Magazine article The Humanist

Dialectic or Disarray: Do Humanists Really Want a Humanist Movement?

Magazine article The Humanist

Dialectic or Disarray: Do Humanists Really Want a Humanist Movement?

Article excerpt

For some years now, I have spoken of the "scandal" of "organized" humanism in the United States. I am not referring, of course, to individual peccadillos or financial corruption. I am referring to the fragmentation--I might even say the deliberate fragmentation--of an already-too-small movement: the reality, in other words, of humanist sectarianism. Defending the purity of our ideas or else turning our histories into idolatries, we choose divisiveness. Our semantic and intellectual differences assume far greater importance among us than they deserve. Indeed, upon analysis, these are trivial when set in the context of our mission. Attacked on the right by fundamentalism and on the left by postmodernism, rationality and social democracy are thereby deprived of their natural proponents. So, with a world to be won, we spend our energies debating ourselves. Consequently, we fail to reach the larger number of humanists and potential humanists in our country. Indeed, they ignore us; they see our quarrels as pointless and irrelevant to the cause to which we say we are calling them. Thus, loyalty to a reconstructed Enlightenment and a program of social reform--the cause that sanctions our existence--is betrayed. Our sectarianism subverts our humanism and our humanism, in turn, becomes unbelievable. And this is the scandal.

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.

SYMPTOMS

I do not pretend to offer a comprehensive diagnosis of what ails us. …

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