I’m going to give a Zoom talk to a Connecticut group, Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County, on Monday, May 10 at 7PM. If you are interested in participating, check their newsletter.
It mentions that you can register for the talk here.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I want to take an interlude session into unifying evolutionary ethical frameworks as exemplified in part, in Humanism. Some religions ignore the parts of brutality, cruelty, bigotry, and supernatural superstition, only focusing on the Golden Rule. Some turn into postmodernist philosophers, they ramble off into incoherency and don’t make any sense, while puffed up and self-proud as a cock (rooster) on a dunghill. What are some of the paths Humanism could evolve into the future?
Dr. Herb Silverman: It may be true that just about all religions have some version of the Golden Rule about treating others as you would want to be treated. And a version of this can also be found in almost every ethical tradition, with no gods necessary. In my Jewish tradition, the first century BCE Rabbi Hillel was allegedly asked by a prospective Jewish convert to teach him the entire Torah (Hebrew Bible) while standing on one leg. Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.”
Some equate the Golden Rule with the rule about loving your neighbor as yourself. The problem arises with who we consider our neighbor. In the Hebrew Bible, neighbors were the “chosen” people, other Israelis. Jews were supposed to kill outsiders on their way to the Promised Land. Today in America, many White Christian Nationalists view only their fellow Christians as neighbors and so justify discriminating against non-white immigrants.
Another problem with the Golden Rule is that some people may not want to be treated as we want to be treated. Our values may be so different that the Golden Rule makes no sense. For instance, some fanatics have no aversion to death, so the Golden Rule might inspire them to kill others in suicide missions. For humanists to live by the Golden Rule, we mustempathize with other people, including those who may be very different from us and might want to be treated differently.
When you mentioned “dunghill,” I thought of Thomas Jefferson, who in many ways (but not all ways) was a humanist. As he correctly pointed out, there are some words of wisdom in the Bible, but I agree with Jefferson when he referred to them as “diamonds in a dunghill.”
When you ask for paths where Humanism could evolve in the future, I think Humanism is a philosophy that is continually evolving. That’s why we have had three Humanist Manifestos, and will undoubtedly have additional “manifestos” as we learn more about how better to live ethical lives, along with new scientific discoveries.
Many people tell me they wouldn’t mind if I were an agnostic, but that I shouldn’t be so arrogant as to be an atheist. I used to call myself an agnostic because I could not logically prove whether a god exists, so I took the agnostic position that the existence of a god is unknown—and perhaps unknowable. I was without belief in any gods and thought it highly improbable that any supernatural beings exist. When I learned that this view is consistent with atheism (without a belief in any gods), I became an atheist. So, my "conversion" from agnosticism to atheism was more definitional than theological.In reality, depending on how terms are defined and their context, I can accurately call myself an atheist or an agnostic, as well as a humanist, secular humanist, secular Jew, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, infidel, and more.
Scott Jacobson: Fundamentally, what is the difference in a philosophical stance representing evolutionary changes even to ethical founding documents compared to others declaring foundational texts as complete and comprehensive for all time with nothing ever capable of edit, as in Quranic theological orientations – can’t edit it - akin to the necessity of acceptance of the resurrection of Christ in Christianity? In short, what makes foundational evolution of an empirically informed ethic better than an unchanging asserted morality in centuries-old texts?
Dr. Herb Silverman: Evolution made it possible for us to become Homo sapiens (humans), though my DNA shows that I am 3% Neanderthal. Charles Darwin felt that a difference between Homo sapiens and other animals is our moral sense. He said that our enhanced ability to cooperate may be the most significant distinction between us and our closest evolutionary relatives. Such cooperation, along with concern for others and a sense of fairness, may be the basis of morality in humans. Since evolution works so slowly, I don’t think we can relate evolution to how moral behavior differs in humans today, often based more on philosophical or theological differences.
You ask why our empirically informed ethic today is better than an unchanging, asserted morality in centuries-old texts. Science is empirical and thrives on disagreement and on a willingness to question assumptions critically, while we search for evidence until a consensus is reached. Centuries-old texts, often called “holy” books, were written by scientifically ignorant men. Their ideas of ethics included discriminating against gays, not allowing women to have responsible positions, punishing blasphemers and heretics, and advocating for holy wars. Tying our principles to unchanging, dogmatic religious text makes no sense. Morality, to us, involves using available evidence to help decide what actions might be for the greater good of humanity. We base our ethics on what we learn from human experience, which includes the efforts of thoughtful people throughout history who have worked toward achieving their ideals. We also know that some of our values might change as our knowledge and understanding advances.
