Dialectic or disarray: do humanists really want a humanist movement?
Of course, I am tempted to name the "villains" of the piece, who by their jealousies have brought us to this situation and have perpetuated it. Naturally, I exempt myself (don't we all?) and see only in others the failure to transcend petty disagreements--that is, the failure to agree with me! Of course, it is never put as blatantly as that, but a certain arrogance lurks behind the claim of truth. Unfortunately, however, this search for villainy explains little and certainly does nothing to solve the problem. Moreover, we cannot look only to present villainy. Our disarray was forecast with the founding of the Free Religious Association, of Ethical Culture, of the Western Unitarian Conference, of the American Humanist Association, of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, and more recently of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Committee for Democratic and Secular Humanism. And none of this takes into account the rationalist, freethought, secularist, and atheist associations which live in our neighborhood, too. A pattern of purity seems to be inherent in humanist institutional history. Modem humanism seems, on the record, simply unable to be a movement. Why is this so? Only as we deal with this question can we account for our continuing dilemma and the roles played by many of us in perpetuating that dilemma. And only as we find answers to this question can our future avoid the failures of our past.
Historically, we have tended toward disarray--indeed, reveled in it. So our story is marked by repeated departure. When we differ--and as humanists we are temperamentally given to differing--we turn our differences into reasons for apartness. When under attack from the outside, this turn is taken slowly. Moments of coming together are brief, tension-filled, and ultimately frustrated. I think here of the North American Committee of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in the late 1960s, of the joint efforts by the AHA, the American Ethical Union, and the Unitarian Universalist Association around publication and public affairs in the 1960s and early 1970s, of the recent shift of the North American Committee for Humanism toward a "coalition" of independent associations that jealously remain apart, and so forth. We have not learned that difference is an occasion for mutual development. We do not convert our differences into energies, nor do we take the occasion of our differences as moments for orchestration. For all our talk of the democratic virtue of diversity, we fail to enact that virtue among ourselves at the deepest levels of commitment and conduct.
I do not pretend to offer a comprehensive diagnosis of what ails us. Certain items, however, emerge from my observations of myself and others when doing humanist things. Also, I make no claim to originality. What follows will find echoes in a common sense of how things are among us. On the other hand, like the psychiatric patient, we fall in love with our symptoms, even need our symptoms. I am not sure, therefore, how far a common diagnosis can take us. For all our commitment to reasonableness, we are human--all too human. Our passions override our judgments. At the same time, having deliberately dispensed with authority in the name of autonomy, humanists must cure themselves. The question, then, is whether or not the passion of our cause is strong enough to overcome the passion of our disease. And that is the challenge to the genuineness of our claim to be humanists.
Humanist Illiteracy. Humanists perceive reality through the eyes of the future. Early on, this was forecast by our love affair with progress and reform. Consequently, our sense of history is faulty and, indeed, we are as likely as not to agree with Henry Ford's remark that "history is bunk." Of course, as respectful individuals, we will not be as blunt as that, but we confuse history with tradition and then with traditionalism. In other words, we find an ideological reason not to look backward.
Unfortunately, this blinds us to the consequences of the way we came into being. Surely, modern humanism is a child of the Enlightenment, a view of life and world that celebrates reason, freedom, and individuality. Above all, humanism is cosmopolitan. We are, as we like to say, citizens of the world committed to freedom and equality for all and to the uses of science and democracy everywhere. From this perspective, the "ties that bind" are merely chains of a tyrannous past, and the cosmic dreams that testify to human inventiveness are merely superstitions. Using only so much of history as suits our prejudice, we accuse those who would hold onto those ties of a retrogressive tribalism and those who enjoy that inventiveness of error at best and priestly manipulation at worst.
