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.


67 thoughts on “The Cowboy, the Lesbian, and the Humanist

  1. Great cowboy story! What you say reminds me of the way that when we become ill we are reassured when our illness is given a name.

    It struck me that I have never before seen Daniel Dennett quoted as a source of wisdom and it came as a surprise.

    “The secret to happiness,” writes philosopher Daniel Dennett, “is to find something more important than you
    are and dedicate your life to it.”

    More important than me? What would that be then? I thought his whole idea was how to achieve MY happiness.

    Let me get this straight. I want happiness, and I want it so badly that I will, for purely selfish reasons, dedicate my life to something more important than my happiness. Or so it will seem to others. Only I will know that it is my happiness that motivates me. Is that it? So hypocrisy is the secret of happiness?

    I feel he speaking about the relegation of the ego, and as a route to happiness this is not a secret but very old news indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That cowboys are homosexual lesbians, prone to lung cancer from smoking, quite often, was long obvious. Hopefully, that makes them gay, rather than sad.

    On a more serious note, the author seems to advocate tribalism. Stories boil down to what define tribes. With all due respect, it’s like advocating water for fishes. Tribalism is a force which provides us with company, meaning, a place in a hierarchy, and an agenda. In the end, there may not be no neurological space for anything else. Tribalism makes us whole.

    Fundamentally, the love of tribalism is a direct consequence of human ethology: without a tribe, humanoids (humans, chimps, etc.) cannot be, evolutionarily speaking.

    But then a question arises: how good are we? If in a tribe, as good as the tribe is. The tribe defines what humanism, good humanism, is. Tribalism defines the line between good and evil. It varies. Humanism, Aztec style, or Celtic style, is quite different from Greco-Roman, or, a fortiori, Western European style.

    Stories boil down to what define tribes, thus, what defines good, evil, emotions, inclinations, propensities and meaning themselves. Choosing which stories we want to tell, and which stories we consent to listen to, is itself, a moral choice. Caveat emptor.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I enjoyed the telling of your story. Narratives are an important device for making sense of life. When we construct our narratives we untangle the elements of our lives, re-examine them, discover their lessons, re-assemble them in a coherent whole and discover value in life. As your story has shown, it takes time and experience to uncover one’s narrative. I would have liked you to explain your understanding of humanism and I hope you will do so in a follow up comment.

    Consider sharing your story of self-discovery, humanist or not. Swap stories with your friends. Tell your tale to others. Storytelling brings people together.

    Just coincidentally I did just this in the last essay –

    And then another commenter(Alex SL) set about contradicting my experience on every point and concluded as follows:

    I write this because your list is white-washed and cherry-picked

    So he concludes by accusing me of downright dishonesty. It goes without saying that I am a careful observer, and scrupulously honest. I carefully reported my actual experiences and I stand by every detail, without reservation.

    I applaud your desire to encourage your readers to share narratives and I believe it can be a valuable process. But this requires trust on the part of the narrator and it requires that the readers interpret the stories charitably. This did not happen in my case.

    I hope that others take up this opportunity. I think it will be informative and very interesting. But then I ask that other readers respect the narratives and treat them sensitively. Please do not do what Alex SL did and make gratuitous accusations of dishonesty.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This essay reminded me of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, titled “Story of the Warrior and the Captive”. The Wikipedia article doesn’t go anywhere near to doing it justice, so I’ll point to the story itself, here. It’s less than five pages, and well worth the read.

    Like Norman, Borges also describes two such “transformational self-discoveries”, but does not argue that this kind of thing happens due to some reasoning process. He illustrates that a person can completely transform their point of view on something, albeit by a much deeper psychological process than rational thinking. In Borges’ presentation, the transformation is an emotional, instinctive and deeply passionate, overwhelming essentially all aspects of one’s mind simultaneously. It is like a switch that gets flipped in one’s head, leading one to reject everything one was familiar with so far, and embrace a completely alien culture and way of thinking.

    The main impression of that Borges’ story is that rationality and reasoning are just a small, tiny aspect of human behaviour, and that decisions people make can be completely irrational, yet fulfilling for a person, providing self-discovery in a very fundamental way.

    Btw, I believe I didn’t do justice to the story either. 🙂 But it is definitely worth reading.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I’d never been entirely comfortable with the label “philosopher,” but “humanist” fit like a glove.

    My professional life after getting an applied math doctorate consisted of writing “AI” code and inventing new programming languages, then turning more to philosophy in retirement, so I coined “codosopher” (“coder”|”philosopher”) for myself. That’s pretty much my self-made glove. I’m not sure if I belong to any community, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Prof. Norman,

    Thank you for a nice post. I realize this is mostly a post about finding identities but it strikes me that you are using humanist in a way that is common, striking and problematic and I have wanted to talk about in an atheist/skeptic forum for awhile. Permit me to kick the tires a little.

    I am really struck by how much your essay seems to assume that people know what humanism is, much as we take ourselves to know what a Republican or a liberal or a scientist is. You referred to it many times and made no attempt (unless I missed it) to define it or even tell us what it is like. It strikes me that it is not really part of the popular idiom (or at best on the periphery), and the more I hear from “Secular Humanists”, the less I understand. The American Humanist Association defines the concept as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Julian Baggini wrote a popular book on the subject in which he apparently discusses the idea as a “positive, moral form of atheism” (amazon). These kinds of definitions strike me as woefully insubstantial.

    “Humanism”, before it was co-opted by “Secular Humanism”, is something I believe I do understand. As far as I am aware it originated among historians like R. W. Southern and Ernst Cassier. When iconography changed from showing a serene, powerful and erect Christ on the cross to showing a bowed, wearied man in about the tenth century or when during the renaissance paintings depicted an emaciated, vulnerable, suffering Christ, this is said to be a trend towards humanism. Being fleshy and frail is something that is no longer beneath the Christ, the measure of ethics and model for behavior for all Christians, but rather an important part of his nature as the God-become-man and something to be admired and sympathized with. When Milton argued, contra Augustine, that the spontaneity of sexuality was a divine gift not a consequence of sin, he was affirming our basic animal nature not seeing it as something to resist. I could go on. The point is that humanism, construed this way is a substantial commitment. It sees basic human nature with passions and emotions and frailties as something to be lionized and celebrated not resisted. By contrast the way the term is used in atheist discourse seems completely vapid and really a failure on the part of atheist apologists to defend a real ethical doctrine, as though in the absence of God ethics write themselves. Rather than turning to substantial moral philosophy we get a lot of low-fat-potato-chips phrases which sound nice and mean nothing. When Massimo calls himself a stoic he has said something significant about what he values and what principles guide his actions. When someone calls themselves a humanist I understand almost nothing. (There are exceptions as in Philip Kitcher’s remarkable Life After Faith).

