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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Happy Humanist Day!

June 21, 2011 - Today Humanists around the world are celebrating World Humanist Day. It is a time for Humanists to gather socially, re-focus on their commitment to Humanist principles, and help promote the philosophy as a means of positive change in the world.

Wikipedia currently describes World Humanist Day, it's history, and some of the format and activities associated with it.

There is a new site out that explains Humanism called, The Simple Guide to Humanism at for those unfamiliar with Humanism. In honor of the day, I'd also like to include a description of Humanism here...


Humanists are people who believe in a natural universe as understood through reason, people who wish to live ethical and meaningful lives without faith in the supernatural, and people who care for their fellow human being. Humanists are informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. The International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU) says:

"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for building a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."

The Humanist Manifesto III was signed in 2003 by a long list of people, including notable figures from science, education, literature, entertainment, and other sectors. It was a successor to the first manifesto, published in 1933, and the second published in 1973. In the Humanist Manifesto III, the American Humanist Association outlined the following basic principles of Humanism:

  • Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
  • Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
  • Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
  • Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
  • Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
  • Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

For a reading of these principles explained in more detail, please see the complete Humanist Manifesto III.

Humanist Institutions

Consistent with Humanism's values of Freethought and a healthy skepticism that questions dogma, there is no officially recognized 'authority' for the Humanist life stance. However, Humanist groups exist at many different scales all over the world. Perhaps the broadest organization is the International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU). It can best be said to represent the views of over three million Humanists in over 100 national organizations in 30 countries.

Here in the United States, the American Humanist Association (AHA) is the oldest national-level Humanist organization. Another major national organization is the Council for Secular Humanism. Both of these organizations publish magazines and have several types of programs and facilities throughout the U.S. There are many other national organizations growing all the time, such as the Institute for Humanist Studies and the Humanist Institute, for example. Here locally in Houston, the oldest and largest Humanist organization is the Humanists of Houston (HOH).

The History of Humanism

Humanism as an organized, provisional philosophy is relatively new but it is the product of several millennia of human growth and development. Hints of scientific and humanist thought can be found among the earliest nomadic tribes and civilizations. The Ideas of some of the later classical Greek philosophers, as well as the Chinese Confucians, serve to highlight areas where human-centered (as opposed to god-centered) ideas were especially prevalent.

During the Middle Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies, such as those of Michael Servetus and others, were violently suppressed by the dogma and political power of the church. Not until the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with the flourishing of art, music, literature, philosophy, and exploration, would consideration of humanism be permitted.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century brought the development of science as philosophers finally began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as “free thought.” In the nineteenth century, with the challenges to religion by celebrities such as Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll, the Freethought movement made it possible for the common citizen to reject faith and superstition without risk of persecution.

The twentieth century has seen remarkable influence from science, technology, and Humanist philosophy. Despite attempts of the unscrupulous to twist science to serve their ends, despite continuing local fluctuations in crime or other problems, the overall growth, prosperity, and human well-being remains unparalleled throughout history. This is a direct result of scientific thinking in the solving of human problems.

These historical foundations have led those who reject supernaturalism as a viable philosophical outlook to adopt the term Humanism to describe their non-religious life stance. In 1933 the modern Humanist philosophy was formulated in the Humanist Manifesto and several organizations have been founded around the world since then. It is with such a rich history that we strive to carry Humanism into the future.

Special thanks to Amanda Chesworth, who co-wrote this section on the history of Humanism.

Well Known Humanists

Many notable people have been humanists or humanistic thinkers:

Albert Einstein, scientist
Gene Roddenberry
, producer/Star Trek creator
Thomas Jefferson
, U.S. President/founding father
Whoopi Goldberg, comedian/entertainer
Carl Sagan, scientist/author
Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator
Leonardo Da Vinci
, artist/inventor
Mark Twain
, author
Clara Barton
, Red Cross founder
Isaac Asimov
, author
Margaret Sanger
, Planned Parenthood founder
, philosopher
Marlon Brando
, actor
Jonas Salk
, physician/inventor of polio vaccine
Ted Turner
, broadcaster
Gloria Steinem
, feminist activist
Kurt Vonnegut
, author
Philip Adams
, author/filmmaker
Margaret Atwood
, author/literary freedom activist
Béla Bartók
, composer
Luther Burbank, scientist
Brock Chisholm
, physician/World Health Org. Director
Francis Crick
, scientist
John Dewey
, philosopher/educator
Frederick Douglas
, liberator
Albert Ellis
, psychologist
, philosopher
Philip José Farmer
, author
Betty Friedan
, feminist activist
Erich Fromm
, psychologist
R. Buckminster Fuller, futurist/inventor
John K. Galbraith
, economist
Emma Goldman
, author/revolutionary
Stephen J. Gould
, scientist/author
Julian Huxley
, philosopher/biologist/UNESCO Director
Robert G. Ingersoll, author
Margaret Kuhn
, Grey Panthers founder
Richard Leakey
, anthropologist
Abraham Maslow
, psychologist
John Boyd Orr
, Food & Agriculture Org. first Director
Linus Pauling, scientist
A. Philip Randolf
, human rights activist/union leader
Carl Rogers
, psychologist
M.N. Roy
, political thinker/Radical Humanism founder
Bertrand Russell
, mathematician/philosopher
Andrei Sakharov, scientist/human rights activist
Michael Servetus
, theologian/physician
Barbara Smoker, author/freethought activist
James Thurber
, humorist
Harriet Tubman, educator
James Watson
, scientist
Faye Wattleton
, Planned Parenthood Director
Walt Whitman
, poet
E.O. Wilson
, biologist
Frank Lloyd Wright, architect
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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Please help these churches

Over at the Friendly Atheist blog, a post was just put up alerting us to the fact that Westside Church and Christian Life Center in Bend, Oregon were vandalized with phrases such as, "praise FSM". For those who don't know, that stands for "Flying Spaghetti Monster", which is a common tongue-in-cheek analogy atheists use to criticize belief in God. 

That blog, many other nontheists, and myself are saying that this kind of intolerance and vandalism are not acceptable. Friendly Atheist has created a means for donating to help fund the cleanup costs for these churches, and I think that's a refreshing gesture. You can donate through that mechanism in the original post by clicking HERE.

Thanks to Roxie Deaton, President of the Humanists of Houston, for making me aware of this.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Responses on my Graham article

Sagada pond. (cc) Jojo Nicdao
I recently received a substantial letter of response to my article on Billy Graham and atheism, in the Houston Chronicle, from a reader named Robert. He wrote:

“It's disingenuous to write that you couldn't agree more with Billy Graham's indictment of atheism, when you know that your answers to the questions "Why am I here?" and "What happens when I die?" will be the same as an atheist's.”

Actually, it is by no means guaranteed that the answers of a Humanist will be the same as an atheist. Robert is assuming a broader meaning of ‘atheist’ than is the case, which was a big part of the point of my article. Let me illustrate with an example:

Imagine a person who believes in the supernatural, doesn’t like science or its approach, and believes themselves to be psychic or have a ‘supernatural sense’. However, their beliefs or worldview of what the spiritual realm is like (their supernatural cosmology, if you will) is quite different than a Judeo-Christian one. Let us suppose that this person believes they have astrally projected their soul throughout the planes of existence and have found there to be a great many spirit beings, but no God or gods. This person, because they lack a belief in a deity, lacks theism. Being without theism, they are an atheist. More than that, they are not merely a ‘bad example’ of an atheist. They are every bit as much as atheist as Christopher Hitches, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Of course, such a person is a very rare kind of atheist, but an atheist nonetheless; fully fitting the complete definition of the word.

The fact that most atheists happen to value reason, evidence, and science is mere happenstance. Surely, it is the very reason they have come to their position lacking theism, but the reason one does not believe in a deity is not a part of the definition. The definition of atheist is not, “One who lacks theism because…” The mere lack of theism is sufficient to be an atheist. To further illustrate the distinction between reason and atheism, consider the opposite: a person who accepts reason and evidence as the basis for their beliefs, but who has concluded that there is empirical evidence for a God. Both of these examples illustrate just how bare-bones and minimally communicative is the term atheist alone.