Modern humanism, however, is also the child of transcendentalism. Its roots celebrate intuition and community and identity, too. Rejecting the narrowed dimensionality of the Enlightenment, critiques within the humanist family emerged in the work of Emerson, Adler, Channing, Witham James, and a host of other nineteenth-century figures here and abroad. In common, they demanded a more generous sense of persons and things. But their concern was not only a correction of the Enlightenment's intellectual and psychological inadequacies, although it certainly was at least that. They demanded a correction of the Enlightenment in order to do revolution and do reform. The seminal figures of modern life share our history, too. Darwin was a naturalist and not merely an empiricist. Freud, after all, was a classicist as much as a therapist. Nor is it incidental that Karl Marx and his social-democratic descendants appear on the list. For all his claim of "scientific socialism," Marx, too, was a child of the Enlightenment, and yet he drew his inspiration from the historicisms of Hegel and the passionate rationality of Rousseau. Of course, the humanism of the Enlightenment wanted to change the world, too--in fact, was committed to changing the world. The Enlightenment, after all, was a revolutionary movement. But its passion was muted as a mere Enlightenment platform, a modern point of view, succeeded a way of living.
Commitment in practice, as the revolutionary and the reformer knew, is not generated by the conclusions of a rational argument; commitment emerges in being and, often enough, against the lessons of reason and even against the facts. A less parochial humanism would call this faith, but the word somehow troubles us. Yet how else can we explain the counterintuitive idea that all persons are of equal worth and dignity? And how else do we derive the energies to fight for the moral and legal personhood of women and children and people of color? And how else can we mobilize the powers that challenge establishments and build settlement houses and provide legal aid and free schooling and all the rest of the humanist reform agenda?
These two strands of our history issue in outcomes of meaning and style and temperament. And they are still with us, although we seem scarcely aware of the fact. Thus, the so-called warfare of humanist religionists and humanist secularists is really a difference between communalists and cosmopolitans. The former make "congregations," and the latter "publications." In any event, to put the issue between them in terms of secularity is to mislead ourselves and the world around us. All humanists are secularists, are worldly persons whose values and ends are found within nature and within human societies and among people. And, similarly, to put the issue in terms of religiousness is again to mislead. For whatever our rationality, humanists are appreciative and responsive and sensitive to the boundaries of reason, even if they do not always articulate that sensibility.
In short, our illiteracy blinds us to the doubleness of humanism, leads us to see the matter in a historic vacuum as an exclusive choice between rationality and transcendence and to interpret both in the narrowest of terms. The result is a truncated humanism on all sides. More seriously, the outcome forces humanists to take a less-than-exalted view of human capacities, to ignore yet another and older doubleness of humanist history, as it were: the Renaissance joy in human creative powers and the classical celebration of the life of reason and not merely of the exercise of rationality. In this cramped exclusivity, modern humanism becomes anti-humanist and betrays itself.
Cults of Personality. We are the victims of the play of ego. Oh, we complain often enough of the foibles of a failed leadership or the obtuseness of a troublesome membership. Thus, confusing egoism with individuality, humanism rises and falls on the so-called charisma of its advocates, particularly its most visible and leading advocates. Ironically--again a sign of illiteracy--charisma is a term of otherworldiness, of being touched by nonnatural or transnatural spirit. Even in its extended use in secular political talk, it is a term of irrationality. But we fail to notice this in our anxiety. Symptomatically, then, modern humanism is unable to depart its "founder era," but by now this is a mood without a content. Humanism thus falls into the trap of repeated beginnings and needs beginnings as a steady diet. So it is that humanists grow quickly tired of humanism revealing this fact by repetitious foundings. Since, however, the "ideas" are not unique to each new founding, whatever the claim, humanist institutions compete with each other as holders of the original truth of humanism. Humanists become fundamentalists or else are converted into purveyors of consumer goods. Like the retailer, humanism must keep up with the wants and needs of its customers: for example, a moral education program for children, a social-action project, a good speaker, a new publication, a "nonsectarian" wedding or funeral, or what have you. And when, as is inevitable, consumer preferences shift or wants are done with or else not met to our satisfaction, then we leave, all the while proclaiming that we are still humanists. In fact, we "discover" that it is easier to be a humanist when there are no other humanists around!
