prosperity, and progress.

Isaac Asimov said it best when he declared that, “Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests.” This is the apotheosis of humanism. Despite our flaws and failures, humanity has achieved so much in its time. We have conquered the heavens and the earth, built civilizations, eradicated diseases, ameliorated poverty and suffering, expanded freedom and opportunity, and created art and literature that will last for ages. All of this occurred because we valued our lives and dedicated ourselves to improving them. Every minute we waste speculating about the afterlife limits the value of our lives right now. We are young in the vast chasm of the universe, grasping for glimpses of truth and wisdom. We have so much to learn, which requires us to leave behind the shadows of our past and walk into the light of the future with an open mind, an open hand, and an open heart. Humanism gives us the path; we just have to take the first step.

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