Now, if an atheist values an empirical approach, then that atheist is also something else; an empiricist, or perhaps a skeptic. Certainly they needn’t consider that their moniker. All of us are many things simultaneously, but choose to go by only certain labels because those are the ones that convey the image of ourselves we wish to convey. People may refer to themselves by whatever term they wish, but that doesn’t change the definition of atheist or of skeptic, and doesn’t exclude their beliefs from corresponding with those definitions.

Robert mentioned the questions of “why am I here?” and “what happens when I die?” but did not mention the other questions of “how should I live?” and “what is right/wrong?” and “what is the meaning of life?” I suspect this may be because the range of answers for an atheist (with nothing else about their beliefs known) is even wider. Here we find that Joseph Stalin is every bit a legitimate example of an atheist as Carl Sagan, neither holding a greater claim to the term. This isn’t an insult to atheism; it is merely the reality of the simplicity of the term. Likewise, you can also have murderous stamp collectors and virtuous stamp collectors. Atheism is one position on one topic (and a topic I personally find of little relevance to the most important things about a person).

Humanism has as a part of its collection of principles a healthy skepticism, an appreciation of the scientific approach to knowledge, and so on. It also has an ethical element which is the compassion and caring for fellow human being I mentioned in my original article. Any person who subscribes to these things, the naturalistic scientific approach to knowledge and the humanistic ethics, is a Humanist (capital H) by the modern understanding of the term. Of course, some of them may not like the term, or prefer another, or may even be unaware of the term despite being a Humanist in substance.

If a person prefers to call themselves an atheist because they like the sting of the term or want to perhaps be a good example in reforming its image, that is certainly their right and I respect that. If they want to use the term because a big part of their emphasis is on the God question, or they feel it is for others and want to make that more clear than anything else about them, that too is fine.  What is not fine is suggesting the term encompasses more than it does, and suggesting when we are told someone is an atheist that we can assume they value reason and/or compassion when we, in fact, do not have that information about them at all. It would almost be as if you asked someone about their values and they responded with “I like chocolate”, relying on some cultural connotation about chocolate lovers to fill in the blanks.

Another matter that has come into being lately is among many Humanist organizations which, perhaps in an effort to broaden their base, have become completely incapable of ever printing the word ‘Humanists’ without following with “and atheists”, almost as though the two terms were synonyms. They are not. Humanism is something more than mere atheism, and the differences are culturally and philosophically significant and of great importance. Humanist organizations, if no one else, should be at the forefront of promoting those important elements. Instead, what we see are many Humanist organizations following policies that make them redundant with the many worthy atheist and secular organizations which focus on church/state separation, nonbeliever rights, and religious criticism. Humanist organizations have an additional and important responsibility, which should be programs built around compassionate causes and initiatives, promoting ethical guides to happy living, and being a source of inspiration to people looking for more than mere non-belief. Understanding the important distinction between Humanism and atheism is essential to that focus.

Robert continued:

“Why would secular humanists, who read much more than the average person, want a humanist minister to tell them what to think and to officiate at naming ceremonies(?), weddings, and funerals?  (Sermons do tell people what to think, don't they?)  A justice of the peace can marry them and a memorial service can substitute for a funeral.  And any Unitarian church can satisfy the longing for ritual.”

One would have to ask the many people who have Humanist ceremonies why they chose them for a good answer to that. Robert has already mentioned the Unitarians as a source of ritual for naturalists, and the same justification and role can be made for Humanist ministers (indeed, many Humanist ministers are involved with their local Unitarian churches, as Humanism and UU share an intimate history). However, Unitarian churches may also include those who may have supernatural beliefs, so a Humanist minister would be very much like a Unitarian, but more specifically naturalist. 

The term Robert uses, “secular humanist”, refers to a specific kind of Humanist which has decidedly opted to consider Humanism a secular philosophic life stance – an alternative to religion – rather than a religion itself. However, there are also ‘religious humanists’, who have just the same rational, empirical, and naturalistic worldview, but think of ‘religion’ in broader terms and practice Humanism in a more ritualistic style. The founders of modern Humanism in 1933 were more like religious humanists, and established the first manifesto as a declaration of intent to usher in a new era for a naturalistic reason-based religion.