It is this founder mood, and the cult of personality that signals its presence, which accounts for so much of the apartness of humanism. After all, to be a founder is to be heroic, to depart tradition, to break the idols of the tribe, and to make special claims of truth and good. Of course, since beginnings are singular events, this heroism (note the masculine bias, too) is also without content, even needs to invent a content. This founder mood is not simply a feature of leadership; it infects everyone. So it is that respectful attention to each other and generosity of spirit are surrendered to the adventurism characteristic of the founder mood. In the genuine founding of a new movement, there is always the risk of heresy, the need for directed, almost monomaniacal attention to "the cause," and little time for the give-and-get of human relationship. Too much needs doing too quickly by too few and in the face of the enemy to permit the luxury of gentle compromise. But that mood persists among us even after the founder period has past. So we all become pseudo-founders hunting for "leaders" and excusing ourselves from association by denying the values of humanist association. Even the humanist communalism that is found in societies, fellowships, and chapters is infected, so that the connectedness which makes community happen is filtered through the founder mood and comes to depend on the particular presence of particular persons. Thus, societies, fellowships, and chapters become social clubs for the "like-minded" and not evolving instruments for housing persons and transforming ideals.
In the absence of transcending institutions, this play of ego which I call the founder mood is al the more difficult to deal with since humanism denies itself a transnatural corrective for the wildness of ego. Transcendence is assigned uniquely to otherworldliness; forgotten is the possibility that naturalism is itself a form of transcendence. Persons are thus quite exposed--psychologically and cosmically--when they become humanists, and not just because they join a minority. And in derogating the established humanist institution--how easily we find reasons for its imperfection and our departure!--we invite into starring roles those who take an exaggerated pleasure in exposing themselves, so-called nonconformists whose real character all too often is an ambivalent assertion of self together with a fear of the silences of selfhood. The contentment of a truthful world view embedded in the lives and doings of persons is absent. In effect, left to ourselves, we waver between aggressive assertion and self-doubt and in the wavering we grow angry and impatient and petulant. At the same time, this compulsive self-exposure on the part of many who come to the surface in our midst drives others away. Not everyone is prepared to play the game of ego; not every humanist is either.
In other words, absent a transcending institution, loyalty flows through persons, but persons are interpreted idiosyncratically as "personalities" Leadership and followership, the mark of authoritarianism, become characteristic features of humanist relationship, despite claims of equality and social democracy. So, when a leader leaves or grows old or dies, "his" or "her" members tend to move from activity to inactivity to disappearance. Equally revealing of the idiosyncratic connection is the historic fact that succession under such conditions is hardly ever successful. And most dramatically revealing is the transient nature of humanist membership.
Fetishism: Objectivity and Community. Ignoring the doubleness of humanism, the humanist children of the Enlightenment convert objectivity into a fetish, commit idolatry in the name of inquiry So we are typically to be found meeting around some kind of talk. Prose is our medium and criticism our habit. Our excuse is that we give priority to the idea, to the truth. Indeed, we exhibit confidence in the strange notion that a truthful sentence is its own messenger. We seem deliberately to suppress the fact that ideas are embedded in human existence, are embodied in human existence. Ideas emerge from the passions of curiosity and playfulness as much as from the sober seriousness of study and research. Of course, ideas are checked against the evidence; all ideas are not equal. But a good idea is rich with next ideas, contradictory ideas, challenging ideas. And so ideas properly so-called are biographical and not just cosmic events. That should make them all the more exciting and interesting to a humanism that celebrates human experience. But this is to admit that intellect is itself a passion. Instead, we are defensive about our ideas and proclaim our search for warmth and fellow feeling as something apart from our ideas--as if, in a return to an anachronistic faculty psychology, thinking and believing and hoping and feeling were separate and separable functions.
Meanwhile, the humanist children of transcendence take up the other strand of doubleness and fall in love with community. Having subverted tribe and clan and even nation in the name of freedom, community deteriorates into a construct, an artifact, as in the compulsive effort to "create" community in utter blindness to its natural evolution from roots and rootedness. And for no one is this more the case than for humanists. We encounter, then, only pseudo-community, imitations of community. The struggle patiently to nurture, perhaps to invent, communities is evaded. Instead, we become borrowers and copiers. Straining to find what cannot be found in this way, we attenuate the languages and practices of others, corrupt them to our own uses and to everyone's confusion. So the language of spirituality and religiosity and intuition becomes a mere shell into which we think, mistakenly, to pour our own meanings.
