THE PROMISE OF HUMANISM by Frederick Edwords Every religion has its promise, the special r
THE PROMISE OF HUMANISM
by Frederick Edwords
Every religion has its promise, the special reward it offers
to the faithful. Such a promise is often the main feature that
attracts outsiders in. As such, it can become a primary selling
point and motivator.
The ancient promise of Christianity is eternal life in
heaven. I can remember a number of years ago listening to one
radio preacher describing it in detail with vivid word pictures as
he rhapsodized over how wonderful it would feel to be there. I
can remember as a child learning about the streets paved with gold
and rivers flowing with milk and honey.
Different denominations also offer secondary promises, such
as wealth and happiness in this life, God's helping hand in times
of trouble, and even physical healings.
In Buddhism, the promise is somewhat different. If you
follow the Noble Eightfold Path of conduct, you will experience
inner peace and eventually, through a series of rebirths, the
state of Nirvana. This state is the blowing out of all craving,
attachment, and desire.
New Age religions tend to promise increased powers of mind
that will bring about inner peace, happiness, power over external
events, cosmic knowledge, and ultimate union with God.
Like in politics, so in religion: the key is PROMISE BIG.
In the past, Humanists have sometimes thought of themselves
as too noble and honest to stoop to such strategies for gaining
converts. So, instead of offering our own "campaign promises," we
used to prefer to run down the promises of all the other groups.
Instead of focusing on a better way of our own, we kept the
spotlight on those ideas we disagreed with. Only we didn't seem
able to do it with the captivating music of Omar Khayyam:
Of threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain--This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
This seemed to be our message, and to some it still is.
But, if this is our message, are Humanists merely the consumer
crusaders of the metaphysical world, the Ralph Naders of the
religious realm? Is our only role that of protecting the gullible
from the purveyors of spiritual Florida swamp land?
This is, of course, a noble calling, worthy of the best
efforts of talented individuals. But is it ALL we should be
about? From much of our older rhetoric, you would think so. On
the other hand, today many Humanists are directing their focus
on what HUMANISM has to offer.
And when that is done, the relevant question becomes "What is
the promise of Humanism?"
Well, we already know what we can't promise. As sober
realists and no-nonsense straight-shooters, we're experts in
throwing the wet blanket of rationalism over the fondest hopes of
our fellows. We know the "bad news," but what's our "good news,"
what is the gospel of Humanism?
One way to find out is to ask ourselves how we would present
Humanism to someone who has never been exposed to traditional
religion. Here would be a person in no need of disillusionment
and possessing no idols in need of smashing. We could now go
directly to the goal of offering the "good news" of Humanism.
If some Humanists would find themselves speechless in a
situation like this, it could be because they believe Humanism is
simply the "default" condition of humanity, the "natural state"
that prevails when no brainwash is present. And I've known a
number of Humanists who have put it to me in exactly those terms.
But, if that's the case, then the solemn duty of every
Humanist when confronting a person unexposed to religion is to
immediately teach him or her all about it! In this way, the
person will learn what to watch out for, will be prepared, and
will be put on guard.
But I don't accept that Humanism is the default condition of
humanity. And I am indeed confronted with individuals unexposed
to traditional religion. I confront them every day. They are my
How do I teach my children Humanism? Well, I don't do it by
running down religions they have never heard about. I don't do it
by exposing them to the varieties of religious experience.
Instead, I expose them to the varieties of worldly experience. My
children, ages 4 and 5, already enjoy travel, pictures, movies,
music, people, animals, flowers, daydreams, stories, words,
numbers, shapes, colors, and the joy of learning. I want them to
live the good life envisioned by Humanism, to experience the
promise first hand. That's why, when I asked my eldest daughter,
Livia, what the praying hands in front of the Oral Roberts medical
complex were doing, she exclaimed, "They're clapping!"
Are my children Humanists yet? Time will tell, but other
Humanist parents I know who have used a similar approach have been
pleased with the results. And the implication is clear. The
promise of Humanism is a good life here and now.
So, let's discuss it in detail. What IS the "good life?"
Can it be pursued directly? Can EVERYONE have it (that is, do we
have a promise we can keep; can Humanism deliver the goods)? And
finally, will it play in Peoria?
Lloyd and Mary Morain talked about the good life in their
1954 Beacon Press book, Humanism as the Next Step, when they
As a starting point let us take the idea that this life
should be experienced deeply, lived fully, with sensitive
awareness and appreciation of that which is around us.
This was the first of their seven key ideas of Humanism. They
elaborated further, saying:
Back through the centuries whenever people have enjoyed
keenly the sights and sounds and other sensations of the
world about them, and enjoyed these for what they were--not
because they stood for something else--they were experiencing
life humanistically. Whenever they felt keen interest in the
drama of human life about them and ardently desired to take
part in it they felt as humanists.
Referring to this attitude as "zest for living," they were
following the lead of Bertrand Russell who, in his book The
Conquest of Happiness, referred to "zest" as "the most universal
and distinctive mark" of the happy individual. People with this
quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound
appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things
until they have enough, and know when to stop.
This vision reminds us again of Omar Khayyam:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!
