Just one day? Sheesh

Tuesday, June 21st, is World Humanism Day, an event sure to be celebrated with fireworks and elaborate cakes and a big ol’ music festival featuring the remaining members of Spanky and Our Gang. Or it will pass, at least in this country, largely unnoticed. One or the other.

Which is unfortunate, because it’s really hard to argue against the whole principle, especially if you refuse to resort to straw man arguments. There are various definitions of humanism, but for the most part, it’s simple: emphasis on people as a whole, without demarcations or bias, and a reliance on reason. Most forms, especially secular humanism, rule out any influence from supernaturality whatsoever – without evidence or demonstrable results, it’s clear that we have much better ways of producing beneficial outcomes.

Right off the bat, ignoring all of the butthurt responses, we will (and do) have people claiming that this is what makes humanism “against religion,” and immoral and all that shit, completely incapable of seeing that emphasis on humans is pretty much what morality even means – why else would we even need it? As for being against religion, well, no – it’s simply against both the reliance on the extremely vague and utterly worthless concept of “supernatural,” as well as the bias and classism that many religions foster. If that’s how one defines their religion (instead of, for instance, the good that it can and should produce,) then yes, they have a point – just, not a very good one. If religions truly are a force for good, then the goals are aligned with humanism in the first place; religious folk can accomplish this within the confines of a supernatural worldview, while the humanists can do so without it. No problem.

A ha ha ha ha! I’m such a wag! ‘Good’ is not exactly a hard concept to fathom, much less apply, but it gets abused unconscionably when it comes to religion, more times than not. The very first thing to remember is, actions can be beneficial or detrimental, but people can never be labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; we are all a mix, a bundle of conflicted motivations and emotional reactions. Who among us can say they’ve never done something stupid simply because they were frustrated or impatient? So seeking to place an overriding label, on ourselves or others, is pointless, and in fact irrational – but it can be done much easier for individual actions. Sure, this might mean we have to think a little more often, but we’re a species advanced enough to handle this now.

One of the arguments that comes up so often with ethics and morality is that some viewpoint/ideology doesn’t have answers for everything, therefore it is incomplete and should be abandoned. “Humanism doesn’t tell us how to handle capital punishment!” comes the cry, revealing the desire to throw obstacles in its path rather than actually seeking solutions. But if we’re even asking the question, then it’s clear that no other ideology has provided an acceptable answer either. More to the point however, humanism isn’t a set of rules to inflict on a mindless population (which, within some religions, means everyone not of that particular religion,) but a mindset that encourages effective ways of reaching solutions. Sometimes it’s just a matter of approach: not, “what should we do?” but, “what are we hoping to accomplish?” Such a subtle change automatically alters the perspective, doesn’t it?

The search for, or the reliance on, absolutes is one of the biggest stumbling blocks of our species – we want to be able to pronounce things ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and seemingly can’t handle grey areas. Yet we’re not only surrounded by nothing but, we also deal with them on a routine basis. As Sam Harris has pointed out, “health” is a ridiculously vague term, and it’s impossible to find someone perfectly healthy, yet we routinely seek health as a goal; usually it’s just a matter of picking which of our choices surpasses the others available. Even ‘species’ doesn’t have a firm definition, but for the majority of our uses we can apply it just fine – we don’t often need absolutes, just functional methods for the situation at hand.

Humans have a wicked tendency to want to think in binary terms, and to seek the two sides of every coin (even when coins have much more than two sides, or even faces.) When doing so, humanism is often pitted against religion as the opposite face, and of course this means countless people have to choose to abandon their religion or not. While I find binary thinking to be infantile and way beneath our capabilities, if I had to wield it at all in these circumstances, I would instead place humanism and tribalism as opposite sides. Tribalism is our inclination to make demarcations, “us” and “them,” to apply labels to groups of people just to simplify our views towards them. More often than not, this has nothing to do with any distinct set of traits, but only serves to reinforce our pre-existing biases in the first place: we find ourselves relying on concepts like, “sinners,” or, “foreigners,” “tree-huggers,” or, “abortionists,” and on and on and on – all methods to lump together people with a huge variety of approaches and viewpoints and desires within a vastly inadequate boundary so we can then pronounce judgment (yes, even “atheists” and “religious folk.”) It’s nonsense, and well beneath our abilities as a species with remarkable ways of thinking. We’re all human, and our approaches should always be with this fact firmly in mind.

So in recognition of the day, here’s my suggestion: take a few moments to tackle decisions with an approach towards what’s most beneficial. Ignore the labels, and see only actions, with the realization that any proposed actions should be able to be applied in all directions, including back towards us. Take a few news items and try to ascertain how we arrived at these circumstances – I say this in the wake of a Florida nightclub shooting with obvious religious motivations; instead of thinking that this came from some “wrong” religion, try to fathom how someone could possibly have held the idea that this was a useful approach in the first place. But even if we don’t feel up to tackling all the ramifications of that, just look at various actions throughout the day. Does the way we treat those we work with lead towards a beneficial goal? Do our actions within groups of people define anything useful, or competitive instead? Are we raising our kids with an eye towards functional goals and improvement, or simply trying to extend our personal viewpoints through them?

Most especially, does the benefit extend beyond ourselves, our immediate circle of deserving people? How do we even define who’s “deserving?”

That should be a decent start, anyway. And if you miss the opportunity on Tuesday, feel free to try it out any other day – I won’t tell.

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A couple of outside links regarding humanism:

The Humanist

American Humanist Association

And some internal, related links:

On capital punishment

Friends with benefits

Animal ethics

Put down the Dymo, Avery

How to bake a human