A discourse on humanism
By Hamed Vahidi
July 24, 2001
Several years ago, I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington,
DC. A week before, I had seen Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.
Stewart Justman's The Jewish Holocaust for Beginners masterfully
portrays the Nazi terror:
To kill while the killing was good, camp authorities in Leipzig locked
300 forced laborers in a hut and set it afire. As a parting shot the SS
in Gardelegen suffocated 1,800 in the same manner, then poured kerosene
on the dead and set them ablaze. The Allies came upon the corpses. The
good citizens of Gardelegen were ordered to bury the charred remains in
individual graves, each body in its own coffin. When Generals Patton, Bradley
and Eisenhower entered the slave-labor camp of Ohrdruf on April 4, 1945,
they discovered such scenes of horror that Patton became ill and Eisenhower
ordered all units in the vicinity to the scene to survey the camp with
their own eyes. (Justman, 1995, p. 109)
Much less well-known is the Armenian Holocaust, the mass murder of 1.5
million Armenians by the "Young Turk" government during World
War I: soldiers proudly displaying the severed heads of Armenian men, starved
mothers and children lying dead next to one another in the desert. Existing
photographs and silent movies of these two great atrocities of the twentieth
century are not mere documentaries; they inspire the rich landscape of the
poet's mind, satisfy the sick man's thirst for sadism, and shake the rationalist's
conviction of a yet-to-come Utopia where reason, not prejudice, rules human
As a member of the largest, most persecuted religious minority in Iran,
such scenes and stories are not new to me. Although the severity and magnitude
of the sufferings of the Baha'is do not match that of the Jews or Armenians
(except in the early periods of the Baha'i faith, when thousands of Babis,
not yet Baha'is, were brutally massacred), I still feel a natural affinity
toward the plight of other persecuted minorities. The real difficulty arises
when one tries to find solutions and justify the unjustifiable, and this
is where my problems started. Suddenly, Like Dante, I found myself lost:
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard -- so tangled and rough
(Pinsky, 1994, p.3)
Mastering a new language and getting familiar with new cultural values
and social standards are not the only afflictions striking old-fashioned
traditionalists like me who, after months of wandering in different countries
as refugees, finally find themselves in the most technologically and scientifically
advanced, secular nation in the world. For many religionists, secularism
is the ultimate taboo -- a virus that entangles the mind and empties the
brain of all preconceived notions.
I did not avoid secularism. To deny the secular nature of science and
philosophy and the enormous contributions of countless secular philosophers
and thinkers is sheer idiocy. Who could imagine a human civilization without
the influence of secular philosophy and science? The dilemma is posed when
one does not just practice science and critical thinking or read and learn
from philosophy, but becomes a secular person in every aspect of
his life -- almost a complete psychological and emotional shift.
But what compels a religious person to even consider making such a life-changing
shift? When the gruesome pictures of the atrocities humans inflict upon
their own kind parade before one's eyes, occupy one's mind and torture one's
soul, one usually takes refuge in poetry, seeks shelter in religion or,
in the case of adherents of secular schools of thought, totally abandons
any religious outlook in the hope of starting a new life -- a life devoid
of religious impulses and based entirely on reason and applications
of rational discourse to solving problems.
Nowadays, in the Western Hemisphere, it is fashionable to shun the concept
of religiosity and equate intellectualism with atheism. The allure of the
Western atheistic philosophy seduced me, and the charm of the Western mind
planted the seeds of doubt in me. Being a religious person, to rescue myself
from an inferno of intellectual and spiritual bewilderment and to resolve
my dilemma once and for all, I tried to deeply analyze the three questions
of what reason is, what it means to be rational, and to what
extent the claims of humanistic philosophies are valid.
Of Reason and Rationality
If there could be said to be a single great work of art representing
the two dominant ideologies in the history of humankind and their lasting
effects on our lives and institutions, it would be Raphael's The School
of Athens. In the center of the painting, Plato points upward, representing
a spiritual, otherworldly school of thought. To his left is his pupil Aristotle,
pointing downward, representing the secular, worldly view.
