The Cowboy, the Lesbian, and the Humanist

lesbian cowgirlsby Andy Norman

A cowboy walks into a saloon. He removes his dusty hat, orders a whiskey, and sinks wearily onto a stool. He downs the whiskey, looks around, and notices that an attractive woman has joined him at the bar. She looks him over and asks, “Are you a real cowboy?”  The cowboy pauses to consider the question. He orders another whiskey. “Well,” he says, “I wake at dawn, climb into a saddle, and herd cattle all day. I eat by a campfire and pitch my bedroll under the stars. Yep, I reckon I am a cowboy.” He tosses back the second whiskey and reciprocates: “You a cowgirl?”

“Oh, no,” the woman replies, “I’m a lesbian.” The cowboy looks puzzled. “How d’ya reckon?” he asks. “Well, I wake up in the morning thinking about girls. I think about ‘em all day long. Then at night, I dream about girls.” The cowboy ponders this revelation in silence. The situation grows awkward. He pays for his drinks, mumbles a goodbye, and heads for the door. Unhitching his horse outside, the cowboy is approached by a tourist. “You really a cowboy?” the tourist asks. “I thought I was,” replies the cowboy, “Turns out I’m a lesbian.”

Our cowboy’s grasp of the concept “lesbian” is a bit shaky. If we set that aside, though, we have a story about someone learning a new concept, realizing that it applies to him, and in the process, discovering something important about himself.

Such discoveries happen, and they can be transformational. The right concept can connect a person to a group, project or cause larger than himself — and thereby afford him (or her) a sense of purpose, belonging, and identity. Did our cowboy find his true self in the community of lesbians? Probably not. A similar epiphany, though, could have resulted in a profoundly meaningful discovery. “The secret to happiness,” writes philosopher Daniel Dennett, “is to find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Of course, such discoveries rarely happen overnight. You learn over time that you can paint, you engage with artistic friends, and eventually you’re an artist. You get involved in political organizing, find you have a knack for it, and wind up an organizer. You enjoy building and fixing things, and wind up a carpenter or an engineer. In each case, you try on a role for size — or perhaps grow into it — and find that it fits. This is how identities form — how we find our “true” selves.

A play by the 17th century playwright Moliere features a character that discovers, to his surprise, that his entire life, he’d been speaking something called prose. Something very like that happened to me. I found, to my surprise, that the philosophical outlook I’d been nurturing for years had a name. I was, it turned out, a humanist. For me, the realization was profound. I finally knew what I stood for; I’d found a cause worth dedicating my life to. It brought me “out of the closet,” and into a community. It gave me purpose and direction.

Some readers probably have similar stories. To become a self-identified humanist, you have to become reasonably familiar with the concept of humanism and decide: ‘Hey, that’s me! That’s what I believe in!’ We serve the cause of humanism by helping others make the same discovery. One of the best ways to do that is to share our stories.

Briefly, here’s my story of humanist self-discovery: around age 18, I realized I wanted to work with ideas. So I completed my degree and began training as a philosopher. Curiously, graduate school taught me nothing of humanism (the movement has no real organized presence in higher education). I studied some fascinating philosophical systems: empiricism, utilitarianism and functionalism, pragmatism, phenomenology and deontology. But I completed my degree without having found a philosophy that I felt answered the needs of our time. I took up teaching, but had no real philosophical axe to grind: I simply taught students the philosophical art of sorting sense from nonsense — what some call “critical thinking” — and gave them opportunities to practice on the works of the great philosophers. Gradually, the contours of a sensible outlook on life began to take form.

I had to leave professional philosophy, though, to really discover humanism. Faced with a chance to design next generation information technologies, I resigned my professorship (and with it tenure, lifetime job security and millions in guaranteed income). I founded an educational software company, designed an application for diagramming the logic of thought, and sold it to some of the world’s top consulting firms. It was my work on practical thinking strategies, though, that brought me into contact with the humanist movement. I consulted for companies, taught critical thinking, and fell in with the Center for Inquiry [1]. I wrote essays for Free Inquiry and Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism. I’d never been entirely comfortable with the label “philosopher,” but “humanist” fit like a glove. These, I realized, were my people.

