Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Humanist's Godless Campaign

From the AHA's site,
"Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake," proclaims a new holiday ad from the American Humanist Association. Already appearing today in the New York Times and Washington Post, the message will soon be blazoned on the sides, taillights, and interiors of over 200 Washington DC Metro buses.

It's the first ad campaign of its kind in the United States, and the American Humanist Association predicts it will raise public awareness of humanism as well as controversy over humanist ideas.

"Humanists have always understood that you don't need a god to be good," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "So that's the point we're making with this advertising campaign. Morality doesn't come from religion. It's a set of values embraced by individuals and society based on empathy, fairness, and experience."
UU's short O'Riley. I'm not a regular watcher of his show but stumbled across his interview with someone from AHA on this effort. And found myself agreeing with O'Riley that --save the gratuitous shot against God (why bother with that?)-- I'm in perfect agreement that morality flows from our empathy, fairness, and experience.

Update: Boy in the Band's seen one of the AHA's ads and posts on it.

22 comments:

fausto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fausto said...

Since the beginnings of "Religious Humanism" in the 1920's and 30's, self-identified "Humanists" have found it nearly impossible to distinguish between affirming the worth of humanity and denying the worth of God, even though the two propositions aren't at all related. As long as they continue to promote Humanism as a brand that binds the propositions together, the public will continue to see Humanism as nothing more than a synonym for atheism, and will continue to ignore it for that reason -- no matter how many ads the AHA buys in the New York Times or on Washington buses.

Now, I will put my Humanist credentials up against anyone's. My grandfather was Columbia professor who was a student of John Dewey (who signed the first Manifesto) and a teacher of Corliss Lamont (a prominent leader of the AHA). Lamont was a close enough family friend that my mother always called him "Uncle Corliss". In my family, however, "Humanism" has always been only about the noblest elements of the human spirit, such as community, compassion, charity, personal responsibility, and some of the things that 19th century Unitarians affirmed like human perfectibility and character formation. God was never denied, exactly, but was always understood as the topic of a completely different discussion.

If the AHA really wants to grow Humanism, it should figure out how to recast its message in a way that attracts both secularists and devotees of various existing religions. You don't attract new prospects to yourself merely by hurling gratuitous insults at other people. If the same ad campaign wouldn't work in Atlanta or Lynchburg or Cairo or Tel Aviv or Vatican City, it will ultimately fail in New York and Washington too. And I think my grandfather's affirming style of Humanism offers far more potential in that regard than the AHA's negative one.

Bill Baar said...

My thoughts exactly Fausto...

Steve Caldwell said...

Based on the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) conducted in 2001; atheism, agnosticism, and the "no religion" demographic increased in size between 1990 and 2001 (8.4% of the population in 1990 and 15.0% in 2001).

Christianity is still the majority religion but it shrank from 88.3% of the population to 79.8%.

Wikipedia link to study results:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States#Religious_affiliation

I would not discount this demographic trend nor would I say a billboard suggesting there is no god is somehow a "negative" message.

To me as a non-believer, it sounds like some believers are just too defensive when a person expresses honest doubt about their beliefs.

Joel Monka said...

Fausto, it seems to me that the 5th and 6th principles of the first Manifesto sound like God is being denied. As does "As in 1933, humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith.", "Traditional moral codes and newer irrational cults both fail to meet the pressing needs of today and tomorrow. False "theologies of hope" and messianic ideologies, substituting new dogmas for old, cannot cope with existing world realities.", "Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful...Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the "ghost in the machine" and the "separable soul." from the second. I can see where a small "h" humanist can affirm the worth of humanity without denying the worth of God, but how could a signer of the Manifestos do so?

fausto said...

I can see where a small "h" humanist can affirm the worth of humanity without denying the worth of God, but how could a signer of the Manifestos do so?

A lot of them didn't, including some in the Unitarian and Columbia communities who were considered part of the movement by their peers and were expressly asked for their signatures. For example, see here.

fausto said...

To me as a non-believer, it sounds like some believers are just too defensive when a person expresses honest doubt about their beliefs.

Surely there are some believers who are too defensive when another person expresses honest doubt, but I don't think that happens much among UUs. With us, there are far more who are appropriately doubtful when nonbelief is advanced as a normative creed.

fausto said...

