Humanist Priorities: Past and Present

Humanism is renowned as a difficult notion to define. As Richard Norman has said (in his book which has been described as the unofficial humanist manifesto) "… I do not think that there is any definitive set of beliefs called ‘humanism’. There are many humanisms."[1] By itself this statement make humanism seem meaningless. However I don’t think this is the case, and neither does Richard Norman. In his book Norman make a case for the continued validity of humanism as a life stance. Here I would also like to argue that humanism is a valid and important tradition that should be maintained whilst also criticising contemporary humanist organisations.

Having acknowledged the difficulty of defining humanism I think that we can say that humanists, generally, like to think of themselves as "free thinkers" – by which I mean people with critical and independent minds. They also tend to advocate "free thinking" as a starting point to solving many of the worlds / life’s major problems. We can therefore perhaps see the notion of "free thinking" as a core characteristic of humanism.

From this point of view a history of humanism can be traced right back to antiquity. We can identify individuals, as well as groups and even whole movements, that captured the spirit of humanism throughout most, if not all, of human history. When we look back what we find is that humanists, in their various forms, have clashed with the authorities. The classic example of this is perhaps the Enlightenment Period, often referred to as the "age of reason", which challenged traditional dogma and established new forms of thinking and social organisation, culminating in the French Revolution. This history should not surprise us given a situation whereby the authorities are often founded on very dubious, and often irrational, grounds.

Humanists are then intellectuals. We can think of intellectuals as having two basic functions: one as servants to power and the other as servants to the truth. Humanists like to think of themselves as the latter. We might say that humanists are intellectuals who specialise in exposing lies. But as we shall see, things are a little more complicated than that, and exposing lies does not, by itself, constitute good humanist practice.

As a case in point, last month the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, received an award from the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). The BHA chief executive commented that "Richard Dawkin’s commitment to increase public understanding of science is unfaltering and he has spent much of his distinguished career so far promoting a rational and humanist approach to the world …" The commitment being referred to here, amongst other things, is Dawkins celebrated book The God Delusion and the establishment of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

What all of this indicates is that organised humanism thinks that organised religion (or at least aspects of it) is still the greatest threat to free thinking and progress. If we read leading intellectuals of the humanist movement, like Dawkins, we are certainly left with the impression that religion is the major counter-Enlightenment force within society today. But is this true?

A brief history lesson from Noam Chomsky suggests not –

Now the source of power and authority that people could see in front of their eyes in the eighteenth century were quite different from the ones we have today – back then it was the feudal system, and the Church, and the absolute state that they were focused on; they couldn’t see the industrial corporation, because it didn’t exist yet.[2]

Alex Carey, who was a founder member of the Australian Humanist Society, also draws our attention to corporate power –

The twentieth century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.[3]

If this statement is accurate then surely any organisation interested in promoting free thinking would allocate much of its resources to countering corporate propaganda. And yet if you visit the websites of organised humanists you will see that they are overwhelmingly dominated by issues relating to religion. This is despite the fact that the corporation is the dominant and most powerful organisation in contemporary global society. As Joel Bakan has pointed out –

Over the last 150 years the corporation has risen from relative obscurity to become the world’s dominant economic institution. Today, corporations govern our lives. They determine what we eat, what we watch, what we wear, where we work, and what we do. We are inescapably surrounded by their culture, iconography, and ideology. And, like the church and monarchy in other times, they posture as infallible and omnipotent, glorifying themselves in imposing buildings and elaborate displays.[4]

Despite this reality if you visit Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science website you will find no critical exploration of corporations. This is despite the fact that it is well understood that corporate sponsored media distorts public opinion and is therefore the most powerful means within society to cloud peoples natural ability to reason. Medialens staff, David Edwards and David Cromwell make the point as follows –

The complacent media silence surrounding the oxymoron that is ‘the corporate free press’ is not indicative of an honest, rational consensus in a free society; it is symptomatic of an all-pervasive media corruption, of a deep cultural malaise. The silence, quite simply is a lie … the corporate mass media – not just the right-wing Tory press, but also the most highly respected ‘liberal’ media – broadcasters like the BBC, and newspapers like the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent – constitute a propaganda system for elite interests.[5]

Equally well understood is the power that corporations have over research, which naturally distorts scientific development. As George Monbiot has written –

Some of the consequences of the corporate takeover of science are immediately obvious; others are harder to identify. The first and most evident outcome is that the scope of research necessarily contracts: business is less interested in the big questions, whose answers might not lead to technological outcomes for many years, than in the small questions with marketable answers … Perhaps most importantly, the corporate takeover of science leads directly to the corporate takeover of science teaching. The research agenda necessarily influences the teaching agenda. Universities hire staff likely to attract corporate money, and these staff import perspectives which are inevitably transmitted to their students.[6]

As we can see, the corporate assault on reason and science has serious consequences for society and yet organised humanism distract the general public away from these issues and highlights relatively minor threats to free and rational thought – but why?

Could it be that with regards to corporate lead globalisation Dawkins, and with him organised humanism generally, has uncritically accepted Margaret Thatcher’s TINA doctrine – "there is no alternative"?[7] Is it possible that the passive acceptance of this dogma explains why organised humanism has retreated back to focusing most of its resources on the relatively soft and safe target of religion?

It is impossible for us to know what is going on in the back of the minds of leading humanists. However, what seems clear from the priorities of contemporary humanist organisations is that humanists can expose lies whilst also serving power. They do this by distracting attention away from serious threats to free thought whilst simultaneously focusing attention on lesser threats. In-so-doing organised humanism deludes itself into believing that it is promoting free thinking whilst actually undermining it.


1. Richard Norman – On Humanism.
2. Noam Chomsky – Understanding Power.
3. Alex Carey – Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.
4. Joel Bakan – The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.
5. David Edwards and David Cromwell (medialens) – Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Press.
6. George Monbiot – The Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain.
7. For a humanistic alternative to corporate tyranny consider ParEcon.

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