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Friday, January 22, 2010

On Political Humanism

Greg Epstein. Photo:
(c) The Washington Post Company
Harvard's Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein is making the rounds promoting his new book, Good Without God. Recently he was interviewed by Sally Quinn of the Washington Post as part of their Divine Impulses series (see video). Epstein makes the point that Humanism "has always been just a little bit dangerous to the powers that be". He says that when people have been upset about the failures of their leaders, the leaders could always promise something better in an afterlife. I presume he includes those societies in which leaders would need to conspire with the holy men/women of the society to keep people content. This reminds me of the Sid Mier computer game, Civilization. In that game of leading a nation, religion's function is to keep people content - to keep them from rebelling. I'm not sure of Sid Mier's beliefs, but the game seems to support the notion that, without some better life being promised to them beyond death, people would rebel continuously.

I think there's something to be said for the notion that Humanism often may not be advantageous to "the powers that be". However, I think: (a) the elements of Humanism most a threat to them would be its emphasis on freethought, questioning authority, and healthy skepticism, rather than the lack of belief in an afterlife directly, and (b) many faith traditions could list elements within their belief systems which are anathema to the powers that be. To put it mildly, Jesus didn't seem to get along with those in charge, and Buddha renounced his own royal status (whether the stories are literally true in every detail, many of the values espoused by the characters would seem credible reasons for the disdain of leaders in any time). Whenever a philosophy, faith, or tradition is at its best - whenever it espouses individual autonomy and renounces the things leaders use to control us, like fear and hate - then it can be said to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be.

This is a very politically-oriented take on Humanism, and it's one that has predominated the movement, perhaps since its modern incarnation in the 1930s. One thing I attempt to do with the notion of the Humanist Contemplative, is focus more on the personal aspects of Humanism. Likely paraphrasing the Humanist Manifesto III, Epstein also said that it is our ability and responsibility to lead "ethical lives of personal fulfillment..." Note how the term 'ethical' is tied to the notion of personal fulfillment. The link between an ethical life and a personally fulfilling one is a central part of the many ancient philosophies I like to explore. Yes, we need the second socially conscious part, which is "...lives that aspire to the greater good", but it must begin with the person in the mirror. My hope is that more Humanists will come back to that point by exploring how Humanism can be practiced individually in our daily lives, and it seems to be happening.

Epstein publishes the online magazine The New Humanism for which I have recently written. The name is a response to "The New Atheism" - folks like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others who have a more confrontational tone focusing on religious criticism. Rather, the New Humanism is about focusing on the positive values we seek to promote, rather than bashing others or over-emphasis on what we don't believe. The subtitle to Epistein's book is, "What A Billion Non-religious People Do Believe" and I admire that approach.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Second earthquake hits Haiti as Humanist charities join in response

Humanist relief supplies were
the first to arrive in Jacmel.
(c) American Humanist Association.
Sadly, another magnitude-6.1 aftershock has struck, after a devastating quake shook Haiti last week. Humanist charities have joined the many other organizations, churches, governments, and faith-based non-profit organizations scrambling to bring direly needed relief to suffering Haitians.

A recent AP article reports the European Union Commission estimates the original magnitude-7.0 quake killed about 200,000 people, injured another 250,000, and left 1.5 million homeless. Heartbreaking stories of people literally dying in the streets have emerged from the region over the past week and while aid is coming fast in terms of logistics, the definition of "fast" for large-scale organizations and governments can be all too different from the definition of "fast" for a starving person in need of medical treatment.

Humanist Charities, a division of the American Humanist Association (AHA), quickly established a Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund and began working with Sebastian Velez. Velez is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who has been working to protect the rights and expand access to medical care and education for Haitian immigrants, with whom the AHA has worked before.

Mr. Velez went to Haiti to assess the situation and establish avenues through which support could be received. Donations from Humanists have so far provided food, medicine, water, and other supplies to Haitians in need. Humanist Charities is currently operating in the port city of Jacmel, which was also devastated by the quake, but which has received little media attention. The Miami Herald referred to the city as "shattered and forgotten". The shipments from Humanist Charities were the first supplies to arrive there by land or sea. Beyond merely delivering supplies, Mr. Velez is currently playing a major role in assessment and logistics, providing reliable information that is being used by other charities in the area. Mr. Velez wrote a letter reporting on the situation and said:

"I want to stress the importance of the AHA's membership response. Our shipment justified the first trip from the Dominican Navy. Now many more shipments coming from Santo Domingo, since logistics are solved. Our tools and medical supplies were the first to arrive (as per UN bluecaps) and put to use immediately. We were the only ones from that dock that went into the city and got first-hand information for those here at the DR/Haiti border. These International organizations are using our list of medicines starting at the top of the list we provided."

[Read Mr. Velez's full letter]

While Humanist organizations may not be of the size or have the history of some religious organizations, it seems Humanists are doing their part to use what funds they can in ways that have the biggest impact possible.

[See more pictures of Humanist relief efforts in Haiti]

If you would like to help make a difference for people in need, please consider giving to the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund now. Click here to help others in need.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Symphony of Science video: The Unbroken Thread

Still from "The Unbroken Thread"
Photo: (c) John Boswell.
I have previously reported on musician John Boswell and his wonderful project, Symphony of Science. Now, Boswells latest work, The Unbroken Thread, is available. In this video he features David Attenborough, well known for promoting appreciation of the natural world through his hosting of nature programs over several decades. Also featured is Jane Goodall, the anthropologist best known for her groundbreaking research of chimpanzees. Like many of the other videos, Carl Sagan is again features, who should need no introduction.
If you enjoy the video below, please check out the other videos and support this project by visiting