I am not a humanist.
Yeah, I know that by itself, this sentence is almost meaningless. Ask a hundred people what it means to be a humanist, and you’ll get fifty or so answers. So, as with most topics, I’ll start at the beginning, and tell you what humanism means to me. If you think of humanism differently, good for you. If my critique doesn’t apply to you, then I’m not critiquing your position. Simple, no?
Humanism is a catch-all for a kind of faith-based system of belief in the superiority, dignity, and ultimate meaning of “humanity.” Many humanists believe that it is humanity’s destiny to “evolve” into something greater — a benevolent, egalitarian, environmentally sustainable species who values human life above all else, but maintains respect for other life forms as well. Some humanists believe that humans have a form of “destiny” and that human concerns are the most important concerns on the planet.
Traditionally, humanism has been divided into two major camps — religious and secular. Religious humanists believe that humans need (or at least really want) the social structure and faith elements of religion, and attempt to replace god worship with something more akin to humanity-worship or nature-worship. Secular humanists believe that faith and worship have been superceded by naturalism, and prefer to think of their beliefs as a “life-stance,” which translates to my ears as “philosophy.”
Off the bat, I am obviously not a religious humanist. I think faith-based belief is the greatest scourge man has ever loosed upon the world. I give religious humanists the same treatment as liberal theists. They are at least partially culpable for any religious evils loosed upon the world because they refuse to take a stand against faith based belief. I’m sure they’re nice people, but their belief system is dangerous.
Secular humanism presents me with a slightly more subtle problem. I agree with secular humanists on nearly all points of philosophy. Like them, I believe that rationality, skepticism, empiricism, and naturalism win the day, and that anything else is a hanger-on from a less enlightened past. I believe that in order for humans to survive, there needs to be a mass wake-up call with respect to our environment and reproductive habits. I believe in egalitarian governments, personal liberty, and in the need for respectful tolerance.
The thing is, I don’t believe there’s anything special about humans. Yes, I recognize that most humans think humans are special, but that doesn’t make it so. Every animal is concerned with its own well being. Humans are capable of second order thought, and that makes us keenly aware of our own well being as a dynamic state responding to a much larger system, but that doesn’t give our existence any kind of a priori importance outside of our own existence.
What I do believe is this: Humans are animals, and behave instinctively just like other animals. We, like other animals, are concerned with our well-being, and so we certainly have local importance. That is, our desire for humanity to prosper is our purpose, and it is created solely within us as individuals and a species. There is no reason outside of humans why our existence matters.
Recently, I found myself bristling at a comment made by one of my facebook friends. To paraphrase, he said that the reason he’s a humanist is that it gives him “higher purpose” and a sense that humanity can become better, and “evolve mentally to new levels when they put their minds and some real effort into it.” (Quotes are his exact words, not scare quotes.) When I read that, I felt the same way as when a theist tells me that I can’t be moral because I’m an atheist.
Don’t get me wrong — I understand where he’s coming from. Sometimes, it’s frustrating to look at all the brainpower we humans possess and see that there’s still war and genocide and rape, and that nations with plenty still refuse to share with the starving. Other times, we look at how far we’ve come, and are filled with a sense of excitement. If we’ve managed to create such egalitarian governments and societies as we have in just a few thousand years, what could we accomplish if we put all our “base instincts” to bed and used our big brains to create something even better?
I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. But I don’t believe in redefining human nature just because it would be awesome if human nature was different than it is.
Humans are neither good nor bad. We are driven by the same nonzero sum math that drives all social creatures, and we are ultimately self-interested. This, I believe, is where humanism fails ultimately. Natural selection functions individually. Group selection (as defined in the late 20th century) doesn’t work, and is not part of evolution. The Selfish Gene theory, though it has been refined, and is not quite so cut and dried as when it was first presented, is still the model that works.
Because we are smart animals, we can recognize our own self-interest in broader terms than other animals. We can make rules limiting the dumping of toxic waste because we know that ten or twenty years in the future, we will be less likely to die of cancer if we do so. We can limit our fishing permits so that we do not over-fish and destroy a food source permanently. We can plant grass and small shrubs on top of buildings to help absorb and convert excess carbon. We can make biodegradable containers for coffee. We can allow the KKK to march, even though they repulse us, knowing that their freedom is exactly the same as ours.
The thing is, we have these abilities precisely because we are animals, not because we are special in any way. All of the beneficial behaviors I just mentioned flow predictably and unhindered from the math of natural selection and game theory. We don’t need higher purpose from any other source because pure old naturalism gives it to us, without having any pretense at our superiority or uniqueness.
The last reason I am not a humanist is perhaps the most important. While I realize that many humanists would disagree with me on this point, I see the belief in human destiny as a special pleading. It’s a kind of passive-aggressive attempt to place humanity at the center of the cosmos — again. I also think it necessarily limits the ways in which we can think about successful survival by placing an arbitrary premium on human life.
I don’t believe all human life is worth living or saving. I will be accused of all sorts of evil for having said that, but it’s true, and more than that — it’s compassionate. Several of my very good friends are ultrasound techs, and one of the most disturbing segments of their schooling involves the memorization of hundreds of gross deformities in fetuses. (Of course, I mean gross in the technical sense.) Most of these babies, if brought to term, will live anywhere from a few hours to a few years, and will suffer greatly while alive. They will be a drain on the emotions, pocketbook, and health of their parents, and they will not have a chance for anything approaching the happiness you or I have experienced in life.
I don’t believe in an inherent “right” to reproduce as much as we want. We humans have passed our sustainable population threshold. There are only a couple of solutions to this problem (if a solution is to be enacted) and none of them are very humanist. People have to stop having babies. Lots of them. China’s one child per family policy is a good start, but it’s not enough. This solution hurts, though. If say, a third of all humans voluntarily underwent sterilization (the best of all possible solutions) the next generation would experience a horrible imbalance as geriatrics became the biggest segment of the population. Economies would turn topsy turvy, and all attempts at social security would fail under their own weight.
Alternatively, lots of people have to die. I don’t like that solution anymore than anyone else because I don’t want to die to save humanity, and neither do you. Ironically, this is one of the strongest arguments against humanism I can think of. If humanists really believed what they say — that humans are capable of being better than other animals, and that we have destiny — the most logical thing to do would be arrange for a mass suicide to reduce the population to manageable and sustainable levels. Is anyone lining up?
In short, I don’t believe either of these things are going to happen. And no, I don’t believe in the power of science to magically create energy reserves that simply don’t exist, or to magically convert trillions of tons of carbon back into stored energy as fast or faster than we burn it. I believe — to put it bluntly — that we’re fucked. I don’t know if we’re going to go extinct, but I do know that carbon fuel will run out, and when it does, our population will decrease drastically.
Still, I live my life day to day as well as I can, and I recycle, turn my lights off, walk or ride the bus, and buy my clothes from thrift stores even though I could afford off the rack. I believe in treating other humans the way I want to be treated. I spend hours and hours trying to help other people throw off religion and superstition so that they can live more fulfilled, self-actualized lives. I do all of these things while still believing that humanity is ultimately going to die off, becoming one more set of fossil remains before the earth is eventually consumed by the expanding sun.
I don’t need humanism to be a good person. I just need to be honest, empathetic, and most of all, I need to trust the power of reason over the strength of emotion.