    What am I missing?

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Marko,
    Btw, I believe I didn’t do justice to the story either. 🙂 But it is definitely worth reading.

    Yes, it was worth reading. It fascinated me and I think you did it justice.

    In Borges’ presentation, the transformation is an emotional, instinctive and deeply passionate, overwhelming essentially all aspects of one’s mind simultaneously. It is like a switch that gets flipped in one’s head

    That puts it well. I think of it like a phase transformation. The potential for the new was always present in the old phase. It merely required a suitable change in circumstances to trigger the phase change. Sometimes there is a catalyst that seeds or triggers the change.

    The main impression of that Borges’ story is that rationality and reasoning are just a small, tiny aspect of human behaviour, and that decisions people make can be completely irrational, yet fulfilling for a person, providing self-discovery in a very fundamental way.

    Yes, I think that is true, that the emotional and the instinctual are additional means of apprehending reality. But I disagree that it is irrational. I think the obverse is true, that reality is larger, deeper, richer and more complex than the world revealed by rationality(cue interjections by outraged scientismists).

    The many disagreements on this philosophy forum between rational and well informed people show very well that rationality is an inadequate tool. For example we have the debate between scientism and philosophy where neither side can prevail. Two rational people will doggedly insist each is right and the other is wrong. So much for rationality!

    We have many conflicting versions of the world(as our debates have shown) and rationality cannot reconcile them because the world is deeper than the reach of our rationality. To reconcile our different visions of the world we must call upon morality. No, morality will never decide which vision is the right one but it will enable a larger space where differing visions can coexist. This kind of morality is called respect, openness, tolerance, fairness, humility and recognition that other viewpoints are possible. It is a rejection of the narrow, blinkered view of skepticism that only one viewpoint is possible and that the only possessor of that viewpoint is a small coterie of self selected skeptiks. Intellectual arrogance does not solve the problem, it merely compounds the problem.

    This is why I like the present essay. It shows an openness to the experience of others, a willingness to recognise the validity of the experience of others. This openness is based on the author’s experience of change. I think that the experience of change opens one up to the possibility that others have experienced different changes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The cowboy story is fun, but in this context I would like to know what the equivalent of thinking about women is for humanist.

    By way of explanation I am a long time supporter of CFI and an atheist, but I don’t call myself a humanist because I don’t understand what the underlying principle is. So can someone tell me how to determine if I am a humanist. And a list of political positions, such as the one in every issue doesn’t cut it. Those are basically progressive political opinions. And I’m happy to apply the “progressive” label to myself..

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Andy, it was a nice read though I would have to second David O‘s comment that I didn’t get a feel for what humanism actually is. Could I be one? I liked the joke, but I’m sure there is more to it 🙂

    I do agree that it is nice, and somewhat profound, when one discovers what one “is”.

    But here’s a story about the reverse:

    For many years I thought I was an atheist. When I finally tried connecting with a community of atheists they seemed to do nothing but think and talk about religion all day. I guess I’m not an atheist.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. To build on David Ottlinger’s excellent comment:

    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. With that in mind I am going to explore, from a Catholic point of view, what I think the real meaning of the word ‘humanism’ should be. My starting point is to look at the root of the word ‘humanism’ and use that to build a manifesto for humanism.

    1. Human. It is a philosophy grounded in what makes us uniquely human, our capacity for compassionate, ethical behaviour. It is also an understanding of our fallibility and weakness(only human). It is a recognition of our capacity for extraordinary achievement(super-human). It is a commitment never to treat anyone as if they were sub-human.

    2. Humanity. It is grounded in a respect for all humanity, understanding its diversity, celebrating its commonality, is tolerant and inclusive. It is a commitment to work for the greater good of humanity.

    3. Humane. This is a commitment to act with kindness and goodwill to all life, treating it as we would wish to be treated

    4. Humanitarian. This is a recognition of the suffering of less fortunate people and a commitment to extending every possible assistance to them.

    5. Humanities. In the humanities we celebrate and honour our species extraordinary capacity for imaginative thought. It is our capacity for imagination that allows us to be more than we are.

    Humanism then is the sum of our being human, our humanity, being humane, our humanitarian behaviour and our creative expression through the humanities.

    The ethos of true humanism is expressed here in the

    Prayer for Humanity

    Beloved humanity, let me be an instrument for our peace;
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is error, truth;
    Where there is pain, healing;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy;
    Where there is intolerance, respect.

    Beloved humanity, I will not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    And it is in living that we give life.

    I am sure St. Francis and Pope Francis would approve of my minor changes to the wording of the Prayer For Peace(yes, I know it was first published by an anonymous author in 1912 in La Clochette).

    Liked by 1 person

  11. When I see the label “humanist”, this is how I translate it:

    humanist: In the US, typically a progressive (e.g., one who generally supports the policies of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) who uses secular language instead of spiritual or God-oriented language.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi jschwarz,

    So can someone tell me how to determine if I am a humanist.

    A humanist is someone who considers that morality is a matter for humans, and not a matter for gods. That’s it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Coel,

    “someone who considers that morality is a matter for humans, and not a matter for gods” would include Ayn Rand, and to call Ayn Rand a “humanist” seems like a strange thing to do.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. A humanist is someone who considers that morality is a matter for humans, and not a matter for gods. That’s it.

    Because there is an objective fact of the matter about the meaning of words. A stone tablet perhaps.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I don’t think it’s that hard to define what “humanism” is.

    You start with Humanist Manifesto I:
    Then go to Humanist Manifesto II:
    Then to III:
    Then to the Amsterdam Declaration.

    Humanist Manifesto III even uses the word “Progressive” in its opening paragraph. Its second paragraph talks about being “inspired by compassion.” II mentions “reason fused with compassion.” It also says: “Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism,” and elsewhere talks about “equality of opportunity.”

    Hell, Manifesto I says this:
    “The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.”

    The Amsterdam Declaration has broadly similar sentiments.

    Per Philip and his follow-up to Coel, it’s clear that this involves politically left-of-center stances on a variety of issues. Calling Ayn Rand a humanist is not just “strange,” it’s a non sequitur.

    That said, the American Humanist Association notes, that with III, signatories do not necessarily agree with all aspects of it.

    So, humanism is essentially liberal, and also, like a fair chunk of American liberalism, sometimes “mushy.”

    Side note: HM III declares itself a successor to HM I, but doesn’t mention II.

