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The Humanist Phantom

A clash of ignorant armies.

I should not have any inclination to call myself a humanist, as I think, on the whole, that the non-human part of the cosmos is much more interesting and satisfactory than the human part. —Bertrand Russell

Most of us have only a vague idea what humanism is. We tend to think of a humanist as someone who is concerned with other humans, a humanitarian, an all-around nice guy. For example, that’s how Deborah Weisner of Auburn, Maine, sees it. For five days last March she was held hostage on a Pakistani jetliner by armed hijackers. UPI reported that after her release “[shel said that she had sympathized with the terrorists and believed their leader was a ‘humanist’ until he shot a passenger before her eyes.” Now, any definition of humanist that includes a pistol-packing Albert Schweitzer up until the moment he shoots someone dead before your eyes is a broad definition indeed. There used to be a narrower definition. Beginning with the Renaissance and for about 400 years thereafter, the title “humanist” was generally reserved for Greek and Latin scholars and for students of classical forms in art and literature. “In my old-fashioned terminology,” wrote George Santayana, “a humanist means a person saturated by the humanities. Humanism is something cultural; an accomplishment, not a doctrine.”

Not anymore. If you hold to the Santayana (or the Weisner) view of humanism, you will have difficulty understanding the current hysteria on the religious right over humanism. That is because for the right it has a different meaning. Jesse Helms summarized it neatly: “Basically, we are talking about faith in God versus secular humanism.” Note the prefix “secular,” the characteristic identifier of this type of humanism and the key to what Reverend Jerry Falwell calls “its Satanic influence”—to wit, its atheism. Among evangelicals, secular humanism has become the talk of the tube. Falwell warns that it “challenges every principle on which America was founded. It advocates abortion-on- demand, recognition of homosexuals, free use of pornography, legalizing of prostitution and gambling, and free use of drugs, among other things.” Worst among these “other things” is that it “promotes the socialization of all humanity into a world commune.” Reverend Tim LaHaye, another founder of the Moral Majority and author of its antihumanist bible. The Battle for the Mind, is the movement’s historian. He explains that humanism “snuck into” America via European rationalists such as Voltaire and now it has become “the most dangerous religion in the world.” But Phyllis Schlafly says not to worry. The tide is turning. “The humanists should be worried—because the public has begun to see through their hypocrisy in fastening their atheist ideology on the public schools…”

This is moderate, mainstream antihumanism. For the truly bloodcurdling stuff one has to travel to the deep end of the antihumanist spectrum. Here one finds, among others, pastor Leo Wine of Ashland, Oregon. He did a series of radio programs on humanism. One began with a look at current humanist activities:

Why are the humanists promoting sexual perversion? Because they want to create such an obsession with sex among our young people that they will have no time or interest for spiritual pursuits … So what do we have? Humanist obsessions: sex, pornography, marijuana, drugs, self-indulgence, rights without responsibility.

Then he panned upward for the larger overview:

Humanists control America. America is supposed to be a free country, but are we really free? … Now the humanist organizations—ACLU, AHA [American Humanist Association]—control the television, the radio, the newspapers, the Hollywood movies, magazines, porno magazines, and the unions, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation. . . .They, 275,000 humanists, have infiltrated until every department of our country is controlled by the humanists.

And they have plans for the future:

Humanists will continue leading us toward the chaos of the French Revolution. After all, it is the same philosophy that destroyed France and paved the way for the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. This time the humanists hope to name their own dictator who will create out of the ashes of our pro-moral republic a humanist Utopia, an atheistic, socialistic, amoral humanist society for America and the rest of the world, ln fact, their goal is to accomplish that takeover by or before the year 2000.

Nor is the fear of secular humanism restricted to paranoid pastors, television hucksters, or Moral Majoritarians trying to drum up converts and donations. When the Southern Baptist Convention met in Los Angeles last June, the New York Times reported blandly that it “approved resolutions condemning pornography, anti-Semitism and secular humanism…” Interesting company. The resolution “encourage[s] Baptists to become informed about and voice opposition to the tenets of secular humanism” and calls for an educational effort to “explain the nature and inherent danger of secular humanism.”

The antihumanist campaign also has found its way into the classroom. Schoolboards throughout the country evaluate textbooks based on the critique of Educational Research Analysts, a textbook reviewing outfit that is a Geiger counter for humanist contamination. It is run by a retired Texas couple, Mel and Norma Gabler. In 1979 the American School Board Journal cited them as perhaps the two most powerful individuals in American education. The current issue of Moral Majoritif Report hails them as an inspiration to those “who think there is little they can do to fight the humanism that increasingly dominates public education.” In that same issue, Mel (who refers to the public schools as “government seminaries” of secular humanism) candidly lists the kinds of humanist influence he ferrets for in textbooks: situation ethics, self-centeredness, evolution, negations of Christianity, death education, internationalism, and sexual freedom.

