Must Humanism Be Reasonable?
This platform address by Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, was delivered on March 17, 2013.
I want to dedicate my address this morning to the life and memory of my esteemed colleague, Dr. Matthew Ies Spetter, who died last December at the age of 91.
Dr. Spetter’s formative experiences were shaped by the Second World War. Ies, as we used to call him, was born in the the Netherlands, and during World War II was a liaison officer between sections of the Dutch and French undergrounds in Nazi-occupied Europe. He was caught by the Nazis, condemned to death, and was held captive at the Buchenwald and Auschwitz death camps. He escaped the gas chambers as a result of a clerical error, and once freed, served as a witness at the Nuremburg Trials before coming to the United States.
In the U.S., he discovered the Ethical Movement and worked as a leader intern in Brooklyn with the leader then, Henry Neuman. He served for several decades as the leader of the Riverdale Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, where he became best known to us, and finished his career as a part-time leader of the New York Society.
Ies received his PhD from the NewSchool, trained as a psychotherapist and practiced psychotherapy during his long career. In 1960, he founded the Riverdale Mental Health Clinic, which still survives. He long taught ethics at the Ethical Culture Schools, chaired the Ethics Department, and taught peace studies at ManhattanCollege. Ies lectured often and wrote several books, all of which were dedicated to expounding his philosophy of life.
Ies was always a very formal man, a European man, who took life and Ethical Culture, to which he was wholeheartedly devoted, very seriously. And because he did, many of us take it seriously as well.
Humanism based on personal experience: There is no doubt that Dr. Spetter’s understanding of humanism and Ethical Culture intimately emerged from his personal life experience. To give you a taste of his humanism, I would like to quote from the very beginning of his book, Man the Reluctant Brother. His opening words are rather harrowing. He wrote as follows:
“I need truth because I was an eyewitness to the premeditated murder of children.
The killers were men and women of a nation much akin to my own. The children were ours.
I need truth because my generation allowed the ultimately impermissible and because such killing continues. Men everywhere, while protesting their abhorrence, are still willing to permit the impermissible, still willing to kill as “a necessary evil,” still willing to appease their conscience with justifications which fasten the tyranny of evil upon their souls.
I need truth and therefore, behind the veil of language and the logic of argument of this book stands my personal urgency. If no one is willing to renounce the murder of children how will we then be answerable for anything?
The murder I witnessed was of the children of Europe in Word War II. But many more murders have since been added. The killing was against children from France and Holland and Norway and Poland and Russia. They were of all religious backgrounds, though the children of defenseless minorities were the prime targets. Their very defenselessness fanned the ferocity of the killers. Some children were suffocated by gas; some children were buried alive, some children were torn to pieces by fragmentation or fire bombs; some children were given neither food nor water.
All children were taken to be killed: lame children and blind children, children in hospitals and children in the street coming from school, children in light summer clothes, children who had gone for a swim. Yes, even children were taken who wept because they were afraid,
I have seen this and speak of it, not with sentimentality but with outrage and I will not permit it to be locked from you heart.”
No doubt, my colleague Dr. Spetter did not have a sunny view of the human condition. As a young man he had witnessed and was a survivor of the darkest underside of human behavior. But he was by no means a defeatist or fatalist. His commitment to humanism was forged out of that sense of the evil propensities of which human beings are capable. As he often said of Ethical Culture and of us: Our mission is to rescue the human from all those forces which seek to degrade it. “Whatever we do,” I recall him saying years ago, “we must not hold human life cheaply.” It is a lesson that has stayed with me ever since.
From horror to hope: Just as he begins his book with horror, so he ends it with a note of hope. He wrote:
“I hold deeply that each life is a gift which the centuries bestow upon the continuity of existence.
A Passio Humana, a passion for Man, is what will negate totalitarianism and oppression, it will open the jail-doors of history, provided our mutuality and love outpace our tools. All of us are constantly close to death and yet we are also in touch with the perpetuation of life through what we create and build.
The sense of future derived from this position has resulted for me in an infusion of insight, which even at moments during my captivity, when death seemed certain and sealed, did not desert me.”
Spetter, philosophically, was a kind of existentialist, believing that we can and we must forge our own lives and futures out of our experience, and out of the best that lies within us. His writings and speeches are frequently sprinkled with references to the great humanist Albert Camus, who wrote movingly of the courage and greatness of the human being, who, when confronted by adversity had the ability for sacrifice and courage. He also quoted often from Martin Buber, who wrote poetically about the irreducibility of the humanity that lies within each of us.
