The New Humanism: What Is It?

Humanistic Judaism: Beyond God, Beyond No God – Summer/Autumn 2007

Is there any connection between Salman Rushdie and Humanistic Judaism? Now there is.

During the weekend of April 20-22, 2007 Rushdie was at Harvard, together with hundreds of hu­manists from North America and Europe. The occasion was the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. The mobilizer of the event was Rabbi Greg Epstein, a recent graduate of our Interna­tional Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and the current Harvard Humanist Chaplain.

Rushdie is an atheist and a humanist. He is also the man the Ayatollah condemned to death in 1989 for writing the book Satanic Verses. Born into an Indian Muslim family in Bombay and educated in England, Rushdie had already achieved fame as a novelist and commentator on Indian life. His surrealistic style of writing celebrated the absurdity of the human condition. Only laughter could do justice to the internal contradictions of Indian and Muslim life.

Condemned to assassination, Rushdie went into hiding for many years. Any public appear­ance was fraught with danger. Rushdie’s plight was testimony to the frightening terrorism of fundamentalist Islam. Rebelling against the life of recluse, Rushdie defied his enemies and be­gan to speak in public. Nothing has happened. But the decree of death has never been fully withdrawn. Courage now needs to be added to brilliance as one of his virtues. Rushdie’s ap­pearance at Harvard for a humanist conference was certainly an act of courage.

The theme of the celebration was the New Humanism. What is the difference between the “new humanism” and the “old human­ism”? The difference lies in the rejection or acceptance of the cultures of the past.

Humanism arose out of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century European intellectual movement that ushered in the Age of Science. It championed reason as the best method for the discovery of truth. It identified the consequences of human behav­ior as the best criterion for the determination of moral behavior. It celebrated human empower­ment and human dignity. It was this-worldly and optimistic, promising the improvement of the human condition here on earth.

The chief enemy of the Enlightenment was organized religion, especially organized Christianity. The war between reason and faith turned into an intense hostility between the two sides. The clergy saw secular human­ism as the ultimate foe. Secular humanists saw organized religion as the chief barrier to emancipation. The events of the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution gave testimony to the intensity of this battle.

When humanism was first turned into an organized movement in North America and Europe, humanists insisted on a clean break with the religious past. To be humanists was not to be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even a Jew. Humanists must organize themselves in opposition to traditional religious systems. This decision produced the “old humanism,” a movement profoundly hostile to churches, synagogues, and clergy.

But the old humanism was unable to mobilize most of the people who had become secular in the Age of Science. It cut people off from their cultural roots. It severed their con­nection to holidays and ceremonies, family memories and customs that possessed great cultural power. Whatever new celebrations were invented were sterile, lacking emotional and cultural depth. Humanist societies were small collections of intellectuals who felt especially wounded by dogmatic and fanatic clergy. The secularized masses that bore no conscious hostility to their roots were turned off by the perceived negativity of the old hu­manism, by the continuous denunciations of the religious enemy.

The dilemma lay in the word religion. Most secularized humanists resisted being called religious, even though they felt strong emotional connections to their religious past. Perhaps Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were more than religions. Perhaps they were cul­tural systems as well as religious systems. If you imagined that each religion was attached to a unique ideology, then such an assertion was invalid. But if it was the case that each religious system ultimately embraced many philosophies of life – some of them contradic­tory one to the other and all of them united by a single international culture – then the assertion corresponded to reality.

In every great world religion you can in­deed find many philosophies of life. That is how they became world religions. In Judaism you have Maimonides and the Kabbala. In Islam you have Osama bin Laden and Omar Khayyam. In Christianity you have Paul of Tarsus and Harry Emerson Fosdick. All that unites these dichotomies is a shared cultural system of family memories, holidays, cer­emonies, and literature. Philosophy is one thing. Organized religion is another, a cultural system that connects us to our ancestors.

Cultural religions were created by either conquest or dispersion. Christianity and Islam started with conquest. Judaism began through dispersion. World religions embrace many national traditions. Christians include Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Russians. Muslims include Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Jews embrace Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and the new mixed gene pool of Israelis.

Humanistic Judaism is part of the New Humanism. It does not protect the culture of the past. It does not repudiate ancestral roots. It embraces them and makes them a home for humanistic convictions and hu­manistic integrity.

At the Harvard conference, a Unitarian leader identified Unitarians as a version of Hu­manistic Confucianism and a Hindu scholar saw Hinduism as a cultural system that could offer hospitality to a Humanistic Hinduism. In all cases, the accommodation to roots is a bal­ancing act between continuity and integrity.

Can there be a Humanistic Islam? Given the prominence of fundamentalist Islam today, many people claim that such a designation is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But Salman Rushdie, the man who was condemned to death by fundamentalist Islam, disagreed. He recalled his own childhood of secularized Muslims, of pious Muslims who preached toleration, of Muslim teachers who were more comfortable with the natural world than with the supernatural world. He saw himself as a secular Muslim, a secularist by conviction, a Muslim by culture. He saw value in presenting the connection with the past as a way of reach­ing millions of secular Muslims who could not be reached by rejectionist Humanism.

My dialogue with Salman Rushdie was one of the high points of my life: It confirmed my commitment to Humanistic Judaism and to the New Humanism.