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A Global Humanist Identity
Submitted by admin on 1 November, 1996 - 06:51
A Global Humanist Identity
TWO WEEKS ago I took my first step into the cyber-age. I was connected to Internet, got an e-mail-address and threw my first glances into the Brave New World of the next millennium's enlightenment.
With my new software equipment package I also got some compact discs for my CD Rom, one of which was a complete encyclopaedia - called The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia for Macintosh. I opened the enormous source of knowledge, and you can guess what I first looked for. You are right: Humanism. The computerized encyclopaedia defines humanism as follows:
Humanism, an educational and philosophical outlook that emphasises the personal worth of the individual and the central importance of human values as opposed to religious belief, developed in Europe during the Renaissance ,..
By the 18th century humanism had come to be identified with a purely secular attitude - one that often rejected Christianity altogether. In the 20th century the term has taken on a number of different, often conflicting meanings.
One of the most important tasks -- not to say the primal task -- of a world humanist organisation in this situation, is to reestablish the image of humanism as what it has been and should be, and through this common effort give organised humanism a global identity. We must tell the world that we are not a religion, that we in fact are opposed to religions, and that we have one common label - on which is written HUMANISM. Not secular humanism, ethical humanism, radical humanism, evolutionary humanism, scientific humanism. All these are temporary clarifications and explanations, due to the fact that our world movement has not been able to, and -- I must also add - not willing to stand up for a qualified strategy for growth and development of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. By the way - the expression "Humanist and (!) Ethical" is in itself an example of unclear communication -- as if humanism does not include ethics.
I realise the fact that most of those who call their humanism a religion, do it because of a shortcoming of the English language. The English dictionaries have still not included the word 'lifestance' or other expressions that could be a semantic umbrella for naturalistic as well as supernaturalistic (religious) value-systems. Not until the last few years have humanist groups around the world adopted 'lifestance' as a neutral term for all these religious and nonreligious value-systems - of which the non-religious Humanism is ours. Julian Huxley did not have that option when he wrote his book Religion without Revelation, neither had the authors of the Humanist Manifesto I, and all the others who were atheists and agnostics as good as any - but still talked about their humanist religion.
The cyber technology - that for the first time in history gives us the chance to communicate with the whole world simultaneously - is really a crossroad for organised humanism. Till now we have not used our potential, which of course is due to the fact that it takes some time to adapt to new technology. But believe me, the Church is there. You can get the whole Bible on the screen. If you search for humanism in the Internet system, where the different humanist groups have placed their information on their so-called home pages, you will see that so far we are not contributing to the identification of the lifestance humanism - but we add new chapters of confusion. The netsurfing or specifically searching Internet user will find a choice of different humanisms and no references to the humanist world movement, our definition of humanism, our aims and goals, our history. So far we should be happy that the cyber encyclopaedias can give the world the information we have not been able to give in our own Internet home pages. I am glad that Matt Cherry and others are insisting that we should do something about the situation as soon as possible, and with the new resources and new staff in the new IHEU headquarters in London, I do think that this question will be given priority.
Of course I am aware of the reality that the term humanism is used in different ways. These are just as legitimate as 'our' humanism, and describe different traditions within education, culture and politics. But when it comes to humanism as the non-theistic, secular and ethical alternative to religions, we are speaking of a particular li£estance which is listed in most of the world's best known dictionaries as one of the main meanings of the word humanism. Some times our humanist life stance is listed as the only meaning of the word, as in Little Oxford Dictionary, 1995-edition, which says: Humanism, non-religious philosophy, based on liberal human values.
It says nothing more, and that is, of course insufficient considering the other established ways of using the word. But for us it should at least be a correction to the depressive and defeatist idea that the word humanism does not have the potential to be accepted as what it is - for us.
And if you need more examples to cheer you up, you can have them, I can quote Collins Concise Dictionary, 1995, which says: Humanism, the rejection of religion in favour of the advancement of humanity by its own efforts. And the Chambers dictionary, 1994: Humanism, any system which puts human interest and the mind of man paramount, rejecting the supernatural, belief in God, etc.
When I left Oslo airport a few days ago, the airport bookstore sold - as a special offer - a mini-edition of Chambers, which had only ten words about humanism, quote: seeking, without religion, the best in, and for human beings.
When the world out there is describing humanism exactly as we would have done it ourselves, why shouldn't we dare to promote humanism written with 8 letters, and without qualifying explanations - just because there might be some wrong interpretations and misunderstandings about our particular use of the word. Where in the science of semantics can you find one word that cannot have several meanings. If socialists, conservatives, democrats and Christians etc. had postponed identifying themselves till their names could be comprehended in only one way - we would have had no political parties and no religions in this world.
The secular, rationalist, ethical, freethought and humanist groups could have chosen another name than humanism when they agreed to join in Amsterdam in 1952. Maybe other names would have been satisfactory for our purpose. The expression itself is not necessarily the most important issue, even though it should cling nicely, given associations to recognisable, meaningful traditions, and given some hints about the kind of people you are organising. But the content, the intentions and the programmes are of course the crucial questions. How can people discover your content when you don't tell them where it is located.
