How Humanists Get It Right

By Werner, Michael | The Humanist, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

How Humanists Get It Right


Werner, Michael, The Humanist


A fellow humanist once asked, regarding the fact that the American Humanist Association has published three Humanist Manifestos, "Can't we ever get it right?" My answer is that we try to get it as right as we can at the time. Humanism espouses a scientific worldview and, like science, endeavors to use open-minded, critical thinking to discover progressive truths. Some might say we are a philosophy or even an alternative to religion, but I view humanism as an evolving tradition or a progressive lifestance. Humanists are part of a long line of people trying to live their lives to the fullest in the absence of any gods or an afterlife.

So, if we can't get our philosophy exactly "right" it's because we know that knowledge of the world is fallible, probabilistic, and tentative. The fallibility of our knowledge requires we admit that everything we know may actually be wrong. Accepting this requires humility and, at the same time, courage to stand up for what we best believe without dogmatism or fear of being proven wrong. Knowledge of the world is probabilistic in that we know specific things with greater or lesser confidence; I know that water flows downhill better than I know what the weather will be next week or, better yet, how to raise children. Lastly, knowledge is tentative. It is a provisional statement and frankly just the best we can do at the time, just like the Humanist Manifestos of 1933, 1973, and 2003.

A recent study found that one of the biggest differences between social and religious liberals and their conservative counterparts is that liberals have a better ability to hold views in an ambiguous, adaptive manner. Some may see this lack of resoluteness as weakness, and, in fact, it can be very difficult for humanists to live within the boundaries of our limited knowledge and still act decisively. Fundamentalists choose the easy way of absolute certainty of belief. Others petulantly decide that if we can't know anything with certainty we can't know anything at all, and collapse disappointed into a radical postmodern relativism or total cynicism. Still others, immobilized by doubt, never act on any convictions. …

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