Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

Second lecture in a class on humanism.

If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.


(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.

Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?

This issue has been framed in other ways. For example, there’s the old saying: There are no atheists in fox holes. Part of what makes this such a powerful critique is that many humanists have not had to test their humanism in times of extreme personal crisis. What happens to the humanist in the fox hole? would he or she start praying, or not?


(2) Critique number two is the postmodern critique of humanism on the basis of excessive rationality and excessive individualism. Harvey Sarles has made one such critique of humanism. Sarles begins by pointing out that humanism is very much a product of the Enlightenment, that intellectual tradition that began in the 1700s in Western Europe. Sarles says, in part: “The story of the Enlightenment, calculated and effective in killing off the myths of transcendent deities, fighting off the realities and claims of monarchy, has also of late been producing a lot of garbage. We live longer but don’t think much about living well; save time with all of the modern conveniences but seem to live breathlessly with less and less time. … The skepticism of the Enlightenment concerning facts of nature has entered our thinking, leading to skepticisms about the very possibility of knowledge, sliding to various cynicisms, and the meaning-destroying nihilisms of frantic modernists.” [Sarles, Harvey, and Andreas Rosenberg, “An Epistolary Exchange,” Humanism Today, vol. 8, 1993, pp. 31-61]

Part of the point here is that humanism is actually part of a political project — I’m sure you noticed how Sarles tied the Enlightenment in with the project to end monarchy. We could go further, and say that humanism seems to be allied with free market capitalism. It also seems to be allied with individualism. Indeed, if we wanted to point to one of humanism’s most powerful proponents, we could point to the novelist Ayn Rand — which will please some humanists, but even they should remember that there are serious critiques of Ayn Rand on the basis of her extreme individualism, and perhaps her lack of humane values.

Leaving Ayn Rand out of the picture, we can still imagine critiquing humanism because of its extreme skepticism — a core part of humanism for many humanists is disbelief in God. And we could critically ask: Where does skepticism stop? Let’s not believe in God, fine, but do we then believe in human ideals, or should we stop all beliefs that aren’t absolutely provable?


(3) Critique number three: There’s another postmodern critique of humanism, this one of the basis of sexism and racism and classism. Thus, some feminists will say that it’s all very well for men (and some women) to disbelieve any transcendent deity, but for many women it’s extremely important to believe in the Goddess. This point is made by prominent feminist theologian Carol Christ in an essay titled “Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections.” [Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979, pp. 273-287] Obviously, not all women are convinced by this argument, but it’s still a powerful critique.

Others have been skeptical of humanism and atheism because so many of its public faces are middle-aged white European or Euro-American men. Sure, it’s easy for Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to be atheists — white middle-class men created the Enlightenment, and humanism has been created in the image of the Enlightenment, which for some non-white, non-male, non-middle class persons that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for them. And while there are groups like the African American Humanists, and feminist humanist groups, they don’t get a lot of publicity.

One way to address this critique is to allow for a sort of soft humanism; that is to say, it is possible to define humanism such that it does not automatically equate with atheism. However, doing this really annoys more hardline humanists, some of whom simply don’t want to face up to this critique.


(4) Critique number four: There’s a very subtle and interesting critique of non-theistic humanism in Harvey Cox’s most recent book, The Future of Faith. [New York: Harper Collins, 2009] In this book, Cox makes a convincing case that everything is changing right now. He suggests that “a fundamental change in the nature of religiousness is occurring. This change assumes different shapes, but some of them overlap.” Among other examples of this change in the nature of religion, Cox asserts that “many [religions] are becoming less dogmatic and more practical. Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines.” [pp. 222-223]

Cox adds the following: “As these changes gain momentum, they evoke an almost point-for-point fundamentalist reaction.” Though Cox doesn’t mention humanist forms of fundamentalism, there are indeed humanist forms of fundamentalism, which are even now offering point-for-point rebuttals of progressive religion. I believe that humanist fundamentalists are still a minority of all humanists; however, the humanist fundamentalists are getting more strident, and the more strident they get, the more they will be noticed. So other humanists had better address this change in the nature of religiousness that Cox is talking about, for if it is as widespread as he claims, humanism runs the risk of encasing a worthy theological approach in a social construct that is outdated — I imagine the humanist equivalent of the Amish, where there are certain rules you must follow or you are expelled from the humanist community.

(5) There’s the social justice or liberation critique, which points out that self-professed humanists, and humanism as a movement, can point to few or no major accomplishments in social justice — humanism has no Martin Luther King, no Mahatma Gandhi. This is also the pragmatist’s critique.

Now this may be an unjustified critique, because there are probably lots of humanists in the not-so-distant past who hid their humanism for a variety of reasons, or who have been ignored by history. In a number of recent books, humanist theologian Anthony Pinn has traced the history of African American humanists, to make the point that there have been some prominent African Americans who could be considered humanists, and these are people with some pretty major accomplishments. For example, Pinn shows how Frederick Douglass appears to have come to a humanist stance late in his life.

But while this may be an unjustified critique, it’s really up to humanists to disprove it; I mean, nobody else is going to take the time. So the proper way for humanists to address this critique is for them to hold up moral and social justice exemplars of humanism.


