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Does humanism need to be new?

A Harvard conference offers a 'new humanism,' but how does it differ from the old?
By Doug Muder
6.4.07

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Whenever something gets re-christened as new, I always wonder what was wrong with the old. "Try us again," the new product seems to say. "We’re not like you think." But what does it think I think?

That's what I was wondering when I walked into the New Humanism Conference at Harvard in April. I could hardly pass it up: It was commuting distance from home, and (like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey) it was full of stars: Salman Rushdie, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker, folk singer Dar Williams, Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen (who appeared by videotape), anti-war Senate candidate Ned Lamont, and a bunch of other names that I suspected would have impressed me had I been better informed.

Plus, the conference honored the retirement of Harvard's humanist chaplain Tom Ferrick, the ex-Catholic priest who created the humanist chaplaincy thirty years ago. I met Tom a little over a year ago when the humanist chaplaincy invited me to speak at one of their programs. Few people project so much kindness and gentleness—exactly the qualities you hope will be there when Harvard students of no particular religion start looking for someone to talk to. Thirty years of Tom Ferrick, I figured, was worth honoring.

Atheism is new, too

The talking points of the new product usually constitute an implicit critique of the old product, or at least of its image. The beginning of that critique was already in the conference program: It lacked stars from one prominent constellation, the one Wired magazine dubbed the "New Atheism." No Sam Harris. No Richard Dawkins. No Christopher Hitchens. Not even Daniel Dennett, whose office at Tufts was only two subway stops up the Red Line.

New atheism, of course, is its own new product. It rejects the meekness and tolerance of old atheism, which was content to let the advance of science whittle God down to size. Having witnessed the rise of fundamentalism, new atheists see religion as a dragon to be slain, not a senile giant they can allow to die in peace. In old atheist books, the quintessence of religion was the superstitious peasant or the charlatan cleric. In new atheist books it's the suicide bomber.

One conference speaker after another walked the very narrow path between new atheism's fans and critics. Like politicians with terrorist allies, they agreed with new atheism's goals but denounced its tactics. Wilson called Harris and Dawkins "the military wing of secular humanism." He saluted their boldness and confidence, but characterized their approach as "carpet bombing the opposition until the rubble bounces." Rushdie described Harris's The End of Faith as "a bit tabloidy. It feels as if the whole thing has been set in exclamation marks. A little nuance wouldn't hurt."

Ferrick's successor Greg Epstein, who organized the conference, named no names but put it this way in an interview with The Humanist: "[Humanism] has failed to connect with millions of people because so many humanist leaders have allowed themselves to believe that their role consists primarily of talking or writing about why this or that theological argument is wrong."

So that's the first thing that the new humanism wants to be: Different from the new atheism. Positive. Friendlier. Less threatening.

Not Spock

Gene Roddenberry is one of the saints of humanism, but he saddled the movement with its most difficult-to-shake stereotype: Spock. Smart, logical, honest, and well intentioned, but self-righteously clueless about the unquantifiable side of life, Star Trek's Spock epitomizes both the positive and negative sides of the old humanist image.

I did not hear Spock's name during the three-day conference, but much of the program seemed designed to banish his ghost. Friday evening was devoted to honoring the most unSpocklike humanist that Epstein could have found: Salman Rushdie. Rushdie's novels contain more ambiguity than a tricorder can resolve, and he has no interest in resolving it, either. When an English teacher used the question period to ask for Rushdie's interpretation of the ending of Midnight's Children, the author replied, "It's not my job to say what it means. That's your job."

The conference also made sure to mix performances into its program. "Lectures and debates are important, but we must also sing," Epstein told The Humanist. Hence Dar Williams's "My Better Self" was proclaimed Humanist Album of the Year, and Williams serenaded the Saturday night banquet with "The Christians and the Pagans" and the ironic "Teen for God."

"Fascinating," I could hear Spock comment, "but illogical."

Not hostile to religion

Rushdie, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, and the Rev. William Murry (a Unitarian Universalist minister and scholar) represented Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in the "Towards an Abrahamic Humanism" panel. Wine talked about presenting humanism to those whose behavior is secularized, but who still identify culturally with their religious heritage. "They belong to us, but we don't know how to reach them. We only know how to collect the wounded." But, he warned, "They are turned off by meetings of the wounded. They don't know how to relate to a militant group of secularists."

Rushdie suggested that humanists try to find more commonality and less fault. "In the quest for truth we often wind up in communities of one," he said. "How can we wind up in somewhat larger communities?"

Not old and out of it

The American Humanist Association's Fred Edwords put his finger on one of the most damaging images for humanism to overcome as it relaunches its brand: "Humanism is in many ways a suburban movement of retirees."

The conference had little to say about Edwords's proposal to "take humanism to Joe Sixpack." (This was Harvard, after all.) But young people were everywhere, including a number of students who got travel grants to come from a distance.

The Saturday afternoon panel on "The Next Generation of Humanists" could hardly have looked less old and out of it. Hermant Mehta told the story behind his recent book I Sold My Soul on eBay: He auctioned off the right to send himself to any church of the winner's choice. Mehta's book records his subsequent church-hopping odyssey, at the end of which he remains an atheist.

Rebecca Watson represented Skepchick, the website she founded for scientifically minded young women, especially those who don't see why they can't also be cool, or even hot. "Smart is Sexy," says her website, which picked Jodie Foster's character from Contact as the Number 1 "hot movie scientist."

The older generation was fascinated, and during the question period they boggled at the sheer number of hits and downloads and uploads that the twentysomethings claimed. Bryan Pesta's atheists-and-agnostics page on MySpace has 30,000 members, which Edwords pointed out surpassed the membership of any humanist organization in the country. "You have to come to our meetings and tell us what you're doing," Edwords said.

Leading to what?

Having seen the new humanism up close, I was left with my original question: Is the product new, or just the pitch? A little of both, I think.

Movements go through phases. The pioneers think they're going to take over the world. "This faith," Unitarian humanist John Dietrich preached back in the 1920s, "will conquer the world if only we carry it to the world in such form as to make men despise things as they are and passionately long for things as they should be." Eventually a later generation has to admit failure in the world-conquering plan; they feel a little guilty about it. An even later generation throws off that guilt and blames the world for not letting itself be taken over.

The New Humanism Conference expressed a strong collective desire to be done with blaming and move on to the next phase, whatever it may be. But the new era didn't quite arrive, not yet. Rejecting rejection and denouncing denunciation are necessary steps, but will something bloom in this freshly plowed garden? Stay tuned.

Inside the encrustations of hostility, pride, and other generic human weaknesses, humanism's positive core presents the same challenge as ever: to combine sophisticated reason with naïve goodness, to celebrate the world as it stands before us, and to (gently and lovingly) coax it to be better than it ever has been. The what of humanism isn't new and doesn't need to be.

But the how is something we have never gotten right. How do we unite communities without enemies? How do we organize without coercion? How do we love what is and yet strive for what can be? How do we dream without giving our loyalty to fantasy worlds and betraying the only world we can live in? And if a few people here or there manage to answer those questions in their own lives, how do we capture those answers in words and stories and images that anyone can understand?

Maybe soon we'll start seeing new answers to those questions. That would really be a new humanism.


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