...nor would I say a billboard suggesting there is no god is somehow a "negative" message.


neg·a·tive

Pronunciation: \ˈne-gə-tiv\
Function: adjective
Date: 15th century

1 a: marked by denial, prohibition, or refusal (received a negative answer) ...

5 a: not affirming the presence of a condition, substance, or organism suspected to be present ...

In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/negative

Bill Baar said...

Negative or not, it does exclude people who would otherwise agree with the balance of AHA's effort.

I had forgotten some of the points in the 1933 Manisfesto but I recall humanism more as it was practiced by adults I crossed paths with in Chicago as a teen.

Steve Caldwell said...

Fausto -- suggesting there is no need to believe in god or gods to be moral may be a "negative" statement about god or gods.

In that strictly dictionary sense, this is a "negative" statement.

But my comment was not about this "negation" use of the word "negative" but rather about "attitude description" use of the word "negative."

Does one have a negative attitude if one says "you know ... there just isn't any objective evidence that god or gods exist"?

If there were objective evidence of the existence of god or gods, we wouldn't be talking about matters of faith but something else.

I personally don't believe in god or gods because I find the evidence to be lacking. If the lack of evidence situation changes, I will change my views.

fausto said...

Fausto -- suggesting there is no need to believe in god or gods to be moral may be a "negative" statement about god or gods.

In that strictly dictionary sense, this is a "negative" statement.

But my comment was not about this "negation" use of the word "negative" but rather about "attitude description" use of the word "negative."


Look, it's not that complicated. If a statement says "yes", it's positive, but if it says "no", it's negative.

As I said before, the premise that there is something worthy in the human condition is an affirmation and therefore positive, while the premise that there is no God, or no human need to rely on a higher power, or no higher power than human sentience, is a denial and therefore negative. The two premises are not logically interdependent and do not need to be tied together, but the AHA and the Manifestos have always done so anyway.

Affirmations tend to inspire and attract a lot more people than denials, so if the AHA wants to grow its membership, I am suggesting that it would be more successful if it abandoned the negations and concentrated on the affirmations.

Does one have a negative attitude if one says "you know ... there just isn't any objective evidence that god or gods exist"?

No, I would say that is only skeptical, but not necessarily negative, and is different in kind from a categorical denial of God. The notion that people who hold a different view do not belong in the family of "Humanists", however, is exclusionary and therefore also negative in attitude, in the sense you describe.

A fundamental difference between UUism and Manifesto-based, capital-H Humanism is that the former has always been covenantal, while the latter has always been creedal. In covenantal UUism, the condition of membership is agreeing to abide within a community behavioral standard, while in creedal orthodox Christianity and AHA Humanism it is agreeing with a list of truth propositions. There is not one whit of difference between AHA Humanism and, say, orthodox Nicene Christianity, at least to the extent that both draw a bright line of inclusion or exclusion according to a creedal test.

An integral creedal component of the Humanist Manifesto and its subsequent iterations is, and always has been, an explicit denial -- a negation -- of any sort of theism or supernaturalism. Now, like you, many others may find the available evidence insufficient to allow you to affirm theism or supernaturalism, but omitting any such affirmation from the creed ought to be sufficient to satisfy them on that point. Incorporating an additional, explicit, atheist negation in the canon of creedal truth propositions goes much farther -- and I think pretty much guarantees continued marginalization in a society where still, by your own statistics, only 15% of the population describe themselves as atheist, agnostic (the category where I would place myself, btw), or "no religion" combined.

Christianity is still the majority religion but it shrank from 88.3% of the population to 79.8%.... I would not discount this demographic trend....

But there's likely to be a limit to that trend. Beware the logical fallacy of unwarranted extrapolation.

If there were objective evidence of the existence of god or gods, we wouldn't be talking about matters of faith but something else.

I personally don't believe in god or gods because I find the evidence to be lacking. If the lack of evidence situation changes, I will change my views.


You are of course entitled to form your own personal faith propositions according to any burden of proof that you personally choose, but absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. Beware the logical fallacy of the argument from ignorance.

Steve Caldwell said...

Fausto wrote:
-snip-
You are of course entitled to form your own personal faith propositions according to any burden of proof that you personally choose, but absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence."

