By Jerry Smith
The meanings of the words “humanism” and “humanist” have evolved considerably from the time of the Renaissance. Then humanists were people, like Erasmus of Rotterdam, who discovered, read, and often translated writings of classical Greece and Rome, secular works that lay outside the dominant Christian worldview.
Much more recently, humanism has been defined by three “Humanist Manifestos,” each emphasizing secularism, naturalism, and humanitarianism. This is the humanism I subscribed to when I joined Humanists of Minnesota in the early years of this century. (Makes it seem so long ago, and me so old!) Humanism was a secular movement, sharing many concerns — separation of church and state, for instance —with atheist organizations, but more focused on the question of how we should live in a post-religious world.
While there have been many changes since I joined, including most recently a name change to HumanistsMN, our organization could still be accurately described in these terms, as evidenced by its official statements of vision, purposes, and values.
In an organizational planning/strategic management context, an organization’s vision expresses an intended or desired future state. Thus, HumanistsMN members “aspire to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment and contribute to the greater good of humanity and the planet through science, reason, compassion, and creativity.”
Organizations often have “mission statements” that express their most fundamental purposes or reasons for being. HumanistsMN has six purposes that include promoting secularism, naturalism, and human rights, as well as creating a “caring humanist community.” HumanistsMN also endorses 25 values, ranging from “beauty and the arts” to “separation of church and state.”
Being the critically minded ex-academic that I am, I could assuredly find things to complain about and suggest changes to these definitions of humanism, HumanistsMN-style. But these seem trivial, mere nit-picking. The organization’s expressed vision, purposes, and values seemed quite adequate and appropriate. Until I read Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
In this best-selling book, published in 2018, Steven Pinker documents how the human condition has improved over the past 500 years on almost every significant dimension, including life span, health, wealth, equality, safety, democracy, knowledge, and happiness. Pinker attributes these improvements to developments in Western civilization epitomized by the Enlightenment of the 18th century and its embrace of science and reason.
In the book’s final chapter, “Humanism,” Pinker reviews the 2003 Humanist Manifesto III and defines humanism as the goal of “maximizing human flourishing.” In effect, he identifies humanism as the Enlightenment’s contemporary incarnation, thereby endowing the movement with a scope and significance far exceeding that expressed by HumanistsMN or other humanist organizations.
Pinker’s definition suggests an enormous opportunity for humanism. Imagine (or think back to when you were!) a young idealistic person, somewhat naïve, who wants to make the world a better place by various means, large and small. This person, whether religious or not, regards reason and evidence as the most legitimate bases for beliefs and actions, at both individual and societal levels.
With what ideology or worldview might this person identify? Where might this person look for intellectual support and a community of like-minded people? To what movements and organizations would this person belong?
Various answers suggest themselves. Most have a relatively narrow focus — for instance, feminism, environmentalism, social justice. Atheism is both narrow and negative. Progressivism is broad but vague. Socialism, the preferred home for most such people in the 1930s, has a poor track record. Libertarianism strives to maximize individual freedom, but that’s unlikely to create widespread human flourishing. Liberalism, the most promising candidate, has lost much of its original meaning and now has leftist political connotations that many Americans find unappealing.
There’s an important “space” here, a place on the map of high-level human endeavors that can attract the allegiance and energies of all those people, young and old, liberal and conservative, secular and religious, who want to make this world a better place.
And humanism, at least as Pinker defines it, is the most fitting occupant of that space: a post-religious worldview and movement that promotes widespread human flourishing. Such flourishing encompasses changes in individual human beings, in our societies and nation-states, and in the global community. Its achievement requires a healthy planet whose nonhuman occupants flourish as well. Humanism is the banner under which progressive people across this planet can unite to pursue the Enlightenment project of maximizing human well-being.
What implications does this have for HumanistsMN? First off, there are no clear incompatibilities or contradictions between Pinker’s view and HMN’s more mainstream account of humanism. Indeed, promoting widespread human flourishing could be taken as HMN’s most fundamental reason for being, an overarching mission that subsumes the organization’s five stated purposes.
But formally adopting this as HMN’s mission would have two significant benefits. First, “promoting widespread human flourishing” is more inspirational and motivating than the organization’s stated purposes. Certainly it’s good that we “educate the public on humanist and naturalist worldviews,” “advocate for the separation of church and state,” “create and sustain a caring humanist community,” and so forth.
But neither individually nor collectively do these purposes fire up idealistic humanitarian blood like “promoting widespread human flourishing.” Identifying HMN with this mission will make it more attractive to current and potential members. More people will want to contribute their time and money, through dues and bequests, to an organization pursuing this mission.
Second, and just as important, this mission broadens the organization’s audience. Certainly HMN must promote secularism—a reliance on reason, evidence, science, and critical thinking—since these are, as Pinker demonstrates, the means of achieving widespread human flourishing. However, we must recognize that, for many people, “secularism” is a dirty word. If secularism is the dominant identity of our organization, it will be rejected out of hand by many Americans.
On the other hand, if we’re identified with promoting widespread human flourishing, who could object? Such an identity would give HumanistsMN an opportunity to reach out from its base in the secular community to engage with other Americans.
Our country is more deeply divided than ever before in our lifetimes. We’ve split into contending factions defined along dimensions like liberal and conservative, rural and urban, religious and secular, among others. By adopting as its mission the promotion of widespread human flourishing, HMN rises above these differences.
In pursuit of this mission, we can engage with everyone, talk about what true flourishing would look like, and point out that historically, it’s been achieved through reason, evidence, science, and critical thinking — in other words, through secularism. I suspect we are most likely to “convert” people to humanism by demonstrating how reason and evidence can be used to achieve common goals.
Thus, I propose that the mission of HumanistsMN be to promote widespread human flourishing, a condition requiring a healthy planet whose nonhuman inhabitants flourish as well. With this as its “brand” or identity, I believe HumanistsMN can itself prosper as never before.
Jerry Smith is a member of the HumanistsMN board and co-leader of the D-Cubed discussion group.