Jacobsen: For those points brought forward, “sport or physical activity, non-human intelligence, the environment, and non-Western sources within the humanist tradition,” what seems like the relevance of each to the potential next edition of the declaration?
Silverman: I’ll address your question of “sport or physical activity” here. The other parts (non-human intelligence, the environment, non-Western sources) are asked about in your other questions, so I will answer those later.
Regarding sport or physical activity, I think we should encourage people to remain active for as long as they can. Playing sports, preferably non-contact, can be fun and help us keep a sound mind and body. At 78, I no longer play sports, but I exercise a lot. I walk a few miles every day with my wife, Sharon. We also lift weights or swim several times a week. What I don’t like to see are so many people who only watch others play sports. When a professional player on their favorite team hits a home run or scores a goal, they congratulate each other, as if they themselves deserve credit for it. Being active in sports (and in life) is beneficial; being passive is not.
How do we differ from religious people in this pandemic era, when as of this writing over half a million Americans have lost their lives to Covid? Since you are reading this, you haven’t died from the virus, perhaps because you listened to science rather than to unfounded conspiracy theories. In dealing with death, we know that human life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate. Yes, we are all going to die someday. We are fragile creatures who have been dying from the moment we were born into a universe that has no purpose. I feel “blessed” that I’ve been alive for 78 years. I have no memories of the other 13.8 billion years the universe existed without me. The same will be true when I die, hopefully not for many years. I was not in distress before I was born, and won’t be in distress when I’m dead.
There is no purpose of life, so we all need to find purposes in life. Regarding purpose, I am guided by a quote from Robert Green Ingersoll:
“Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.”
I was on a weekly radio show from California State University, based in Santa Barbara. You can listen to it here.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The Amsterdam Declaration (1952) was another huge stepping stone in the development of Humanism within the earlier discourse of modern secular freethought. Before asking those main questions, I had a side question important to this educational series, actually two. You seem like a great person to ask these questions because of the longevity of leadership in the movement and the efforts at collaboration and unification of efforts through the Secular Coalition for America. First, how much does the development of empirical philosophies create a basis for modern formulations of Humanism, instead of a straightforward focus on eudaimonia, the humanities, moral education, and the like? I understand Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK and the President of Humanists International, has spoken on the spotted nature of Humanism in the historical record akin to the manner in which Professor Noam Chomsky speaks of Anarchism as a philosophical trend in the history of human thought and action. As in, no one owns them, as they, Humanism or Anarchism, amount to facets of human nature (to one degree or another) and, therefore, express themselves without regard to the culture or the geography, merely transforming superficially while manifesting the same fundaments.
Dr. Herb Silverman: As I understand the question, you are asking if I more favor empiricism or eudaimonia when it comes to Humanism. To answer, I’ll first define the terms as I understand them.
Empiricism is a theory that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. Empiricism is a fundamental part of the scientific method, which requires that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting on intuition or revelation.
Eudaimonia describes virtuous activity in accordance with reason, which gives us happiness and pleasure. To illustrate, if you’re a doctor, you should excel at healing people; if you’re a philosopher, you should excel at gaining knowledge and wisdom. Of course, each person plays many roles in life, and by excelling in all of them one achieves eudaimonia.
As to whether I favor empiricism or eudaimonia, I can say confidently—that depends. If I want to look at scientific questions, empiricism is the way to go. But I don’t think everything should be viewed through a scientific lens. Aesthetics, without science, makes sense to me. Different people can find different pleasures using only reason. For instance, not everyone might think like I do that my wife, Sharon, is the most wonderful person in the world.
Of course there are times that empiricism and eudaimonia work in combination. To illustrate, empiricism is used to help find a vaccine for Covid-19. Then an individual can make a rational choice to take the vaccine to safeguard his or her health, and this expresses eudaimonia.
