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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Sometimes Humanism Isn’t Enough



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Human beings are the only “believing” species.  Belief seems intrinsic to our natures.  I mean, look back to the amazing cave paintings of 25,000 years ago and one can see metaphysical yearning. 

Belief can be expressed ideologically–as in communism. But more often in human history, religion has scratched the existential itch. Indeed, religion has been perhaps the most powerful cultural force in human history.  And while science is catching up, the need to believe has some conflating the method with a belief system known as “scientism.”

Humanism seeks to fill the belief need, but when it comes to death, it falls short. Samuel G. Freedman, writing in the New York Times has noticed, in the context of the Newtown atrocity/tragedy. From the thought provoking, “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent:”

The funerals and burials over the past two weeks have taken place in Catholic, Congregational, Mormon and United Methodist houses of worship, among others. They have been held in Protestant megachurches and in a Jewish cemetery. A black Christian youth group traveled from Alabama to perform “Amazing Grace” at several of the services.

This illustration of religious belief in action, of faith expressed in extremis, an example at once so heart-rending and so affirming, has left behind one prickly question: Where were the humanists? At a time when the percentage of Americans without religious affiliation is growing rapidly, why did the “nones,” as they are colloquially known, seem so absent?

Perhaps because they don’t have enough to offer:

Yet, in the view of internal critics like Mr. Epstein and Dr. Ray, humanism suffers in certain ways for its valorization of the individual. The inside joke is that creating a humanist group is like “herding cats.” “You can’t just be talking about cowboy individualists anymore,” Dr. Ray said. “We have to get out of this mentality we’ve been in over the past 50 years of just saying how stupid religion is. We have to create our own infrastructure.”

Mr. Epstein is currently involved in a three-year, $2.5-million project to study, develop and spread the concept of nonreligious community. But he believes that better organizing must be accompanied by better messaging. “A lot of humanist rhetoric of previous generations revolved around reason,” he said. “We’d say, ‘We’re people of reason rather than people of faith.’ But I’ve always been uncomfortable with that as the banner under which we march. We need to think of reason in the service of compassion — caring, being cared-about, a life of meaningful connection. Reason itself is the tool. When we see it as the end-product we miss the point.”

Community is important in a time of crisis and grief. No question. The religious, areligious, and irreligious act communally in the face of death. We express our empathy and sympathy. We let the bereaved know we love them. We extol the dearly departed. We rush to each other’s sides to help support those whose knees have buckled.

But is that enough?  I was recently at a Greek Orthodox funeral of a friend who died too young of cancer.  In his homily, the priest said two things that struck me in the sweet spot: First, that in faith “death is not the end of love,” by which he meant that it continued as a two-way street. And second, he said, “We grieve in hope.”

Bingo! I saw the succor the priest’s assurances gave the grieving husband and mother, a comfort that extended beyond what we mourners could offer by participating in the communal act of funeral attendance. That hope is something humanism just cannot offer.

Community is important.  But for many, it isn’t nearly enough. In the end I don’t think humanism can fully fill the human ”belief” need because of the finite limits of human action.



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