Humans at the center of the universe

Dad made an interesting suggestion this afternoon when I was talking with him. He suggested that calling oneself a humanist might tend to indicate that one assumes that human beings are at the center of existence. This might imply that those who are committed to environmental justice and ecological repair might prefer to call themselves naturalists (as in, a religious naturalist or theological naturalist).

Dad put it much better than that, but I think I’ve managed to communicate his basic idea. And I think he’s identified some of my discomfort with the term “humanism” — I don’t want to be associated with a theological label that puts humans at the center of the universe, because in my opinion a big part of the problem with Western culture is that it makes humans more important than any other kind of life form, an attitude that has gotten us into global climate change, denial of global climate change, release of toxics into the environment, etc.

What do you think? Does humanism put humans at the center of the universe? Is that a bad thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d particularly love to hear from someone who strongly identifies with both humanism and deep ecology, mostly because from my point of view those two positions would be mutually exclusive.

11 thoughts on “Humans at the center of the universe”

  1. The climate change and release of toxics that you mention are harmful to humans, but not all life forms, so in a sense, these are human-centric concerns.

    I believe that we need to be human-centric to a degree, protecting our own species while causing the minimum amount of harm and suffering to other species in the process.

    However, I don’t believe this includes the torture and slaughter of other beings so that we can eat their flesh for nothing but a taste preference.

  2. The climate change and release of toxics that you mention are harmful to humans, but not all life forms, so in a sense, these are human-centric concerns.

    I believe that we need to be human-centric to a degree, protecting our own species while causing the minimum amount of harm and suffering to other species in the process.

    However, I don’t believe this includes the torture and slaughter of other beings so that we can eat their flesh for nothing but a taste preference.

  3. I think the concept that identifying as a humanist implies a disregard for nature or for lives other beings rather insulting. As humanist we need to take a page from the neo-pagan reclaiming movement and reclaim our religious language.

  4. The only comment I have is that I used a stronger word to express my feeling, as stated below.
    I feel that calling oneself “humanist” constitutes an arrogant assumption that humans are more important than all other natural things.
    “Secular naturalist” is another possible label for those who do not believe in a deity.

  5. Spending as much time as I do with animals, I can say for certain that if being labeled a “humanist” puts me at the center of the universe, I don’t want that label. We humans understand the world in a far different way than animals do. We tend to rely on vision first and foremost (if we are sighted); we value information over intuition and instinct; we are pretty lousy at reading body language; and, we can be very clumsy about understanding systems.

    Animals — and I’m thinking here of horses especially — are very good at using all their senses. Horses listen, watch, smell, taste and even feel their environments, taking in all the cues and clues to let them know what is happening, and where. They are also quite good at reading body language — that of other horses, and of people. They trust their intuition and instinct, and they are brilliant at making systems (herds) work effectively.

    So, no. I don’t want to be a humanist. I think that label privileges human beings, prompts us to think we are the center, and act accordingly. We might do well to spend some time observing how other beings live and interact. Learn from them. Change how we live and interact.

    And now I am going to go eat a carrot.

  6. I don’t think that human-centrism is necessarily a part of being humanist. The problem is linguistic. Various humanisms–the philosophy and theological stances–adopted that term as a contrast to belief in God or as an assertion of respect for human abilities (e.g., reason) and concerns (e.g., poverty). The devastation wrought by seeing humans as the pinnacle of creation was not understood then as well as it is now, or perhaps the early humanists would have chosen another term.

    My theology corresponds to much of what has been called humanism, but I’m a deep ecologist, so if humanism had to mean human-centrism, I’d shun the term. And I’m a Roddenberrian: it’s absurd to think that humans occupy the only planet that has developed art, language, music, science, technology, and the like. (I’m pretty sure that the citizens of the other ones don’t speak English, however. My Roddenberrianism has its limits.)

    “Naturalist” works better for me, but there are always objections to the implications of that term. It has many, from art to politics.

  7. Dan – the term “humanism” may have implied a more human-centric view in the past. But that may not be true today.

    This is similar to changes with the term “Unitarian” that once implied a belief in one god. With atheist UUs and pagan UUs one might say Unitarian means “one god … more or less.”

    The most recent Humanist Manifesto talks about humanity’s obligation to ” … protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.”

    It also acknowledges that humans are just another integral part of nature that (like all other organisms) has developed from undirected evolutionary change.

    This doesn’t sound like a theological or philosophical that assumes that humans are the center of existence.

    For any humanist who understands evolutionary biology, they aren’t going to think that humanity is the center of the universe or the pinnacle of creation.

  8. One reason for ‘human’ in humanism might be a recognition that we humans are the ones figuring out the best ethics/values we can (slowly though it has been especially when it comes to considering the rest of nature [or humans beyond our own group]), not an external ‘god’ who some claim has given us the right system (even though that system was also developed by humans).

  9. Thank you, all, for your thoughtful comments. Good stuff here, and it seems to me that this is a useful conversation to have all around. Marzipan @3, I think you’re on to something important — those who identify as humanists need to take charge of what your label really means — and as Steve @7 points out, there is a history of “humanism” meaning “humans at the center.”

    Take for example William R. Jones’s statement in 1974 that humanism has as a root concept what Protagoras articulated in the phrase “Man is the measure of all things.” This is not a simple theological point at all — it could be interpreted along the lines of Erp @8, or the way my dad does in comment 4. This is a live issue that must be hashed out — in fact, given the ecological crisis, I would argue that it is perhaps the most important crisis facing humanism today.

    Of course, all other major world religions are facing the issue of ecological crisis, too. But many other religious traditions have tackled this straight on, and there’s a rich literature out there. To start with, you can try the series of books in the Forum of Religion and Ecology series, published by Harvard University Press, with more info at http://fore.research.yale.edu/publications/books/book_series/cswr/index.html

  10. The term “humanism” has never made much sense to me; but neither has theism, unitarianism, universalism, darwinismm, socialism… I think all “isms” are an attempt to reduce something complex into a sound-bite. So whether you call it humanism or religious naturalism doesn’t matter a hoot to me. I’d rather listen to a person explain what’s really important to them.

  11. I am an Aardvarkian. It is common knowledge among the chosen that God is an Aardvark.

    The Aardvarkian God has all of the powers ascribed to most man made gods – All-knowing, All-powerful etc.

    The reason we have difficulty understanding why God seems to allow so much evil in the world is because we haven’t evolved to the point where we see life with the perspective of an aardvark – or ‘Through Gods eyes”.

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