I missed teaching, though. Eventually, an opportunity to resume teaching surfaced, so I seized it. The role of humanist philosopher fits me well, and I’ve never been happier. I rarely disclose my humanism to students, though. I don’t reward them for defending views I find congenial, or punish them for reaching contrary conclusions. I show them that exploring the space of ideas is great fun, I empower them to navigate this space, evaluate arguments, then let them discover for themselves what does and doesn’t make sense. The experience has convinced me that, if you teach the process and joys of critical inquiry, the important things usually take care of themselves.

Consider sharing your story of self-discovery, humanist or not. Swap stories with your friends. Tell your tale to others. Storytelling brings people together. It cements friendships, and promotes understanding. And stories of self-discovery contain important landmarks for others seeking meaning and purpose. Creating a meaningful life has always been a tricky business; in times like ours, the terrain of possibilities is especially complex and treacherous. Stories help people navigate this terrain, so let’s share ours.


Andy Norman is an adjunct faculty in the Department of Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. His research interests include philosophy of science, moral psychology, epistemology, as well as teaching wisdom, philosophy, and games for learning.

[1] The Center for Inquiry.

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67 replies

  1. You guys certainly make for a lively discussion. Thanks, all, for giving my OP some thought. A few observations:

    PeterJ, Astrodreamer, Labnut and YarYarYar- Each of you derides the Center for Inquiry in inflammatory ways. Here are just some of the aspersions you guys cast: “touch of the genocidal,” “Orwellian,” “imposters feeding off the good name of (of inquiry and/or universities)”, a “litigation mill,” “shallow”, “intellectually lazy,” “scientistic,” and “attack dog atheists.” [To his credit, Astrodreamer later apologizes for the “genocide” reference.]

    Guys, I’ve worked closely with CFI for years, and I can tell you don’t know what you’re talking about. Massimo has also had dealings with CFI, and he too knows it to be a well-intentioned organization doing good work.

    Astrodreamer seems to have reached his/her conclusion by picking out CFI’s stated goal of “end(ing) the influence that religion and pseudoscience have on public policy” and jumping quickly to the conclusion that CFI therefore advocates for the suppression or “disenfranchisement of church-goers.” This casual equation is extremely misleading, and stunningly unjust, for the simple reason that one can advocate strenuously for an end to the influence of bad ideas without ever advocating for the oppression or disenfranchisement of anyone. We see the same dynamic playing out in the “Islamophobe” accusation: the sly suggestion that one can’t be opposed to Islamic ideas without being a bigot: that critics of bad ideas are somehow “oppressing” the purveyors of those ideas.

    YarYarYar glosses CFI’s goal as trying to “marginaliz(e) religious and pseudo-scientific inquiry.” This might be a telling objection, but CFI doesn’t say anything about marginalizing such inquiry. The point is that religious and pseudoscientific modes of thought rarely rise to the level of real inquiry. In fact, they frequently stifle genuine inquiry, and this almost always has a baleful influence on public policy. When you think hard about what real inquiry requires–as many epistemologists and CFI activists have–you become sensitive to the many ways that people intentionally and inadvertently betray the promise of true inquiry.

    Meanwhile, Labnut supports his conclusion that CFI is a “litigation mill” with nothing more than some online information about CFI’s involvement in a few law suits. It is true that CFI does work to protect the principle of church/state separation–an end many smart, well-informed Americans support. But this is only a small part of what CFI does, and its legal work consists mostly by filing amicus briefs in cases brought by others. To accuse it of being a “litigation mill” is inaccurate and irresponsible. And the idea that CFI “feeds off the good name” of universities, or is somehow unnecessary because universities exist, betrays a real ignorance of the situation. The fact is, CFI works to combat the rising tide of anti-intellectualism that currently threatens higher education, and to reinforce the political secularism that makes America a haven for universities and freethinkers. Academics, safe in their ivory tower, seldom enter this fray. Hell, many of them engage only with other specialists. CFI has stepped into a real vacuum here: they do important work.

