Donate Now

Is Humanism Dead?

Readers of the Ethical Record might remember from 1993 the intemperate rant against humanism by John Carroll. In Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture, Carroll insisted that humanism is dead while also declaring it to be a major threat to western civilisation. Though hardly a coherent or measured criticism, Carroll’s philippic is a good enough starting point for a critical look at humanism in the twenty-first century. So if humanism is dead, presumably we will find evidence of decay. And here humanists need to take stock because, if we look long enough,
there is some evidence of atrophy, if not decay.

Before making this brief survey, what are the defining issues that we face at the moment? It seems to me they are overpopulation, climate change, inequality, mindless and unsustainable consumerism, fundamentalism and terrorism. What, then, are the embarrassing signs of atrophy that will count against us in the face of the issues just outlined? There are eight main areas of concern:

Complacency: the confident belief that history is on our side, that we’ve won. In her 1967 Conway Memorial Lecture, Marghanita Laski (1915–1988) spoke of the secular responsibility to build a new society. Why? ‘I think the answer must be, because we have won – whether by our own efforts or by the increasing incompatibility of religion and society I would not care to say. But unbelief in religion, in both its fundamental tenets and in its institutions, is the order of the day.’ But the resurgence of fundamentalism has shown clearly that history is not automatically on our side; we haven’t won.

Bland Niceness: the sanguine notion that being a good person is sufficient. Irving Babbitt (1865–1933), a prominent humanist thinker a century ago, thought in these terms. ‘After all,’ he wrote, ‘to be a humanist is merely to be moderate and sensible and decent. It is much easier for a man to deceive himself and others regarding his supernatural lights than it is regarding the degree to which he is moderate and sensible and decent.’ Babbitt made good points between all this, but taken on its own, this statement comes across as superficial.

Shallow Optimism: this is a popular criticism from without the movement, but sadly there is enough evidence for it from within. The least helpful example comes from Lothrop Stoddard (1883–1950), best known now for his icon status on white supremacist websites. ‘The age that is coming will be an age of true enlightenment and progress if we succeed in really assimilating the vast extensions of knowledge and power which we have amassed into our present idealistic and cultural scheme. And the way to do it is the way already charted by the men of the Renaissance; that is to say, by an attitude of mind and spirit which we may term Scientific Humanism.’ Julian Huxley is usually thought of as the first person to speak of scientific humanism, but that’s not correct. It was Lothrop Stoddard.

Progressionism: the confident belief that things can only improve. Julian Huxley (1887–1975) was guilty of this sort of thinking, as when he said that the ‘central belief of Evolutionary Humanism is that existence can be improved, that vast untapped possibilities can be increasingly realised, that greater fulfilment can replace frustration.’

Human Perfectibility: an extension of progressionism where we believe ourselves capable of improvement without end. Paul Kurtz (1925–2012)
came close to this with his entrepreneurial take of humanism as a product of exuberance. ‘The first humanist virtue, as we have seen, is the development of one’s own sense of power – of the belief that we can succeed, that our own preparations and efforts will pay off.’ Fine and dandy if you’re well-fed and educated and live in a first world country, but trickier for many others.

Anthropocentric Presumption: the next step along this pathway of hubris is the anthropocentrism latent in many humanist pronouncements, as when the American humanist Charles Francis Potter (1885–1962) declared, ‘If Humanists were to make a creed, the first article would be: “I believe in Man.”’ Deified Humanism: this religion of man conceit has sometimes gone even further where we gratify an allegedly universal will to religion by transferring all our past patterns of worship away from God and to humanity. This was mainly a product of American Unitarian humanism, but it found expression in England with H.G. Wells (1866–1946), in his book God the Invisible King: ‘Modern religion has no revelation and no founder; it is the privilege and possession of no coterie of disciples or exponents… It is a process of truth, guided by the divinity of men.’ To be fair to Wells, he soon returned to the sturdy atheism of his youth, as he called it.

Postmodern Vacuity: much more recent, and of a different style, is the defeatism of some postmodern humanist thinkers. In 2003 Martin Halliwell and Andy Mousley put together a re-examination of some humanist thinkers called Critical Humanisms: Humanist/Anti-Humanist Dialogues. ‘We will show humanism,’ they wrote, ‘to be both a pluralistic and a self-critical tradition that folds in and over itself, provoking
a series of questions and problems rather than necessarily providing consolation or edification for individuals when faced with intractable economic, political and social pressures.’ For all the criticisms one could make of the previous seven expressions of humanism, they were at least committing themselves to something positive. But postmodern humanism prefers to sit on the sidelines and, while objecting to elitism, declare itself above offering any sort of programme.

In the face of unhelpful views such as this, what can we say about humanism today? Is humanism hopelessly irrelevant, as these eight vignettes would suggest? This is not the place to look, even briefly, at contemporary assessments of humanism. Suffice it to say that Stephen Law, Richard Norman, Jeanene Fowler, D.D. Bandiste, A.C. Grayling, Floris van den
Berg and Barbara Smoker among others, have presented intelligent yet accessible accounts of humanism. Not only do these accounts avoid the failings I’ve mentioned, they are aware of them and do well to set humanism on a surer route. What’s more, being recent accounts, all these thinkers address, with varying degrees of thoroughness, the twenty-first century problems itemised above.