Fausto,

Well -- we do have some evidence about the limits of God's power.

The shrine at Lourdes has plenty of crutches and braces discarded over the years testifying to the cures attributed to God over the years.

Apparently, God's power has an observed limitation because we never see any artificial limbs -- we have no evidence for God curing an amputee.

Regarding the "absence of evidence vs. evidence of absence" question, we do have a clear historical trend for the past 500 years.

The theistic or supernatural explains less and less in our world.

Where we used to have supernatural explanations for disease, weather, disasters, etc, we now rely on naturalistic explanations.

I think it's entirely likely that the future developments in neurobiology will uncover new information about what we find mysterious today about the soul.

I know of no successful instance where we have rejected a naturalistic explanation for a supernatural explanation. The "intelligent design" folks are trying but they have had no success.

I suspect that they will not because Darwinian theory and the subsequent refinements have been very successful in both explaining the world and providing predictions that can be tested through observation. So far, intelligent design theory has not made any testable predictions.

How does one address Russell's Teapot, Invisible Pink Unicorns, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster from the "argument from ignorance" point of view?

We have no evidence for Russell's Teapot, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Would you say it's reasonable to believe these things exist?

Finally, I would suggest that you check out the most current version of the Humanist Manifesto (version 3):

Humanist Manifesto III

Unlike the earlier versions, it's more affirming in its language.

Much of the version 3 text could be accepted by Unitarian Universalists as assumptions about how we should engage the universe and each other through its affirmation of both reason and compassion.

fausto said...

Why do you suppose I am unaware of Manifesto III, Steve? I am fully aware of it, and discussed and debated it extensively with many of the veterans of the UU blogosphere when it was first released.

Humanist Manifesto III begins, "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms...".

In other words, the very first thing it contains, before any sort of affirmation whatsoever, is a denial. It is precisely that inherent negativity that I have been lamenting. Not only since it was published in 2003, but also well before.

Once again, this isn't a discussion about te validity of atheism per se, but about whether atheist declarations belong in a Humanist creed. Three generations of my non-theistic, humanist family have said no.

Joel Monka said...

"How does one address Russell's Teapot, Invisible Pink Unicorns, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster from the "argument from ignorance" point of view?" One addresses them for what they are, argumentative constructs that do not address the situtaion they are purported to address. There is no evidence of their existence- but there IS existence of the Divine. That evidence is the personal witness of experiencing the Divine presence. No one has ever seriously claimed to have been in the presence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn.

The aggressive atheists gets around this difference in two ways: first, by denying that such an experience is evidence at all- only those things that can be measured by a Radio Shack Multitester are valid evidence. Of course, by that standard, love, free will, and sentience itself cannot be proven. The second way around experience as evidence is to claim that such an experience is the result of mental illness, a peculiarly circular argument- people who experience God are crazy, because God does not exist... we know this, because there is no evidence of her existence... there is no evidence because no sane person has ever felt her...

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel wrote:
-snip-
"Of course, by that standard, love, free will, and sentience itself cannot be proven."

Joel,

Actually, scientists have done work exploring the question of free will's existence. I suspect they will explore the question of sentience in the future.

So we're closer to having "radio shack multi-tester" evidence for free will and sentience than we are to having the same type of evidence for god.

"Love" may be an intangible but it does affect the material world -- how the two person treat each other and interact with each other.

So love isn't totally intangible either.

Joel Monka said...

""Love" may be an intangible but it does affect the material world -- how the two person treat each other and interact with each other." And a religious conversion changes how a person interacts with the world, too, just as much or more so. Either they're both evidence, or neither is.

fausto said...

Joel's on the right track. Invisible unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters are nothing more than ironic, satirical mockery. No one has ever seriously claimed that they are real, much less claimed any direct personal encounter with them, and it is ridiculous even to imply otherwise. And even Bertrand Russell only proposed his teapot as an hypothetical illustration of another argument, not as a primary truth proposition in itself.

What Russell overlooked in his argument-in-chief, but Joel correctly notes, is the evidentiary value of personal testimony. Things have occurred in my life, for example, that are so improbable and undeserved that I cannot reasonably attribute them to chance, personal effort, or personal merit. The only explanation that fits the evidence to me is grace.