It was such ideas that framed Matthew Spetter’s understanding of humanism. His humanism reached deeply and ranged widely across human experience. He saw the life of men and women lived out between good and evil, life and death, triumph and tragedy, courage and frailty, hope and despair, what the world is and what it might be. And throughout, his mission was to inspire us to summon our agency and courage to fashion a world in which, again, the lives and humanity of women, men and children would be esteemed and not held cheaply. His humanism was a richer and deeper humanism. And from my own humble perspective, I think that my venerable colleague got it right.
I rest upon Spetter’s humanism as prelude to try to explain my understanding of humanism. And to do so I want to focus on the cherished value of reason, and the place of reason in a humanistic philosophy of life.
Prove it: There is little doubt in my mind that Dr. Spetter was rationalist, and so am I. What I mean by this is that I highly value reason and try to conduct my life by its guiding light. In the most intimate sense, I measure my beliefs by the test of reason. I tend to be what you might call an intellectual rigorist. In other words, I like to think of myself as adopting a belief as my own only when it conforms to evidence and to the canons of reason. I want my beliefs to be proportionate to the facts, so to speak, and if a proposition contradicts the facts, the preponderance of evidence or rational consistency, then my inclination is to reject it. I affirm that there is no dignity in asserting what reason tells us is not true. When presented with a proposition that does sound right to me, my first inclination is to say “prove it,” skeptic that I am. When I say that my beliefs need to pass these tests in order for me to accept them, I am not saying that I must personally and directly be witness to the facts and to the evidence that emerges from them. Most of us appropriately accept the beliefs of other people, credentialed and experienced scientists or other experts, for example, whose authority we trust. And this is the way it must be. Our beliefs must often rest upon secondhand authority, authority that we believe also passes the tests of evidence and of reason.
I want not only my beliefs but my choices in life to be guided by reason. Without reason, we flop around lost, guided only by our hunches, our intuitions and impulses. We need reason as the basis of living a good, productive and dignified life. And we need reason for sake of sustaining an orderly and civilized society.
Mentioning science, I note that science is the most powerful and productive application of reason that humankind has ever created. Science is the most reliable tool ever forged to grasp a handle on how reality is put together. And the application of science continues to phenomenally expand our understanding of the natural world and to transform the condition of society in ways that would have been totally unimaginable to people just a few centuries ago. I am not a scientist, but I greatly esteem science and the power of the scientific method. If we had to point to a single enterprise that represents the success of the human species it would be, I submit, the career of science and the application of science in creating the modern world. I think it is only a fool who dismisses the deliverances of scientific knowledge. And unfortunately, there are many such fools.
Aesthetics of reason: And finally, I believe that reason can be elegant. I suspect that mathematicians, philosophers and scientists know this well. When previously dissociated and confused ideas rationally pull together, not only do they compellingly grip the mind, they also stimulate our aesthetic sensibilities. In short, ideas ordered by the template of reason can be beautiful.
It is my commitment to reason and the test of evidence that long ago caused me to give up a belief in a Divine Custodian, a supernatural Being who lords over us, cares for us and judges us. I simply see no evidence, moral or empirical, for such a Being.
It is the cherishing of reason and the salient place that it has in my life and character, that leads me to identify myself as a rationalist. But I must say, that having so declared myself, I do not equate humanism, as I understand it, with rationalism. To but it more pointedly, reason alone does not a humanist make. Or, to state it more dryly, reason is a necessary but not sufficient condition to serve as the exclusive basis for humanism.
To be candid, what leads me to deal with this topic is the recent emergence of a multitude of organizations that are known as “rationalist”, “secular” or “atheist” groups. Some are very new and some have been around a long while but are experiencing a period of revitalization. All but the last cluster would identify themselves as humanist organizations And since they so identify themselves as humanist and so do we, it is easy for those inside Ethical Culture and outside of it to assume that these groups and Ethical Culture are one and the same, and that they are virtually interchangeable with regard to their underlying and animating philosophies. Among the groups I have in mind are the American Humanist Association, which has been around since the 1930s, the Council for Secular Humanism, which publishes Free Inquiry magazine, the Secular Coalition, the Coalition of Reason and others. And since many of these groups for the moment seem to be flourishing and are in the public eye, there is a natural tendency to move toward them.