I do not consider myself solely in either camp. I do believe there is a viable role for ritual for the naturalist, and I also believe there are many practices, like meditation for example, which can be very helpful and do not require a supernatural element. But I’ve come to find the word ‘religion’ so imprecise that my stance is: it doesn’t matter whether we consider Humanism a religion or not, and that should be up to each individual to decide for themselves. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), not long ago, made a declaration that they would drop all the adjectives and simply be ‘Humanists’ and I concur.

Would a “secular humanist”, as Robert put it, prefer the kinds of services Humanist ministers and other secular celebrants provide? Perhaps or perhaps not. But the meaning of the IHEU proclamation was not that secular humanists would shorten their name and subsume the entirety of the word from all Humanists. It meant that both religious and secular humanists would come together and leave it up to the individual whether they wish to call their fully naturalistic philosophy a religion and practice it in that style or not.

“The word spirituality should never be used by anyone who doesn't believe in the existence of a spirit world separate from the physical one.  Giving different meanings to commonly understood words is a good way to confuse people and hinder communication with them.”

This ignores the history and origins of the term. There is a naturalistic spirituality which has nothing to do with ‘spirits’ as in supernatural entities – but has to do with ‘the spirit of things’ (i.e. the ‘spirit of the law’ or ‘school spirit’). Also defined as “the essence” of a thing (the essential things in life) or, as the original root word spiritus originally referred to; the breath. For more on this, please see the excellent page on spirituality at (HERE) – particularly the excellent article, Spirituality Without Faith, or the Wikipedia article on spirituality, or my own writing about spirituality at, such as HERE (particularly, Chapter 2 further down on the page).

On the matter of appealing to popular conception, it seems most people today when hearing the word spirituality think of it as one’s personal life practice and set of values, principles, and most special beliefs. Whether something is in the supernatural or natural realm is becoming less relevant – you know the difference between a ‘spiritual person’ and otherwise when you see them. They may or may not be religious, and may have a variety of beliefs, including naturalism and empiricism. Many believers even, are starting to have interpretations more like the ancient Stoics, who viewed all of nature as one integrated material whole. The question then becomes, 'What is in that natural universe and how do we best come to know it?' Humanists have a healthy skepticism and an empirical standard for answering that question, but they often show that a person can be spiritual without belief in the supernatural. This may be against the grain of the connotation of the word to many, but just as many people go by the word 'atheist' to help be an example against the common impression, many use the word 'spiritual' for the same reasons. Of course, some religious people and some Humanists and some atheists aren’t spiritual at all in their demeanor, attitude, or focus.

“Philosophy became anachronistic after the sciences separated from it.  The humanities, which include the arts, are a holdover from a prescientific age and mostly compete with sports as entertainment.  Authors of fiction can make their characters say and do anything they please, which has impeded a genuine understanding of human behavior.”

I could not disagree more with this. Science today, is a subset of philosophy and thus part of philosophy. Philosophy goes much further, however, to include the nature of language and meaning, ethics, and more. It is all philosophy, and always has been. Philosophy being ‘the love of wisdom’, anytime we ask ‘what is’ or ‘what ought to be’ we are conducting some form of philosophy. The scientists are merely that subset of philosophers tasked with the observation of the natural universe. They provide our factual basis, upon which we set the rest of our philosophy so as to ensure our prescriptives operate functionally within accurate descriptions of the world.

In fact, science itself is based on the ‘philosophy of science’ or the scientific methodology, which is a philosophic approach to knowledge. Furthermore, when we hear scientist proclaim that we need to cut carbon gasses or that we should brush our teeth, that scientist has left the realm of science and has moved into other areas of philosophy, because they have moved from description to prescription. Our methods are more sophisticated today, but we are doing the same work that Socrates did – evaluating our natural environment rationally as best as we can, and both inducing an deducing the best courses of action to ensure our goals are met.

Ultimately, for an individual, philosophy comes down to the very basis on which he or she lives – how one answers the question, ‘what is the best way to live?’ Further, what practices allow us to form habits and develop character that can move in that direction more easily? This is the central and crucial role of philosophy as life practice today, and science is one small part of that; assigned one narrow but foundational and essential role within it. Without that, one may as well use science to obliterate all life on the planet as easily as cultivate it.