    More generally, can we dispense with the inflammatory rhetoric, guys? Casting snide aspersions is no way to advance the cause of understanding.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Dear Labnut. You (and others) make a spirited argument for the humanistic credentials of religious thinking, and I think we have all had positive encounters. Many have applauded the recent papal statements on climate change as the most thoughtful recent contribution to the moral and political dialectic. But, then,we have to turn to other issues that are equally important at a human level, such as divorce, contraception, sexuality. The arguments that he will bring to those issues are not based on principles that even most (“cafeteria”) catholics in the West accept.


  3. One of my moments of self discovery was realising, as a teenager, how easy it was to get fooled. And even when I got older, the problem doesn’t stop. I believed that George W Bush had tried to serve up a plastic turkey to troops. I believed that Dan Quayle had addressed some astronauts as “my fellow astronauts”. I believed them because they they touched my biases. I should have said, wait a minute, lets see the evidence.

    I have found that I am not alone in this – astrophysicists, theoretical physicists and entire TAM audiences seem to have no problem in letting stuff bypass their baloney detectors when it flatters their biases.

    When I read a book promoted by a foundation allegedly for “Science and Reason” that promotes the pseudo science of “mind viruses” as though it were scientific fact then I know that the problem is not going away. I note, in passing, that the author of that book is listed as a speaker for the CFI.

    People quote Feynman’s line about the easiest person to fool being yourself, but they don’t seem to take it to heart, they seem to think that it applies to anyone but themselves.

    So the buck stops with ourselves. I would up Labnut’s estimation of thousands of centres for inquiry across the world, I would say that there are around 7 billion of them. And they are nearly all at least as easy to fool as I am.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Hi Coel,

    (And we *still* haven’t been supplied with quotes of criticisms that “some NAs” made of liberal reformers for which they should now apologise, nor any specifics of “bizarrely authoritarian” measures supported by any significant fraction of the NAs, nor of any “basic freedoms” that “they” want to overturn.)

    I can’t speak to what others have meant by this but I have mentioned Peter Boghossian and his view that it is “crucial” that the DSM is altered so as to allow religious belief to be pathologised and thereby eradicated.

    You will find this in Chapter 9 “Containment Protocols” of his book “A Manual for Creating Atheists”. He hangs the chapter on the pseudo scientific concept of “mind viruses”, presented here as though it were some sort of scientific fact. His reference for “mind viruses” is a popular book by a psychologist who specialises in management programs and team building.

    This quote, in particular, strikes me as and exemplar of “bizarrely authoritiarian”:

    It is crucial that the religious exemption for delusion be removed from the DSM. Once religious delusions are integrated into the DSM, entirely new categories of research and treatment into the problem of faith can be created

    Peter Boghossian, “A Manual for Creating Atheists”, chapter 9

    An interesting paragraph in a couple of respects. First, there is no “religious exemption” in the DSM, it simply points out that religious belief does not fall into the category of delusions. None of the classifications in the DSM do anything to prevent any kind of research which would overturn them, indeed such research is happening all the time.

    Secondly, notice that he is proposing changing the DSM so that the research can be done in order to back up the changes he proposes for the DSM. He wants us to come to a conclusion first and then do the research to back it up.

    I think this pretty much fits the bill as “bizarre”, “authoritarian” and “bizarrely authoritarian”.

    Boghossian and his book are strongly promoted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for “Reason” and “Science”. Boghossian is definitely a rising star among the gnus.

    This is no hastily worded tweet, and if there is any context which contradict what I am saying about this quote and this chapter, then I can’t find it. You can read the chapter yourself, it is online in Google books.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Andy Norman wrote that he believes ‘humanism’ is a useful concept so long as we use the term carefully. But rather than just accepting that it can be used in different ways, he claims that it has an essence or essential nature!

    “Long reflection … has led me to conclude that a humanist’s primary commitment is to honest inquiry about what matters. It’s the idea that moral progress depends on our listening, learning, and constantly updating our understanding of what matters; that we have a moral obligation to continually refine our “mattering maps.” A true humanist also strives to live the resulting understanding.