The antihumanists have even made several forays, with mixed results, into the political arena. In 1976 Representative John Conlan of Arizona introduced an amendment to withhold federal funds for any educational activity involving “the religion of humanism.” Conlan lost on the House floor, but he did get the House to cut off funding for an entire public school curriculum entitled “Man: A Course of Study” (man, for reasons unrelated to feminism, being the offending concept). This year a suit was filed in California to force the public schools to teach the “creationist” rebuttal to evolution. The plaintiffs lost, but shortly thereafter Arkansas passed a law mandating equal time for creationism in the public schools. Jesse Helms’s human life amendment and Roger Jepsen’s omnibus Family Protection Act are guaranteed to carry on the antihumanist crusade in Congress.

What is behind all the rending of garments over secular humanism? Clearly, for Falwell and Company, humanism does not mean humanitarianism or a love of Greek poetry (though he might have some reservations about that, too). It is a handy catchall to evoke all the changes of the postwar American cultural revolution: challenges to traditional sexual morality, civil and parental authority, and religious orthodoxy; to work, family, neighborhood, and church, as Ronald Reagan puts it. Ultimately, it is a reaction to a decline in religious values. Now, there is nothing particularly new or necessarily dangerous about conservatives opposing secularization and calling for a religious renewal. What IS new, and potentially dangerous, is that the current reaction has identified a single cause for the secular trend and dubbed it humanism. This poses a logical problem. If humanism simply means irreligion, then to blame the decline of religion on the rise of humanism is a tautology. On the other hand, if humanism is the evangelical creed of a small band of proselytizing zealots, then to blame the decline of religion on humanism is paranoia. The religious right, apparently, has chosen paranoia. It is a clever tactic. What otherwise would have been a shadowy struggle against a 500-year-old historical trend—secularization—is transformed into a crusade against a militant ideology controlled by a vanguard of party activists—the humanists. A generation ago the pernicious sappers of our vital spiritual juices were called “godless Communists.” Now they are “secular humanists.”

Who are these people hiding under (in?) the beds of God-fearing Christians? Tliere is in fact an organization of humanists, but they are hardly a group on whom to pin the decline of Western civilization. Forty years ago they banded together into the American Humanist Association. They then proceeded to wander in the same political wilderness as the militant vegetarians and agrarian anarchists. It took the far right to put them on the map.

A glance at the current issue of the Humanist, the American Humanist Association’s magazine, gives a good idea of what they are up to. The cover story is “Humanistic Revolution in Health Care,” a paean to the Pritikin diet. It is followed by articles on sexual equality, genetic altruism, the makings of a good person, and the like. The Humanist would be indistinguishable from other publications promoting good causes except for several unnerving characteristics. First, it has a consistent strain of gratuitous antitheism which endows each piece with a triumphant “God-is-really-dead” tone. In this issue, for example, an article describing a politician’s fight with the local Catholic hierarchy over birth control is entitled “The Man Who Defeated God.” Second, a slightly crackpot secular millenarianism prevails. There is the promise of salvation in every new discovery, scientific or social: if only the Pritikin diet were accepted, 150,000 lives a year would be saved; or, if only we had sexual equality, we would have the “key to solving such globe-threatening problems as nuclear war, totalitarianism, and social injustice all across the board.” That same spirit compels the almost obsessive habit of ending each article with an uplifting reference to all humankind, a kind of humanist hallelujah.

It is difficult, however, to make such benign eccentricities the object of a holy war. For the religious right to sustain its malevolent fantasies about humanism, it turns not to today’s Humanist but instead to a more venerable source, the Humanist Manifesto, I and II. The first of these was issued in 1933 and signed by 34 intellectuals (John Dewey was one). Its object was not to reject religion but to replace the traditional creeds with a new one: “religious humanism.” It was to be the “vital, fearless and frank religion” that new realities demanded. By today’s standards the manifesto is a mild, naive affirmation of faith in science, reason, and “manly attitudes.” It rejects the traditional belief in God and calls for man to create his own ethics; it rejects “acquisitive and profit-motivated society” and calls for a “socialized and cooperative economic order” with “the equitable distribution of the means of life.” The content is vaguely Marxist, humane and minus the class antagonism. But the pretentions of the 15 numbered principles are decidedly biblical. Take humanist principle number one: “religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” This statement tells us nothing about the universe, since “self-existing,” though the kind of word that might inspire an Escher painting, is philosophically empty. It is a thinly disguised declaration about (the nonexistence of) He-who-is-supposed-to-have-created-the-universe, a politely humanist way of saying that in the beginning God did not create the heavens and the earth.