In other words, when a decision was made in 1952 - and humanism was chosen - the first step was taken to identify ourselves, to tell people that we exist and what we are. If some of you through second thoughts have come to the conclusion that the founding assembly in Amsterdam was wrong, that another name should have been chosen, you should step forward and tell us so, give us alternative propositions to be discussed. Since humanists are democrats we should have to accept majority rule even if that would change our present terminology. But till such a process has been exercised - and I doubt that it will happen within the first 100 years - we all have an obligation to do our very best not to confuse, the world about our present identity as humanists. In a statement from 1988, signed by Harold Blackham, Corliss Lamont, Rob Tielman, Harry Stopes-Roe and myself, we strongly stressed the importance of a common humanist identity. The statement was never published, because we had a hope that there was a growing understanding for our message. But the expansion of our movement, physically to groups on new continents and technologically to the cyber-space, shows us that the identity-question more than ever requires acute attention and discussion.
Many national member-organisations around the world insist that humanism is an 'impossible' word in the areas where they operate. I suppose that this partly can be explained by the fact that more than half of these organisations have used and still use other names - often connected to honourable traditions in the history of freethought, like rationalism and secularism. The promotion of 'humanism' can be seen as an attack on their own identity. This is an understandable reaction, and I want to make clear that I do not mean that these organisations should be obliged to change their names. Within the humanist movement we need groups of different kinds, to promote human rights, rationalism, secularism, women's rights, atheism, skepticism, gay rights, etc. This variety does not only add colour to humanism, it represents the life and blood of our movement. But when it comes to the question of life stance, our alternative to religion, we should raise the banner of humanism.
I know that a few of our groups have chosen another word for humanism - but given it the same content, for instance positive atheism in Vijayawada in India and human-ethics in Norway. There may be good local and historical reasons for continuing these name-traditions, and the IHEU should of course never claim that groups should change their own local identity. But in Norway we realise that we have got a problem, and that this problem will increase with the new global information technology. To avoid developing into an odd and marginalised group, separated from mainstream international humanism, our solution so far has been that we in all our information material say that our lifestance 'human ethics' in other countries is called humanism, and when we speak on behalf of the humanist movement, we always speak of humanism.
In a few years time these problems will be solved - when the IHEU expands to new continents. The third world and the former communist countries, we will have to harmonise and standardise our language and our symbols - like all other planned activities across borders and oceans. Not in boring details, of course. Not to abolish the colours, the fruitful tensions, the diversity - but just so that a high school student in Tokyo, the village chief in Ghana and the angry feminist in Mexico can turn on their personal computer, search for a non-religious life stance that will accord with their hopes and reflections, thoughts and dreams - and see humanism on the monitor.
Appendix to Fragell: A Global Humanist Identity
A statement endorsed by the following in 1988:
To be recognised and respected Humanism needs an identity. At present our identity is not evident, or at best it is blurred. How can Humanists help to change this state of affairs? We propose three practical policies: two small and simple which may yet prove influential; one directed to the basic nature of 'the Humanist identity':
- All Humanists, nationally and internationally, should always use the one word Humanism as the name of Humanism: no added adjective, and the initial letter capital;
All Humanists, nationally and internationally, should use a clear, recognisable and uniform symbol on their publications and elsewhere: our Humanist symbol the 'happy human'.
- All Humanists, nationally and internationally, should seek to establish recognition of the fact that Humanism is a life stance.
The reasoning behind the second point is obvious: the happy human symbol could be a way of making Humanism visible in our world. Signs and symbols are well recognised as important elements in the communication process. Organisations and companies put a lot of money into the creation of a symbol or logo, and even more into spreading it abroad. The Humanist movement has its symbol, the happy human, introduced by the BHA in 1965, and widely adopted both nationally and internationally. It is both distinctive and apt. Let us use it.
Rather more stands behind the first point. The value of a single name is obvious. We have no wish here to argue with anyone as to their beliefs; but we suggest that where people do feel that their beliefs are 'Humanist' they should use the word. They should use it of themselves, and feature it in the names of their organisations and publications.
Even more important is to recognise the damage done by qualifying adjectives. It is academic sectarianism to promote a half dozen or more separate varieties of attitudes, interpretations and even ethical conclusions within Humanism. But this does not require a multiplicity of names. The similarities between the beliefs and values of the different groups - even 'secular' and 'religious' Humanists -- is more fundamental and more important than the differences. Within the movement, the use of different names by different groups is divisive. Viewed from outside, it does not help us to have all these specific names. How should ordinary people be able to see anything but irrelevance (at best!) in such a divided movement?
The above points are particularly important at the international level. If the International Humanist and Ethical Union doesn't succeed in getting the groups in our movement to identify themselves as Humanists within very few years, the already weak world organisation of Humanists will die and become one of the less important episodes of the changing 20th century. The different national organisations, with their odd names, will die as well - some of them have already been dead for some years, even if they will not lie down. The battle will be lost.
It should be noted, however, that there is a problem in adopting the single word 'Humanism', without adjective; and the last of our three points above resolves this difficulty, as well as expressing our identity, and our value in the world. The difficulty is that our opponents have genuine grounds for pressing us to make clear that by Humanism we mean our distinctive position, as against 'renaissance humanism' on the one hand, and a generalised 'concern for humanity' on the other.
The difficulty is resolved by recognising that Humanism is a life stance. As the name of a life stance, Humanism should carry an initial capital letter, for as such it is a proper name, not a common noun. We use initial capitals for the religious life stances, Hinduism, Christianity etc; why discriminate against Humanism?* The use of the capital H both expresses the identity of Humanism as a life stance; and shows that it is neither 'renaissance humanism', nor mere generalised 'concern for humanity'. Humanism with initial capital does not need any distinguishing adjective.
We should establish our identity by the word 'Humanism':
8 letters, no more; and the first is capital.
That is us - the distinctive naturalistic life stance.'
* In some countries the religions (nouns and adjectives) are not written with initial capitals; then one would not press the capital for Humanism.
July 16th, 1988.