Sustaining these practices is a growing defensiveness on all sides, fed by the mutual suspiciousness of the children of the Enlightenment and the children of transcendence. This family quarrel is all the more poignant and angry just because it is in the family. Symptomatically, the adherents of community deny their intellectuality and so deny themselves a chance at clarity. And symptomatically, the followers of the word are disdainful of intimacy and deny themselves a chance at solidarity. On one side, then, the arts of response and sentiment are dismissed as unreasoned. And on the other, the arts of thought and criticism are dismissed as insensitive. That neither reason nor community is well served by this warfare of exclusions is ignored.
The Cults of Word and Deed. Humanists argue--oh, how we argue. Indeed, the absence of argument becomes, for us, an occasion of discomfort as we search compulsively for something, anything, to argue about. What is ignored here is that argument is a response to genuinely felt problems. In other words, a compulsive attention to certain kinds of words becomes our guiding value. These, then, are painfully assembled in order to "define" and "redefine" and "re-redefine" humanism. And, not surprisingly, agencies of the word become our most important agencies. Linguistics becomes a mode of humanist psychology, and this is revealing, too. We might expect that a movement that embraces human worth and dignity would better define itself in life and living. Instead, we exhibit ourselves in manifestos and speeches and not in biographies. Sadly, a humanism of the word cannot help but become an "it," an object to humanists, and thus is alienated from the persons it is said to form and inform.
Again reflecting the doubleness of our history, humanists are, paradoxically, repelled by the style of the word, complaining that humanism is "too intellectual." And so we turn to activism, which is the other side of the word, another psychology. Admittedly, revolution and reform, which shaped humanism, invite this turn. But what we seem unable to grasp is that activism, like argument, has become our cultus, our ritual. In this, our activism is more like the rituals of tradition than the politics of change. And nothing reveals this more than the recent shift of humanist activities away from the world and toward self-fulfillment. Now cult behavior turns inward on self-improvement and self-development. Strangely, however, the patterns of conduct do not change; their object has. So we still meet, debate, and pass resolutions and we still go through the motions.
Deed and word, properly embodied, are alike modes of engaging myself in and with the world. Through deeds, I find my way into the world tangibly, concretely, even painfully. And with words, I find my way into the world more abstractly perhaps but no less realistically. Deed and word are complementary human powers, the former forcing me into contact, the latter forcing me to make sense of that contact. But when deed deteriorates into activism, it loses its chance to mean something and becomes motion for its own sake. And when word deteriorates into compulsion, it loses its chance to point at something and becomes an exchange of sounds. Thus, our arguments are so well rehearsed as to repeat predictably scripted statement and reply. And our activism is so sterile that we are at best only hangers-on to the politics of others and at worst simply irrelevant. In both, we have moved well away from the words and deeds that were humanism's elan in its genuine founder era.
Absence of Narrative. Humanists do not tell stories--or at least they do not tell stories when appearing in formal costume as meeting-goers, speakers, listeners, resolution-makers, and the like. The stories we do tell (we are human, after all) appear only after "adjournment"--that is, after the "real" humanist business is done. Because collective stories, official stories, are associated with something called myth and because myth is taken for untruth, humanists reject the possibility of humanist storytelling. Narrative, in other words, comes to humanists under the cloud of irrationality and as a relic of rejected traditions. With the failure to tell stories, however, it follows that we fail to tell the humanist story, too. So we are not only historically illiterate but aesthetically illiterate as well. For it is within narrative that we sing and dance, speak poetry, and act drama. It is from narrative that we derive connection across space and time. And with that connection comes meaning and identity. It is no accident, then, that the great movements of history begin in narrative--an epic, an anthem, a folk tale. Unlike the art of prose--the novel, the story--for humanists, prose is only a descent into the prosaic.