    As for the story of self-discovery, like others here, especially since the rise of Gnu Atheism, I prefer “humanist” or “secular humanist” as a self-appellation if others require it. First, it tells what I accept and promote, rather than the one thing I reject. Second, per spinoff on the Islamophobia discussion, its generally non-doctrinaire, including as compared to Gnu Atheism.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Humanist is a broad term and a venerable one. From what I read it seems that current thought tends to anti-humanism (for instance as the rallying point for new materialists), or post-humanism (along with post-modernism). Also much more au courant are the various transhumanisms, AI for instance. And how do we touch on humanism without interrogating the current state of the subject? You’ve identified your self as a humanist, whereas I am not even sure I’m an I! You have heard, I’m sure, that anthropocentrism (which sounds like a humanism to me) is what’s ruined the planet.

    But now in academia the term ‘humanist’ signifies any nonSTEM discipline.

    So humanist seems an indistinct identity to enjoy unless a humanist is one who subscribes to the dogmas of a handful of membership organizations with that term in their names. These organizations tend to be two-pronged, on one hand promoting values in much the way churches have done, but on the other, overtly undermining the competing ethical dispensaries, ie religions. I can’t help noting that at the Center for Free Inquiry the very first of the “three goals [that] in particular represent the focus of our activities:
    1. an end to the influence that religion and pseudoscience have on public policy
    2. an end to the privileged position that religion and pseudoscience continue to enjoy in many societies”

    There’s a touch of the genocidal there. Yet the author reaches for religious imagery so unself-consciously, so innocently: conversion, epiphany, what I believe in!, a sense of purpose and belonging, the movement, finding our ‘true’ selves. . . . Is the Center for Free Inquiry a cult? Or as Patrice Ayme has it, a “tribalism”? Call me a Nietzschean, but god spare me from ever craving a label that fits me ‘like a glove.” There’s a certain complacent acceptance in being so happily identified by a label. But evidently the author is a cheerful and successful person.

    The opening joke (and, indeed, therefore the title of the piece) troubled me. I felt it was from the rhetorical playbook: ingratiate oneself with some gentle disarming humor, which does not even need to be perfectly relevant. (Incidentally, lesbians would probably think “women” not “girls”.)

    I like the way Peter J deconstructs Daniel Dennett’s truism to this: So hypocrisy is the secret of happiness?

    At the moment Humanism has a rather fusty air shared with Ethical Culture and Unitarianism, as a sanctuary where atheistic scientists may safely lay claim to an iron-clad, conventional, platitudinous ethic. (Please don’t take offense; this is merely how humanism appears to most people . . . . eg:

    Dave Ottinger gives: Rather than turning to substantial moral philosophy we get a lot of low-fat-potato-chips phrases which sound nice and mean nothing.

    Ayme calls it: “…advocating water for fishes.”

    . . . presumably not at all what it really is.)

    The last paragraph has a rather kumbaya feeling—but if that’s where SciSal wants to go, it will be interesting, I‘m sure. Humanists need humanizing — so swapping stories is a good idea.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. Monitor/editor – please scrap my previous version of this comment, for this, which includes the appropriate link:

    Okay article, but feels like a fragment from a much longer narrative.

    I also think that an articulation of how the author understands “humanism” would be helpful – more helpful than commenters’ efforts to supply definitions (although these are not without their own interest).

    I have said elsewhere ( ) that, as a Buddhist, I don’t see myself as a Humanist; although many Buddhists are also humanists, or act in a manner similar to humanists; this derives from an extrapolation from basic Buddhist principles that are not themselves ‘humanistic.’ The First Noble Truth is that Life is suffering (dukkha, disappointment). This doesn’t fit well with humanistic optimism (although the alleviation of the suffering of others certainly may).

    I have also told my story, as a Buddhist ( ), and it doesn’t quite fit the template we see in the OP. This actually raises some interesting questions concerning narratology as such, and how we use it to organize our experience. Perhaps I’ll consider that in a later comment.

    But I am reminded here of a conversation I recently had concerning Richard Rorty’s optimistic belief that our lives were essentially constructions and reconstructions of the stories we tell about ourselves; and how this conflicted with the narratological theory of Michel Foucault who was more concerned (pessimistically) with the stories history tells about us. The conversation ended without resolution.

    Stories are extremely important to how we organize experience in a way that constructs the self. But it they are fraught with dangers of reification, booby-traps of myth-making – i.e., not simply the myths we hope to emulate, but rather the myth of ‘the self’ we hope to believe is ours.

    Liked by 4 people

  18. Coel,

    “A humanist is someone who considers that morality is a matter for humans, and not a matter for gods. That’s it.”

    I can’t believe you actually wrote that. No, humanism most definitely isn’t that particular “it,” as a number of people have already pointed out. In the context of this essay, (secular) humanism is a particular type of philosophy, incorporating both a naturalistic worldview (right, no gods), but also a number of progressive/liberal political positions, as well as a respect for science as an epistemic enterprise. It is reflected in the well known writings of people like Paul Kurtz and Corliss Lamont, which amount to a hell of a lot more than what you suggest here. And of course I chuckled at a previous comment, pointing out that your definition wouldn’t exclude Ayn Rand. Anything that includes Rand is a really really bad definition…

    Liked by 3 people

  19. I submitted a comment yesterday that has not appeared. I presume it was removed by moderation, but I have no idea why. It was certainly not insulting. Let me try again to make the point: this essay can be read in two ways, because both of the examples of “epiphanies” — the cowboy and the guy who speaks in prose — are actually pseudo-epiphanies. One could draw the implication that recognizing oneself as a “humanist” is also a pseudo-epiphany. To me that reading would make the essay more interesting — but I suspect that it is not the intended reading.

    Liked by 4 people

  20. Astrodreamer mentions “Nietzschean,” and in turn I will note Prof. Norman talking about “creat(ing) meaning in life.”

    Per Nietzsche, or at least perhaps per a bit stereotyped version of him, maybe there is no meaning in life? If not Nietzsche, I can certainly go to one of my favorite philosophers, Camus, and find that idea, though he might say we find meaning by rejecting suicide as the ultimate answer.

    I guess that’s a partial issue. Personal happiness, or to go back to the western classics, eudaemonia, however defined, is a reasonable way of giving life meaning. But, that’s a chosen goal. The only intrinsic meaning life arguably has (doorknob, forgive me for sounding like Dawkins) is to pass on our gametes.

    But, per my essay here a year ago on psychological determinism, our attempts to create meaning are to some degree constrained by both our own previous “moves” in life and by the “moves” other people and inanimate objects and forces have made against us.

    So, while not saying Prof. Norman is a New Ager, boy, the angle of this piece sure runs the risk of sounding like Joseph Campbell and “follow your bliss.”

    To counter with someone else I generally disagree with — Scott Peck; his original book was OK and he went downhill after that — “life is difficult.” Difficult enough in a US of 315 million and a world of well over 7 billion that creating our meaning often is not only not fully achievable, it’s not even 75 percent achievable. And, that’s just in the developed world.