Forty years later the Humanist Manifesto began to look a bit dated. So a sequel—Humanist Manifesto II—was produced. By now there were many more signers. They included biomedical types like Francis Crick and B. F. Skinner; philosophers like Sidney Hook; civil liberty lobbyists like the heads of Planned Parenthood and the Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws; and liberal—very liberal—churchmen, mostly Unitarians with a rabbi thrown in here and there. By now, the pretense that humanism was a new religion or in any way “religious” was dropped. The new manifesto was frankly antireligious, although it did, with Christian charity, concede that “traditional religions are surely not the only obstacles to human progress.” All the hallmarks of the old humanism are there: a naive faith in science (“We need to extend the uses of scientific method ... to build constructive social and moral values”); a rejection of Cod (“We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural,” p > 0.05, no doubt, or, for you lawyers, case dismissed); the enshrinement of “self-actualization” as the goal of life; the assertion that ethics is “autonomous and situational needing no theological sanction”; an attack on orthodox religion for “unduly repressing sexual conduct”; an affirmation of the right to birth control, abortion, and permission to express “sexual proclivities” and pursue “lifestyles”; and a definition of civil liberties that includes “the right to die with dignity, euthanasia and the right to suicide.” In keeping with the fashion of the times, a few new cliches are appended: a commitment to decentralized decision-making, a salute to “the energy and idealism of the young,” an appeal for “a world order based upon transnational federal government,” and bows to ecology and a new world economic order for the third world. All in all, a mixture of old-fashioned earnest atheism and late-1960s radical libertarianism, floating in a gelatinous universalism worthy of a UN preamble. It is the creed one might expect of a socially conscious, passionately naive microbiology major.

Neither Humanist Manifesto made a great impact. The 1933 version might have served the already religiously defrocked as a benign, mildly socialist alternative to Stalinism; the 1973 version, as a highly scientistic corrective to some of the neo-romantic irrationalism of the late-1960s. Today’s tepid Humanist magazine reflects the same sensibilities. And it shares the same intellectual marginality. It remains an enthusiastic, slightly Utopian, and doggedly atheistic forum for a small group of believers. But that’s not how its opponents see it. They see these humanists and their manifestos marching across the centuries leaving devastation in their wake. Recently, Alabama removed from its approved list of school texts a history book which parental groups claimed promoted secular humanist values. One complaint was about a reference to Erasmus as a “Christian humanist.” One critic asked: “How can a Christian be a humanist? … It is impossible to be a Christian humanist … If you embrace the humanist manifesto, you embrace that there is no God.”

The entire evangelical attack on the humanist nemesis is at roughly the same level of sophistication. And the saddest consequence of this crazy crusade is that it has corrupted an important social issue: what happens to a free society when a major source of its values—religion—declines? Conservatives are not the only ones who are troubled by this question. Arthur Schlesinger once wrote that “the most important thing for the preservation of civilization is a belief in moral standards. That belief is really most solid when it is founded upon a fervent belief in a supernatural order.” Years later he added,

I am impressed, for example, by the way the declining faith in the supernatural has been accompanied by the rise of the monstrous totalitarian creeds of the 20th century. As Chesterton once said. The trouble when people stop believing in God is not that they thereafter believe in nothing; it is that they thereafter believe in anything.’

Schlesinger is not the first to appreciate the political and social functions of religious belief. As Terry Eastland points out (Commentary, June 1981), the founding fathers held a similar view. They recognized that individual liberty alone was Insufficient for sustaining a republican order. For society to remain intact, the centrifugal forces of simple libertarianism had to be balanced by countervailing forces promoting civic and moral virtue. Respect for the gods and the polis provided that for the Greeks. The founding fathers believed that the prevailing Protestant culture, with its belief in Divine Providence, would do the same for America.

But that religious order has declined. In intellectual circles today, a belief in the supernatural is treated with condescension if not contempt. Several years ago the great Australian neurobiologist. Sir John Eccles, ended a Harvard lecture on brain organization by admitting that although evolution could account for the brain, it could not, in his view, account for the mind, with its mysterious capacity for consciousness and thought: only something transcendent could account for that. The audience began hissing.

In the scientific world, to insist on the need for a religious sensibility is considered a lapse of judgment; in the political world, it is considered a retreat to sentimentality if not reaction. But in my view it is a mistake to assume that rejecting the lunacy of the far right means we must deny the value to society of a religious sensibility. The connection between decline in spirituality and social pathology has been noted by Schlesinger. And it has been argued most forcefully not by Jerry Falwell but by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In his fire and brimstone Harvard address of 1978 Solzhenitsyn ascribed the present “state of weakness of the West” to:

…the prevailing view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment … rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him … (This I anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists … did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth …That provided access for evil of which in our days there is a free and constant flow.

Solzhenitsyn does not engage in the easy demagoguery of the American right in blaming our current condition on a small band of satanic conspirators. When Solzhenitsyn speaks of humanism, his definition is the only honest and useful one: the doctrine of man-centeredness which has characterized half a millennium of Western thought. And when Solzhenitsyn denounces this doctrine and calls for a return to the spiritual fold, he knows he is ordering the tides to turn back. But that is not his only message. We don’t have to will ourselves into his idealized theistic past to appreciate his warnings against anthropocentric arrogance—against an insufficient appreciation of man’s capacity for evil and, therefore, of the dangers of absolute freedom. Most of us are not prepared to learn our theology from Solzhenitsyn. But that is not a reason to reject his message about the limits of liberty and the need to reestablish—in our law and politics and culture—communal values. Restoring these values is a task secularists and skeptics should address without fear that it will put them on the road to Lourdes, or to Lynchburg, Virginia. Ignoring these values simply guarantees that they will remain the exclusive domain of comically dogmatic manifesto signers and dangerously intolerant twice-born preachers.

This article originally ran in the July 25, 1981 issue of the magazine.