Coalitions can be powerful: Let me state squarely that I don’t share this tendency. But I must be clear about where I stand. I wish these organizations well. They do things I believe in and support. And I also firmly believe in coalitions, and I think that Ethical Culture, especially since it is a small organization, should seek to join coalitions with which we have important overlapping interests. Coalitions, by definition are organizations that are set up for a single purpose, or a small set of purposes, and are made up of organizations that may have very different philosophies and goals, but find common cause in this one project or purpose. When I represented the Ethical Culture Society on the board of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, a coalition of many organizations, I was happy sit at the same table with a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, an organization that shared by disdain for capital punishment, but with which I shared little else. After all, he represented an organization of 60 million, I, 3,000, and we each had equally one vote.
Likewise, when the secular and rationalist groups are fighting to protect the rights of secularists, or are defending the separation of church and state, or are trying the beat back the churches in their takeover of the public square, or legitimate the place of secularists and atheists in the fabric of American society, I am happy to join in coalition with them to fight for these concerns. These are things I care about. In fact, militantly so.
But my willingness to join with them to support common projects, does not to my mind suggest an identification with such organizations, because in significant ways I differ from them, and have a very different view as to what humanism means. I simply do not resonate with their music. Their dance is not a dance I do.
I may be an outlier in the Ethical Culture Movement, and even among my professional colleagues, in that I have never joined nor have I ever been a member of any organization that calls itself “humanist” other than Ethical Culture. This is my sole organizational identification and Ethical Culture is where my exclusive loyalty lies and always has. I may occasionally attend the meetings of other groups, and even write for their magazines, and as mentioned, am eager to work with them toward common political goals, but as an outsider and not as insider. I have some important things in common with them, but I don’t feel a kinship, that I belong with them as a fellow member.
And to proclaim a heresy and for the sake of honest disclosure, I sometimes feel more comfortable and more at home among liberal clergy of the traditional religions, who root their ethics in ancient, venerable and rich traditions, than I do among the members of rationalist and secular groups, whose agendas I often find limited and whose understanding of humanism I often find one-dimensional, dry, and in a certain sense, brittle. It is this that I need to explain at greater length, because it is at the heart of message this morning.
My center of gravity: First I need to say that this address may seem to some to be an exemplification of what Sigmund Freud brilliantly referred to as the “narcissism of small differences,” that I am making something big out of something small. But I don’t think so. I have been a professional in Ethical Culture, if I include my training, for what is now 44 years. It is not a job, but a life-absorbing vocational commitment which has long become part and parcel of who I am. It is with me and in me all the time. My humanism is something I live and breathe, and in that sense is near and dear to me and very deeply felt. It helps define where my center of gravity of lies. It is something that I think about and reinforce constantly. And out of this lived commitment, I come to the conclusion and the conviction that humanism encompasses far more than reason or rationalism can contain.
Here is what I mean. However essential reason is to my identity as a humanist, I recognize that reason in the final analysis is a tool. However glorious, reason remains a tool, an instrumentality, a means that enables us to achieve goals and interests that themselves transcend reason and that reason has little to do with. In other words, the nature of human beings is such that the ultimate ends we seek are not themselves rational. For whatever reasons, some people cannot be happy unless they risk their lives scaling mountains, or work endless hours to become prima ballerinas. Some find meaning in turning their bodies into sculptures through hanging out at the gym and the extraordinary effort of lifting weights six hours a day, six days a week. Others find meaning by teaching others new skills, or by beating out the next guy on the stock market, by being entertainers or winning Scrabble competitions, or dedicating themselves to communicating to others ethical values and social ideals. Many others yearn to be parents and nurture children and their lives would be diminished if they were childless. One of the most interesting things about human beings is the almost infinite variety of their values, goals, their dreams and aspirations. And these things we yearn for most do not emerge from reason, they come from the deepest recesses of our being, our hearts, if you will, and very often they emerge from us unbidden. We simply find meaning and pursue our happiness for causes that are diverse and often arbitrary, just as we might prefer chocolate to pistachio, and reason may help us achieve our aspirations and our wants. But reason is not their source. As the philosopher, Schopenhauer, once said, “I can do what I want, but I cannot want what I want.” Our wants and desires arise in us from our inner depths, just as our impulses do.
