Friday, 13 March 2009

Arguing about "new humanism"

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The March 2009 issue of The American Spectator features a piece entitled "The New Humanism" by the philosopher Roger Scruton, in which he unfavourably compares what he calls "new humanism" with the passive, noble "old humanism" of his parents and others of their generation. In Scruton's view, "new humanism" is "self-consciously 'new'" (he compares it to New Labour), and is characterised by an obsession with God, or rather the non-existence thereof. He even gives our humble magazine a mention as one of the main proponents of this "new humanism":
"It has its own journal, the New Humanist, and its own sages, the most prominent of whom is Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and vice-president of the British Humanist Association. It runs advertising campaigns and letter-writing campaigns and is militant in asserting the truth of its vision and its right to make converts. But the vision is not that of my parents."
He then goes on to use the "enjoy your life" aspect of the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan, "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life", to illustrate his view that the "new humanism" is characterised by irresponsible hedonism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn't a view of humanism, new or otherwise, that we share with Scruton (for the record, our magazine may be called "New Humanist", in fact it has been since the early '70s, but this doesn't mean we claim to promote something called "new humanism". That's Scruton's label, not ours). So our editor, Caspar Meliville, did one of the things Scruton claims we do best – he wrote a letter. More precisely, he sent The American Spectator a letter in response to Scruton, which they've now published on their website. You can read it all on their site, but here's the second half, which I think is an excellent statement of what we try to do with New Humanist:
"Scruton uses the example of one particular ad campaign on a bus, to paint us all as trivial hedonists who are uninterested in "man as an ideal," faith, hope, charity, belief or how to improve the world. He is absolutely right that we can be light-hearted (the bus campaign was successful precisely because the message was so simple and uplifting) and scathing – our God Trumps parody card game mines religious beliefs for laughs – but we also devote a lot of space in New Humanist to serious critical analysis of ideas (those of our 'sages' like Richard Dawkins as well as of believers), exploration of scientific and artistic endeavour, and discussions of what makes a sound secular basis for moral judgements and the good life (Our wide range of contributors include many of the world's leading thinkers on these subjects like Stephen Lukes, Amartya Sen, Paul Heelas, AC Grayling and Conor Gearty). During my tenure as editor I have published articles on all these issues as well as appreciations of, for example, Goethe, Mozart, Francis Bacon as well as photographers, film makers and musicians who cast light on the human condition provide stirring examples of human achievement.

In addition to supporting this wide-ranging human-centred content readers of New Humanist have recently raised over £25,000 to support a secular school in rural Uganda – proving, I would argue, that we are not the hedonist, nihilists Scruton paints us. It is true that we are all wary of dogma, that it is harder for us to articulate what we collectively believe in than what we are not prepared to believe (we are after all advocates of free thinking), but trying to define that difficult bit – the shared values that underpin our common inheritance and destiny- is part of the fun, and what New Humanist seeks in its small way to do."
Have a read of both pieces and let us know what you think. You'll also see that on the same page as Caspar's letter there's another response to Scruton from philosopher Stephen Law, who heads the UK branch of the Center for Inquiry.


PersonalFailure said...

thought prior to reading both:

old stuff is good, new stuff is bad.

a sentiment uttered by bronze age desert nomads a few thousand years ago, as well.

the more things change . . .

AT said...

Scruton seems more wistful than anything else; apparently his parents never talked about their beliefs, 'they lived them'. That's cute and all, but more boring and unimaginative than stoic and noble.

Caspar does a good job of defending the NH. I think the point is that the NH is as far as can be from the kind of 'new humanism', whether fully realized or not, that Scruton's describing. The humanist community has a real problem discussing how mental some atheists can be - am I the only humanist that thinks Dawkins is bad at thinking? - when the point is trying to approach any given subject with a neutral eye. Scruton's not the guy to do it.

Neuroskeptic said...

I think we have to take what Scruton says seriously. When he says that

"The new humanism spends little time exalting man as an ideal."

He's reflecting what a lot of people think - that Humanists and atheists are obsessed with religion and don't have anything to say about the other important aspects of human life.

That's not true - as Meliville makes very clear - but it is a widespread view. And there has to be some reason for that. I think the root of the problem is the way in which "atheist" (or "Bright" etc.) has become an identity tag, something to be actively proud of, and to advertise with the atheist "A", etc.

That kind of posturing looks deeply silly when religous people do it - I've got to say, it's not all that different when atheists do it.