    A farmer in Ethiopia is still worried about the bottom couple of rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of values.

    Even here in the West? Some aspects of my life could be the material for a book. But, I haven’t “thrived” as well as the “survivorship bias” authors who write such books.

    Per life and meaning, and 350 years before Camus, I go back to Shakespeare, and life being “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    So, while “finding/creating meaning” can be a valid form of humanism, in much of the world, per humanism as a progressive idea, we first have to ease lives to make it easier to create “higher-level” meaning. And, we have to accept that we will never do that perfectly, and that “creating meaning” isn’t a major part of everyone’s humanist project.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Hi Massimo,

    If one were to consider everything that has ever been called “humanism” then a broad definition, as I gave, is the only way to encompass everything. The OED defines it as: “A rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters”, which is similar to my definition. This person considers Ayn Rand’s objectivism to be “a humanist philosophy”. labnut is also right that there are religious versions of humanism.

    What most people are talking about here is one version of humanism, the commonest one today, which could be called “modern secular humanism”, and that indeed would have a narrower definition.

    Hi Socratic,

    If you wanted to distinguish between types of Christians, why didn’t you when first stating that? . . . In the future, I respectfully suggest that if you don’t want me to consider you a “lumper” when you talk about matters of faith and people of faith, you distinguish them more.

    It was 100% irrelevant to my point! That’s why I did not distinguish! My point in stating that the US was 80% Christian was that, even if every non-Christian American supported drone strikes (obviously not true), that would add up to only 20% support. Therefore, since the *majority* of Americans support drone strikes, it must include many Christians (somewhere between 100 and 200 million US adult Americans). That was my sole point.

    It is entirely irrelevant to that point what style of Christian they are! Obviously they are a range! To interpret this as me saying that all US Christianity is monolithic and that they’re all fundamentalists is reading into something that I have not said! (Though this sort of thing is de rigueur for commentary about New Atheists: “must always interpret it in the least charitable way possible”, so don’t worry, we’re quite used to it, annoying though it is.)

    And I was only saying the above to point out to labnut that Harris-style support for drone strikes is *not* limited to (or even characteristic of) atheists, it is a mainstream opinion supported by *lots* of Christians. That’s all!

    It really is amazing the amount of beating about the bush we’ve had regarding that straightforward, clearly expressed, fairly limited, and entirely true point! Can we move on now?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Coel, for once it would be nice if you just admit to being wrong. The term “humanism,” if you want to go broad, actually includes religious flavor, in contradiction to what you wrote. But in the context of this essay it is very clearly and unambiguously the sort of humanism exposed by people like Kurtz, Lamont, etc. Your comment was simply incorrect, and your defense of it now is baffling.

    Liked by 4 people

  23. If one perceives human being to possibly include the notion of a supernatural outlook, this dimension then has to be included in the humanist movement. The perception of humans to a supernatural purpose (something beyond one’s self and those one can imagine intellectually) is obvious in the many art and works.

    I’m thinking humanism as a movement should not limit itself to thoughts and purpose that are just natural. Whatever ideals that is human in origin must be embraced as part of humanism. Is this correct?

    Liked by 1 person

  24. SocraticGadfly,

    The only intrinsic meaning life arguably has (doorknob, forgive me for sounding like Dawkins) is to pass on our gametes.

    I am not certain whether you wrote this literally or ironically, but since the essay is about finding one’s self-discovery and meaning of one’s life, I just want to make the following short point.

    Nikola Tesla is known for the alternating current system, which is used today worldwide, and without which it would be hard to transmit electricity to long distances. He is also known for the Tesla coils, without which no modern internal combustion engine can work. He is known for the induction motor, that is being used today from air-conditioning and cpu fans to various parts of the International Space Station. He is known for demonstrating the first remote-controlled machine, which can be found today in things like children’s toys and interplanetary satellites alike. He is known for the voltage transformer, the likes of which are an essential component both in the electric power grid of every country on Earth and in the AC-charger which you use to charge the batteries of your phone and laptop every day.

    Tesla is often said to be “the man who invented the 20-th century”.

    But, alas, he didn’t have any children (he lived in celibacy all his life), and he didn’t pass on his “gametes”. So obviously his life didn’t really have any, you know, “intrinsic meaning” — ask Richard Dawkins if you don’t believe me…

    Liked by 3 people

  25. “The secret to happiness,” writes philosopher Daniel Dennett, “is to find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” This little aphorism might work for many, but it doesn’t seem to apply in my case: I was given a strict patriarchal foundation with a healthy respect for authority AND independent thinking (thank goodness). I happily performed my many duties and had more fun doing it than I deserved. There has been no transformational moment yet, rather just a slow evolution of understanding and attitude. Now I have fun trying to improve myself and my community, the ultimate goal being to leave my grandchildren prepared for success and happiness. Finding one’s own formulation that is motivational and rewarding is key for a productive existence. Success is never guaranteed, there is risk in every move.

    As far as the question of humanism is concerned, Massimo has made it easy: “In the context of this essay, (secular) humanism is a particular type of philosophy, incorporating both a naturalistic worldview (right, no gods), but also a number of progressive/liberal political positions, as well as a respect for science as an epistemic enterprise.” This sounds like scientism (the nice kind) with a dash of lefty politics. Politics holds very little philosophical interest for me, so I will keep the scientism and move on to other things.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. 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? Humanism without a deep and passionate concern for humanity, for their suffering and for the social injustice they must endure, is a hollow and empty sham. It is hypocrisy. Our humanity is tainted by our inhumanity. To be a humanist is to be animated by the passionate conviction that we must remove the stain of our inhumanity.

    Liked by 3 people

  27. Hi Socratic, you said it was easy to find definitions of humanism, but to me the statements contained enough glittering generalities that I knew I could go one way or the other depending on how they actually interpreted their meaning in action. I was hoping that the author would have (in the essay) explained what drew him in more specifically.

    (side note: I’ve been unable to reply in the last couple threads because of comment limits. I’d been looking for ways to contact you directly but saw nothing at your site. In general I agreed with your replies to me.)

    Hi Massimo (and DanTip as editor), you said that you wish Coel would admit he was wrong for once. Frankly, I felt offended that while arguing in the last thread that people treat New Atheists unfairly (which he does again here without evidence), he repeatedly told me what I was saying despite the fact that it was opposite the literal meaning of my words and despite my repeated clarifications. This is doubly ironic as he also argued we should accept New Atheist’s clarifications of their previous wording.