The eternal dance -- and sometimes clash -- between these two modes of
thinking has given rise to various philosophical discussions and social
debates in our time: science versus religion, the secular versus the religious,
democracy versus theocracy, and doubt versus faith. Unfortunately, many
such discussions are so filled with errors that it is difficult to believe
that intellectual luminaries are engaging in them. For example, see how
Stephen Jay Gould justifies Pope Pius XII's views on evolution:
I knew that Pope Pius XII (not one of my favorite figures in twentieth-century
history, to say the least) had made the primary statement in a 1950 encyclical
entitled Humani Generis. I knew the main thrust of his message: Catholics
could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human
body, so long as they accepted that, at some point of his choosing, God
had infused the soul into such a creature. I also knew that I had no problem
with this argument -- for, whatever my private beliefs about souls, science
cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological
position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue. (Gould,
1999, pp. 57-58)
Indeed, belief in a nonmaterial entity called the soul can be
a private matter, but it is entirely legitimate for the field of neuroscience
to at least consider the plausibility of such belief from a scientific viewpoint.
Moreover, Pope Pius XII set a religious dogma as the primary requirement
for the acceptance of a highly tested scientific theory -- something that
runs contrary to the spirit of scientific thinking.
This article leaves behind the much-repeated generalizations that are
the hallmark of science and religion debates. Considering that enough has
been said about religious ideology, I focus instead on the very root of
secular humanistic philosophy -- a philosophy that finds reason,
science, secular ethics, and the application of rationalistic principles
to both socio-political affairs and life's ultimate questions as the supreme
road to humanity's freedom. Secular humanist Morris Storer gives a good
definition of this philosophy:
What is humanism, and who is a humanist? I will identify as "humanist"
all who, in the basic deliberations and action decisions of their lives,
have set aside faith in revelation and dogmatic authority and have settled
for human experience and reason as grounds for belief and action, putting
human good -- the good of self and others in their life on earth -- as
ultimate criterion of right and wrong, with due concern for other living
creatures. (Storer, 1987, p. 29)
The first thing that strikes a curious mind about this philosophy is
its reliance on reason and its rejection of any kind of religious ideology.
In humanistic publications, the repeated use of phrases such as rational
reasoning and critical thinking stands out. The tagline for Free
Inquiry magazine is "Celebrating Reason and Humanity".
Paul Kurtz, a renowned secular humanist, writes in The Humanist magazine:
"Thus religious piety is no guarantee of moral virtue; on the contrary,
religion is profoundly unreliable as a foundation for ethics" (Kurtz,
1998, p. 31). Instead, the secularist prescription for better living is
to use the powers of reasoning. A saner and safer world, the secular humanists
claim, is a world ruled by rational humans through the use of
reason. But does the word reason have an objective meaning?
When used in scientific and mathematical terminology, the word reason
serves either as an explanation given to justify a motivation for performing
an action or as a description of the relationships between entities, whether
physical, logical, or mathematical. Why is a flower red? Why does the earth
revolve around the sun? Why did some scientists consider cold fusion as
valid science? Certainly, an answer can be given to each of these questions,
but the reasons given can be valid or invalid, sound or unsound.
Therefore, it is not just plain reasoning, but rational reasoning --
a detailed process involving scientific theories and laws, observation,
experience, and mental creativity -- that helps scientists and philosophers
discover the way things really are (or a good approximation thereof) or
provide a valid justification for why a desired procedure was performed
in a certain way. Such a process provides us with a good knowledge of the
factual relationships that exist between different phenomena. We use this
knowledge to create and improve technology, and in the process we come up
with medical, industrial, and agricultural products as well as countless
other man-made items.
One of the most important aspects of the secular humanistic philosophy
is its use of scientific knowledge as a foundation for human ethics. This
is actually a correct approach to the realm of individual and social ethics.
Science and common sense are used to find out what types of behavior and
rules of conduct benefit humans, both individually and collectively. Such
knowledge is then used to design laws, regulations, and political systems.
But knowing what types of behavior will benefit mankind does not necessarily
mean that this is the way humans will or should interact, nor does
it imply that those who deviate from these behaviors are irrational.
In the next section, I will delve into this dilemma in more detail and
try to explore the relation between reason and humanism and see whether
or not rational reasoning implies innate humanistic tendencies.
