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Last refuge
A discourse on humanism

By Hamed Vahidi
July 24, 2001
The Iranian

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 interactions.

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 last refuge?

Secular Hope

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 forever.

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: Odonian Press.

-- 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).

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