Why The New Humanism
"It was time to do something to show a large audience that Humanism is inclusive of, but goes well beyond, atheism
One billion people around the world, including over forty million Americans and over one in five Americans age 18 to 25 identify with no religion. Imagine the positive impact these people could have on the world if, in the coming generations, they were to realize that Humanism is what they have in common.
The New Humanism is an online magazine meant to explore and help pioneer new ways of bringing Humanists, atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious together to build a movement that can make a lasting and far-reaching positive impact. In short, we are interested in anything that is good, without God.
The New Humanism is produced by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and is named after the 30th anniversary conference our organization held in April 2007. At that event, the title was chosen to contrast with "The New Atheism," as the media have dubbed the work of writers such as Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins, Stanford doctoral student Sam Harris, and journalist Christopher Hitchens, each of whom had recently published a bestselling book promoting atheism. The intention was to use our conference to draw attention to the idea that Humanism, like atheism, is nontheistic and not traditionally religious, but unlike some popular atheism, Humanism is not necessarily an antireligious ideology. We also hoped our conference could serve as an exploration of the best ways in which Humanism can be more positive and constructive than what the general public had been seeing in the New Atheism. Our speakers, topics, and other conference events were chosen in order to highlight these distinctions.
The New Humanism does not differ with the New Atheism on every issue, or even on most issues. The first point of agreement both camps might find is that there is no overwhelming need for the term "new" in either appellation. In fact Dawkins, Harris et al. did not really reinvent atheism, but rather benefited from being outstandingly articulate spokesmen for it at a time when new media such as the expanding Internet are providing dramatically increased visibility for minority points of view. Likewise, we never hoped to reinvent the Humanist philosophy that has been developed over the course of the past century. But we chose to use the word "new" anyhow, because of the hope that just as atheism today seems to has have gained new life and publicity, Humanism too can be reinvigorated in the twenty-first century; though our reinvigoration should not be measured so much by the amount of publicity we gain but by the extent to which we create and build bigger institutions that benefit humanity more concretely and measurably than Humanism has in the past.
It is also important to note that the New Humanism and the New Atheism absolutely share the same views on questions such as whether God exists (almost certainly not), or how best to understand the nature of the world around us (science and empiricism). And as to whether we ought to fight for such causes as the separation of Church and State, the teaching of evolution, and the promotion of atheism and Humanism as valid, patriotically American ways of life, our answers are also the same as those of the New Atheists -- you bet your life we ought to. To the extent that writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have taken a national and international lead in discussing such questions boldly, they should be regarded as heroes. However, there is much more of importance to Humanism than that which the New Atheists were able to successfully address in the first wave of their popularity. And in late 2006 I began feeling concerned that, with the atheists getting so much attention from media that have almost no knowledge of Humanism, the distinct message of Humanism was being lost. Bill O'Reilly and crew were suggesting dismissively that Humanism was no more than a cutesy nickname for atheism, and Humanists were not successfully rebutting this charge in public. I felt it was time to do something to show a large audience that Humanism is inclusive of, but goes well beyond, atheism.
What are the key ideas of "the New Humanism"-- not only the conference but the broader movement we hope to build upon it, a movement that will involve active cooperation between Humanist and secular organizations around the United States and the world, and between Humanist and religious organizations on an issue-by-issue basis?
First, the New Humanism is diverse. Its roots lie not only in Western culture but in every culture from around the world. We asked Salman Rushdie to help demonstrate this fact by talking about the roots of Humanism in the Islamic world; and he gave an elegant, literary account of an authentic stream of Muslim heritage that can be traced back to the democratizing tendencies of Cyrus in ancient Persia through the great medieval philosophers Ibn Sinna and Averroes, who helped preserve Aristotelian philosophy for the West. Then there have been the great Humanistic figures in Islam's recent past, such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the secularist and pluralist-minded first Prime Minister of Pakistan. Rushdie himself is a great symbol of the millions of atheists and agnostics in the Muslim world today. We must embrace them and understand that they don't visualize Humanism as a straight path from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment the way some of us do in the United States.