    I mean to be told that some New Atheists puts the emphasis on “New Atheists” and so means “in general”, that is just gibberish. And again any confusion on that point was clarified in the very next reply and on. I could give more examples, but the point is that whether readers would figure it out or not, this seems the literary equivalent of getting hit below the belt, and it is not comfortable. It forces one into wasting time and comments on correcting such errors (which might be honest at first), and is especially galling when one is not allowed a further reply to respond to continual manipulation of one’s own words.

    If you are weeding out posts that reduce the quality of the site, I would suggest any arguments where someone tells another what they “actually meant”, particularly when it does not involve using their own words, and the meaning has since been clarified. Or at least allow an author to respond to such a charge.

    I don’t mind not getting in the last word during an argument of substance, but not on a gross mischaracterization of my meaning. I can get that anywhere else on the internet, but there at least I can keep fighting.

    To David, to clear up the mess Coel made in the last thread, I actually agreed most Americans (and so Christian Americans) support drones, suggesting (as an American) that was shameful&hypocritical. Despite Coel’s acting like I was supporting labnut’s position, I was just supporting your position (I stated your name when I first mentioned drones): that it doesn’t entail endorsing Harris’s views, with an additional argument that it also doesn’t make his views acceptable to “liberals”… and to keep things on topic I would assume humanists?

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  28. holmes,

    you make a good point concerning moderation, and we’ll take into under advisement. However, please remember that we (really, Dan) are already spending a lot of time sifting through comments in an attempt to keep the discourse civil and productive. But there is a limit to what we can say or do, or, frankly, to our inclination or time to do it. Mischaracterizations of positions, unfortunately, are the bread and butter of much discourse. I suggest to clarify things once, and then let the other person hang him/herself on his/her own verbal twists. Life’s too short for anything more…

    Liked by 3 people

  29. In order to distinguish (modern secular) humanism from religion, Paul Kurtz proposed the term ‘eupraxsophy’ in his bedside breviary “Affirmations”, but doesn’t make it clear whether (modern secular) humanism is one of many possible eupraxsophies, or if he took eupraxsophy to be a better name for humanism, tout court. Using the phrase, as he does, ‘humanist eupraxsophy’ does not clarify. Many religions have eupraxsophical elements.

    I need to apologize for introducing the word ‘genocide’ which I think mars my last comment. However, the first goal of the Center for Free Inquiry: “an end [not a decrease but an end] to the influence that religion and pseudoscience have on public policy” does appear to be some sort of disenfranchisement of church-goers (and, eg. palmists, homeopaths and anti-GMO activists).

    On the other hand the OP oozes good feelings and ecumenism. This invitation to share our stories of self-discovery (“humanist or not”), is that something endorsed by the editors for the comments section here, or only a general encouragement from Father Norman to the laity at large?

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  30. I shot through a nice preamble here and was quite ready for the discussion to begin… but then the credits rolled. Arrrrrrgh! So okay, refocus. I guess the point was “Life is a journey in which we search for groups with similar beliefs to our own.” OH MY! PeterJ is certainly not the only one around here to laugh when a quote from Daniel Dennett is presented as “wisdom.” A skeptic might hope for beliefs to instead be tested against opposing perspectives! This is surely what brings us to Scientia Salon — we seek growth rather than affirmation from our own kind. Furthermore stories of “How I got here” must be swapped just as commonly in Al Qaeda as the Peace Corps.

    So what do I think about “humanism”? I’ll go with Socratic’s “liberal” definition, since the term also strikes me to be quite “mushy.” I’m personally no fan, and permit me to explain why.

    I believe that in order for the evolution of not just “a mind,” but rather “a conscious mind,” there needed to be a punishment/reward element. (This was necessary for autonomy I think.) Given punishment/reward, which might plausibly be considered “qualia,” perfectly insignificant matter gains an existence which contains personal relevance. Furthermore “good” for the conscious entity shall then be the rewards it experiences at a given moment, while “bad” shall be such punishment — mandating the entity be “selfish.” (By the way, this model has not yet become accepted in science/philosophy, or exactly what I seek.)

    My problem with “humanism” is that it seems to use our “empathy,” which is merely an example of our qualia/selfishness, in the attempt to subvert/deny that we are indeed selfish. Observe the very common theme of, “Let’s all be good to each other for the sake of everyone!” Instead of trying to practically implement such hopeful fairy tales (and examples of them are everywhere) I believe we must formally explore and acknowledge what we are, and then use these understandings to more effectively lead our lives and structure our societies. “Humanism” seems to be one of many titles from which we seek to subvert/deny what it is that evolution (or even a god) created. While many might consider “do gooders” to be harmless, I find them as yet another reason for our failure in the crucial field of ethics.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Narrative is a basic function of language. Any sentence expressing or describing the activity of a subject is narratively structured, like, “Bob walked to the store.” The narrative structure, when describing the activity of a human or other living thing, implies agency; agency implies responsibility (able to respond to the circumstances presumed by the sentence and its context). Consequently, as the narrative continues and the context and possible responses surface either explictly or implicitly, the character of the subject is developed, expanded, enriched. Obviously, the character of plants or microscopic living things can only develop sof far in narratives; but the greater the entity’s capacity for response, the richer the development of character, until we get to the level of the human, the most complex of living things we know, with the greatest range of possible responses, capable of developing extraordinarily complicated characters with individual names attached to them, which we then call ‘personalities,’ in recognition of being ‘persons,’ worthy of respect.

    So far, we have been discussing narratives in the third person. Now let’s take this general frame and picture a particular subject in it – specifically a subject necessarily self-referential. “I walked to the store,” is now not only a narrative of an actor engaged in an act, it is an assertion of self. Thus, as the narrative continues, expands, and enriches, and the possibilities for potential response multiply and grow in complexity, the self develops characteristics and personality for which the subject is not only responsible, but which he/she must now own as significant identifiers of his or her identity.

    There are ways to deconstruct this process intentionally. There are also unexpected events that can shatter it. But normally – and normatively, since this is a fundamental means of dealing with experience – our language, and the responses it determines for us, generate and stably maintain a sense of self and identity. This can constrict rigidly, or it can expand and enrichen, but, barring multiple character-threatening crises, such constriction or expansion can only occur within a range (although the range itself can change over time).

    Just BTW, and admittedly OT, this does go to our recurrent discussions of free will/ determinism. The model I’ve presented above clearly tends toward the deterministic; however, the language we use (which makes the model possible) *inevitably* implicates agency, necessitating the belief in personal choice and responsibility. “I walked to the store” reenforces that the subject has agency (an agent capable of action is logically capable of different acts) – the narrative makes no sense otherwise. Consequently, the only meaningful way to assert determinism is in expository and declarative sentences – once the utterer introduces him/her self into the discussion, through narrativistic sentences, the discussion develops grammatical disjunctions suggesting self-contradiction.