Which sounds like the hedonistic doctrine Humanists are accused of
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Or, as Mad magazine once put it --
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou--
Pretty soon I'll be drunk, fat, and in trouble.
But there is much more involved in the Humanist notion of the
good life. The physical pleasures are only a part of it, not to
be denied of course, but far from representing the whole. For the
Humanist there are also the pleasures of an unfettered mind making
new discoveries, solving problems, and creating. There is the
enjoyment of art, music, dance, and drama. There is the joy of
helping others and the challenge of working to make the world a
better and more peaceful place. And, of course, there are the
joys associated with love and family. The Humanist seeks the
enjoyment of as many of these as possible.
In this, we are clearly at one with the ancient Greek ideal
of wholeness and the integration of life. For example, in the
ancient Olympic games, competition included not only athletics but
drama, music, poetry, and philosophy. And the whole combination
was viewed as a religious event. The Greeks put it together and
did it all. So can we.
In having zest for living, we join with the ancient Chinese
who, in following Confucius, saw much of life as play--which
accounted for their enjoyment of ceremony and especially their
love of toys.
This worldly and good-natured view of life that claims no
ultimate knowledge, stands out when contrasted with Hinduism.
Whereas the Yogi is often seen as renouncing desire, living an
ascetic life-style, and acquiring eternal knowledge, Socrates,
the sage of the ancient Greeks, deliberately provoked certain
appetites in himself, lived a social and active life, and
professed to have no knowledge whatever!
It is also radically different from traditional Christianity,
which has sometimes called this world a veil of tears, has seen
pleasures as vanity, and seems to find the goal of human life
beyond the grave. Such believers might quote Ecclesiastes--
Better to go to the house of mourning
than to the house of feasting;
for to this end all men come,
let the living take this to heart.
Better sadness than laughter,
a severe face confers some benefit. Jerusalem Bible
As an antidote, Robert Louis Stevenson offered these words in
his Christmas Sermon:
Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality:
they are the perfect duties. If your morals make you dreary,
depend on it they are wrong. I do not say, "give them up,"
for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice,
lest they should spoil the lives of better men."
Edwin H. Wilson, the grand old man of religious Humanism who,
for 90 plus years, lived the promise, summed it up when he wrote:
The Humanist lives as if this world were all and enough. He
is not otherworldly. He holds that the time spent on the
contemplation of a possible afterlife is time wasted. He
fears no hell and seeks no heaven, save that which he and
others created on earth. He willingly accepts the world that
exists on this side of the grave as the place for moral
struggle and creative living. He seeks the life abundant for
his neighbor as for himself. He is content to live one world
at a time and let the next life--if such there may be--take
care of itself. He need not deny immortality; he simply is
not interested. His interests are here.
The way those interests should be carried out here is
described by Havelock Ellis in his book, The Dance of Life. There
he presents living as an art, one best characterized as a dance.
In this, he follows the ancient Greeks who chose the image of
dancing because, unlike walking or running, dancing is not
generally viewed as a goal-oriented activity leading from point A
to B. One dances for the sheer joy of the activity. It is the
process more than the product that counts. And this is how the
Humanist good life is to be lived.
So, when someone asks a Humanist, "What is the purpose of
life?" the Humanist should answer, "Life is not purpose, life is
art." The meaning is found in the doing.
This is a revolutionary and truly unique way of looking at
the world. It is a way that finds the question of cosmic purpose
irrelevant, one that is unmoved by the author of Ecclesiastes who,
in contemplating the question of ultimate value, writes--
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and what
vanity it all is, what chasing of the wind!
The Humanist response is that Solomon missed the point. The
people, ideas, things, and actions we love do not depend for their
worth on how long they last or their supposed cosmic significance.
They are things in themselves to be enjoyed for their own sakes.
Life is an art, not a task. Life is for us, not for the universe.
And life is for now, not for eternity.
But there's more. We can take Edwin Wilson's statement that
this life is all and enough and beef it up a bit to declare that
this life is more than enough. Then it will express the Humanist
optimism of Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote:
The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
(We ought to get some rosary beads and repeat this every day.)
There is more in this world than I could experience in a
thousand different lifetimes. There is a richness here, a
cornucopia of choices, a wealth of opportunities. There is so
much to see, to do, to read, to learn. The question is not, "What
shall I do with my life?" but "What shall I do next?!"
Different people choose different things. Most Humanists
will choose a life oriented outward, not only to enjoying the
good life, but sharing the good life through helping others. Yet
other people may choose the inner life of meditation. By making
such a choice, each one misses something the other is enjoying.
But that can't be helped. Any time one makes a choice in the use
of one's time, one fails to engage in all the other possible uses
for that time, including having other experiences.
So, if a monk or celibate priest speaks to me about the
ecstasies of spiritual contemplation, I respond by sharing how
thrilled I was in the birthing room watching my children being
born. If a young fundamentalist describes to me the experience of
being "born again," I can't wait to talk about the exciting moment
when I first appreciated geometry. If heaven is described to me
in graphic detail, I immediately want to show my slides of
sunsets, seascapes, and mountain ranges.