    “This core commitment typically leads people to a set of convictions widely regarded as humanistic: metaphysical (and methodological) naturalism, regard for science, acceptance of our Darwinian origins, the idea that the well-being of sentient creatures is the sole root of real mattering, and the idea that all human beings possess dignity and rights, etc.”

    Basically what he seems to be doing here is simply presenting his intuitions about what is true and morally important as something more than just personal intuitions about what is true and important.

    (The appeal to science does take us beyond the personal. But then dignity and rights are put into the mix — and science has nothing to say about such things…)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The Original Post of Andy is really an exhortation for us to come out of the closet, declare that we are humanists and spread the gospel to others. Any human engaged in ‘self-discovery’ is necessarily pursuing a course in humanism. I am assuming that is all of us.

    All that is necessary to join the club is to do a little homework:

    “To become a self-identified humanist, you have to become reasonably familiar with the concept of humanism and decide: ‘Hey, that’s me! That’s what I believe in!’ We serve the cause of humanism by helping others make the same discovery. One of the best ways to do that is to share our stories.”

    To be excluded one must not engage in self-discovery or hold the view that humans are not in control of their thoughts or actions, i.e. we are like marionettes, with non-human agents pulling the strings.

    I would be very curious to know if anyone here thinks that they are not a humanist, and, if not, what they do think they are.

    A cursory look at the Origin and Meaning of the term Humanism highlights the many historical approaches with an interesting perspective. The complementarity of thought and action in pursuit of virtue is emphasized.


  7. Let me make a few points about the political side of humanism (as exemplified by the OP and associated thinkers and organizations), and also about its quasi-religious nature.

    I note that the Center for Inquiry (see OP link) claims not to support any political ideology, but though an attempt is clearly being made to be (or appear?) non-partisan, certain ideological commitments are evident. You can talk about compassion and human dignity in a non-political, non-partisan, non-ideological way, but other terms used and some of the stated goals do seem to mark out a left-leaning agenda.

    Massimo concedes this, I think.

    He mentioned Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz. Wikipedia on Lamont: “… an American socialist philosopher, and advocate of various left-wing and civil liberties causes. As a part of his political activities he was the Chairman of National Council of American-Soviet Friendship starting from the early 1940s.” He was a defender of Stalin into the 1950s and a supporter of Fidel Castro.

    I am not suggesting that all humanists associated with this particular American tradition of thought and activism have (or have had) such hard-line leftist views, but the general assumption seems to be that if you are an informed and intelligent person of goodwill you will reject pseudoscience and the doctrines of religion — and lean to the left politically!

    My own preference is to separate questions of political ideology from other matters like attitude to science and religion; or at the very least to be explicit and upfront (as Massimo is) about one’s politics.

    One problem (as I see it) with humanism as an institutional thing is that it tends to mix the religious/metaphysical side with the political. The fact that there are various very different ways of being a humanist — left-leaning atheist, left-leaning believer, right-leaning atheist, etc. (not to speak of all the intrinsic ideological variations and gradations involved) — inevitably creates a degree of confusion, and it’s no wonder that humanist organizations seem even more prone to splits and schisms than the churches.

    Why the need to combine everything? Why not just opt for a religious denomination (or none); and for political and/or specific cause-based organizations (or none)? The answer is, I suspect, that non-religious humanists in particular are looking for a religion-substitute.

    Earlier humanist organisations typically saw themselves as religions. Comte’s Religion of Humanity was just a particularly striking (and, as it happens, a particularly sad and sorry) example.

    I personally reject traditional religion because I cannot believe the doctrines. For me this rejection entails giving up the entire package (including the nice communal bits) — and not seeking to put something in its place.

    Liked by 3 people


    Looking at humanism’s map above seems to me to show up the problems with the concept, for example “4. The Evolved Psyche Our basic needs, desires and interests are those that helped our ancestors survive. Their fulfillment matters to us, but not, it seems, to the universe.”

    So if everything that mattered to me, only mattered to me because it increased the probability that particular patterns of nucleotides predominated over others in an ancient vanished landscape then, on consideration – why should that actually matter to me? Keeping our territory free from people who look different from us mattered to us for just the same reason. How did we know that one was wrong?