We are creatures of reason to be sure. And reason is essential to life, and it ennobles us. But our humanity extends far more broadly than our reason does. We are also creatures of love and desire, compassion and aspiration, of devotion, of hate and fear, of foibles and foolishness, of joy and sorrow, of courage and self-doubt and irrationality, too, and much, much more. There is much to life that reason cannot penetrate or explain. There is irony and paradox, tragedy and contradiction, and even aspects of human experience that are mysterious and defy rational understanding. Out of these depths both known and unknown to us comes our creativity, the human impulse to create art and music, poetry and fulfill our infinite longings in the service of which we seek fulfillment and our need to put the stamp of meaning on our lives. This is all part of the human experience, which a wider humanism embraces, but reason, not so.
Reason falls short: Another way to state this is that reason is cold. Reason does not provide warmth, belonging, and does satisfy the need for love, friendship, family, charity, sympathy, devotion, sanctity or forgiveness. But, my point is that my understanding of humanism does.
The Roman playwright Terrence once wrote: “I am a human being. Therefore nothing human is alien from me.” The infinite varieties of human expression should be a source of curiosity and interest for us. The secularist and rationalist groups tend to be anti-religious, condemning the religions on the grounds that so many of the beliefs and doctrines of the traditional faiths are patently irrational. Indeed the very idea of faith as a justification for holding beliefs that are counter-rational is itself irrational. There is, of course, much that is valid in this critique that I agree with as far as it goes. And much evil is perpetrated in the name of religion, to be sure. Parenthetically for me, one imposing question is what role the new Pope, whose ascension is reported with such saccharine goodness and light, really played in Argentina’s “dirty war,” in which vast swaths of the Catholic church had complicity with fascism, murder, torture and repression. I am not naïve to the evil done in the name of religion or when religion is conjoined with political force.
But there is another side. If religion is a human creation, and I believe that it is, then it is a human expression, just as art and music are human expressions, and like art and music is very widespread and has given birth to traditions that are both ancient and very complex, and in their own ways highly sophisticated. Religion can also be a quest for ultimate meaning and therefore its significance shouldn’t be alien to us. If this is the case, then it seems that religion should at least be an object of curiosity and fascination as a human expression, rather than wholesale rejection. And we can see aspects of religion within the humanist frame and not exclusively as humanism’s enemy.
A wider humanism can even understand the irrational as a human expression. The Greek tragedians certainly understood the suffering of tragic figures who were victimized by their own fatal flaws, which were as much part of their humanity as was their capacity for reason. And out of their irrational actions, generated by those tragic flaws, the ancient playwrights created great art which speaks to our common humanity over a gulf of 2,000 years.
I am by no means saying that we should embrace beliefs, religious or otherwise, that our reason tells us is not so. We can reject them and refute them. I am saying only that we should appreciate those beliefs as human expressions that in their exploration broaden and enrich our own sense of the human experience and what it means to be human.
Overly intellectual: My message should be clear. Need humanism be reasonable? Yes, absolutely, but it need be much more. I think that a humanism that identifies humanism merely with the rational, is flat, one dimensional and from my point of view, badly impoverished. It may be the reason why so many of these rational and secular groups are overly intellectual, have no communal life, and barely appreciate the humanity of association that embraces families and children. They are also politically quiet for the most part. In their over emphasis in winnowing the human experience to its rational core and their aversion to anything that doesn’t meet the test of reason, they seem to me not at all that different from the practices of religious devotees who are overly fastidious with the purity of doctrine, that is, those whom they readily condemn.
My humanism and, specifically, Ethical Culture, which is not focused primarily on reason, but on the humanity that dwells within each of us, potentially allows for a wider appreciation of human expression in its multi-dimensionality and its myriad expressions. Moreover, our commitment to “deed above creed” keeps our sights away from picayune arguments about belief, rational and otherwise, and more focused on alleviating human suffering in concrete ways. Ethical Culture thereby keeps us focused on interpersonal engagement and action in ways in which these other associations, in my view, don’t.
In closing, I seek a humanism that is sensitive to human experience in its multiple manifestations; that is moved not only by reason, but by matters of the heart that reason does not reach. I want a humanism that honors reason, but is also moved by compassion and love. I want a humanism that rejoices in the triumphs of human beings, but also embraces the human being, knowing his frailties and imperfections. I want a humanism that can respect the achievements of great men and women, but is no less moved by the precious and ineffable humanity we encounter when we look upon the face of a child.
Dr. Chuman is the longtime leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.