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An Old-Style Humanist – June 13, 2021

All is Vanity

Words change. Both the meaning of words in common use and their referents to things in the real world change over time, especially in areas where views are in contention, such as politics today. And now, it seems, political terms are changing faster than might be accounted for by the usage of different generations. Now things change within the span of a single generation.

I once noted1 that I consider myself a “classic liberal.” When I first learned it, this term used to mean someone who believes in freedom, individual worth, independent action, and in generally leaving other people alone to do what they need to do and live their lives as they themselves think best. Now the term has become, almost in passing, code for an ardent progressive, who believes that most people are not to be trusted, that they owe a debt to their society, and that they must be told what to do and how to live by wiser technical experts who are immersed in the greater good. This is not exactly someone who believes in freedom.

Okay, I get it. I am out of step with the current political scene. But then, I never was an avid joiner, a willing follower, or someone who wanted to be part of a group that wouldn’t accept me or would want to destroy me. I am a natural contrarian.2

Which brings me to another term whose meaning has changed in my lifetime: humanist, or now conjoined as “secular humanist.” This has become a casual and approving term for someone who does not believe in any god or follow any religion, someone free from the fetters of supposedly mystical thinking. And there the meaning seems to stop.

But an old-style humanist used to be more than that. Humanism got its start during the Renaissance, the 14th and 15th centuries, in northern Italy. Yes, it represented a change from the common acceptance that moral value and personal meaning came only from revelation and church teaching. Humanists traced their thought back to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and placed their reliance on human reason, capability, and resources. In a way, humanism was the predecessor of rational debate, scientific inquiry, and the technological revolution that started in the 16th century and has been growing and prospering ever since.

As a humanist, I believe that “man”—in the generic sense, incorporating both men and women—is the most advanced life form on this planet. And, until we discover something more advanced than fossilized cells (or maybe they were just geologic bubbles) in the soil of Mars, I’m betting that we are the most advanced, if not the only, life in the solar system—probably within a dozen light years of this system, too. We are the best thing going around here.

Maybe dolphins and whales have big brains and can communicate a lot of dense information with their underwater warbles, whistles, and clicks. Maybe crows have facial recognition, long memories, and can vocalize certain human words. Maybe elephants are gentle and discerning souls with their own advanced moral system, protecting every member of the herd. And maybe sequoia trees would turn out to be the Earth’s true philosophers, if only we could read the deep vibrations in their trunks.

But really, so far, we humans are the brightest, most clever, most intuitive, most deep thinking, most self-reflective, most forgiving and understanding, most advanced life form we know.

It is significant that, in the Bible, human beings became separated from the animals when they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A crow might remember someone who once did them harm. Other primates and mammals such as monkeys and dogs might have an innate sense of reciprocity and fair play in certain situations. These are qualities that we share and that don’t show up among alligators and sharks, whose moral spectrum extends from “see food” to “bite food.” And I expect that moral blindness had a big part of ruling the dinosaur world, too. But we humans can examine a situation or transaction, decide upon its limits, project its outcomes, and determine what is good and what is evil, and for whom. We even have the free will to see our own advantage, decide that it is morally suspect, and choose a more virtuous disadvantage. Or, conversely, we can see the good and choose evil when it suits us. We rely on reason—most of the time—rather than instinct. And even if reason leads us to a bad end, that’s still an advance over the creatures that can only pursue their course instinctively.

We also are the species that invented courtesy and consideration as a way to keep from killing each other. As someone once wrote—and I don’t remember who or where—if you doubt the human capacity for courtesy, consider an airliner: a metal tube one hundred feet long, filled with human beings packed shoulder to shoulder, slightly depressurized, and hurtling through the sky. Now imagine that same airliner filled with chimpanzees or monkeys, and the howling and fighting that would break out almost immediately. We really are marvels of self-restraint.

We invented religion when it was needed to keep order among people of different families and tribes. And then we invented science when people became educated enough—think Gutenberg, a large supply of books, and popular literacy—to maintain that order themselves. And we now are testing the limits of science, our own perceived advantage, and their effects on the natural world. Our thinking has expanded so far that we are finally becoming the stewards of the Earth and respecters of the natural order that religion inspired us to become. If you doubt this, then ask why we sterilize our space probes and limit their actions, so that we don’t unconsciously contaminate the rest of the solar system and the universe beyond.

But there’s that word, “contaminate.” In the modern thinking, “human” has become a dirty word. We pollute, we destroy, we suck up the abundance of the Earth and spit out filth into clean air and waters. We ourselves are supposed to be the plague. We are considered a virus on the planet. And many people believe that the fewer of us there are—including the ultimate, “none”—the better. Although we have done remarkable work to limit and recycle our wastes, avoid dumping raw sewage and industrial byproducts into streams and rivers, and have cleared the air over our cities of the smog that plagued the middle years of the last century, the modern view is that we have not done enough, cannot do enough, will never do enough. Until there comes a die-off by plague, or war, or some other beneficial disaster, leaving only about, say, four hundred thousand humans who can revert to a “natural” state, living as hunter-gatherers, with our breeding limited by unchecked disease and unleashed predators. And only then will balance be restored.

But that isn’t humanism. That’s a form of self-hatred to which I cannot subscribe.

If there is a problem in modern technology, I rely on human reason and ingenuity to identify it, work to solve it, and make the solution so easy that it becomes a part of everyday life. The solution to technological problems is more thought and better technology, not discarding the trappings of civilization and returning to some mythologized Eden that never existed.

And this is why I’m an old-fashioned humanist.

1. See A Classic Liberal from December 2, 2018.

2. See On the Virtues of Being a Contrarian from January 11, 2015.