Now, I cannot tell you whether what I have experienced is accurately portrayed by, say, the God of Moses, or of St. Paul, or by Brahman or by the Tao. I have especially strong doubts that any of the Abrahamic traditions' scriptures comprise an authentic literal, perfect self-revelation by a sentient, anthropomorphic, supernatural Being. But I am nevetheless persuaded by my direct experience that there is some sort of transcendent reality that exists beyond empirical materialism. Despite my reservations about many parts of the Bible, I think St. Paul gave a reliable witness to this when he said (at I Corinthians 13) that our human apprehension is only partial. I think all the world's religions and their scriptures offer similarly partial, and also complementary, human witness to the same transcendent reality.

And, although I cannot call myself an atheist, I do call myself a humanist, because I affirm human worth, dignity, and moral capacity. And, although I am also not a baptized Christian and cannot affirm the divinity of Christ as most Christians traditionally understand it, I would call myself a humanist in the same tradition as the great Christian humanist St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world;
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good;
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.


Like the early Christian martyrs, Unitarian ones like Servetus and David and the self-declared Humanist James Reeb gave their lives for this greater transcendent reality, not a reality that can only be proven through logical positivism. In my estimation, any movement that restricts its epistemology to empirical methods, or that is unable to make allowance within its ranks for the apprehensions of a St. Paul or a St. Teresa, has blinded itself to an essential component of the human experience and the human condition. Such a pinched and stingy movement does not deserve to arrogate to itself and itself alone the word "humanist" -- much less to use the term as a proper noun with a capital H.

Steve Caldwell said...

Fausto wrote:
-snip-
"Like the early Christian martyrs, Unitarian ones like Servetus and David and the self-declared Humanist James Reeb gave their lives for this greater transcendent reality, not a reality that can only be proven through logical positivism. In my estimation, any movement that restricts its epistemology to empirical methods, or that is unable to make allowance within its ranks for the apprehensions of a St. Paul or a St. Teresa, has blinded itself to an essential component of the human experience and the human condition."

Just curious -- isn't it possible that the transcendent apprehensions described above are simply a natural aspect of human neurobiology? In other words, religious experience is simply a result of how are brains are constructed.

I wouldn't be surprised that we learn these experiences and other aspects of religious experience simply turn out to be natural phenomena.

It will be interesting to see what neurobiology discovers in the future.

Joel Monka said...

And just what exactly could neurobiology prove? How WOULD the Divine communicate with us but through the nervous system? Duh, what did you think- God speaks through our livers, or our nipples?

fausto said...

*sigh* Once again, Steve, I'm not challenging your atheism, so you don't need to defend it.

What I'm challenging is whether humanism is necessarily atheistic.

I say it's not, or at least, it shouldn't be. I say that capital-H Humanism conflates the affirmation of human potential with the denial of God, and corrupts and confuses both positions in the process. It makes no more sense than conflating Buddhism with Chinese food -- just because they often occur in tandem doesn't mean you can't have one without the other.

I say it's the insistence upon this unnecessary conflation, more than anything else Humanism stands for, that prevents it from gaining a wider following. It's a simple truth that the vast majority of people aren't atheists, and don't see why they need to become one in order to affirm humanity.

We know you find atheism more persuasive than theism, Steve, and would like to persuade as many others as you can to reach the same conclusion, but that's simply beside the point here. What do you say about the actual topic at hand? Should denying supernaturality generally, and/or God specifically, be a necessary component of Humanism? Can there be Humanists who are not also atheists? Do you expect to see a flood of new AHA enrollments in response to their new ad campaign? Why or why not?

Bill Baar said...

I haven't said much here because you express my thoughts so well Fausto.

I only add that I once called myself an atheist and made a point of letting others know it.

Over time I realized it was just the flip side of believing in God. Sensing God's absence --and often feeling angry about it-- rather than sensing God'd presence. Either way, God was involved as loving presence or AWOL creator.

So I like to think I stick with a Humanism that affirms life but not so bold to exclude the unknown that becomes more revealed in time; especially if we open ourselves to life and others and often the tragedy.

If that makes any sense...

Joel Monka said...

Have you seen this one?