    In every day usage, language assures us that we have personality, choice, responsibility – and in a manner from which we escape only through effort – or by way of catastrophe.

    “Tell our stories”? Can we really hope to avoid doing this?

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  32. Peter may mean he sees a contradiction between free inquiry and the first goals of the organization, which could be construed as suppressive — ending the right of certain groups to influence public policy.

    To his credit, OP seems to be attempting to let go of that side of the Humanist movement, as does Massimo. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. I don’t know anything about the Center for Free Inquiry, but unfortunately these days we are primed by such organisation names as “Project Reason” and “Foundation for Reason and Science” to think that we should save our time and assume that title is ironic.

    I should certainly be happy to be proved wrong in this.

    These types of names remind me of the old Bonzo joke where the man takes a pair of pants to a dry cleaner and is told “You can pick it up next Thursday”, the man says “The sign outside says ’24 Hour Dry Cleaner’, and is told “That’s just the name of the shop dear”.

    They also put me in mind of the old Tom Lehrer lyric from “Folk Song Army” – “We’re against war, hate and injustice, unlike the rest of you squares”.

    But, as I said, I may well be tarring the CFI with the wrong brush.

    Liked by 4 people

  34. So… my essay seems to have stimulated several side discussions. I’ll weigh in on a couple here:

    On What Humanism Is
    DBHolmes, JSchwarz230, ejwinner and DavidOttlinger ask for clarity about what I understand humanism to be. The term has, of course, been used in many ways–some of them idiosyncratic–and yes, this can cause confusion. It turns out to be a useful concept, though, if used carefully. In addition to using it carefully, I try to understand what’s really essential to humanism. Long reflection on this 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.

    “The Cowboy, the Lesbian and the Humanist” is just the first of a series of investigations into the philosophical foundations of humanism. I’ve actually written a lot about this. A recent essay in The Humanist magazine sums up my conclusions pretty well; check it out:…/getting-humanism-right-side-up.

    On PeterJ’s Suggestion That Dennett’s “Secret to Happiness” Involves Hypocrisy
    PeterJ writes: “Let me get this straight. I want happiness, and I want it so badly that I will, for purely selfish reasons, dedicate my life to something more important than my happiness. Or so it will seem to others. Only I will know that it is my happiness that motivates me. Is that it? So hypocrisy is the secret of happiness?”

    Notice how PeterJ extracts the appearance of hypocrisy here: by presupposing that one can only care about happiness if one is “purely” selfish. But this is clearly false. One can want to be happy while also caring deeply about the well-being of others. In fact, sages have long noted that allowing oneself to genuinely care for others has the curious psychological effect of deepening one’s own happiness. Real humanists needn’t make misleading outward displays of caring, while quietly nurturing the selfish attitude that PeterJ depicts here–they simply allow themselves to care. Yes, I think Dennett has captured real wisdom here.

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  35. A few more specific replies:

    Patrice- I agree that we are a species with strong tribal instincts. And I do believe that we need to find like-minded (and like-purposed) others to live really fulfilling lives. But I would not say that I “advocate tribalism.” Perhaps this will clarify my view: I think it is important to belong to an “us,” but I am well aware that it is all too easy for people to demonize a “them.” The trick is to embrace the “us” without dehumanizing any “thems.” In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere that humanism is a philosophy designed to mitigate our most destructive tribal instincts: .

    LabNut, Marco, Philip- Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. I intend to dwell on them. I agree that personal transformation is often governed by considerations that are more-than-just-rational. Borges was right.

    You ask how you can tell if you’re a humanist. As it happens, the sequel to this essay contains something I call “the humanism test.” In the spirit of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a RedNeck,” I offer a tongue-in-cheek series of indicators of “latent humanism.” It’s kinda fun; check it out:

    I’m sorry your experience with the local atheist community was unsatisfactory. I identify as an atheist too, but I find humanism to be a better pretext for community involvement than atheism. I think it also has more potential as a movement for positive values. Why not give your local humanist community a try?

    I’m not too keen on prayer, but I love your “prayer for humanity.”

    Your first post contains some very uncharitable interpretations of humanism. You claim that if the term means anything, a humanist must cling to some “dogmas.” But this is radically inaccurate. Humanists have combatted dogmatism for thousands of years, and have no wish to replace religious dogmas with secular dogmas. Humanism is well characterized as the view that we must dispense with dogmas entirely. (And no, this view is not self-referentially incoherent: a humanist would gladly change his views about dogma if there were sufficiently good reasons to do so.)

    You go on to ask if the “Center for Free Inquiry” is a cult. It is not. In fact, it is not even called the Center for Free Inquiry, but the Center for Inquiry. Please take the time to understand a view, or learn an organization’s real name, before slyly demeaning it.

    More later…

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  36. The original post has two themes which the writer – correctly, I think – believes are in some way interlinked. The first theme is that personal narratives, recast in differing language, often reveals to us who we really are. The specific case is that of the author himself, how retelling his narrative in a different way brought him to the realization that his own beliefs were congruent with those identified generally as ‘humanist.’

    Because the author did not provide an explicit discussion of his own working definition of humanism, only implying it in reference, the comment thread danced around possible interpretations of the terms, and debates between different positions in respect to these.

    There also have been comments attempting to resolve issues lingering from the previous essay on Islamophobia.

    Recent comments have batted back and forth differing opinions concerning the mission of the CFI.

    Frankly, I think the most interesting aspect of the OP is its integration of the author’s personal discovery with issues concerning narrative constructions/realizations of the self. And unfortunately, this aspect of the OP remains largely unaddressed. Indeed, besides my own ‘meta’ comment here, only Patrice Ayme has directly addressed the issue.

    I have a growing suspicion here that many of us don’t know what to do about the issue, and possibly feel uncomfortable with it. Certainly the Analytic tradition has almost no insightful or incisive theory of narratology – since narrative does not crunch down into P)Q sentences – albeit one can find traces of one in Wittgenstein and Austin. But the best that tradition has been able to produce is Lakoff’s ‘metaphors we live by’ theory, and this is neither deep enough nor broad enough.

    Frankly, that’s bizarre. Narrative, as I remarked, is a fundamental function of language. To say or imply that it cannot be addressed by the logics of professional philosophy, only tells us that professional philosophy has an enormous blind spot that needs to be opened up and exposed to view.

    This is, frankly, not a great essay, IMO; but any essay that reveals our discomfort addressing the problems of telling our stories – or any story at all – is worth considering more deeply than has been evidenced in many of the comments so far.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Hi Massimo,

    PeterJ is right to snicker because it is humorous that an organization that ostensibly advocates for free inquiry would advocate marginalizing any sort of human inquiry, nevermind ‘religious and pseudo-scientific inquiry’. At the very least, they should call themselves the Center for Scientific Inquiry and drop the Orwellian label.

