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Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

Any topics that are primarily about humanism or other non-religious life stances fit in here.
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kbell
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Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#1 Post by kbell » June 23rd, 2008, 1:12 pm

I came across this essay by philosophy Jeremy Stangroom: there is something wrong with humanism in which he argues:
it might be objected that it isn't possible to draw conclusions about humanism as a set of ideas solely on the basis of the actions or beliefs of individual humanists. So what if some humanists lack impartiality? Nobody is naïve enough to claim that all humanists are perfectly consistent. However, this objection is weak. If nothing else, the actions of individual humanists tell us something about the practice of humanism. But more than this, it just isn't obvious that one cannot learn anything about a set of ideas by looking at how well its adherents live up to them.
I'm finding the argument in the original piece - which suggests that there are some tensions within humanism as a world view - hard to follow but no matter. What I'm interested in is if people think that anyone is entitled to call themselves a humanist if they choose to? Even bullies, even criminals, even poison-pen letter-writers?

Is it enough that you agree with the tenets of humanism (whatever they may be) or do you actually have apply them? Isn't humanism an ideal that we have to try to live up to but are bound to fail?
Kathryn

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gcb01
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#2 Post by gcb01 » June 23rd, 2008, 6:30 pm

Autumn wrote:Is it enough that you agree with the tenets of humanism (whatever they may be) or do you actually have apply them? Isn't humanism an ideal that we have to try to live up to but are bound to fail?
I think we do have to try to live up to them but I'd like to know why we're bound to fail.
Regards

Campbell

Fia
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#3 Post by Fia » June 23rd, 2008, 11:29 pm

If nothing else, the actions of individual humanists tell us something about the practice of humanism. But more than this, it just isn't obvious that one cannot learn anything about a set of ideas by looking at how well its adherents live up to them.
We are people, just as religious adherents are. The difference crucially, to my mind, religion lays those rules down. Humanists surely start from not a set of rules but a basic position: I don't believe in god/s and I have an ethical and moral world view. No rules, at it's most basic a caring and sharing approach to life.
Autumn wrote:What I'm interested in is if people think that anyone is entitled to call themselves a humanist if they choose to?
Of course they are. People can label themselves as they wish. Or would we could have a Humanist inquisition :hilarity: How would that go - one toenail removed for every post on the "wrong" forum, and a good ducking for joining in with "Jerusalem" or whatever. Walk round a ladder and have the Humanist police firing paint balls at you?

I think in the end people are understood by what they say and do, not the label they put on it. Just because someone likes to use the same label as me doesn't necessarily mean we are actually singing from the same songsheet. But they have as much right to label themselves as they wish.

I'm also interested as to why Autumn thinks we are bound to fail...

Lord Muck oGentry
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#4 Post by Lord Muck oGentry » June 24th, 2008, 12:05 am

I'm reminded of a remark by one of Patrick O'Brian's characters: " There are some Christians that might puzzle Saint Peter." His point was that it is quite hard to pin down the meaning of Christian. Something similar may apply to humanist. What of it? We can tolerate words with a penumbra of uncertainty.
What we can't say, we can't say and we can't whistle it either. — Frank Ramsey

Ted Harvey
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#5 Post by Ted Harvey » June 24th, 2008, 10:20 pm

I'm just about to clock off for this evening when I spotted this thread, so I'll briefly offer my first thoughts. Firstly, on a matter of accessibility, why does Stangroom use such obtuse language? i.e.

"But more than this, it just isn't obvious that one cannot learn anything about a set of ideas by looking at how well its adherents live up to them".

I had to read that twice (second time carefully) to be clear what is being said.

Secondly, I'm prompted to think some more about the question of whether we can 'live up to a set of ideas'. Can a set of ideas be a tangible thing that we live up to? How would you know you were 'living up to' a set of ideas? Do you need another set of ideas on criteria to use to judge that you are living up to the original set of ideas? This reminds me of how religious people have said to me that Humanism is no good to them because it does not have a fixed set of beliefs or a framework to live by. The nearest I would come to all of this is that for me Humanism could be a way of looking at things, at life - rather than a set of ideas.

At this point I log off for the evening or I will not be able to get to sleep tonight thinkling about all this.

kbell
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#6 Post by kbell » June 25th, 2008, 3:00 am

Fia wrote:
Autumn wrote:What I'm interested in is if people think that anyone is entitled to call themselves a humanist if they choose to?
Of course they are. People can label themselves as they wish. Or would we could have a Humanist inquisition :hilarity: How would that go - one toenail removed for every post on the "wrong" forum, and a good ducking for joining in with "Jerusalem" or whatever. Walk round a ladder and have the Humanist police firing paint balls at you?

I think in the end people are understood by what they say and do, not the label they put on it. Just because someone likes to use the same label as me doesn't necessarily mean we are actually singing from the same songsheet. But they have as much right to label themselves as they wish.
This forum has shown up two individuals who presumably do label themselves humanist. Looking back at the relevant threads, Fia, I see that you said about one of them that you despaired "that humanism is a label that many seem to use without actually understanding what it is," (See thread here). About the other you said, "This is not the action of a well person, let alone a humanist," (here).