For similar reasons we also reached out to the great Harvard professors Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist and philosopher; and Tu Weiming, the director of the Harvard Yenching Institute. Sen spoke on his most recent writing, which begins to stake out a kind of authentically Indian Humanism. He pointed out, for example, that ancient Sanskrit contains more atheist and agnostic literature than any other classical language in history. Tu spoke on Confucian Humanism, an idea that has been a life-project for him within the academy, almost parallel to the way Rabbi Sherwin Wine pursued Humanistic Judaism in the actual community. Wine spoke eloquently and entertainingly about how to put "Cultural Humanism" into concrete action, Sherwin created a model of community that we can look to in attempting to produce positive change for Humanists around the world. In the coming weeks, we'll finally be posting some of the long-awaited video from the conference here on this site, along with exclusive new videos exploring even more ways to combine Humanism and culture, such as the Buddhist Humanism of bestselling author Stephen Batchelor or the African American Humanism of noted scholar Anthony Pinn of Rice University.
Another goal of the conference was to show that Humanism can relate to non-Humanists in an inclusive manner. The New Humanism does not spend all its energy blasting belief in God in all its forms and certainly avoids ad hominem attacks on those who identify themselves as religious. In other words, we know that not everyone who disagrees with us is an idiot. We don't kid ourselves about the deleterious effects of some religion, and we don't have to agree with any form of theism, but we don't consider religion to be child abuse. (Some religious people may indeed abuse their children by excessive indoctrination, but in those cases the crime of which they are guilty is…child abuse, not religion.)
We are Humanists because for us, Humanism is part of being the best, most honest, most thoughtful human beings we are capable of being. The New Humanism seeks to go beyond non-antagonism, to actually build coalitions with religious people of all stripes around important issues. The great contemporary hero of this approach is E. O. Wilson, the Harvard scientist and Humanist chaplaincy board member who spoke on his groundbreaking work to bring Humanist scientists and evangelical Christians together to address global warming and to save "The Creation," regardless of our differing views on what created this world.
Wilson spoke for our conference on a Sunday, but that Saturday he was speaking at a huge conference on the environment at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama—the "Ivy League of the Southern Baptist Conference." While he was there, we set up a videoconference between a member of the Samford faculty and myself, wherein we each pledged to do all we could to encourage our respective communities to work together in a spirit of friendship and mutual respect, to stop global warming, because, as I remarked, global warming doesn't care what we believe about God. I was proud of this historic moment, and I hope to make good on my pledge, but meanwhile I was disappointed to read in a blog afterwards that at least one conference attendee saw such moments as "kowtowing" to religion. This is a serious misunderstanding. We seek to do collaborative work, not to kowtow to others, nor to dominate them. We will not be dominated, and we do not seek hegemony. In this spirit, we aim to publish pieces exploring the interplay between Humanism, religious pluralism, and interfaith work.
Finally, the New Humanism is inspiring. It seeks to not merely lecture and to debate but also to sing and to build, to tell stories and to cultivate mindful, ethical action. That is the focus of this initial issue, edited by the wise and talented Rick Heller along with assistant editors James Croft and Deborah Strod and managing editor Ryan Norbauer. Rick and co. have assembled an excellent collection of essays by members of the Harvard community on how we can build a more engaging Humanist community for the 21st century. And because the arts are to Humanism what theology is to traditional religion, our first exclusive video is of one of the great Humanist artists working in popular culture today—writer/director/producer Joss Whedon, who accepted the third annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism at Harvard in April, 2009.
For much more on all these topics, of course, readers should check out my book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. But the wonderful thing about this site is it will provide a space for the conversations started in the book to continue interactively. I invite you to join the members of my community and me as we begin what should be a great conversation. Our goal is not simply conversation for conversation's sake—it is to build something, to get more involved and to get others involved. There are a billion Humanists out there in this world, waiting to be brought into a community. We can bring them in, for our own sake, and for the sake of all humanity. When we do, that will be a truly New Humanism.