Why Is Humanism still an underground philosophy?

Joyce Carol Oats is
a Humanist
Back in 2007 the author Joyce Carol Oates received the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association. In her acceptance speech she asked a very important question, "Why, instead, is humanism not the preeminent belief of humankind? Why don't humans place their faith in reason and in the strategies of skepticism and doubt, and refuse to concede to "traditional" customs, religious convictions, and superstitions?"

I've been wanting to answer that question for years now. Part of the answer is that obviously, some people are believers and some people aren't. But even among the non-believers, Humanism isn't well known and is certainly not ubiquitous.

It seems to me that the main reason Humanism isn't the preeminent belief of human kind is because we Humanists haven't really bothered to tell anyone about it. Perhaps if we did, people would know that Humanism is choice. Yes, I know, there are Humanists group out there working hard at getting the message out. That's not what I am talking about. I'm talking about Humanists being open about the fact that this is the philosophy that is driving them.

Most people I talk to have never heard of it before despite the fact that some of the most influential people in the world are Humanists. Why is that? Well, because it didn't come up that often. How many reporters interviewed Einstein? A gazillion probably. How many knew that a big part of who he was was that he was a Humanist?  Nearly none.

I'm not blaming Einstein for not touting his Humanism more strongly. Humanism is a personal choice and not something we would ever try to force on others. I'm the same way. But we do need to do a better job of talking about and sharing our philosophy with others.  Because Ms. Oates is correct, there is no reason why Humanism shouldn't be the preeminent belief of human kind. Our values certainly are.


  1. Greetings, Jen.

    I am also a Humanist. While I've held Humanistic values for my entire adult life, I didn't really find the Humanistic movement until I was about 30. Since then, I have joined the American Humanist Association, given charitably to Humanist causes, and introduced Humanist ideas and organizations to friends, family, colleagues, and students.

    I will say this about why I think Humanism is and is not an "underground philosophy." First of all, in some senses it is not because there are ways in which Humanism has changed the world significantly. The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, was inspired by Humanist thinking. I would also say that the "New Atheism" and the proliferation of literature and atheistic organizations has to be partly inspired by a Humanist outlook as well.

    But these influences aren't necessarily direct. Humanism is, in many ways, a minor or "underground" movement. Why? I think part of the answer has to do with human nature and religion. I agree with authors like Donald Brown and Larry Arnhart (among others) who observe that religion appears to be one of the few human universals. Every major culture in the history of human society has embraced some kind of religion. Now, we might argue that modern-day western europe and Scandanavia are headed toward more secular thinking (some estimates say that 85% of Swedes don't believe in God, for instance). So there's some hope that perhaps we're outgrowing the need for supernatural religion. But I would venture to say that the ubiquitousness of religion in human culture gives weight to the idea that religiosity is part of an ingrained human nature.

    And so, as long as folks have this natural tendency to buy into religion, I think they're going to tend to reject a Humanistic worldview. That's not to say that religion and Humanism are mutually exclusive. But certainly a lot of folks see it that way. And as we know, many religious leaders use "Secular Humanism" as a whipping-boy for everything evil in the world.

    I'm no expert on anthropology, history, or neuroscience -- I'm just a humble English teacher -- so I won't say any of the above with a high level of certainty. It's just a guess. What do you think? Am I right that humans generally go in for religion, and that tendency hedges them away from accepting Humanist ideas and joining Humanist organizations?

    Best Wishes,

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head Roy. Yeah - I think religiosity is ingrained human nature as well. But I do think, talking to liberally religious people, they approach their faith Humanistically - and when they learn about Humanism willingly and eagerly apply the term Humanistic to their religious practice.

    I was more speaking to the fact that Humanists don't always make their Humanism explicit so that other people can learn about it.

    On the other hand I also think there will always be people who aren't Humanistically inclined and yeah - they will always have issues with the Humanist or Humanistic approaches.

  3. Jen-

    Thanks for responding. You're right, some Humanists don't always make their beliefs or affiliations explicit to others.

    One reason for this might be that many Humanists have either 1) come out of religious traditions that were forced upon them, or 2) witnessed the discomfort when religious people become proselytizers, or both. One of the ugliest characteristics of some religions is the arrogant institutionalization of the evangelical enterprise. Even the so-called "mission," which often justifies itself through charitable help, is at least partially about converting heathens.

    Most Humanists, atheists, and/or freethinkers develop a profound disgust for this practice. Rightfully so. And so our natural disposition is to avoid mimicking it.

    But I think there are both appropriate and inappropriate ways to get one's beliefs "out there." I'm not sure I could delineate all of the exact differences, but I could probably name a couple of reasonable ways to extend Humanism.

    1. Writing a book or a blog (and yours is a very nice example, Jen)
    2. Talking nicely to one's friends and family about the allure of Humanism in friendly conversation
    3. Giving charitably to organizations such as the American Humanist Association or the Council for Secular Humanism
    4. Creating or joining a community chapter of Humanists, meeting regularly, and doing good for the community (like cleaning up a section of a local highway, fundraising for good causes, etc).
    5. Living happily and rationally and being a good example for those around one.

    I'm sure there are many more I haven't thought of. I would certainly say that it's encouraging to see a web presence by Humanists such as yourself. As an English teacher, I can give testimony to how much young people have turned toward reading tweets, blogs, and facebook pages, and using those as breeding grounds for their own ideas and tastes. Electronic media is essential to get the message to them.

    Best Wishes,

  4. Jen, Thanks for sharing such a wonderful piece.

  5. I would contend that "modern" Humanism might turn people off because of it's explicit rejection of things that can't be proven or reasoned out. Much of what it espouses nowadays is set up in direct contradiction to religious belief. This strikes people as inherently wrong because reasoning something out is NEVER the same as believing it in your gut. I disagree that "religiosity" is ingrained. It's the need to BELIEVE in things that we can trust WITHOUT having to question or rationalize them that is ingrained in us. Religion is just the natural extension of that.

    I think the answer to making Humanism more "popular" is to stop worrying so much about what the religious believe and focus on the things that WE can have faith in, even if that faith is in our ability to question everything. I believe that as humanists we have to accept that people have irrational parts of their personality, accept them as such, and incorporate those into a more comprehensive worldview, which HAS to include the need for faith.


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