I was wrong to use the word 'entitled'. Obviously, people are free to label themselves as they wish but my question is whether it is reasonable for them to do so or whether to do so is to misrepresent humanism and, if so, what humanists should do about it: how to respond to such people or what to say about them. Imagine, for example, being interviewed on TV by some Jeremy Paxman type and his saying, "According to your fellow humanist, Mr X, the freedoms historically enjoyed by the indigenous British people are being eroded under pressure from immigrants and it's high time we stopped letting these people into our country." I could only respond by saying something like, "Well I disagree with that view and I'd like to know how Mr X reconciles it with a humanist world view because I certainly can't...", which is another way of saying, "Mr X is no humanist!" It seems to me that unless non-humanist ideas that are promulgated under the humanist banner are vociferously challenged, there is a danger of people getting a totally wrong idea of what humanism is.
I'm also interested as to why Autumn thinks we are bound to fail...
I'll return to this as soon as I have a moment. I need to get my head down now. :)
Kathryn

kbell
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#7 Post by kbell » June 25th, 2008, 12:31 pm

Just time for a brief post during my lunch break.

In my first post I said, "Is it enough that you agree with the tenets of humanism (whatever they may be) or do you actually have apply them? Isn't humanism an ideal that we have to try to live up to but are bound to fail?"

I'll try to explain my thinking here: Humanism - if I may borrow Stangroom's characterisation of it - is 'rationally inclined, atheistic and human centred'. It holds that human beings have the potential and the duty to solve problems using reason and method and that morality is founded in human nature and experience. As a code of conduct to follow we look to the Golden Rule.

Put like that, I don't see how any atheist could fail to embrace humanism - it seems so simple and so sensible, what on earth is there to object to? I think this is what leads the BHA to claim (to a chorus of derision) that there were actually about 17 million humanists in the UK.

But actually trying to live according to those principles is a lot harder. Can we all honestly say that we always treat people as we would wish to be treated ourselves or that we never think or behave irrationally? Or is it more a case of meaning well but often erring because we are human? I don't think I'm the only person to have been shocked and angered at the things people calling themselves humanist have said and done and I certainly don't claim perfection myself.
Kathryn

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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#8 Post by Fia » June 25th, 2008, 5:25 pm

Autumn wrote: It seems to me that unless non-humanist ideas that are promulgated under the humanist banner are vociferously challenged, there is a danger of people getting a totally wrong idea of what humanism is.
Ah - I see what you're getting at Autumn. It is irritating when people who call themselves Humanist but clearly behave in what I perceive to be an unHumanist manner. But I'm not sure what, on a practical level, we can do. I have long joked there is a Humanist fundamentalist wing and the rest (I consider myself in the latter). With no creeds or rules, there are no sanctions apart from revoking a Humanist society membership. How are non-humanist ideas challenged? Which group/person will speak for the "true Humanist path"? And what is that anyway - I doubt we'd even on this forum quickly, if ever, come to a consensus :smile:

I do agree that living to Humanist principles is a challenge, and as humans, we don't always get it right. Perhaps it's just important that we're trying, and learning on the way. Showing by example. There are Humanist Celebrants who are not BHA or HSS members, are they less Humanist or the wrong sort of Humanist? Who's to say?

You've got me thinking, though Autumn - thanks!

Nick
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#9 Post by Nick » June 25th, 2008, 10:46 pm

An interesting thread, Autumn. At the risk of being accused of being so open minded that my brains are liable to fall out, I would say this:

To be considered a humanist, one must believe that there is no supreme being, and no 'super-nature'. (If it did exist, it would just be an expanded understanding of nature. Its very existence would remove its "super" quality and definition.) One must also believe that it is possible to be positive about the world (or universe(s), if you prefer). In other words, you would be unhappy about a nihilist solution. To talk of 'an ethical and moral world[view' as Fia does, IMO begs too many questions. I'd be happier to say that it is the positive aspect to humanism, which leads one to ask the question, what is moral and ethical, and how should my answer affect my actions? We do not take any book as 'gospel', though. "It is written" doesn't cut the mustard.

I also tend to think that we, as humans, are governed by our human nature. Thus we are likely to think it wrong to bite the head off one's boyfriend after love-making, and that looking after ones children is 'a good thing'. There are plenty of creatures who care not a jot for their offspring, but that is acceptable within the context of their species.

It is therefore pretty irrelevant to wonder whether a bully is or is not a humanist, in the same way as wondering how many angels can dance n the head of a pin. It's pretty much a non-question. The relevant questions are more these: What makes such behaviour unacceptable? What causes it? What can or should be done about it?

The idea that anyone has all the answers in pretty unsound too, which logically invalidates the idea of humanist 'sinners'. An understanding of human nature would lead one to expect a whole variety of human reactions. It is merely our advanced brains which allow us to ponder such things, which are unknown in virtually the entire animal kingdom. But the positive viewpoint of existence would tend to encourage us to examine life critically.

