August 17, 2019

Before You Describe Yourself as a Humanist in Your Twitter Bio...

La bibliothèque humaniste de Beatus Rhenanus / Humanist Library of Beatus Rhenanus

Canadian Atheist posted an interview with Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, that caught my attention. I've been wondering about something related to humanism recently, and it seems like Speckhardt might be an ideal person to shed some light on it. And sure enough, he addressed exactly what I was hoping he might in the interview.

Right off the bat, Speckhardt was asked about the definition of humanism. He responded with the following:

Humanism is the concept of being and doing good (for yourself and others) without reference to any gods or other supernaturalisms.

The first part of this definition (i.e., the part about "being and doing good") was what I was interested in. The second part makes humanism sound a bit like atheism, but I think most of us would agree that humanism includes an ethical/moral aspect that is not part of the definition of atheism. It does not sound like much of a stretch to say that humanists ought to treat others well. That's what the "being and doing good" part likely means.

Fortunately, Speckhardt unpacked this further:

In my book, Creating Change Through Humanism, I explain that humanism rests on three pillars. First, humanism’s epistemology, or how humanists know things, is the scientific method, relied upon because experience proves it to be the best method for gaining reliable answers to any questions. Second is our compassion for humankind and the world at large. Third is our egalitarianism. Both compassion and egalitarianism arise from our empathy for humanity.

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. These last two pillars are what I'm interested in here. It sounds like compassion for others, egalitarianism, and empathy are all important parts of humanism. This is what I suspected.

I am seeing large numbers of people on Twitter who have "humanist" or "humanism" prominently featured in their bios. That would suggest that humanism is important to them and that they identify themselves as humanists. Great! The problem is I'm also seeing a surprisingly large number of these very same people insulting others on Twitter, resorting to petty name-calling when they encounter those with different opinions. Obviously, it would be a mistake to expect someone to never make mistakes or lose control just because he or she is a humanist. On the other hand, I'm seeing so many self-identified humanists behaving like this so often that I'm starting to wonder if they have any idea what humanism means.

It seems to me that if one is going to publicly identify oneself as a humanist, the rest of us should expect such a person to go out of his or her way to treat others well. That is, we should expect such a person to exhibit compassion, egalitarianism, and empathy when interacting with others. It would be unfair to expect anyone to do this all the time; however, it does seem like we should expect someone identifying as a humanist to do it most of the time.

I'd bet that every one of us has had the experience of encountering a Christian behaving horribly and pointing out (even though we probably shouldn't have done so) how inconsistent this behavior is with Christianity. We've probably said something like, "How Christian of you!" The Christian then trots out something along the lines of how only Jesus is perfect, but we are rarely impressed with this. I am often reminded of this when I encounter Twitter "humanists" treating others poorly. Do they not know what humanism means or have a very different definition of it than most of us? Or am I just expecting too much?