Of course, we search for the dramatic without admitting it. So it is that humanism is often a movement of reaction, seeking for its next enemy, disappointed when the enemy is silent. In this, like our fundamentalist brothers and sisters, we exhibit the "paranoid style" in American culture and politics: the need for an enemy, even the need to "invent" an enemy. We sigh with relief when we are attacked, worry when we are ignored, and are troubled when we are accepted. We are at our best when the enemy is visible, vulgar, and nasty. Then we join together, recognize each other, grow excited once more. On the other hand, when we come to affirm and not just to react, we are pallid and repetitious. Of course, humanism has and is a philosophy. But humanists are embarrassed to announce that philosophy joyously in conduct, in living. We are more successful in hiding our humanism--not by our silence but by the verbosity of its exhibition. Our words multiply as a form of camouflage. Compare then our efforts with the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments or the Communist Manifesto. These arise within a narrative, tell a story, invite a future; our efforts appear as a mere struggle to construct sentences.
I know I have been less than charitable. And yet, I cannot escape the haunting thought: humanists do not really want a humanist movement. Of course, we do want a standby defense that will be available to us on call. So it is useful to have a proto-institution that can spring to life when we need to challenge prayer in the public schools or to defend the rights of a nonconforming conscientious objector or to get married or to have someone buried or what have you. And it is useful to have a place to go when social peace is disrupted enough to frighten me in my loneliness. Meanwhile--and most of the time--I can be a humanist all by myself (or, as we say, I don't need to go to meetings or to join anything). We give further credence to our lack of interest by our fragmentation, whose logical end would be a separate institution for each and every humanist.
There are many, I think, who await a cure for ego and illiteracy and prosiness and who might then leave the comforts of humanist latency for the tensions of humanist association. But that requires a shift away from asking, "Why should I join?" which only invites the give-and-get response of marketing or yet another effort to find the right sentence. Instead, if we would be a movement and not a nonsectarian service station, then association must be occasioned by a "confession of humanist faith"--that is, the exhibition of humanism in the conduct of life and not merely in the enunciation of it, illustrating thus publicly and concretely what we are when we choose to live a certain way.
What Then Is to Be Done?
If disarray is our condition, then dialectic is our therapy. In other words, humanism must move toward a life of dialogue. But dialogue is not just another linguistic exercise; it is a form of theater and a form of association. Socrates, after all, was condemned to death, and this for something more than, other than, sophistic skill. Dialectic is an existential exercise of development in deed as well as in word. Differences under a dialectic inspiration demand that we search for ways of including without violating or suppressing. The end is a response that moves all of the participants from where they are to some next step that none of the opponents could have foreseen for themselves. Of course, at that later point, new differences arise and new energies are generated. So, for example, the doubleness of humanism has generated the cosmopolitan impulse and the communal impulse and neither can be dispensed with. What then shall a "cosmopolitan community" look like, be, and do? What shall a "communal cosmopolitanism" look like, be, and do? These two questions initiate the dialogue.
Sooner rather than later, a life of unanimity and exclusivity becomes boring. By this, I mean that we really look very much like each other, recognize each other as echoes. Symptomatically then, the "old-timers" burn out. The lesson of this, however, is not the short attention span of humanists or the paucity of humanists out there in the world but, rather, the poverty of our invitation to them. There is, as well, a certain arrogance to unanimity and exclusivity. Sooner rather than later, unanimity requires loyalty to a proclaimed truth; exclusivity requires loyalty to a select membership. Ironically, given humanisms commitment to inquiry and social democracy, these requirements are directly antithetical to humanist values. Yet, our diagnosis reveals that it is precisely on this antithetical pathway that humanism finds itself. It follows, then, that three questions need an answer: * What would be a
strategy of diversity
for humanism in the
United States? * How might we
without the "cult of
personality"? * What would move existing humanisms toward a humanist
First, we need a direct and unclouded exploration of who we are and where we came from. I suspect we will find similarity and not difference among those of us who remain within the humanist institution, so talking to each other will not do. We need to ask the help of those who come near us but do not stay--the "visitors" and "inquirers" whom we never meet. Have we listened to them or merely dismissed them as "unfaithful"?