Reason and Humanism
One of the claims that the proponents of the secular humanistic philosophy
make is the need for universal humanism. The Humanist Manifesto
2000 states that "[f]or the first time in human history we possess
the means -- provided by science and technology -- to ameliorate the human
condition, advance happiness and freedom, and enhance human life for all
people on the planet." (The International Academy of Humanism,
1999, p. 6)
But the social implications of a specific philosophy, especially the
secular humanistic philosophy, cannot be fully understood only from the
guiding principles and standards set forth by the philosophy itself. In
addition, we must identify and analyze several factors, such as the different
types of political structures this philosophy claims to improve, the collective
behaviors of the people, the past histories of the nations, and the current
value systems that people adhere to. Anyone familiar with the social structure
of the Third World countries, especially the Middle Eastern countries, will
immediately notice that the rational humanistic alternative to settling
disputes and solving tensions is alien to all these nations.
One might naively expect the technological superpowers to keep the flames
of humanism alive, but history tells an agonizingly different story, one
in which the policy-makers of such nations consciously and willfully used
their minds, utilized their information-gathering agencies, and devised
long-term plans, all for the purpose of suppression of the masses and subjugation
of other nations under their own commands. Noam Chomsky writes:
Illustrations provided by the World Health Organization estimate that
eleven million children die every year in "the developing world,"
a "silent genocide" that could be brought to a quick end if resources
were directed to human needs rather than enrichment of a few. In a global
economy designed for the interests and needs of international corporations
and finance, and sectors that serve them, most of the species becomes superfluous.
They will be cast aside if the international structures of power and privilege
function without popular challenge or control. (Chomsky, 1996, p. 73)
The reason behind such acts is the one that has afflicted humanity
from the dawn of civilization. A lust for expansionism, the desire to reach
higher levels of power, the justified fear that one nation's subordination
under another brings socio-economic misery and stagnation, man's ignorance
and inborn xenophobia, the existence of national and international violent
opposition groups, destructive ideologies, and the struggle for existence
and to live just a little longer have all produced a worldwide socio-political
"house of fear" in which reason, to some extent justifiably, has
been used not to deter violence, but to plan ahead and implement oppressive
and barbaric acts.
Many times the reason was totally unjustified, stemming from a leader's
paranoid delusions, and millions of innocent lives were lost. Other times,
reason served as a useful tool for political and economic superiority
and was justified on the depressingly well-founded assumption that if
you don't gain control, others do and God does not bring the day when "others"
are in control. It is always a question of "us" versus "others".
Humanity's collective behavior, whether in the past or in the present, attests
to the fact that we are still a morally immature species badly in
need of discipline, restraint, and true ethical education.
Therefore, contrary to the misleading opinion of many intellectuals (including
humanists themselves), a rise in technology and science education does not
necessarily produce a rational desire to treat all humans as equals, nor
does the establishment of democracy within a nation prevent that nation
from treating other countries barbarically.
Other than the unique meanings they have in the realm of science, and
maybe to a lesser degree in social sciences, reason and rationality
are not magical words. They have different connotations, imply different
intentions, and beg different courses of action depending on the types of
social and cultural systems they are applied to. In her discussion of David
Hume's philosophy, T. Z. Lavine points out that: "[r]eason provides
the means, the instruments or devices, for gaining what the passions desire"
(Lavine, 1984, p. 180). But if reason, upon close examination, is
seen to have lost its grandeur, is more like a double-edged sword and does
not necessarily imply humanism, then would not secular hope be our
The secular answer to death, suffering, and other eternal questions that
have occupied mankind for centuries has always been the same. The secular
man takes death to be his final moment, the destruction of his entire consciousness.
Like Gilgamesh, the hero of the great ancient poem The Epic of Gilgamesh,
the secular man accepts death with humility. His outlook toward suffering
is more or less the same. He takes it like a man, tries not to be squashed
under its weight, and learns new lessons from it for his future self-growth.
After seventeen years of being in America and delving into the works
and minds of the great secular thinkers, scientists, and philosophers of
the West, to my own amazement, I have not abandoned the faith of my forefathers.
In some respects, my faith has even become stronger. Why? Because there
comes a time in life when you sink into the deepest and darkest corridors
of your own existence and question your cherished beliefs.
