Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Humanism belongs to everyone!

(This is part 4 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

So far in this series I have focused on humanism as secularism, and done some work to highlight the secularist ethics that come hand-in-hand with many liberals’ religious faith. In this post, I will present a much more vague, open-ended argument, in order to begin building some aspects of my own philosophy of humanism.

In philosophical jargon, I will say: Humanism must be universally particular.

And in awesome quotable language, I will say: Humanism belongs to everyone.

Let’s back all the way up to the word “Humanism.” On the face of it, it is some kind of “ism” of the “human.” It could be a philosophy about humans, a philosophy for humans, a philosophy that places humans at the center of some domain. Who really knows, it’s just a word.

But how about this: Whatever “humanism” is, every human has a say in its meaning. I believe that the meaning of “being human” emerges from an individual’s sense and experience of being human, and so (at this early point in my inchoate philosophy) there might be as many humanisms as there are people. As a human, I think I have a unique, individual, and authentic perspective on what it means to be a human. But if your experience differs, am I ‘more human’ so that I could tell you you’re wrong? Of course not. I am just one person, as are you. We each bring overlapping and divergent notions of what it means to be a human, and “humanism” must be big enough for both of us.

What I am attempting here is a move for radical inclusivity (although at some point I will have to deal with those humans who understand humanity through a supernaturalist lens) and critical analysis of any concept of humanism that fails to take into account the ridiculous large range of human experiences.

“Whatever humanism is, it needs to be true to my experience, or else it is not as human as I am.” This is a challenge we are bound to give and to answer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are you a religious humanist? Take my brief/awesome quiz!

(This is part 3 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

There is such a thing as religious humanism (is there?), aka humanism with a theology. In my last post I discussed institutional religious humanism, and in this one I will present an account of individual religious humanism.

My account of individual religious humanism is more problematic, but I will attempt it anyhow, if only to get the attention of those individual religious humanists. It’s important to target these people, as there are many Jews that do believe in God (however loosely or vaguely) but do not identify strongly with a Jewish denomination, and I think it could be valuable to the growth of humanism as a movement to point out to them ways in which they are ‘closet humanists’ (or to steal a phrase from Karl Rahner ‘anonymous humanists’). So, to my targets: my goal is to convince you to identify as a “religious humanist.”

First of all, go read the third Humanist Manifesto. Does it speak to you? Does it reflect a lot of your core principles? What is missing? Even if it’s not the most inspiring document to you, do you find yourself assenting to most or all of its statements?

Second of all, take this short quiz (I apologize that it is geared towards Jews, or at least those involved with western religion):

1)      Do you and your God share the same ethical values and priorities?
2)     A core Jewish value is that each person has inherent dignity because they are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. Without b’tzelem Elohim, would you still believe in the basic dignity of each person?
3)     Do religious rituals (esp. prayer) primarily bring you closer to God or closer to other people?

How’d you do? Here is some of my reasoning behind these questions:

1)      I’ve always found it a bit suspect when a person’s God is in total agreement with that person’s moral judgments. Frankly, it smacks of idolatry—posing a God as a complete affirmation of one’s own moral compass. Many people on both sides of the political spectrum will hand-pick the religious laws they prefer and ignore others. I’m not calling this hypocritical; I’m just calling it the natural human response to receiving a tradition that is not entirely humane. Thus my particular Jewish community reads the Bible and find a God who always commands social justice, and never commands genocide. I respect this kind of reading, but I want the inherent secularism in it to be acknowledged.

2)     A non-secularist would answer ‘no’ to this question. They truly see God as the foundation of value and worth in the world, without which there is no foundation of value and worth.

3)     Only in liberal religion will you find people who pray regularly, but not as a way to feel close to God. These people are focused on the human world. If you don’t like the term “religious humanist” then at least use “culturally religious,” as it appears that you are drawn towards religious ritual as a matter of cultural gathering, and not as a means of communication with God. (My apologies to God2-niks who think this question sets up a false dichotomy, but face it, if you find God “in-between” people, then expect me to peg you as a kind of religious humanist.)

So? Have I convinced you to call yourself a religious humanist (or at least, ‘culturally religious’)?

The only question remaining is, so what? So what if I (hopefully) cornered you into taking on this label?

I don’t know. This is as far as I’ve gotten in this line of thinking. You tell me what it means to persuade liberals to call themselves ‘religious humanists.’

Monday, October 10, 2011

Is there such a thing as religious humanism?

(This is part 2 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

There is such a thing as religious humanism, aka humanism with a theology. Obviously a god that presides over a humanism is one with no authority or power. But, hey, if you believe that “It’s up to us” and you believe in a god, then I am willing to call you a humanist. Religious humanism can be found on the far-liberal spectrum of religion. Unitarian Universalism is an obvious example, but since I am Jewish I will focus on Jewish examples so as not to make a total fool of myself.

