October 11, 2003

THIS ISN'T SELF-PARODY EITHER (via Political Theory): :

The Secular Humanist Prospect: In Historical Perspective (Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry)

Secular humanism holds great promise for the future of humankind. But disturbing changes have occurred in recent years, particularly in the United States, that make its promise harder to fulfill. The cultural wars no doubt will continue to intensify. Though we have made progress—as recent Supreme Court decisions testify—we face unremitting challenges to the secular humanist outlook.

If I can flash back more than half a century, clearly most political and intellectual leaders of that time were sympathetic to scientific naturalism and humanism. I vividly remember John Dewey’s ninetieth birthday celebrations in 1949 (Dewey was then the leading American humanist philosopher). One such event was attended by the president of Columbia University (and future president of the United States), General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I recall Eisenhower declaring in admiration: “Professor Dewey, you are the philosopher of freedom, and I am the soldier of freedom.” Can we even imagine a soon-to-be U.S. president so praising a humanist intellectual today?

In those days, thoughtful Americans had great confidence in the United Nations and its efforts to transcend nationalism and build a world community. We sought to develop institutions of international law and a world court, enhancing our ability to negotiate differences based on collective security. Emerging from the Second World War, Americans displayed a strong desire to go beyond ancient rivalries, accompanied by confidence in the ability of science to understand nature and to solve human problems. [...]

In the early 1970s, I was invited to Washington, D.C., on more than one occasion. I recall attending a reception at Mrs. Dean Acheson’s house and meeting, among others, Hubert Humphrey. I had been a strong supporter of Mr. Humphrey. I was the editor of the Humanist magazine at that time; Mr. Humphrey read my nametag and said to me, “Oh, Paul Kurtz! How nice to see you! Ah, the Humanist magazine, what a great magazine! I wish I had time to read it!” Walter Mondale, who was later to become vice president of the United States, and many other people identified approvingly with humanism. Indeed, in a very real sense humanism was the dominant intellectual theme on the cultural scene. On another occasion, I was invited to Washington by Senator Edward Kennedy (who was planning to run for the presidency). I spent a weekend at Sargent Shriver’s home. His wife, Eunice Shriver, was one of the Kennedys. I also visited the home of Mrs. Robert Kennedy. Everyone thought that the humanist outlook was important. And indeed, many of that era’s intellectual leaders of thought and action were humanists: B.F. Skinner, Albert Ellis, Herbert Muller, A.H. Maslow, Carl Rogers, Thomas Szasz, Jonas Salk, Joseph Fletcher, Betty Friedan, Sidney Hook, Rudolf Carnap, W.V. Quine, and Ernest Nagel come to mind. Many leaders in the Black community were humanists, not ministers, such as James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph; they worked hard for minority rights. Humanism and modernism were considered synonymous. In one sense the 1970s marked a high point of humanism’s influence—at least in the United States.

Now, I raise these points because there has been a radical shift today, particularly in the United States. Let me focus for a moment on this country, because of its enormous influence in today’s world. America is undergoing a fundamental transformation, one which in my view betrays the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Franklin were humanists and rationalists by the standards of their day, heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. How different is the national tone today. We hear calls for the nation to become more religious; we see unremitting attempts to breach the separation of church and state, such as the financing of faith-based charities. Since the tragedy of 9/11, the momentum of change has accelerated. The so-called PATRIOT Act and the relentless pursuit of “Homeland Security,” I submit, are drastically undermining civil liberties.

The United States is the preeminent scientific, technological, economic, and political power of the world, far outstripping any other nation. Today the military budget of the United States is virtually equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Why has America’s former idealism on behalf of democracy and human rights declined, to be replaced by militant chauvinism? Why has its commitment to humanism, liberal values, and the First Amendment eroded?

These changes began in the late 1970s and gathered force in the 1980s.

How can anyone who lived through the 70s, the admitted pinnacle of humanism but the nadir of America, honestly wonder why there's been a hostile reaction?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2003 8:45 AM

Although he doesn't say it outright, one can sense from the breezy tone that Kurtz is an old style humanist who believes in man's essential goodness and perfectability. This belief used to be the edifice upon which most progressive thought was consciously based and, erroneous as it was, it led to optimism, resolve and a concrete, compassionate vision of a brighter future. Liberals weren't always wrong, their care was real, their sense of duty was palpable and they really did worry about the actual lives of people.

We don't hear much of that argument anymore, as history has made it too hard to sustain by anyone other than old naive warhorses like Carter.
But, instead of looking to faith or even stoicism, many modern secularists talk like they really don't care what the effects of their ideas are. Science is good per se, religion is contemptible, individual freedom and choice are absolute, etc. and if the results are genocide, poverty, disease or even extinction, well that has nothing to do with me.

Thus has the great, optimistic liberal experiment mutated into pessimistic, existential nihilism.

Posted by: Peter B at October 11, 2003 3:50 PM

Let's see some politicians were nice to him. And he took the seriously.

"Mr. Humphrey read my nametag and said to me, “Oh, Paul Kurtz! How nice to see you! Ah, the Humanist magazine, what a great magazine! I wish I had time to read it!”"

This is what we call blowing smoke up your skirt.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 12, 2003 10:42 PM

To call Madison and Washington, in particular, rationalists or humanists is bizarre. By today's standards they would be devout Christians. The emotional attachment, regardless of the facts, that humanists or atheists have to their ideology is, to be blunt, irrational. The intellectual dishonesty and historical revisionism necessary to maintain it is worth a bit of psycho-analysis.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 13, 2003 2:44 PM

Who "admits" the 1970s were the pinnacle of humanism?

I don't have another decade to nominate. I don't think humanism has ever gotten very far up the slope. I lived through the 1970s, and what I recall were religious wars that slaughtered millions, plain old thuggeries that slaughtered millions.

I cannot recall the humanists killing anybody.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 6:11 PM


I'm speechless.

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 7:25 PM