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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Humanitarian Humanism


I just read Human Rights and the Paradox of Humanism on the International Humanist and Ethical Union blog, as part of a CFI course on Humanism, Atheism, and Social Justice. It was a rich, scholarly piece by Rob Buitenweg that offered perspectives on humanism that I had not previously considered.



General Humanism

Although secular humanism is critical of obscurantism, general humanism is more inclusive. As Buitenweg points out, general humanism does not preclude religious humanism. 
So, within this perspective of inclusive humanism it makes perfectly sense to speak of humanist Christians, or humanist Muslims, or, conversely, of Christian humanists or Islamic humanists.



Existential Humanism

The Buitenweg article challenged one of my most basic assumptions about humanism: that humanitarianism necessarily follows from ideological humanism
The term existential humanism refers to human existence in general and not only to human relations in organised society.
 
 

Ideological Humanism

The article got me thinking about the humanism of the Cynics vs. the humanism of the Stoics, the activism of public intellectuals and the intellectual depth of social activists. 
Ideological humanism is rather easily to define by virtue of its organizations and explicit theories, although this humanism too will vary from person to person.



Public Humanism

Existential humanism can be morally sterile and public humanism can be intellectually shallow. The distinctions between the two are significant, but the fact that they coincide in certain individuals demonstrates that they are not mutually exclusive. 
The public humanism of human rights does not seek to give an answer to the question of the meaning of life. It does not want to get on existential grounds. 

Atheism Plus

The article also got me thinking about how Atheism+ supporters initially misrepresented humanism by looking alternately at ideological humanism and religious humanism, rather than seeing both as emerging from general humanism. The emergence of Atheism+ could be understood as as a call for more of  the public humanism described by Buitenweg.
Is it possible that the emphasis that humanists have put on autonomy and freedom have contributed to the importance that is attached to civil and political rights and to a neglect of economic, social and cultural rights?

Interfaith Activism

The article also suggests support for humanist participation in Interfaith dialogue. If humanists would have the religious renounce the idea that humanitarianism automatically follows from religion, perhaps we should concede that humanitarianism does not necessarily follow from existential humanism. 
True believers may be suspicious of public humanism and of human rights based on it, wrongly thinking that it follows from ideological humanism which as a life-stance may be in conflict with their own life-stance or religion. This may be a reason to avoid using the term humanism for the underlying morality of human rights and a reason to move to the word humanitarianism.


Before reading the Buitenweg article, I would have considered the expression "humanitarian humanist" to be redundant. We, as humanists, could renounce the presumption that humanitarianism naturally follows from existential humanism by calling ourselves "Humanitarian Humanists." In doing so, we might teach the religious by example to drop their claim to a monopoly on ethics. 

Religious obscurantism will always be at odds with truth, but if religion evolved from sacred cow to worthy alternative it would lose its power to inculcate self-loathing and disdain for material concerns. With the recognition of shared humanity independent of life-stance, the religious would be worthier allies in the struggle for human rights and--I dare say--we might as well.





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