Many thanks and best wishes to Robert for reading and his comments, and thanks to everyone else out there reading and commenting!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Humanist Bible review series: Concord (5/15)

(c) Walker Publishing Co. Inc.
This is part of a series of reviews on each 'book' within the new book, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, by A.C. Grayling. Click HERE to go to the beginning of this series for more explanation.
“I declare that of all the blessings which either fortune or nature has bestowed upon me, I know none to compare with friendship.”  --Concord 16:9
The book of Concord is primarily about friendship, although the breadth of the matter is covered such that one can easily see romantic as well as platonic relationships included. It appears most of the book has been inspired by, or a paraphrasing of, a treatise on friendship (Laelius de Amicitia) by Cicero. Here Laelius and Fannius carry on a dialogue on the attributes of true friendships and the importance of finding them. Concord is one of the shorter books in Grayling’s bible, but packed tightly with good material. As I read I generally try to take note of ‘quotable quotes’ and Concord has had the most so far.

Many a verse is spent illustrating the benefits and value of a true friend, and on choosing friends carefully. Concord explains how life’s experiences are made all the more meaningful when we have real friends with which to share them.
“To begin with, how can life be worth living, which lacks the repose to be found in the companionship and goodwill of a friend?”  --Concord 3:4
While some may view friends as a means to some material, strategic, or social end, Concord warns against these shallow kinds of friendships. It explains that affection should be the basis of friendships rather than manipulation or utility.
“If you take away emotion, what difference remains, I do not say between a man and a beast, but between a man and a stone or a log of wood?”  --Concord 8:2
On defending such affection Concord notes by asking, “Who would choose a life of the greatest wealth and abundance on condition of neither loving nor being loved by any creature?” (Concord 9:1). Concord even touches on maintaining long term friendships and the occasional need to call a friend to task for a wrongdoing:
“It is a strange paradox that people are not at all vexed at having committed a fault, but very angry at being reproved for it.”  --Concord 15:15
Concord’s emphasis on the value of friendship to a rich life, as well as its appeal for affection, may seem at odds with the Stoicism-inspired teachings in the book of Wisdom. In Chapter 7, versus 13-14 of that book, we are told, “Examine appearances by the rules of reason, first and chiefly by this: whether it concerns things which are in our control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” Of course, friendship is a two-way street, necessarily involving the choices of other people, which are beyond our control, most certainly considered so by the Stoics that inspired that portion of Wisdom.

However, in defense of Grayling’s collection as a whole, it seems that as we move through the books – from Wisdom to Parables, and now on to Concord – it should be clear we are moving beyond the bare necessities of the good life, and on toward the benefits of a fully perfected life experience that includes the luxuries in a more Epicurean than Stoic sense. It is never claimed that friendship is necessary for the good life. In fact, if there is one repeating mantra throughout Concord, it is that virtue must be sought first and foremost because, ultimately, true friendship can only take place within a framework of the good. As Laelius tells us in the very first chapter:
“But I must at the very beginning lay down this principle: that true friendship can only exist between good people.”  --Concord 1:13
Thus we are advised in Chapter 16 to put virtue first when we are told, “To seek the good is the first demand we should make upon ourselves; but next to the good, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is friendship.” (Concord 16:16-17).

And so it is that Concord has fortified against advocating the kind of ‘gangster ethos’ we see between criminals and wrongdoing cohorts. In these kinds of “friendships”, the virtue of loyalty is placed above that of the good. Yet, if we understand that true friendship can only take place among those who place goodness first, then we will see that such “friends” are nothing of the kind:
“Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends, only what is good.”  --Concord 7:1
As Concord concludes, Grayling attempts to synthesize the worthy approaches of the Stoics and the Epicureans with the following systemic prescription:
“The fair course is first to be good yourself, and then to look out for another of like character. It is between such that the stability of friendship we have been talking about can be secured; when, that is to say, those who are united by affection learn, first of all, to rule those passions which enslave others, and secondly to take delight in fair and equitable conduct, to bear each other’s burdens, never to ask each other for anything inconsistent with virtue and rectitude, and not only to serve and love but also to respect each other.”  --Concord 13:5-9

The next part in this series will look at the next book of Grayling's bible, Lamentations.

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