    With 5, if my personal interests matter to me more than the interests of others, then given (1) on the map, how is there any fact of the matter that this is an illusion? If my personal interests seem to matter more to me and, on examination, I see no reason why they should not, then how is that an illusion?

    “10. All humans matter and matter equally, we have rights and are not to be treated as a means to an end.” Again, given (1) how is there any fact about this? What kind of natural object is a “right”?

    7. Meaning of Life “The secret to happiness is to find something that matters more than you do, and devote your life to it” Dennett. As others have suggested this seems more of (to employ Dennett’s term) a deepity. What if that more important thing entailed my own unhappiness? Then clearly it could not be the path to happiness. Or do we define important things only in terms of what can bring us happiness? In which case it is just a tautology based on a particular definition of “important”. Also, is there some fact of the matter about what is “important”?

    8. “The well-being of sentient creatures is the sole root of real mattering. It matters inherently; other things matter only by enhancing or detracting from it.”

    Again, and given (1) how can there be any fact about whether this is true with the plural “creatures” or just the singular – to wit myself? Does anything actually matter inherently given (1)?

    Don’t get me wrong, these all appear to be admirable, but stated, as they are, as though there were some fact about them, they they contradict each other.

    It seems to me that the project of Humanism should be to resolve these contradictions, but they appear always to be glossed over.

    Can you rewrite this map without the assumption that there is a fact of the matter about mattering? Can we even make sense of “mattering” if mattering itself only existed because of some microscopic events in an ancient vanished landscape?

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Prof. Norman,

    Thank you for the reply. A few thoughts.

    “a humanist’s primary commitment is to honest inquiry about what matters.”
    Well I suppose that sets aside the avowedly dishonest and uninquiring. Let’s see what else we find.

    You offer a “set of convictions”, namely “metaphysical (and methodological) naturalism, regard for science, acceptance of our Darwinian origins, the idea that the well-being of sentient creatures is the sole root of real mattering, and the idea that all human beings possess dignity and rights, etc”.
    It strikes me that if humanism is meant to be something one can follow or something one can identify with or about which one can say “*That’s* what I am!” well…this isn’t it. I suppose everyone, or everyone we would consider talking to, believes “all human beings possess dignity and rights”. I share with you “metaphysical (and methodological) naturalism, regard for science, [and] acceptance of our Darwinian origins”. But for the life of me I cannot remember a time when any of those things helped me make a moral decision or determined what I value. The fact that I evolved from lower primates does nothing to determine how much I give to charity. Methodological naturalism does not weigh with me as I consider how much time I spend working and how much pursuing leisure or enjoying art. These things do not seem closely related to each other nor are they something I can “be”. “The idea that the well-being of sentient creatures is the sole root of real mattering”, is more controversial. I suppose autonomy is also important and can sometimes conflict with well being but I don’t feel less than humanist for that.

    Consider, by contrast, your own example of being a “real Cowboy”. For the Cowboy this might mean working hard without complaint, being able to go it alone, not getting emotional in front of others, pulling chairs out for ladies, fighting to defend your honor if insulted in front of other men and so forth. You might like these values, you might not but they are substantial commitments. They tell the “Cowboy” how to behave and how to feel. Consider also Massimo’s stocism. It tells him how to react to reversals of fortune, whether or not to drink that last glass of wine, whether to get distracted or focus on reading, etc. A “Stoic” and a “Cowboy” are things you can *be* because they are contentful bodies of norm that, if accepted, govern behavior and thought. I just don’t know how to go about *being* a humanist as you describe it. I can’t, not will not but can’t say “Aha! I am a humanist!” as you define it because I just wouldn’t know what I was saying and I wouldn’t know what to do next.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. lab,
    “The secular use of the word ‘humanism’ is hardly recognisable from a Catholic point of view. I understand that the word has acquired a selective, narrow meaning but I think that is a great pity because it loses much that is valuable”

    I largely agree, but while I chose two examples of religious humanists, there are non-religious humanists as well. Hume (probably an atheist), Montaigne (of mysterious religious affiliation) and Nietzsche (loudly atheist) were deeply, deeply humanist. By and large the move toward humanism occurred when Europe was still resolutely Christian so humanism was largely situated in a religious worldview. It need not be.

