The Jewish Humanist, Winter 1975-76
Humanism is a life style. A life style is a way of responding to our own needs and to the needs of other people. It is a way of coping with the continuous demands of our environment and of our society.
Coping needs power. A good life style makes us aware of our power and helps us test it. Self-esteem comes from the successful use of our personal power.
A humanistic life style includes the following personal affirmations of power:
I have power to live with uncertainty.
In most traditional religions certainty is regarded as a virtue. The dogmatic and fanatic believer is preferred to the doubter and to the skeptic. Believing strongly – in spite of the evidence, or believing strongly – in the absence of evidence, is reason for praise.
Humanism finds no virtue in the fanatic believer. The age of science is an age when all statements about the world are open to public testing. If they are true, they are true in a limited way. They depend on the stingy help of limited evidence. They live with the possibility that tomorrow they may be refuted on the basis of new experiences and new discoveries. They accept the fact that they are fallible. They are willing to resign from truth and knowledge when new evidence asks them to. Unlike dogmatic theological statements they are truly humble. They do not have to be true forever and ever.
The true humanist avoids rigid belief. He has strong beliefs, based upon strong evidence, just as he has weak beliefs, based upon weak evidence. But his strong beliefs are not so strong that he cannot alter or replace them. He does not invest his ego in statements of truth. He invests his ego in the skill he possesses to believe with reservation, to be open to new ideas and theories, and to give up what the evidence can no longer sustain. He especially values the skill he has to live with no answer to important questions. If the origins of the universe are unknown, he can live without knowing. The need for answers, the need for certainty is a sickness. Healthy people prefer responsible reason to irresponsible faith.
I have the power to be generous.
Traditional religions speak a lot about sacrifice. Sacrifice is the act of diminishing myself and my possessions, for the sake of others. Sacrifice is giving myself up to the needs of others. It is a form of self-destruction. As a gift, it can only give the giver a strong sense of guilt. Both the traditional Christ figure and the stereotyped Jewish mother are expressions of sacrifice.
Humanists avoid sacrifice. They prefer generosity. The generous person assumes that when he gives to others he does not take away from himself. Since his essential identity is not to be found in the things he owns but lies in his own personal skills, the act of giving is an expression of personal; power – the power to be useful to others. If I am a poet and I give away my poems, I can still write another. If I am a carpenter and I give away my chair, I can still create another.
Generous people are neither anal nor extravagant. They do not insist on receiving equal rewards for services rendered. They do not dispose of their own goods so carelessly that they harm their own survival and the happiness of those who depend on them.
I have the power to be attractive.
Traditional religion prefers humble and reverent people who confront life by denying their own power and by affirming the power of God.
Humanism applauds the humility of living with uncertainty. But it does not commend the humble behavior of prayer and worship. It may be true that human strength is limited and that human weakness is extensive. But dwelling on helplessness is a lifestyle of despair. It is a loser’s lifestyle. It is transferring the survival technique of infants to adult life. Helplessness is attractive in infants. It is ugly on people over ten – especially if it can be avoided.
Humanists assume that they have the right to win at the game of happiness. They focus in on their weaknesses only long enough to figure out what skills they need. They do not arrange to lose before the game starts by choosing to be pitiable. Only babies and Southern belles have ever won with that technique.
Humanism, in the end, is an aesthetic option. It finds beauty in people who do not choose to whine or complain – but who dare to test their strength against the overwhelming power of a sometimes indifferent universe.