Humanist Manifesto II: a Change of Mind

I don't remember when I signed the second Humanist Manifesto (as a tertiary signatory). Perhaps it was in 1997, or 1998. At the time, I was involved with the Friends of Religious Humanism and the Humanists of Utah. I was leaving, and later formally left, Mormonism, and the support I got from the Unitarians in my leaving was important to my spiritual growth. From them I learned the importance of sceptical and critical thinking, especially as applied to religious matters. However, after forming and running the Intelligent Inquiry Educational Society, it became clear to me that inquiry was not about conclusions, but about openness to possibilities. Though the humanists proclaimed openness, they were closed to the idea of the supernatural, to the idea of deity. I have changed my mind about some of the more rigid conclusions of Humanist Manifesto II, and because of the nature of signing a document such as the manifesto, it is important to indicate changes of opinion so as not to mislead, or be misunderstood.

In general, the first manifesto was a repudiation of theism and attempted to focus on mutual living. The second manifesto attempted to clarify this mutual living in the face of the brutalities of the world wars. However, the striking down of theism not only misunderstands the superstitions of our past, but prematurely draws conclusions about our present and future superstitions. Just as surrenduring to ignorance and calling it God is premature (Isaac Asimov), so is surrenduring to ignorance and denying God. The atheist may live without God, legitimately argue against the illogic of God, the inconsistency of God's (or the gods) existence, or suggest the irrelevance of God (as I once did), but the concept of God continues to be a prevalent force in society, and the possibility remains, though the probability appears inconclusive, of the existence of a creative force that is transcendent, and perhaps imminent, to ourselves.

Specifically, my objections are as follows:

…humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival….

If an almighty, ultimate power created the universe we live in, why would it be that said power could not hear prayers? Why would such a being create if that being did not care for its creation? Such a faith would only be outmoded if proved otherwise, not if simply left unproved. The sceptic will inevitably argue that the burden of proof is on the claimant, but the theist's claim is not a legal claim. It is a profession of hope grounded in reasonable possibility. Faith is a principle of trust and relationship within hope. If the hope is disproved, or shown to be unreasonable, then we can claim said hope is outmoded. To suggest that such a hope is a harmful diversion, insinuates that capable action is avoided by the act of hoping. To the contrary, hope is more likely to motivate helpful action than dissuade it.

The theist can be reasonable both by looking to other means for survival in this natural world, and at the same time hoping for the provision of daily bread by the unseen God.

Traditional moral codes…fail to meet the pressing needs of today and tomorrow. False theologies of hope and messianic ideologies, substituting new dogmas for old, cannot cope with existing world realities. They separate rather than unite peoples.

This seems a meaningless statement of rhetoric, over generalized and unspecific, as well as somewhat contradictory to a statement earlier that, We appreciate the need to preserve the best ethical teachings in the religious traditions of humankind, many of which we share in common.

Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence; in our judgment, the dogmas and myths of traditional religions do not do so.

We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race. As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.

This seems to misapply science to religion, after stating that science should apply to accounts of nature. The dogmas and myths of traditional religions should not be kept from scientific inquiry where those dogmas are relevant to natural process. Science does not disprove a dogma when it cannot investigate it, but merely labels it an unknown, or a mystery. Hopes, or belief in myths, do not require science to be reasonable, or rational, as they often express truths, or principals, that are irrelevant to their natural context. The flood of Noah may be nothing more than a Babylonian story, or a corporate memory of a localized flood, but the story expresses the integration of ancient legend as understood in a new context. The statement of an atheistic position shows the same pattern of belief as theism. I wish to consider God's existence among my doubts, as well as God's non-existence.

As for evidence for the supernatural, this is a matter of logic, and of expression of genuine spiritual experience and aspiration. I personally have difficulty with much of polytheistic religion, spiritual charletains, or forecasting tricks, but though I can show certain types of supernaturalism are based on outmoded, contradicted, or dishonest thinking and claims (e.g. astrology, Mormonism), I am unable to show that there is not something independent of the natural universe that is capable of influencing nature. Thus, there is the possibility of the supernatural. As a human being, I must start with human beings and nature as I learn, but that does not preclude, or exclude, deity or other supernatural.

Some humanists believe we should reinterpret traditional religions and reinvest them with meanings appropriate to the current situation. Such redefinitions, however, often perpetuate old dependencies and escapisms; they easily become obscurantist, impeding the free use of the intellect. We need, instead, radically new human purposes and goals.

As we learn new things, investing old knowledge, even myths, with new meaning is a matter of wisdom and growth. Discarding innacurate conclusions is also a part of learning, and old but accurate information, seen through the lense of new information, becomes a part of the corporate memory and wisdom of family and culture. The radical rejection of all religious knowledge, and purpose and meaning derived through that knowledge, is foolish. Scepticism should not mean cynicism.

Traditional religions often offer solace to humans, but, as often, they inhibit humans from helping themselves or experiencing their full potentialities. Such institutions, creeds, and rituals often impede the will to serve others. Too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage. More recently they have generated concerned social action, with many signs of relevance appearing in the wake of the God Is Dead theologies. But we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.

As the cliché goes, God helps those who help themselves. The suggestion that traditional religion is a diversion, or inhibition, from helping themselves is over generalization. Blaming religious institutions, creeds, or rituals as cowardice, which inhibit humans from helping themselves, because of dependence, or obedience, and then to state that religion has generated concerned social action is a contradiction. Religion often motivates humans to help themselves, especially those with theistic foundations. Suggesting that religion is more relevant when atheistic is anti-theistic bias.

A more relevant criticism might be taken from Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World: This is one of the reasons that the organized religions do not inspire me with confidence. Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiences? Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may no longer apply?

Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices. Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ghost in the machine and the separable soul.

We really know very little about immortal salvation and eternal damnation. I agree that fear of eternal damnation is harmful, but is immortality (or damnation) truly an illusion? Ultimately, these concepts are harmful when they distract us from helping each other, from rectifying social injustices, or from caring for our planet. However, these concepts also encourage us to self-actualization, and…rectifying social injustices.

Finally, the HMII's mention of Marxism, birth control, abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and suicide with unreserved acceptance is in hindsight troubling.

Marxism has suggested some humane and dignifying solutions to human problems, but its association with Lenin and Stalin, the supression of religion, and the murder of perhaps more human beings than at any other time in human history by its adopters, have put a black stain on the validity of its suggestions. Perhaps it might be better for Marxists to refer to socalism in general, and leave Marxism as a failed ideology, the extension of a sometimes hypocritical, sometimes dishonest, man.

Birth control, abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and suicide, all of which are controversial subjects, become their own form of ideology, or dogma, when promoted without reservation. Perhaps, birth control could be considered a right, but like the rest of the list it seems more clearly a part of medical science and psychology: if anything, the right should be that of a doctor to prescribe a necessary solution to a medical problem, and the right of a patient to accept, or reject, it under whatever health system is in place.

Divorce is not a right, but a matter of legality. Marriage should never be a means of control, or ownership, but of mutual self giving. The details of the breaking of a partnership should always take into account each circumstance, and the liberty of each individual.

What is humanizing, and what is dehumanizing, I do not see as independent from God, but are integrated with our relationship with God, and with each other, within the context of our natural environment. If God exists, to be divorced from that relationship becomes a dehumanizing experience; to be in relationship with God, becomes part of what is humanizing.

My signing of the manifesto is a part of my past. I can agree with some of it, but more now as an outsider. God is no longer irrelevant to my perspective.

©2005 David Egan Evans.