Thursday, July 8, 2010

Secular humanism

You know what’s a good feeling? The feeling of coming to a conclusion of a difficult or sticky or contradictory philosophical or political conundrum. You know what another good feeling is? Realizing that, in some ways, you had it right all along. I’ve been talking to a friend recently about Randian philosophy. For backstory, note that I began Atlas Shrugged, and found it so impenetrably dense that I could not continue. So I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. Nonetheless, from reading I’d done about her, I had come to the conclusion that she was completely off her rocker. I don’t even feel that objectivism is all that problematic; the focus on the individual I found fairly easy to grasp given my knowledge of libertarianism (also mostly achieved through a mix of research and conversations with a friend, proving for me the importance of conversations many feel are pointless). It was the inescapable incompleteness of the philosophy that struck me. To hold the individual up as the highest value is one thing. To deny the vastly complex interactions between the individual and the environment and society is myopic to an incomprehensible degree. It’s not just overly convenient for her philosophy to be based on what she finds important and to ignore what she finds unimportant or evil. It’s also just wrong. People are shaped and informed by their environments. To what extent depends on many factors, which are themselves interesting and studyable. It’s pretty much lunacy to categorically state that sociobiology, biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology are unimportant disciplines, that the existence of rationality and consciousness (which, by the way, we don’t as yet understand) in and of themselves obviate the need or the usefulness for systematic studies of human behavior.

However, I have recently come to feel that there are some aspects of the philosophy which I have already accepted. The supreme importance of rationality. The beauty in human achievement and expression. The sanctity of the individual. Feeling that I am the most important person in my life. So then I began to feel a little uneasy. Despite being a rational liberal, I’ve always felt that at some level, there’s a spectrum that ranges from the cold clarity of reason to the warm compassion of humanism. I know that pretty much everyone is able to combine these somehow, but it’s really always bothered me, especially because this somewhat abstract political issue comes up eerily frequently in my personal life. What do I want? Why do I want it? How am I going to get it? How will that affect people around me? How much should that affect my decision? How can my community help me, and I them?

I was all set to come up with a vibrant hybrid/amalgamation and see where it led me, and then, something happened. One of the aspects I was going to bring to bear on this analysis was secular humanism, a philosophy to which I am fairly keenly devoted. I’ve read the affirmations, explanations and declarations many times, and yet, I seem to have forgotten this key point: that the fundamental value in this worldview is its hybrid nature. I really can’t express it better than the Center for Inquiry/Wikipedia do, so here are some key features.

1. That while you could in principle separate out the rationalist/individualist aspects from the empathetic/humanistic ones, not only would that be difficult, but it would be missing the point. In terms of ethics, for example, the search for universalizable, justifiable principles of moral conduct is a task for rationalists who seek to apply reason to the ultimate goals of encouraging human well-being, in the individual and global sense, and in that way to create a better world.

2. As Tom Flynn says, “secular humanism’s unique selling proposition is rooted in the balance it strikes between cognitive and emotional/affective commitments.” And “Secular humanism is invigorated by the best that atheism and religious humanism have to offer—thoroughly naturalistic, yet infused by an inspiring value system. It offers a nonreligious template that may one day guide much of humanity in pursuing truly humane lives. This is the fulfillment of secularism as George Jacob Holyoake imagined it: the successful quest for the good life, intellectually, ethically, emotionally rich, and without any reliance on religious faith.”

It may sound like a cop-out, but as a matter of fact, I was entirely willing to undergo the mental exercise of figuring out how to reconcile what seemed to be contradictory elements of my worldview, but serendipitously, this set of ideas I already felt I subscribed to did a fantastic job. So why do I have all those posts about worldview when I have multitudinous Wikipedia articles and other websites I could link to? Well, for one, that is intellectually lazy. And secondly, everything in secular humanism follows from my core ideas. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important; the ramifications of one’s worldview can be more difficult to figure out than the essential tenets themselves.

So that’s who I am and what I believe.

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