Secular Humanism: It's the Adjective That Counts
©Free Inquiry, P.O. Box 5, Central Park Station, Buffalo, NY 14215. By permission.
Joseph Fletcher was professor of pastoral theology and Christian ethics at the Episcopal Theological School. Cambridge. and taught medical ethics at the University of Virginia Medical School. He is the author of Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics and Situation Ethics, among other books.
Somebody said, I think it was Mark Twain, that in the postbellum South "damn Yankee" was all one word. In our own day Christian evangelicals in the Bible belt use "secular humanism" in the same way. Jerry FaIwell, speaking from his pulpit in Lynchburg or under the cover of White House briefings, constantly intones the phrase "secular humanism" just as the julep drinkers used to mutter about the damned Yankees. And they mean exactly that, of course; the secular humanists are being damned just as the abolitionists were. My purpose here is to suggest that, though it may seem odd at first sight, FaIwell and all the other (less opulent) ministers of the Gospel whose homilies invariably condemn humanism are on the right track.
Those who describe themselves as humanists learn after a while that it is comparatively easy to define their position in positive terms. That way of doing it, I might add, is somewhat disarming as well; so much so, indeed, that it irritates and even angers many of the religionists. For example, Christians like to point out that if humanism is to be defined positively as "concern with human beings and their welfare" it is obvious that there is a long line of soi-disant Christian humanists - philosophically as well as practically. Marsilio Ficino comes to mind, for example; he was a fifteenth-century Platonist, darling of the Medici papacy. and expositor of Renaissance humanism. They are legion in the history of religion of all brands, East and West.
The nub of the matter is that creedal or doctrinaire religious believers can be humanists too. There is no reason to deny them the credit, or even the title itself, if we conceive of humanism positively. On the other hand, if we define humanism negatively. it at once becomes more significant and more discrete. Negatives in logic are often an embarrassment (you cannot "prove" one, for instance) but in rhetoric, concerned as it is with description and definition. negatives are essential. Full definition calls for explaining what something is not, not just saying what it is. To take one minor, even petty, example: we cannot merely say that Lutherans believe in "salvation" by faith alone to adequately define them; we must also say they reject the Catholic belief in justification by works.
Understanding humanism negatively at once cuts Out the Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and their variants, ad infinitum. This is because the quintessential description of humanism is negative. Its concern is with man, yes, of course, but definitively it does not have any place for God or the gods. The real significance of the aphorism of Protagoras of Abdera that man is the measure of all things is and always has been the universally understood implication: Man, not God, is the measure of both reality and values.
Homer Duncan is an evangelical gospel preacher down in Texas. In a typical broadside (one among many) entitled "Secular Humanism," he starts out with a definition, which for its succinctness makes many humanists' self-portrayals sound confused and murky. He says "secular" means a "belief that morality is based solely in regard to the temporal well-being of mankind to the exclusion of all belief in God, a supreme being, or a future eternity." Then, equally succinct, he says, "Humanists do not believe in God and, of course, they do not believe in salvation and damnation." (Positively, Duncan says, they believe in evolution, suicide, abortion, euthanasia, and "situation ethics morality.")
The central point I want to make here is that Homer Duncan, like Falwell, Ronald Reagan, et al, are (as I have said) "on the right track." They do not mince words because they understand perfectly clearly that there is indeed, and beyond any muddle-headed cavil by soft humanists, a "fundamental" difference between evangelicals and humanists. The heart of the matter is that believers, the theists, are pitted against the unbelievers, the atheists, or, at least, the nontheists ("agnostics"). Humanism, as such, denies what theism claims. (Or, for that matter, deism, pantheism, and panentheism.)
There is no need, certainly, to downplay or ignore the positive terms of humanism once we appreciate how primary the role of its negative meaning is. There are many ways of expressing and denoting the positive features of humanism. Almost everybody today as in the past would at least accept these three principles as pretty much the core of humanism: human well-being, personal freedom, and equitable treatment. They make up the humanist stance.*
Once these features are pointed out, however, we can see that they could just as well be part of a religious world-view or a nonreligious one. What counts about humanism is the negative side, what it does not include or accept. That is, it does not accept the superhuman and the supernatural. It is this - this negation - that candid hardcore religious believers like FaIwell perceive, quite acutely and quite correctly. They know that in this case what counts about humanism is not the noun but the adjective.
"Secular humanism" is indeed all one word, All talk of "religious humanism" such as goes on in soft humanist circles is blurred thinking intellectually. It is indefinition, not definition. In the world of ideas, as in so many other areas, a person or practice is often better known through its enemies than its friends.
*I am persuaded that we humanists should insist on sole possession of that title. Since the "humanities" are the nonscientific fields of learning in the academic world, let their expounders be called "humanists" if they want, but not "humanists."