Friday, June 12, 2015

A critique of secular humanism

The main problem with secular humanism is that it's too reactionary.  The movement seems designed to counter the accusation that non-religious people have no morals, or have no positive ideas to offer.  It's fine and good to offer a positive moral vision for non-religious people, but because of its reactionary nature, secular humanism mostly only achieves the appearance of a positive moral vision.

Vague Positivity

Secular humanists want to offer a positive moral vision, but don't want to actually pay the cost of excluding significant numbers of non-religious people. And what better way to express vague positivity than through the medium of the manifesto?  Indeed, manifestos are littered throughout humanist discourse.

You can take a look at the most recent manifestos of the IHEU, the AHA, and the CSH.  They appear to be written as if they didn't want anyone to disagree. The most common themes are ethics and reason.  As opposed to people who throw their lot in with evil and irrationality?  When you dig down, the particular kind of ethics they favor are consequentialism plus human rights, which is something.  But it's still too broad to indicate any particular stance on a specific issue.

The most specifics we get are from CSH, which seems to be in favor of the UN.  However, I have not gotten the impression that this is a major thing among people who identify as humanists.  This is a problem, because statements of humanist principles are either maddeningly vague, or they're too specific and don't represent the views of most self-identified humanists.  I conclude that there is hardly anything that actually unites humanists.

At most, secular humanism seems to indicate, in the US, nonreligious views and liberal politics.  I guess that's useful, for what it is, but it doesn't get you very far.

Vagueness in humanism today

The problems with vague positivity become acute when we consider the current context of the atheist movement.  The most important dispute in our community is the feminist wars.  Surely, secular humanism should be taking a stance on that?  But in my experience, identification with secular humanism is not indicative of any particular stance on the feminist wars.  Greta Christina agreed:
Many humanist groups have a huge diversity problem. Many humanist groups are overwhelmingly made up of older, middle-class, college educated white men — and while the groups typically embrace the idea of diversity in theory, some individuals in them can be very resistant to the idea that maybe their lack of diversity is partly their responsibility, and that they should maybe consider changing the way they do things. And I can’t tell you how many humanists I’ve talked with who have been total douchebags about feminism: insisting that humanism is superior to and more important than feminism, that feminism is exclusionary and anti-male, that they “don’t see gender” and anyone who does is the real sexist, and that the best way to make sexism disappear is to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. Humanism in theory is on board with social justice — but the practice can be very different indeed. If every atheist who’s sick of sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement picked up their stakes and moved to humanism, it wouldn’t make these problems magically disappear.
This is a monumental failure on the part of secular humanism.  Wasn't the whole point to take "positive" stances on issues that matter?  I would think this a travesty if I didn't already think that humanism was about appearance over substance

Instead we have the Council for Secular Humanism, run by CFI.  I think it's cool that CFI runs the African Americans for Humanism and Women in Secularism.  But I'm also reminded of the time that their CEO Ron Lindsay gave a tone-policing opening speech at the Women in Secularism conference, or the entire string of drama surrounding Ben Radford.

Respectability politics
Part of offering an "appearance of a moral vision" is maintaining appearances.  This image-consciousness echoes from the individual level to the community level.

On the individual level, "humanist" has long been used as a softer alternative to the hated word "atheist".  To be clear, I think this is a fine thing to do.  I personally would rather subvert atheist stereotypes by loudly identifying as an atheist, but this is an expression of my own privilege.  Some people might be made unsafe by an atheist label, or perhaps they don't feel comfortable with it themselves.  I would be a terrible person to take that tool away from people who need it.

But on the large scale I do not support it.  It's a bit like queer people being in the closet.  Being closeted is important for many people and it would be heartless to accuse them of being unhelpful to the cause.  But it would also be wrong to advocate more people staying in the closet.

On the community level, secular humanism has produced several notable communities like The Sunday Assembly and The Humanist Hub at Harvard.  These communities have periodic gatherings reminiscent of protestant church services.  I've been to the Sunday Assembly, and it isn't really for me, but I am still in favor of them.  It's good to have nonreligious communities that fill the social roles that churches did, because there are definitely people who want that.

On the other hand, I don't like the kind of media coverage they attract.  For example, a recent NYTimes Op Ed lauded the potential of the Sunday Assembly to fill that church-shaped hole in all our hearts, and criticized it for not doing enough to bring moral philosophy to all the heathens.  That makes me wonder, why do we expect sing-along gatherings to be the future of atheist moral thought?  Why focus on this particular atheist social trend, among all others?  I bet atheist blogs are far more effective at teaching its participants moral philosophy, but nobody ever writes op-eds about how blogs are filling church-shaped holes.

It feels like a kind of respectability politics.  Somehow, it's more appealing to the mass media to talk about the "next step" in atheism, to talk about how atheists are just now developing new moral values and building new communities.  As for me, I must be one of those angry "new atheists" with no community at all, or at least not one which will be recognized as a substitute for church.  As far as I can tell, even a lot of Christians don't care for church, and there are all those religions where weekly services aren't really a thing, but nevermind those inconvenient facts.

To be clear, I don't blame humanists themselves for the coverage they attract.  Some atheists are secular humanists who love wonder, spirituality, music, and sunday gatherings, and that's fine for them.  Some queer people are attractive young white masculine gay men in long-term monogamous relationships, yay for them.  But what about the rest of us deviants?


Secular humanism plays the role of offering positive moral vision for non-religious people.  However, it falls short of this goal, because offering a real moral vision means dropping members who would disagree with it.  Instead, secular humanism takes the path of a vague moral vision that nearly everyone would agree with.  As a result, the secular humanist community fails to take a consistent stance on feminism, despite it being one of the most important topics in the atheist community today.

Secular humanism also plays the role of being the more respectable sibling of atheism.  I don't begrudge people who are able to fit themselves into that box.  However, we should critically examine the cultural values that led humanists to be more respectable and the rest of us less respectable.