    “I get angry when humanism is appropriated by comfortable, white, liberal academics for their ideological ends. What do you know of a suffering, deprived world? Don’t you hear their cry? Can’t you begin to feel their pain? They also bleed red blood. They also once had hope. Are you so dead to social injustice? Have you no tears?”
    My but you are excitable today. Look, I find “Secular Humanist” thought to be pretty vapid but I cannot blame secular humanists because their thoughts did not solve all the worlds problems. Neither do I generally find them to be hard hearted and unfeeling.

    “a philosophy grounded in what makes us uniquely human, our capacity for compassionate, ethical behaviour”
    A humanist philosophy is by definition one that is “grounded in what makes us uniquely human”, but humanists need not fill out that nature as you have here as one governed primarily by compassion and empathy. You have in mind here what Nietzsche called the morality of compassion (Mitleid). Nietzsche and, so people have argued, Aristotle, had a much different view of human nature. They envisioned good human lives as more agonistic and more centered on themselves and their own projects. Yet they still very much deserve to be called humanists.

    I take your point re:last thread.


  11. A humanism that avoids politics is just an “ivory tower” humanism: one that is disconnected from the real world.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. yar,

    “I think a great disservice is done to humanity when religion is equated with superstition and is then summarily dismissed”

    Agreed. But pretty much every specific, empirical claim made on behalf of religions (think young earth creationism) is indeed anti-science, and has in fact been shown to be wrong. So rejecting such claims isn’t in any way contradictory with a spirit of free inquiry.

    “What CFI openly advocates — for better or worse — is the marginalisation of anything perceived as ‘anti-science’. Knowing those sorts of people (and you are probably more familiar with them than I am!) I would wager that it is also anti-philosophy”

    Some of them are, and I keep calling on them when they express that sort of sentiment. But being anti-science doesn’t seem to do any good, as far as I can tell. Now, engaging in thoughtful science criticism, that’s another story altogether.


    “I just meant that it is difficult to see how free enquiry could begin from the assumption that religion is nothing but paranormal claims and superstition. This is surely what the enquiry would have to establish.”

    But aren’t we done with that sort of inquiry? How many times, exactly, do I have to show that the earth isn’t thousands of years old? Or, to turn to straight paranormal claims, that there are no hunted houses? At some point one has to say “been there, done that, here are the archived cases, go study them,” no?


  13. If one were to ask Christians what beliefs were central to Christianity you’d get lots of answers, and most respondents would care strongly about those beliefs and would argue why they were necessary to Christianity.

    If one were then to take all such answers by all self-labelled Christians, I wonder what the intersection would be. Certainly not belief that Jesus was divine, nor that God exists (plenty of Christians dispense with those), and not even that Jesus was a real historical person (e.g. Thomas Brodie, Catholic priest and theologian, came to the conclusion, after decades of Bible study, that Jesus was a mythical construction; he still regards himself as a Christian).

    Similarly, lots of people care about their version of “humanism”. They want a definition of humanism that excludes Ayn Rand the way Christians would rather like a definition of “Christian” that excludes Fred Phelps.

    In the end this is not a discussion about how the world is, merely about an artificially constructed category. It’s rather a matter of taste whether one prefers a broader definition of “Christianity” or of “humanism”, or narrower definitions concentrating on the mainstream versions or on ones preferred version. Whichever, the concepts are inevitably rather fuzzy.

    Hi dbholmes, we’ll we’ve both stated our positions (and no doubt bored everyone else), so let’s leave it there (though I still don’t know why NAs get the blame for Cameron’s speech).

    Hi Robin, You’re right that the exemption in the DSM is not specifically for religious beliefs, rather it is for beliefs that are widely held in a given culture. One can argue about the merits of that exemption. By the way, there is nothing “pseudo scientific” about the concept of “mind viruses”, so long as one understands that term sensibly.