Second, I do not find us reaching out to others in neighborhoods, schools, or workplaces and unashamedly showing to others our being as humanists and thus speaking our humanism to them. In the ordinary conduct of our lives, we encounter many strangers--but we pass them by and they pass us by. In short, I am saying that a strategy of diversity is first of all a personal strategy and only derivatively an institutional strategy. Just as the movement for literacy has benefited from "each one teach one," so can a movement for diversity benefit from "each one reach one" Successfully done, our numbers can double and then double again.
This requires a shift from a humanism that is only an object to humanists--something we study and argue about--to a humanism that is autobiographical. And that counsel of intimacy and subjectivity is uncomfortable for us; it's not our style. Yet, where the voiceless have found their voices--as with blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans, feminists, and gays--the first and frightening step is to "come out of the closet" and confess who and what we are. It is simply insufficient to use surrogates for personal action, but that is our habit--the habit of signing a petition, writing an article, passing a resolution, calling a meeting, hiring a staff. Nor is it sufficient to say that we wait for others to find us. A movement that does not expect its members to be what they are wherever they are fails to issue a living invitation to join it. It is a movement that cannot claim its own integrity, cannot show that it is important enough to affect an individual life, to change a life.
This therefore requires that we practice connection among ourselves--that we learn the habits of solidarity and not merely of argumentation and presentation. Surely we believe that we are shared beings in a shared situation. But the habit of community is a move from saying to conduct. This move includes a certain availability to each other as human beings--in the serious matters of living, of course, but in laughter and lighter moments as well.
The move to conduct is rehearsed in story and ceremony and song. Practice is more than practical, and humanism has failed to learn the wider reaches of practice. Among other acts, we need to encourage history and biography when we meet, when we publish, when we espouse humanism. A literature awaits its creator. But we must be hospitable to the creator before creation can happen.
The jealousy of possessed truth needs to be exposed as an institutional form of ego-run-wild. Nothing so prohibits a diverse movement from diverse outcomes as congregations and chapters and working parties and task forces and think tanks and action groups and the like. Nothing requires all humanists to be with all other humanists in all things. But nothing requires that these modes of institutional being must be embodied in separate entities that come to repeat themselves sooner or later with "national offices" and "local organizations" and "publications" and "annual meetings" and all the rest. In short, institutions of commonality can easily be envisioned that are at the same time respectful of humanist diversity.
But it will be said that we come from diverse histories and with diverse sources. We cannot surrender our roots. But since when must humanists be jealous guardians of their roots as tribalists are? I can joyfully be a secular, religious, Ethical, Unitarian-Universalist, Jewish, scientific, naturalistic, socialist, democratic, spiritual, freethinking, feminist humanist since none of these cancel the others out and all enrich the humanism that is my experience. We are culturally afflicted with the notion that faith must be exclusive--and we liberated humanists have not escaped that affliction. The failure to appreciate this fact, finally, exhibits the choice we have made to convert history into a reason for institutional isolation, an excuse for disarray. Thus, our "roots," like our "truth," are only the masks of interests, and fears. And like any other illness, this illness must first be confessed before it can be cured.
Finally, we need the benefit of forming habits that are not ordinarily found among us. And this calls for a humanist schooling--that is, for every humanist to go to school where the curriculum is: * the habit of caring, which is the tangible transformation (the
transformation in conduct) of the stranger into the familiar; * the habit of sociability, which is the tangible acknowledgement
of our mutual dependency and of our solidarity; and * the habit of orchestration, which is the tangible exercise of
the uses of diversity.
Disarray has been a tedious pathway, one that has exhausted all too many of us. By contrast, for all the pain of departing the founder mood and the play of ego, the life of dialectic is exciting in its risks and joyous in its demands on our powers. That excitement and joy, made internal to humanism and not dependent on the stimulus of an enemy at the gates, we have yet to experience. The price then of surrendering disarray is the loss of our symptoms; the reward is the chance of a humanism not yet.
Howard Radest is the founding dean of the Humanist Institute and a former director of the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools in New York City. He has served as leader of the Bergen Ethical Society and as cochair of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He also founded Columbia University's Seminar on Moral Education. Radest is also the recipient of the American Humanist Association's 1993 Humanist Distinguished Service Award.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 1993|
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