What if I abandon my faith in favor of a secular way of dealing with
deep existential questions? What does it have to offer me? Will my life
be any better? Will I gain anything? My answer has always been a sympathetic
no, and of course it is a very personal answer that applies only to me.
Others can find their own paths.
The heart-wrenching, faith-shaking new findings in virtually every scientific
discipline, ranging from cosmology to neuroscience, speak of an indifferent,
or at least seemingly indifferent, universe and a human mind that is basically
a manifestation of the electrochemical workings of the brain. The decomposition
of the brain brings the disintegration of the mind and the loss of consciousness
In the face of these findings, people become annoyed. They try to find
a way out, but cannot. They read Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and
The Blind Watchmaker and become more annoyed and more depressed.
Therefore, as a natural consequence, they resort to religion and poetry.
They inject meanings into words and find comfort when engulfed by the majesty
of the meanings they have created. They pay visits to their logotherapist's
office to receive scientifically and philosophically frivolous, though tender
and reassuring, statements such as "[w]hat is demanded of man is not,
as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of
life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness
in rational terms" (Frankl, 1985, p. 141).
Secularists are no exception; they do the same thing. They replace
faith with existential courage and religious doctrines that
speak of hope and eternal life with a hodgepodge of overexaggerated,
futuristic, and shallow rhetoric about the majesty of the universe, why
man should rely upon himself, not gods, and how the immensity of space and
billions of stars should bring man to a state of awe, humility and compassion
toward his own kind.
Exactly why man's realization of the utter insignificance of his short
life, when compared to cosmic proportions of the universe, should bring
him to a state of humility and self-reliance, rather than depression, anxiety,
and confusion, is not clearly explained by secularists. The sun will shine
for millions of years, and hopefully the human race will continue to exist,
but AM I going to be alive? What happens to ME and all the things that I
loved and lost?
Without a belief in the continuity of individual existence -- or at least
the adoption of such belief as a philosophical keystone for a meaningful
life -- I personally find the human world a barren land, a land of torn
flesh and unfulfilled desires that ends faster than a passing thought, a
land where there is no ultimate justice and no compensation for suffering.
My faith is simple and harmless. It brings me hope in time of hardship and
I do not try to justify it with poor analogies such as the one Victor Frankl
presented to a therapeutic group:
The question was whether an ape which was being used to develop poliomyelitis
serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able
to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that
of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter
into the world of man, i.e. the only world in which the meaning of its
suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following
question: "And What about man? Are you sure that the human world is
a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable
that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man's world; a world
in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find
an answer?" (Frankl, 1985, p. 140-141).
Unfortunately, what Dr. Frankl did not tell his patients was that the
poor ape was being tortured so that humans can stay alive a little
longer. But what does the ape get in return? Even if the ape could get a
glimpse of the real meaning behind its suffering, would it be any happier?
Would the ape be happy if it was suddenly elevated to the level of Homo
Sapiens? Would the ape find the human world a house of grief and sorrows
or a paradise of pleasure and happiness? What if the other-worldly spirits
are playing humans against one another for their own amusements? What if
there is no soul and, if there is one, what assurance do we have that the
rewards we get from gods will be worthy of our sufferings?
When faced with the naked realities of the world, some people abandon
their faiths for good and some cling to their faiths more strongly than
ever. The ultimate answer to man's sufferings, if there is any at all, may
never be found.
-- Chomsky, Noam. 1996. What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Arizona:
-- Frankl, Victor E. 1985. Man's Search for Meaning. New York:
Washington Square Press.
-- Gould, Stephen J. 1999. "Non-Overlapping Magisteria."
Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 23, no. 4 (July/August).
-- Justman, Stewart. 1995. The Jewish Holocaust for Beginners.
New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc.
-- Kurtz, Paul. 1998. "Beyond Humanist Manifesto II." The
Humanist, vol. 58, no. 5 (September/October).
-- Lavine, T. Z. 1984. From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest.
New York: Bantam Books. Pinsky, Robert. trans. 1994.
-- Dante's Inferno. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
-- Storer, Morris. 1987. "How Do Humanists Define Their Beliefs?"
The Humanist, vol. 47, no. 6 (November/December).
-- The International Academy of Humanism. 1999. "Humanist Manifesto
2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism." Free Inquiry, vol.
19, no. 4 (Fall).