I think Lord M & Ted H have expressed similar thoughts. I like Autumn's view:
Humanism - if I may borrow Stangroom's characterisation of it - is 'rationally inclined, atheistic and human centred'. It holds that human beings have the potential and the duty to solve problems using reason and method and that morality is founded in human nature and experience. As a code of conduct to follow we look to the Golden Rule.
Except that I would say the Golden rule is the product of a humanist outlook, not part of the essence of humanism.

There! I think that's a fair amount of jelly nailed to the wall!

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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#10 Post by Occam » June 28th, 2008, 11:05 pm

I'm reminded of the comment that the Perfect is the Enemy of the Good. One of my personal guidelines is to help others when I can and avoid hurting others when possible. By the time I die I will have not helped some who I could have, and will have hurt some whom I could have avoided doing so. However, if I can look back and say, "I could have done better, but not bad, not bad at all," I'll die happy.

Because we aren't perfect doesn't mean we've failed.

Occam

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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#11 Post by Maria Mac » June 30th, 2008, 8:34 pm

Humanism is judged by the things humanists say and do, just as every other world view or life stance is judged by outsiders - partly at least - on the behaviour of its adherents. Whether it is right to do so is a different question and one that I'm still struggling with. Given what some humanists say and do, I would rather it wasn't!

Many of us judge Christianity and Islam by the behaviour of Christians and Muslims rather than by what it says in the scriptures, which few of us have read anyway. Why should humanism be judged any differently? Humanism may not have scriptures or a rule book but it does have certain principles. Are these principles realistic and workable? This is what Jeremy Stangroom is addressing and he concludes that there is a tension within humanism because, although it claims to be a world view based on rationalism, it is bound to reject scientific theories that don't happen to fit in with humanist ideology. (Kenan Malik refutes this conclusion in his response, There is nothing wrong with humanism.)

On the question of our day to day approach to life, I agree with Occam. In the short piece I wrote humanism for the main website, I emphasise that humanists try: "we try to use reason and humanity and to judge each situation on its merits," "(we) try to use reason and evidence in support of (our) arguments." I also suggest that we are committed to dialogue and debate and try to reach consensus or compromise. To err is human but to not even try is not humanist, IMO. More than once have I asked certain people who describe themselves as humanists how they reconcile what they've said or done in specific instances with the humanist principles I've just mentioned but not even once have I received an answer.

If we're not even going to try, then what is the point of calling ourselves humanists? I think, for a lot of people, the answer is very simple. Just as there are those who cherry-pick what they like from their religion and disregard what they don't like, so it is with some 'humanists'. In the two humanist organisations I've belonged to, I've met people - and a couple of those who used to post on this forum but are now banned, spring to mind - who are entirely focussed on secularism but whose personal behaviour, IMO, is difficult to reconcile with humanism. I would make the same comment about a few people I'm aware of who joined humanist organisations because they wanted to conduct non-religious ceremonies. That the humanist organisations campaign for secularism and provide an invaluable ceremonies service is reason enough for some people to join them without having to worry their poor little heads too much about what humanism itself actually means.

Lord Muck oGentry
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#12 Post by Lord Muck oGentry » July 1st, 2008, 12:41 am

Well, I may want to qualify what I said earlier.

This reminded me why:
http://www.thinkhumanism.com/phpBB3/vie ... =45&t=1929

Opinions matter because humans hold them. Not the other way round.
That, I suppose, is a distinguishing tenet of humanism.
What we can't say, we can't say and we can't whistle it either. — Frank Ramsey

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Can humanism be judged by the things humanists say and do?

#13 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » July 1st, 2008, 10:28 am

I agree with a lot of what others have written. Or possibly all of it. But I'd add one thing.

For me, humanism has two levels of meaning: the individual and the collective. You could say [---][/---] and I'm not suggesting that this is a perfect definition, but it's meant to represent a type of definition [---][/---] that being a humanist means trying to live a (morally) good life in a way that doesn't depend on a belief in some kind of divine authority. But you could also say that being a humanist means working with others to try to make the community we live in, or the society we live in, or if we're really ambitious the world we live in, a better place, in a way that doesn't depend on a belief in divine authority. And I agree with Maria that a key word is "try"; it allows for failure. This second level is, I think, a logical consequence of the idea, often cited as a "tenet" of humanism, that human beings possess the power or potentiality of solving their own problems. My interpretation of that, anyway, is that it's talking about collective problems, and collective problem-solving capacity.

I think that, for the past dozen years, or however long it is that I've been calling myself a humanist, I've focused on the individual level. Maybe I can call myself a humanist on that basis alone. But I don’t feel that I’m a good humanist, because I really haven’t made much effort at all at the collective level. And I think we are all judged, not only on the things we do, but on the things we don't do.

Emma


{A few posts have been split off to a new thread entitled: Humanism: Core beliefs & definitions - admin}

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