(6) Which brings us to critique number six: This is the critique which says humanism is too vaguely defined, and doesn’t really mean anything. Or to put it another way, there’s been no major systematic treatment of humanism, no systematic theology as it were. Underlying this critique is the feeling that humanists spend all their time disproving God, and very little of their time coming up with a positive, constructive statement of their position.

Let me give a specific example of this. Christians have hagiography and Christology, that is, the description of saints and the study of the nature of Jesus Christ. Certain branches of Buddhism have their arhats and other moral exemplars, and all Buddhists tell the story of how Siddhartha Guatama found the middle way. But humanists have no equivalent study — they have no systematic way of holding up moral exemplars. (There actually is a name for such a study, aretalogy.)

In another similar example, while traditional theology has the study of theological anthropology, that is, the study of the nature of human beings and human kind, humanists seem to cede this study to natural science. But natural science really doesn’t tell us what it means to be an individual human being from the point of view of me, or of you — science is necessarily abstracted.

And where are the humanist equivalents of soteriology (well, William R. Jones has done some of that work), eschatology, ecclesiology, etc.? Where is the humanist version of liberation theology (well, maybe Anthony Pinn is working on that one)? Humanism seems to focus exclusively on ontology and metaphysics, and most people aren’t very interested in humanist versions of ontology and metaphysics, since humanists seem to rehash the same old philosophical arguments that go back to Plato and Aristotle. I’m not trying to be harsh here, I’m trying to be honest about this critique.


(7) Finally, here’s a seventh critique of humanism. If humanism is what its name implies, a religious attitude that places humans in the center of the universe, then we can critique humanism from an ecological point of view. Humanism is by definition anthropocentric. This might well imply that humanism supports the exploitation of natural resources for human needs without concern for other living beings. This critique is implicit in many deep ecological viewpoints.

Of all the critiques I’ve heard of humanism, I find this one most convincing. As much inspiration as I personally draw from humanism — and I draw a lot of inspiration from humanism — I have not found an adequate humanist answer to the ecological critique. If you want an anthropocentric religious stance, humanism is the one for you — but I don’t want that, and this I think is why I’m willing to call myself a religious naturalist but I’m not willing to call myself a humanist.


So there you have seven fairly interesting critiques of humanism. When I say they’re fairly interesting, I mean two things: (a) on the one hand they are not the same old unending arguments that can be summed up as: “God doesn’t exist”; “God does too exist”; “Does not”; “Does too” etc. and (b) on the other hand these are arguments that can’t be immediately dismissed out of hand. These strike me as fruitful areas for further conversation, both within humanism, and between humanists and non-humanists.

Link to first lecture.

This lecture is copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper. This lecture may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes only, provided this copyright notice accompanies all copies.

11 thoughts on “Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

  1. Jean

    For #6, I would offer that a great number of late-20th century poets address the project of “the study of the nature of human beings and human kind.” Of course, that “study” leads to no systematic anything. Yet, poets like James Wright, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, and others who write in a thoughtful, accessible, questioning manner about our existence as human beings are worth looking at for the larger possibilities of what humanism could be. Which can deal with #1 and #2.

    For #7, as one who can go for long periods of time alone, and speaking only to animals,and the occasional plant (!), and find this both joyous and transcendent, much more so than a great deal of what passes for human centered thought and activities, I rather like this critique. I don’t know that this would make me want, necessarily, to call myself a Religious Naturalist, but rather perhaps a Spiritual one.

    Interesting stuff!

  2. Erp (Emma)

    Still thinking given that there is a lot to digest here (and at the class). I wonder though whether some would classify naturalism as a subset or offshoot of humanism?

    So my first volley:

    A key point seems to be “If humanism is what its name implies, a religious attitude that places humans in the center of the universe”. Is the premise accurate or is ‘humanism’ like ‘theology’ a word whose roots can mislead. Humans are the measurers because we have no other recourse (short of other intelligent species we can communicate with [or God assuming existence and ability to communicate]). We are also each ‘a center’ (not ‘the center’) because we can only perceive (and affect) what we can (mostly that which is nearer to us, the universe itself has no center). The ideal relative position of humans to other parts of nature should be discussed, and, I suspect many different views fall under the umbrella of humanism (including perhaps naturalism). In the long run it will be dust to dust for our species and not just for us individually.

  3. Dan

    Emma — You write: “or is ‘humanism’ like ‘theology’ a word whose roots can mislead.”

    This seems quite likely. At the same time, this is a self-critique raised by some humanists. If this critique is taken seriously, I believe it could lead to a richer and more nuanced articulation of humanism — perhaps in much the same direction you outline in your comment. Certainly William R. Jones was headed in this direction both in his concept of functional ultimacy, and when he quoted Protagoras as saying human beings are the measure of all things — thus (I believe) he carefully avoids untenable ontological claims.

    For me, this critique leads me to want to do two things: (1) try to develop a fuller theological anthropology, that is, to better articulate what it means to be human, in terms of how we as human beings experience that; and (2) try to come up with a satisfactory ontological basis for humanism, an ontological basis that is more satisfying than mere positivism or scientism. All of which tends to lead me in the direction of religious naturalism.

