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.