Jacobsen: Second, I have worked to bring together some of the voices in Canadian Humanism in one voice with some group discussions, so to speak, e.g., “Humanism in Canada: Personal, Professional, and Institutional Histories (Part One)”. The series incorporated the leadership voices of most of the secular organizations in Canada, i.e., at the time: Cameron Dunkin as the Acting CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada, Dr. Gus Lyn-Piluso as the President of Center for Inquiry-Canada, Doug Thomas as the President of Secular Connexion Séculière, Greg Oliver as the President of Canadian Secular Alliance, Michel Virard as the President of Association humaniste du Québec, Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson as the Vice-President of Humanist Canada, and Seanna Watson as the Vice-President of Center for Inquiry-Canada. As far as I am informed on the issue, that’s a first. I have been interviewing a large contingent of the ex-Muslim community within Canadian society. In the midst of them, in March of 2019, something occurred to me. So, I decided to write down the idea succinctly for an article for News Intervention. I made a proposal in “An Immodest Proposal: International Coalition of Ex-Muslims (ICEM)”. I was informed by a British colleague the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims was formed in early 2020, about a year after the proposal. It’s hard to track the history of these things because it can be a bubbling in communities of the same ideas and then the formulation of them into a convergent creation of an organization. Also, a single proposal can be the source of the formation of these things. Nonetheless, they’re there, present, and active. Why was the Secular Coalition for America a necessity to bring together a larger contingent of secular voices?
Silverman: Scott, I’m so pleased that you are working to bring the voices in Canadian Humanism together. However, I doubt that you can get them to speak with just one voice, except on selected topics. Humanists speak with many voices and have a lot of opinions on countless topics. That’s one way humanists are different from some religious cults.
I do think most humanists would agree that humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment for the greater good of humanity. Humanism also promotes democracy, civil liberties, human freedoms, separation of religion and government, and elimination of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age, or national origin. Humanists respect the scientific method and recognize that we are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change, and that ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
You asked about the importance of bringing a large contingent of voices together within the Secular Coalition for America. In 2002, I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government.
Our 19 national member organizations cover the full spectrum of freethought. Members don’t argue about labels. People in the Coalition call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, whatever. They cooperate on the 95% they have in common, rather than bicker about the 5% that might set them apart. Interestingly, four of the member organizations are classified as religious (nontheistic). They are American Ethical Union (with Ethical Culture Societies), Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Society for Humanistic Judaism (with atheist rabbis), and UU (Unitarian Universalists) Humanists.
All the Secular Coalition member organizations have strict limits on political lobbying, so the Secular Coalition incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of freethought Americans. The Secular Coalition also collaborates with organizations that are neither theistic nor nontheistic, like the American Civil Liberties Union, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It cooperates on some issues with theistic organizations, like the Interfaith Alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Catholics for Choice. Working with diverse groups provides the additional benefit of gaining more visibility and respect for our unique perspective. Improving the public perception of freethinkers is as important to many of us as pursuing a particular political agenda.
Alex Sanders, former president of the College of Charleston, just retired as a teacher there. Some of us were asked to take a couple of minutes to say a few words for a video about him. I mentioned two stories. One is what Sanders said in our local newspaper, the Post and Courier, about my atheism. The other is Sanders’ response to a letter he received saying that he should fire me as a math professor because I’m an atheist. Sanders told me that his religious beliefs are the same as mine, but in writing he pretends to be a believing Christian. You can watch the video here.
The whole thing is 30 minutes. My portion comes on after about 6 minutes and 15 seconds.
What is special about Jews wanting a secular democracy? I wish there were also organizations like “Christians for a Secular Democracy” and “Muslims for a Secular Democracy.” Or better yet, there should be no need for such organizations because all Americans should favor a secular democracy. The United States was founded as a secular democracy, and there should never be a need to defend that principle. Our framers established the first government in history to separate religion and government. They formed a secular nation whose authority rests with “We the People” (the first three words of the U.S. Constitution) and not with “Thou the Deity.” They created a Constitution in which our government acknowledges no gods, the better to ensure freedom of conscience. The only mentions of religion in the U.S. Constitution are exclusionary. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Article Six prohibits religious tests for public office. Article Six inspired me to become an activist in secular causes. When I discovered in 1990 that our South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, I challenged that provision by running for governor as the “candidate without a prayer.” In 1997 I won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, invalidating the unconstitutional provision and recognizing that atheists have the right to hold public office in South Carolina.