    As for whether religious naturalism is a subset of humanism, historically the answer is probably no — they are probably parallel and closely related positions. Jerome Stone’s Religious Naturalism (2008) is supposed to be a fuller exposition of religious naturalism, but I haven’t read it yet — ask me again after I’ve read it.

  4. Dan

    Jean — In terms of your first point, relating to critique no. 6, I’d suggest that the poets you’re talking can trace their intellectual roots back to Renaissance humanism (which was not an atheistic humanism). And that gets us into the murky waters of what “humanism” really means.

    As for your response to critique no. 7, that’s pretty much where I’m coming from, except that I talk to plants more than to animals.

  5. Doug Traversa

    To answer #1, I am agnostic, have been to war in Afghanistan, and have lived with the certainty that I was about to die. I never resorted to prayer. So no, this argument does not hold water. There are indeed atheists and agnostics in foxholes.

  6. Rex Styzens

    The discussion of the term “humanism” is very much alive in the field of sociology of religion. The Web site Immanent Frame has been offering a discussion with Charles Taylor about his latest book A SECULAR AGE. The responses, both admiring and critical, add up to the view that it is not at all clear what “secular” means.

    On another related theme, the site also offers a discussion of Stefanos Geroulanos’ recent book titled, AN ATHEISM THAT IS NOT HUMANIST EMERGES IN FRENCH THOUGHT. Needless to say that can jumble one’s expectations about humanism.

    If one is looking for a ‘theological’ discussion from a humanist perspective (re: your critique #6) and expect to find it modeled on a traditional Christian framework, one can well look in vain. If one is looking for a thorough philosophical, ethical, and inspirational explication of humanism, it is what many scholars in the humanities and social sciences are discussing these days. Join the fun!

  7. Dan

    Doug @ 5 — Thanks for this comment! I will share this with the humanism class I’m teaching.

    Rex Styzens @ 6 — You write: “If one is looking for a ‘theological’ discussion from a humanist perspective (re: your critique #6) and expect to find it modeled on a traditional Christian framework, one can well look in vain. If one is looking for a thorough philosophical, ethical, and inspirational explication of humanism, it is what many scholars in the humanities and social sciences are discussing these days. Join the fun!”

    Please remember that this is not “my” critique, this is a critique that is out there in the wider world. Please note, too, that the critique does not call for a systematic theology modelled on Christian frameworks — the word “systematic,” though used by Christian theologians, is certainly not their exclusive property. If you are repelled by Christianity, I could point to Starhawk as someone who does a fine job of systematizing Neopagan theology, and Thich Nhat Hanh as someone who has done a fine job of giving a systematic account of engaged Buddhism. The real point here is that until someone gives a systematic account, we don’t know what we’re dealing with. Starhawk gets that — she knew that in order for Neopaganism to be taken seriously, someone had to give a systematic account — but humanists don’t seem to get this.

    And part of what this critique is trying to get at is that humanists seem to abandon religion, and go off into other fields. Sharon Welch is an example of this phenomenon — last time I heard her speak, she said she no longer thinks of herself as working in theology, she thinks of herself as an ethicist. This is a perfectly valid move to make, but when humanists abandon religion, then we’re not going to have a serious religious explication of humanism — we’ll have ethics, and social sciences, and humanities, as you say, but we won’t have religion. So instead of addressing the substance of this critique, for me your response just reinforces that this critique seems to have some validity — even though it is not, as I pointed out, my critique to begin with.

  8. Ron Schaeffer

    As a general response and not rebutting each and every critique individually, I believe there is significant difference between “religious humanism”, as I try to practice and the secular humanism of a Christopher Hitchens. I believe it is clearly true that there is a continuim in any religious movement.
    For me, it is more agnostic – I (we) simply don’t know if there is a god, or if we are subtly being guided by some exterior force. My religious humanist belief is that it is up to us (not a god) to live productive and ethical lives. I do believe the word “religious” is important and makes a difference for me. It’s about connection (with others and within ourselves). Love is that connection. Furthermore, I have concluded in my senior days that life is all about relationships and a key element in forging healthy and lasting relationships is this “Universalist Love”.

    I suspect this view does not counter all seven critiques, but I’m most comfortable labeling myself and living out a “religious humanist” life.

  9. Dan

    Ron @ 8 — Nicely put. When you say: “My religious humanist belief is that it is up to us…”, I feel you are not too far from William R. Jones’ concept of functional ultimacy — which to me is one of the most powerful tools humanists have to moving beyond many of these critiques.

    I have to say that personally I’m not too worried about countering the critiques, so much as acknowledging that they’re out there and that they are valid critiques. I think of theology as a conversation where often when you listen carefully to someone who disagrees with you, you gain new perspective on your own viewpoint — and sometimes that moves you forward, and gives you new insight into your own theology.

  10. Dan

    John @ 10 — I didn’t even notice that it had been aggregated. I guess I should be paying more attention.

    For the record, i regularly critique Christianity and Neopaganism. Heck, I pretty much critique everything I like and feel sympathetic to.

Comments are closed.