    More to the point, I never cease to be amazed at how scientismists manage to wedge all human pursuit into either ‘science’ or ‘enemy of science’ categories. To think, for example, that religion is reducible to superstition and therefore must be categorically marginalized and opposed is to engage in the most shallow and intellectually lazy binary thought possible. While I don’t doubt that there happens to be superstition in almost all religion, there is so much more going on when people engage in that social practise than the propagation of superstition — and you would expect that a group that supposedly understands religion as a human phenomenon would be interested in exploring and engaging with that. Yet the response is openly prejudicial and in favour of categorical suppression and marginalization? And this is supposed to be enlightened?

    I’ll pass on supporting totalitarian scientismists, thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  38. USE THIS VERSION, PLEASE … It properly formats the blockquote.

    Marko Note that I qualified my statement with the adverb “arguably,” and also noted this was about “intrinsic” meaning, as well as “arguably.”

    Now, one could counterargue that, even from a purely naturalist stance, consciousness has evolved, and evolved in a way to make we homo sapiens out to be meaning-seeking creatures. In that case, spreading our gametes might not be the only intrinsic meaning life has.

    I broadly stand by the rest of what I said. I think Prof. Norman has a bit too much “positivity” in there, as Barbara Ehrenreich would say. (Well, as she would have said before her last, eyebrow-raising book.)

    As for Tesla … some of that’s true, some of that’s partially true. Some machinery, he was more a popularizer, or a developer of already existing ideas, than a de novo inventor.

    Sorry, Coel but, even if mushy, or per DB, vague, I still think humanism is, well, HUMANISTIC! Were Rand religious, but otherwise as selfishness-driven as she actually is, I’m pretty sure Labnut would NOT call her a religious humanist. Give me a URL of a non-Randian calling Rand a humanist.

    And, if you don’t, I reference you to a Massimo comment about wrongness and the confessional booth. Not that I expect you to be saying secular Hail Marys; I dropped that expectation long ago. But, I’ll still refer you to Massimo’s comment. That said, Massimo, I don’t find Coel’s defense of it “baffling” in any way. Rather, given Coel’s interactions here, I consider it quite normal of him.

    Labnut, you presume that humanity is “stained.” Humanists of a secular stripe don’t. That said, not all Christians do today. As I said on that one piece on Aravis’ blog, Orthodoxy doesn’t buy into original sin the way Catholics or Protestants do. And, non-Christian religious don’t really buy into anything like that at all.

    That said, per the previous thread, secularists can and do have such passions. Per Shakespeare’s Shylock:

    If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
    us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
    revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
    resemble you in that.

    And, of course, we do do all of that. (And, I wrote a column for the Dallas Morning News, about a decade ago, about secularists and emotions, starting with the riff on Shylock, then going on to Beethoven string quartets and more.)

    Setting aside secularism in general, Humanist Manifesto I was written in 1933, at the heart of the Great Depression. Many of its signers were Socialists. A few leaned further left than that.

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  39. Hi dbholmes,

    I mean to be told that some New Atheists puts the emphasis on “New Atheists” and so means “in general”, that is just gibberish.

    I wasn’t so much telling you what you *meant*, but rather what impression your comment gave. Surely anyone reading your original comment (link here), written in a sarcastic vein, would perceive it as hostile to and critical of New Atheists (whether they agree with it or not).

    The term “some New Atheists” is the only identifier of who you were talking about. If it wasn’t, in some sense, about “New Atheists” in general then why phrase it that way?

    Take that comment, and replace the phrase with “some outspoken women” or “some immigrants from Muslim nations” or “some Dutch citizens” or simply “Ayaan Hirsi Ali”, and it makes the entire comment read rather differently.

    (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.)

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Robin,
    But, as I said, I may well be tarring the CFI with the wrong brush.

    I think you need some context before you unfairly tar them all with the wrong brush. There are are thousands of centers for inquiry around the world. It is a popular and valuable institution. There is even one in my home city with the prestigious name – The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University(

    You see, these centers for inquiry are also known as universities and they do a very fine job of inquiry. However, if you look at the Times World University Rankings( you will find CFI nowhere on this list(but you will find some fine Catholic universities in the list).

    Wherever you get a good thing you will find the imposters feeding off their good name. So, for example, we have all the fake degree mills. But in this case they seem to be a litigation mill, see

    Which goes to show that attack-dog atheism has been rebranded. Ironically they have put a ‘Humanist’ label on the collar of the attack dog. But then to be fair, my Rottweiler is also a humanist, she has often displayed her liking for human flesh. In her defence I can say she is an equal opportunity humanist and does not discriminate between belief systems, atheist, Catholic, animist or whatever. She is a true humanist.

    Time to get serious after having some fun 🙂

    The African understanding of humanism is best conveyed by the word ‘Ubuntu‘. See Wikipedia for this good introductory article –

    A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance

    A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

    One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

    I think Aravis would approve.

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  41. Peter, no worries, no need for apologies.

    yar, well, while I can see why the counterposition of “free inquiry” and criticism of pseudoscience may sound oxymoronic, the “free” part refers to the inquiry itself, not to the conclusions of such inquiry. Ideally, we examine claims of the paranormal or supernatural, say, and then we reach a rational, evidence-based conclusion about it.

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  42. Hi Andy,

    Perhaps it isn’t obvious from my first comment, but you and I happen to be extremely aligned in an ideological sense. This is most evident from the following part of your comment above,

    “…the idea that the well-being of sentient creatures is the sole root of real mattering…”

    Furthermore it would be difficult to find anyone who is more naturalistically inclined than I am. The difference between us, however, seems to concern the methods by which we attempt to achieve our common objective. I believe that I now understand the methods that your movement employs, but wonder if you’re able to also find potential value through my own approach?

    I’m sure you know that science/philosophy does not yet accept our position, or that the welfare of sentient beings is indeed all that matters. My goal is to help this become a general understanding, and from the observation that our long suffering mental and behavioral sciences will remain quite primitive without formally accepting “qualia” as the force which drives the conscious entity. In this manner I mean to help the field of ethics become the science which founds our future mental/behavioral sciences. With a biological understanding of good/bad, science would then have the ability to teach us how to “properly” lead our lives and structure our societies.

    So beyond your “boots on the ground” approach, what do you think of my own “theory driven” humanism?

    Liked by 1 person

  43. Hi Andy, thanks for the reply and especially the links, which gave a bit more detail. I agree that setting up a positive identity is better than setting up an antagonistic one. I’m still not sure if humanism accurately reflects my own beliefs, though I appreciate the intent as you have set it out.