  14. So, having had a chance to read Andy Norman’s replies here, it does seem that a discussion on humanism was precisely what he wanted. I note that his replies here are more direct, easier to follow, and read more cohesively – and convincingly – than the OP, and he might consider using these to develop his case in later essays.

    I remarked in my first comment that I don’t consider myself a humanism, having read the definitions given by assorted Humanist organizations; and I explained why in a blogpost to which that comment linked. Some of this has to do with a pessimism concerning human nature, cathartically resolved through my experience as a Buddhist.

    Here, I am also reminded of Heidegger’s questioning of the presumptions underlying any claimed humanism, his reply to Sartre, “Letter on Humanism.” It is an extremely difficult text; so here I will quote an explicative reading by James Luchte: “‘Humanism’ is furthermore, for Heidegger, an ambiguous term as it relies on auxiliary terms such as ‘freedom’ and ‘nature’ which differ according to the interpretative context. For instance, Heidegger remarks that neither Marx nor Sartre would need to return to antiquity to use the term humanism in their own senses. Christianity, moreover, has its own sense of humanism which is concerned with ‘man’s salvation’, where all of history is seen as the drama of the redemption of man. Nevertheless, irrespective of their disagreements, each of these interpretations of humanism relay on ‘an already established interpretation of nature, history, world, and the ground of the world, that is, of beings as a whole.’ (LH, p. 225, 153) In this way, Heidegger contends, every humanism is already a metaphysics, and thus already presupposes an interpretation of beings – and in this way, every humanism has already suppressed the question of Being.”

    So any ‘humanism’ necessarily involves metaphysical assumptions concerning ‘human nature’ that really ought to be critically addressed. As Humanism often presents itself as having a political agenda, of course this is unlikely to be conducted ‘in public’ (i.e., popular media), but it certainly can be done within philosophic discourse, professional or otherwise.

    Finally to draw on my previous comments on narratology: As we tell stories of ourselves, thus generating a sense of self, a personality and an identity, is it possible that in this process we re-enforce metaphysical presuppositions concerning the world in which we live? Not only possible, but perhaps inevitable. But not necessarily a good thing. And surely a process we should reflect upon critically as we make our commitments to any social, religious, or political agendas.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Andy –

    “… one can advocate strenuously for an end to the influence of bad ideas without ever advocating for the oppression or disenfranchisement of anyone. ”

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting otherwise. But what exactly are these bad ideas? Are we going to examine ideas scientifically and philosophically or just believe our own manifesto?

    I also felt that the attacks on CFI got out of hand, but my comments did not. A Centre for Enquiry, if it is free, should not be laying down the law before holding the enquiry. I would fully endorsed its aims regarding bad ideas, many of which are religious, and I expect so would all the other critics here. It is the way we decide which are the bad ideas that is the issue.

    I feel that CFI is a good idea but that it needs to enquire a little more deeply into religion. It appears to have no idea what it is about.

    Massimo –

    “But aren’t we done with that sort of inquiry? How many times, exactly, do I have to show that the earth isn’t thousands of years old? Or, to turn to straight paranormal claims, that there are no hunted houses? At some point one has to say “been there, done that, here are the archived cases, go study them,” no?”

    I take no notice of this stuff and see it as you would see high-school ideas about biology and physics.

    This is the problem for CFI, that its attitude to religion shows very clearly that it has not freely enquired into the matter. It appears to have exactly the same understanding of religion as the people who argue for a 6.000 year old Earth. If CFI were to enquire into religion I have no doubt that it would voluntarily and quite quickly change some of the wording in its manifesto.

    This habit of throwing all of religion into one basket and assigning to it all sorts of naïve beliefs is ubiquitous in our society and it is not easy to see how it can be cured, but a Centre for Enquiry should surely be part of the cure and not part of the problem. It should at least be fair to its opponents.

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  16. Granted, ‘dogmas was a badly chosen word. But the gravamen of my observations is unchanged if it is replaced by “ideas” or “concepts” or even “cherished beliefs” to which humanists subscribe (not ‘cling’ as OP put it). None of them is allowed to be called dogma, but some seem to be held dogmatically – and even veritable dogmas may be tossed on the basis of sufficiently good reasons, i. e. new revelation.