Religious humanism can manifest both institutionally and individually. Institutionally, I think that Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism are forms of religious humanism. Mordecai Kaplan’s dictum that Jewish tradition has “a vote, not a veto,” expresses my “up to us” principle. While our tradition (in all its religiosity) certainly can positively influence our beliefs and lifestyles, we refuse to let it hinder the development and expression of progressive values. Of course, the fact that Kaplan’s theology is one of God2 makes this an easy argument— God2 theologies lack a commanding God, and pretty much always affirm the human values of their adherents. Reform Judaism, while upholding a (modified) God1 theology, also ‘smacks’ of humanism to me. Reform Judaism is unapologetic about its rejection of divine law and commandment—and, for me, that goes a long way towards it overlapping with humanism (although, yes, there is much more to humanism than that).

As my account of individual religious humanism is more problematic, in the interest of space I will save it for my next post.

Just to acknowledge my biggest gap here—yes, so far, I am entirely conflating humanism with secularism. I hope you don’t mind—I do not have a robust concept of humanism yet. Also, I think the point that there are religious institutions that form their ethics by secular means (that is, regardless of God’s commands) is important. The presence of a secular meta-ethics within liberal religion is currently my main argument for the existence of religious humanism.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"What is Humanism?" Secular Ethics as Minimal Requirement

(This is part 1 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

Humanism is already defined quite well by the third Humanist Manifesto. The manifesto affirms reason, compassion, experience, science, arts, nature, dignity, society, service, relationships, peace, justice, opportunity, individuality, happiness, diversity, equality, rights, liberty, and responsibility, all in the context of a naturalistic world. At first glance, all of these values are fundamental values of the human.

One line that particularly appeals to me is “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” I like to paraphrase this meta-ethical statement as “Human good is determined by humans based on the human experience.” To me, this is the heart of humanism, from which all of its other values flow. I believe humanism is the result of individual and collective self-reckoning, without the intrusion of absolutist claims based on the supernatural.

A general sentiment in the manifesto that appeals to me is “It’s up to us.” I’m drawing most specifically on the “ours and ours alone” phrasing which ends the document, but “It’s up to us” looms over the entire manifesto. The advance of knowledge, the development of humane values, the improvement of society and human welfare—humanism is the affirmation of our sole responsibility to these things. Nothing else in the world will take care of them for us. “Taking care” is solely the work of humanity.

If you do not share this “It’s up to us,” sentiment with me, then I don’t think I can count you among the humanists. Yes, human knowledge, values, and action are all fallible things, but they are all we have.

**I will end my post here, but I should anticipate negative reactions to the ‘in or out’ mentality in my last paragraph. In writing this series on humanism, I am indeed hoping to create some definitions that qualify or disqualify individuals and institutions as humanist. While I will also seek to lay out some broad principles that allow for diversity within humanism, I think the integrity of the term ‘humanism’ is strengthened by locating and affirming its limits.

"What is Humanism?" Intentions and Precautions


As “secular spirituality” is not a recognized or respected phrase, I would like to do some writing staking my claims in “humanism.” I will use two main sources for my thoughts on humanism: the third Humanist Manifesto and the word “humanism.”
As someone with a previously strong religious identity, I will be examining humanism insofar as it might “do the work” that my religion once did for me, including:
o   Inform an ethical/political/activist philosophy
§  My specific agenda will be to establish humanism as a firm and unambiguous foundation for some or all of the following: anti-oppression work (radical feminism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, etc.), environmentalism, peaceful dialogue, and great-love compassion.
o   Gather people for sharing life, wisdom, and mutual support

Precautions (responding to my intentions in opposite order)

I get that “Humanism” is not a single thing, nor is its current popular iteration one that is intended for or will easily lend itself to replacing religion. “Humanism” is very likely too broad a term upon which to found a culture or specific political agendas.
(My intention in this regard is to explore its cultural possibilities and to claim it for specific political agendas.)
I know that there is much more writing on Humanism than the manifesto, and I know that many people do not base their concept of Humanism on the manifesto. Oh well—I like it. I am writing all of this as an amateur, and hope to convince you through my thoughts, not my scholarship.
As these posts are all initial investigations, I may or may not ever arrive at a robust concept of “humanism.” Expect anything that I write here to touch upon one or two aspects of humanism, but to be missing many other pieces of the picture—at least at first. For example, my first few posts focus solely on humanism as secularism, and of course there is more to humanism than just secularism.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Do you believe in God1 or God2?

This entry was originally posted on State of Formation in June 2011.