I'm in love with life, and too busy with it to find time for
things allegedly outside it.
But now we can ask, if this is the promise of Humanism--if
this is the promise of liberal religion--is it a promise limited
only to the affluent, the intelligent, the educated? If so, then
are we making a promise we can't always keep? This is the
criticism leveled against us by the otherworldly religions. While
we say that they can't keep their otherworldly promises, they
explain that they turned to this other world because we Humanists
didn't keep our worldly promises.
Otherworldly faiths offer the "joys of the spirit" to those
who have been denied "the pleasures of the flesh." And the claim
is that such spiritual joys are more permanent and universal than
is our pleasure. But why give up so easily, denying oneself
worldly pleasure to feed on a mirage in its stead? Isn't this
settling for less, and retreating into an unwarranted resignation?
Bertrand Russell thought so when, in chapter 2 of The Conquest of
Happiness, he took the author of Ecclesiastes to task for
denouncing the very things that make happiness possible and give
Nonetheless, I must admit that I benefit from growing up in a
middle-class environment in a wealthy country where I have access
to such variety. But all is not lost in more impoverished
environments in less wealthy countries. At the Atheist Centre in
Vijayawada, India, an extended family of Humanists teach the poor
the joys of traditional folk dance, music, athletics (especially
acrobatics), science, animal husbandry, occupational skills, and,
most important of all, the vast world made possible only through
reading. Many of the beneficiaries of this effort are not only
poor and uneducated, but are often crippled and abandoned. Yet in
a country steeped in an ancient tradition of other-worldliness due
to just such harsh realities, the promise of Humanism is offered
and met. The International Association for Religious Freedom, the
world organization of liberal religions, has similar projects in
India and is getting similar results. The promise is no illusion.
And I look at my own life, asking myself how useful the
promise of the good life would be to me if I suddenly went deaf,
or blind, or couldn't walk. And yet I can answer with Robert
Louis Stevenson that the world is indeed so full of things that
can make me happy. A calamity is a limitation, but if I were
limited only to reading, I would find the world is so full of a
number of books that I could not read them all in this lifetime.
If I were limited only to seeing, I could not see all I want to
see in this lifetime. If I were limited only to hearing, I could
not hear all I want to hear in this lifetime. I have not tested
all the thoughts I want to test, or worked out all the ideas I
have started but don't have time to develop. I haven't written
all the speeches I want to write. I haven't met all the people I
could meet or faced all the challenges I could face. Calamities
destroy the promise usually because we concentrate on what we have
lost instead of letting the misfortune simply focus our pursuits
in a new direction.
The Stoic remedy for misfortune is as much a part of this
promise as is the Cyrenaic enjoyment of good fortune. When
misfortune limits you, shift your focus and move on. I would
argue that we can, in most cases, keep the promise of joy in the
here and now. And even when all cannot be joy--for life indeed
includes a large share of obligations, struggles, sorrows, and
pain--the larger context can still be that of an artful life.
And when, in those rare instances, we find that the
realization of the promise is futile, as in the case of an
agonizing terminal illness, Humanism offers the freedom to exit
this life at will and with dignity. This is voluntary euthanasia,
an area of great importance to Humanists, so much so that there
will be two major workshops on this topic at the national
conference of the American Humanist Association next weekend.
So, in the end, the promise is not a perfect one. But we
admit that. Others may seem to offer more perfect promises, but
can they deliver? I have no evidence that anyone has ever gotten
to heaven, realized Nirvana, or merged with God. But I see
evidence every day that the promise of the good life is no mirage.
So, I'll stick with the honesty of Humanism, that this life
is all there is, and with the promise of Humanism, that this can
be more than enough. And this promise will serve as my motivation
to make life better when all is not as it should be. For I can
better enjoy the promise on a clean rather than a dirty planet.
And I can enjoy it better when I am helping others to participate
This is a philosophy I can be proud of. And, being proud of
it, I can confidently share it with others. I can offer the "good
news" of its promise and know I am doing something valuable
As a result, Humanism need no longer be a philosophy
exclusively for those bold enough to face an uncaring cosmos with
defiance, for those fearless enough "to go where no one has gone
before," and for those impudent enough to call the majority of
humanity cowards for fleeing to a sweeter tale. Most people are
moved by exciting promises. They are captivated by thrilling
visions. And this philosophy can be for them to.
There's nothing wrong with offering a zesty promise if we
have one. And have one we do. So let us Humanists stress it,
publicize it, and present it as our entry in the religious/
philosophical sweepstakes. I submit to you that this one shift in
our focus will do more to counter the harmful effects of
otherworldly belief than all the rationalistic arguments of
history's greatest freethinkers. So let's give it a shot.
We have nothing to lose but our minority status.
This is the text of a talk presented to various audiences over the
years. Its author is the executive director of the American
(C) Copyright 1989 by Frederick Edwords
So long as profit is not your motive and you always include this
copyright notice, please feel free to reproduce and distribute
this material in electronic form as widely as you please.
Nonprofit Humanist and Freethought publications have additional
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must be sought from the author through the the American Humanist
Association, which can be contacted at the following address:
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
PO BOX 1188
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Phone: (800) 743-6646
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