    I guess the tricky parts for me are:

    1) It seems to treat such things as dignity, well-being, and moral progress as objectively real/true (though I could be mistaken). I can accept people creating definitions for the first two and moving toward them in a measurable way (and so progress toward those ends), but I feel these are still subjective goals. That doesn’t make them less important, but there is a qualitative difference in the claim being made.

    2) It appears that differences between definitions are worked out by communal discussion and agreement. Obviously that increases consensus, but that does not necessarily suggest moving in the best direction for everyone. What happens when individuals have very different takes on a subject and don’t want to shift toward the majority? Does this invite/create schisms?

    I’ll use a recently discussed subject to examine this, though it is highly volatile so you can feel free to use something else in reply. Currently female genital mutilation is thought by many to be against the dignity and well-being of women and its elimination a form of moral progress. Yet male genital mutilation also occurs in the same societies and this is being generally ignored, rather clearly because it is a common practice in the west and so deemed acceptable (not against dignity and well-being). People seem pretty strongly opinionated on all sides (including people who support FGM within those societies).

    How does/can humanism reach a consensus on such a topic. And if it cannot, does it allow several different sides within the same tent of humanism, or does it kick one out?

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  44. Hi Massimo,

    If it’s not clear, I have no patience for superstition — I have no qualms calling it out and rejecting it in favour of reliable inquiry. I can’t think of anyone I would label a careful thinker that disputes that the scientific method is the superior tool for arbitrating physical claims, for example.

    But I think a great disservice is done to humanity when religion is equated with superstition and is then summarily dismissed (much the same way a great disservice is done to an ancient philosophy like Stoicism when it is equated with its ancient physics and is then summarily dismissed). Religion is as fundamentally humanist as any field can possibly be — it finds at its core nationality and culture, stories of identity, ethics, ideology, etc. It’s far more anthropocentric than physics is, for example, and I think that there is definitely a place for it in ‘humanism’, assuming that we haven’t already ruled that out by using ‘humanism’ as some sort of anti-religious cypher.

    At the end of the day, the various modern religions present a variety of reasonably well-packaged ways of being human and engaging the world. These are obviously not the only ways of going about being human (nor are the religions themselves monolithic!), but the diversity that they represent should be celebrated and encouraged, not impugned. Religion *should* have influence on public policy, and it is nothing short of small-mindedness (if not something nastier, like bigotry) to knowingly try and throw out the entire tub rather than merely the superstitious bathwater therein.

    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, but that’s probably a discussion for another day. It may not be worth much from an anonymous schmuck posting on your webzine, but I’m a bit disappointed that you would support such an organisation.

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  45. Hi Coel, oh the humanity! It is true the tone of my post might suggest I don’t like NAs in general, but the criticism being made was only about some of them. There is no getting around that fact. For example, if I said some of the biggest jerks are jocks, that would not mean or suggest all of the biggest jerks are jocks. English is just that simple.

    The reason I used the term NA, was because the topic was Islamophobia and many NAs have been hit with that label at some point. My post involved a progression which ended in a link between NAs and the charge of Islamophobia. Whether or not the usual accusation made against NAs is warranted, I posited that an NA that is “willing to throw out basic freedoms because a government official says it’s the only way to stay free due to the threat posed by Islam, is in my opinion an Islamophobe (that is holding an irrational fear of Islam…).”

    And we *still* haven’t been supplied with quotes of criticisms that “some NAs” made of liberal reformers for which they should now apologise…

    Whose “we”? Your habit of demanding quotes yet not giving them has already been noted. As it happens I provided a quote which showed that Ali had thought reform impossible until recently. You think nobody on the left said reform was necessary and possible before she had her epiphany? Anyway you could always disprove my charge by providing the quotes supporting your claim they had always been seeking to keep Islam as a viable world religion through reform, rather than its elimination, and lauding those in the west thinking reform was a plausible solution to militant Islam.

    … 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

    Again with the blowing up of my statement. You will note my original post said “appear to be… agreeing to”, not definitively “are supporting”, (it was about their silence) and here you repeat the initial error by claiming “significant fraction of the NAs”.

    Your refusal to address the evidence provided does not mean it wasn’t. I already gave a link to Cameron’s speech, a quote from it, and stated another point in it. Now you might feel it is not “bizarrely authoritarian” to constantly monitor private communications of all citizens, and punish people for admittedly legal speech with no direct connection to violence, or that privacy and speech are not basic freedoms, but that would not be a traditionally liberal position.

    If you cannot accept the clarifications given, might I suggest that you are so primed in your belief that all criticism of NA involves unfair interpretation, that you automatically interpret criticism in that fashion and seek ways to preserve your interpretation to save your belief?

    This will be my last comment on Scientia regarding this matter.

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  46. Massimo –

    Thanks for not being offended. 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.

    “..Ideally, we examine claims of the paranormal or supernatural, say, and then we reach a rational, evidence-based conclusion about it.”

    No problem. I’ve had various interesting seance experiences that suggest that something odd is going on, but I’m not very interested in the supernatural and tend to just dogmatically deny the possibility of such a thing.

    Andy –

    You’ve started a good conversation.

    “Notice how PeterJ extracts the appearance of hypocrisy here: by presupposing that one can only care about happiness if one is “purely” selfish. But this is clearly false. One can want to be happy while also caring deeply about the well-being of others.”

    Yes, of course we can. But Dennett’s advice is for how I can become happy. The others would be a means to an end.

    “In fact, sages have long noted that allowing oneself to genuinely care for others has the curious psychological effect of deepening one’s own happiness.

    Not curious at all. The sages would say that you and I are not different, such that at the limit selfishness and unselfishness would coincide. This would the solution for ethics, It would explain altruism, as was noted by Schopenhauer, as the ‘breakthrough of a metaphysical truth’. Caring for others would be caring for oneself.

    “Real humanists needn’t make misleading outward displays of caring, while quietly nurturing the selfish attitude that PeterJ depicts here–they simply allow themselves to care. Yes, I think Dennett has captured real wisdom here.”

    This is a misunderstanding. My comment was aimed at Dennett’s advice, not at humanists or anyone else.

    His strategy would be a charter for selfishness but we don’t have to adopt it. It is flawed, and the idea that it is wise advice would make ‘wisdom’ a highly variable word. I’d go along with it being more wise than it might have been. It nods its head towards the idea that the ego is the main obstacle to happiness, which would be the ubiquitous view among the sages. But they would not advise trying to do good works before understanding the situation properly. Sometime the example given is the person who wants to help people by being a surgeon. Best to learn the ropes first.

    To be fair it was probably just an off-the-cuff remark of Dennett’s and not intended as a major philosophical pronouncement. Last time I looked he was trying to reduce happiness to a hetero-phenomenological fairy-tale.

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