Some people who don’t believe in God still want to believe in “God.” The result is a modified type of God-idea. Call the new kinds God2.
God1s are characterized by “classic” God attributes, most notably will and power, or put more simply, agency. Without agency, there is no God1—no Creator, no Judge, no Redeemer, etc. The advance of the scientific, naturalistic world-view has driven God1s back into the far-reaching “gaps” in our knowledge. In the ancient near east a God1 could send or withhold rain, and even cause localized earthquakes (Num. 16:30-33). With modern meteorology and plate tectonic theory, those who attribute natural disasters to an angry God1 are challenged to explain at what point in the natural chain of cause-and-effect God1 intervened.
Before we move on to God2s, let’s first take into account options for modifying a God1 belief in the modern world.
1)      A deistic approach forces God1 into the gaps at the extreme edges; for example, when someone claims that God is responsible for the Big Bang. God1’s agency is here limited to the ultimate first action—quite the honor, but also a far-cry from the natural and historical interventions previously allowed.
2)     While not a modern move, one also can witness a profound limitation placed on God1 in the move from Deuteronomic to Christian theology, that is, the move from this-worldly to next-worldly reward and punishment. A God1 whose justice reigns over heaven and hell is powerful, but certainly nothing like the God1 whose justice reigns on Earth. However, the mystery of life-after-death still keeps a large, inviting space open for belief in God1.
3)     The God1 of limited theism (found in books like Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People) has greater agency than a Deistic God1, but is still severely limited. Frankly, I find the limited God1’s agency very confusing. What does it mean if God1 can’t put out a fire, but can inspire courage in the heart of a firefighter? (Kushner 139-142) How does that work? What exactly are the dynamics and boundaries of God1’s psycho-emotional powers, and do they move atoms at all?
Regardless, these modified God1 beliefs express the desire to harmonize an agential God with a mostly-naturalistic world-view.
God2 is any “God” that lacks agency, that is, will and power. Here are some kinds:
1) Mordecai Kaplan’s God2 is a power without will—a force. Also known as “the power that makes for salvation,” adherents of Kaplan’s theology relate to this God2 by identifying in nature and history the developments that foster human flourishing. Kaplan’s God2 is not just a symbol—in calling his God2 “God” he is attempting to point out the existence of an objective force in the world—but his God2 clearly lacks the distinct agency of a God1.
2) The God2 of pantheism is identical with the world. Being all things, pantheistic God2 doesn’t choose sides or make a plan, so It doesn’t have much of a will. Being all things, this God2 is powerful, but only in the sense of being like Tillich’s “power of being” (aka ground of being aka being-itself). This is not the kind of power that God1 seekers care about. A siddur will not get you far if you are looking to pray to the God-that-is-all-things. Anyhow, it’s an awkward God to worship. Sure there’s probably a lot of good poetry about God2 (Rumi?), but the popular praise-request-thank model of prayer doesn’t seem to fit with such an amorphous God.
3) Another God2 borders on the symbolic—the God2 of definitive metaphors like “God is love” or Gordon’s Kaufman’s “God is serendipitous creativity.” As an out atheist, it’s hard for me not to read those phrases as anything other than closeted atheism. That’s “God” used as an exclamation point, not as a proposition. All of the meaningful content is in the second half of the sentence; all “God” does to the idea is give it a name, and affirm its utmost importance.
What all of these God2 share is that they are descendants, once-removed, of God1. In order to read God2 into any part of the western religious canon, a lot of ironic reading (aka allegorical interpretation) is necessary. A God2 is likely to be factored into a scenario of salvation, but one can never say literally that “God2 saves,” as if God2 were a specific agent that could identify problems, have motivation to act on them, and act on them. In all of these God2 examples, God2 will save you, but only at the pace and power of human progress. And a God stripped of supernatural power loses a lot of appeal for most people. Think of all the images of “God” that are dependent on the God1 model: Creator. Father. King. Judge, Shepherd, Friend. Redeemer. Savior. Can the word “God” be cleansed of all these personalistic images? Please—“God” is a name! It’s a proper noun—that’s instinctually (because grammatically) personalizing. And so to say that God2 “speaks,” “wants,” or “loves,” is to speak very equivocally.
Indeed, the phenomenon of belief in God2 is founded on a desire to equivocate. The term “God” gathers a variety of significations, and many people want to hold on to some while letting go of others. Insofar as “God” functions to tie together rhetoric about ultimate meaning, cosmic explanation, and ethical direction, it is an unacceptable loss for some people to lose “God” when they begin to doubt the existence and power of a God1. They still desire an ultimate point of reference, on account of the orientation and instruction such a point of reference provides. The need for sense and order backs the desire for monotheism, and so “God” simply holds a central place in the individual and communal psyche. And so, modern-minded folks still seek out a one-principle to hang their hope on, to call “God.”
But should God2 be called “God”? What is a God without will and power? Yes, the word “God” carries many significations—but are certain significations essential? Does God2’s lack of agency disqualify it from deserving the label “God”? Think of what the mass of people right now, and throughout history, mean and meant by “God.” To them, God is a conscious over-being with the power to save and the right to judge and kill. That’s God1 aka God. What can you do with a God2?
(**An addended love-note to God2 lovers: Sorry! Also here’s where we agree—(1) the world is interconnected; (2) self-conscious life is the closest thing there is to “the Universe contemplating itself”; (3) transcendence is still available even without the supernatural; (4) people are indeed capable of great good.)