    As for my insertion of the word Free into the title of the organization – it occurred accidentally by virtue of your reference in the same sentence to Free Inquiry, the humanist journal for which you have written. Massimo, himself a member, didn’t notice the error, make of that what you will. He did, however, indicate that among you the freedom of inquiry is limited strictly to inquiry, not to be confused with the common joyous connotations of the word, or for that matter, the freedom to plant the seeds from your last years crop. (The unusual abbreviation CFI doesn’t help.) If not actually Orwellian, the vague name seems to justify our problems with defining humanism.

    I confess to overkill. But I accused humanism only of intent to suppress, you extend that to oppression (just a slight difference, but makes me seem more ‘stunningly unjust’) yet CFI calls for a draconian *end* !!

    I read this:

    The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

    At the head of the mission (after the gentle ‘foster’) is the word ‘secular’ which every dictionary shows to mean ‘exclusive of religion’. A helpful almost pleasant word to veil the #1 aggressive purpose: to exclude one of humanity’s oldest and still prevalent institutions. A word which in fact is commonly confused with its opposite, or with ‘sectarian/non-sectarian’. In short, humanism appears to be first and foremost, anti-religion, in a velvet glove.”One can be anti-religion and still be kind, honest and compassionate; we still have this great thing Science, which provides wonders of its own, and thus some reason for hope. Indeed, these are the best guidelines to a safe or even glorious future.” Is there anything else there? Just watered 18c. Enlightenment ideas (minus the toleration bit!) as if the Reign of Terror and the Communist regimes never happened? As if Vico, Burke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Weber, Adorno, Isaiah Berlin, Foucault never wrote? As if science weren’t as much threat as boon. As if Reason were not ‘slave to the passions’. Humanism is a philosophical backwater. More so as ecology turns anti-science and towards earth-worship.

    But I can see it. I can see a young person of a certain background during a certain kind of crisis falling to his knees with Paul Kurtz’s “Affirmations” in hand and feeling as if saved.

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  17. A vague idea of ‘humanism’ has been around for a very long time, e.g. Protagoras. It seems, however, from my very superficial vantage, that it became a prevailing sentiment in 13th century Florence with the popular renaissance of ‘classical’ ideas. According to Robert Grudin it was one guy who set the ball rolling: “Florentine Chancellor Brunetto Latini (c. 1220–94) sparked a revolution in civic discourse that would lead to the major achievements of Italian humanism in centuries to come”. Dante was considered as a possible successor to Latini but war intervened and he was permanently exiled. (God moves in very mysterious ways.) Salutati, Machiavelli, Petrarca and Bocaccio took up the populist campaign and the rest is history. (Note: Populism is naturally aligned with leftist politics.)

    Nobody here has so far volunteered as a non-humanist. So, we must all be humanists now and the term therefore no longer conveys much specific information. Despite this consensus the world is still a very dangerous place. Just because we are humanists, it doesn’t necessarily mean we know what we are talking about. Some socialist theoreticians have advanced an ‘anti-humanist’ platform, arguing that Marxian materialism was still tainted with humanism. The postmodernists have pointedly rebelled against the humanist foundations of the Enlightenment, however, they are still left with humanism after performing deconstructive surgery. (What else could there conceivably be?) The posthumanist vision similarly seems devoid of a recognizable framework.

    There is nothing but the human, but the field is in shambles. (Recall the post by RS Bakker a few months ago.) The postmodernist critique is largely supported by findings in biology and psychology. Our self-confidence has taken a hit, but it should be reconstructed, just in a more pragmatic form perhaps.

    My story about my struggle with chaos has been recorded under the heading “Scientistic Perspective on Everything“. In essence, we exist in an infinitely complex world. The amount of information generated far exceeds what we can process, both as individuals and as a society as a whole. We have no choice but to continue to delve into the mysteries and record our findings as accurately as possible. Our crucial mistake, as I see it, is that we are not focussing on ordering society so that the best is encouraged from each individual. Society must recognize that the radically diverse individual is its greatest asset. We are not close to that.

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