And yet, with the exception of van den Berg, what seems to be missing is a sense of urgency, a sense of time ticking away for humanity in the face of the challenges we face this century. Climate change threatens our civilisation. The prospect of a rise in sea levels and the flooding of tens of millions of homes in coastal cities is matched by the possibility of other regions becoming so hot as to be unliveable for human beings. Each of these scenarios could unleash mass migrations on an unprecedented scale. Keeping the rise in population to a manageable scale (assuming we have not already gone beyond what is manageable) will require food production at a rate incompatible with growing urbanisation and
shortage of water. And if we turn to the oceans we are likely to find, sooner rather than later, that we have overfished them beyond reason. As the climatic pressures slowly ramp up, our response as a species has not been encouraging. Those who can are preferring to avoid the issues. Others are turning to primitive tribalisms and fundamentalisms as a way to find someone to blame. All the good that is being done – and we mustn’t forget how much good is being done – is helping a declining proportion of people.
Before going on to comment on how a valid humanism – a humanism with a pulse – would look in the twenty-first century, a comment first on the shift in attitude that is needed. What’s needed is a healthy dose of pessimism. By pessimism I certainly do not mean a self-indulgent theology of despair. Neither do I mean an affected misanthropy. The pessimism I have in mind is more like a hyper-scepticism; a scepticism on steroids. A pessimism of this sort braces us for the extent of the challenges ahead, the high chance of failure, and the need to persevere anyway.

The tragic sense that underlies humanism has been buried for too long under layers of optimistic froth. But looking once again at Bertrand
Russell’s ‘A Free Man’s Worship’, the poetry of James Thomson or Robinson Jeffers, and the writings of Albert Camus, Ronald Fletcher, Sidney Hook or John Passmore, we can see an authentic tradition of humanist pessimism. The tragic sense is built into humanism. In an important restatement of humanism, Ronald Fletcher wrote: Humanism, it seems to me, has to recognise an inescapable undertone of tragedy in the world. Human life is transient… Nothing of an individual nature seems permanent. Nothing is certain. Humanism can offer no consolation.Fletcher wrote: Humanism, it seems to me, has to recognise an inescapable undertone of tragedy in the world. Human life is transient… Nothing of an individual nature seems permanent. Nothing is certain. Humanism can offer no consolation.

With no thought of personal reward, in this life or the next, humanists need to work to help where they can. Erik Wielenberg gives voice to this insight with his notion of naturalistic humility. Humanists are forever accused of hubris by religionists who, fresh from making accusations of that kind, presume themselves to be of special interest to the omniscient creator of all things. Genuine humility is difficult in such circumstances. Naturalistic humility, by contrast, has more chance of being genuine, simply because of the absence of any reward or consolation at the end of a life well lived.

At what, then can humanists, sufficiently endowed with naturalistic humility, direct their work? Several ideals could work here. Ted Honderich’s Principle of Humanity, the Earth Charter, E.O. Wilson’s notion of Biophilia (given a slightly more religious rendering by Schweitzer when he spoke of reverence for life) or Mario Bunge’s notion of Agathonism.
For our purposes, the question of ideals can be set aside for another time. The issue here is to recalibrate humanism along more pessimistic lines in the belief that it will provide a surer attitudinal foundation for dark times. What follows is a suggested justification for this recalibration. It’s put in the form of philosophic propositions for the sake of clarity. The first sequence restates the humanist viewpoint:

1. Science has largely discredited the anthropocentric outlooks derived from religious and mythological accounts of the world.
2. Those same religious and mythological accounts did, however, generate many important insights about life’s meaning and purpose.
3. Humans need a sense of meaning and purpose but those based on anthropocentric attitudes are an impediment to developing outlooks
conducive to sustaining the planet.
4. Outlooks which take full account of scientific fact and non-scientific insight can help people overcome the temptations of anthropocentrism
while fostering a sense of meaning and purpose.
5. One collective name for these outlooks is humanism.

Having established the relevance of the humanist position, we can now move to the next set of propositions which puts climate change at centre stage.
1. Climate change poses a significant threat to the continued existence of sentient beings.
2. The successful tackling of climate change will require thought systems that place a high value on science and a low value on transcendental consolations and national particularisms.
3. Humanism has a long history of valuing science highly and placing low value on transcendental consolations and national particularisms.
4. Therefore, humanism is well placed to play a prominent role in tackling climate change.

There are many ways the individual humanist could respond to the challenge of tackling climate change. This third set of propositions is modelled on Joseph Fletcher’s notion of situation ethics. I am sure there are other formulae that could be set out constructively here, but this one is, I hope, as valid as any.

1. Only one thing is intrinsically good: the health of planet earth.
2. The guiding norm of humanism is the principle of humanity (or Biophilia, reverence for life, the Earth Charter, or agathonism).
3. The abiding attitude of humanism is of naturalistic humility.
4. In each situation, the health of planet earth and the living beings that depend on it, considered in an attitude of recognition that we possess incomplete knowledge, will constitute a purposeful humanist response.
5. Applying the principle of humanity with appropriate humility will look different in different situations.

We can finish by saying that humanism is not dead, but humans may well soon be, if we do not address as a matter of urgency the question of climate change and its corollaries. It is hoped that this presentation has helped humanists have the confidence that, as humanists, they can be part of the solution.

This site use cookies.

Read more in Cookies Policy.


We need your help!

We host talks, concerts, exhibitions, courses, performances, community and social events. However, we are an independent charity and receive no funding from the government. Everything we do is dependent upon our commercial activity and the generosity of supporters like you.

Donate Now