Globalism and the Human Future:
An Extended Personal Abstract
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.— Martin Luther King, Jr.
My main contention . . . is that the concept of open society, which not only recognizes the multiplicity of cultures and traditions but actively advocates pluralism, could serve as a unifying principle for our global society. The trouble is that the concept is neither recognized nor accepted.— George Soros
Globalism is an emerging sensibility of our post-modern, post-industrial, post-ideological era. Paul Kurtz presently speaks of “global humanism” with great anticipation. The current issue of a radical labor publication decries the corrosive effect of “global capitalism” on Europe’s social welfare states. A renowned journalist warns against the unrelenting incorporation of the non-Western world “into a globalized economy.” Surely globalization has become the generic game plan of the 500 or so multinational corporations that roam the planet, seeking new markets for their goods and services. According to New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, globalization is the defining feature of world affairs at the end of the 20th century, with the United States optimally positioned to compete in a world where information, trade, and financial networks intersect to create an increasingly integrated global marketplace whose lingua franca has become the language of the Internet.
How has all this come about? I submit that the underlying reason, ironically enough, is owing to the spiritual and ethical fertility of the American democratic ethos. Thus, colleague and friend, Ed Ericson, argues passionately that the U.S. is the product of an ever-dynamic cultural and spiritual synergy, that Americans are the one major people creatively linking by nurture and origin all other nations and cultures by virtue of our multi-immigrant history from which we derive our “planetary” inclinations, outreach and character: “recombinant pluralism.” America is nothing if not a perpetual experiment in human self-governance and personal self-development.
While we as a country base our ultimate identity on the idea of liberty in all its permutations (some of which are, admittedly, corrupt, coercive, or self-serving), many Asian societies today reject our tradition of democracy and human rights as having any universal validity. Within the American character and psyche, a continuous struggle persists between Calvinist cupidity and democratic faith. Modern-day China represents an attempt to combine Communist authoritarianism with capitalist expansion, a volatile if not oxymoronic mix –freemarket Communism–that nonetheless set the stage for students in Tiananmen Square to erect a Goddess of Democracy, an event which, in effect, obliquely attests to Ericson’s aforementioned thesis in The American Dream Renewed: The Making of a World People.
Significantly, Singapore’s government, a microcosmic example of the fusion of a strict authoritarianism and a no-holds-barred capitalism, rigidly controls its citizens’ Internet access. Clearly, economic globalization is the successor to the saber-rattling Cold War with a major worldwide shift in the cast of protagonists and the dispersion of power (cf. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations).
If, as Levi Fragell of Norway argues in the most recent issue of International Humanist News, we need to provide Humanism (with a capital “H”) with a commonly acceptable non-religious identity –namely, that it is, at bottom, a naturalistic secular ethical alternative to religions per se, he, too, like Kurtz, is, in essence, trying to come to terms with a global humanism: humanism, like the ever–growing international investment ethos, should go global. There is a danger, however, in failing to recognize that the democratic faith can get fatally blurred if its overt secularity comes to be exclusively equated with the materialism and hedonism of a spiritually arid global money culture.
Humanists are notoriously inept when it comes to the challenge of building sustainable communities. Let’s not forget that Marxism’s huge early appeal lay in its promise of human solidarity in the wake of the soul-denying destructiveness of the Industrial Revolution. Religious fundamentalism, Islamic and Christian alike, is expanding today precisely because it offers a comparable vision of overarching human community. However, I would opt more for Fragell’s countryman, Lars Gunnar Lingas’s take on global humanism when he states that to be whole, a culture has to be spiritually integrated. The same can be said for individuals and movements inspired by positive ideal values.
All of which brings us face to face with the whole idiotic internecine warfare between religious and secular humanists. I simply cannot believe that Humanism’s definition is once and for all exhausted by the familiar litany of reason, science, and technology as the only tools for solving human problems or generating visions of human possibility; the vigilant protection of human rights, and of church-state separation; et cetera. One misses an appreciative acknowledgement of our subjective immersion in the natural world and the slightest concession that Humanism is not an exclusively secular option/life stance, that it also contains religious potentials owing to its implicit, this-worldly, spiritually integrative foundations. It’s simply wrongheaded, by the way, to equate the entire spirit of the Enlightenment with anti-religious hostility, and leave it at that.
Taken as a whole, the Enlightenment did not oppose religion as a natural expression of human endeavor and yearning. What the Enlightenment, especially its American version, objected to was ecclesiastical corruption and hypocrisy, disparity between the spirit of religion and its letter, between tolerance and coercion, between autonomy and conformity. Thomas Jefferson’s whole life, for example, attests to the conviction that there is a kernel of something sacred in each of us, as individuals as far apart as Thornton Wilder and Mircea Eliade have equally insisted, and that this non-material yet real quality at the center of our being is what drives us forward and serves as the most powerful force in history. There is no progress without it. It’s helpful to remember that in attempting to create morally unassailable common ground for the propagation of a political revolution, Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence stated: “We hold these truths to be sacred.”
In A Common Faith, John Dewey asks what distinctive values inhere in natural experience? Further, how do we wrest universally religious elements from it? The late Yale psychologist of religion, Erwin Goodenough, used to ask, what are the universally human values of those symbols and stories by which others have lived? That we as a species are ubiquitously animated by moral universals is attested to by the establishment of the UN and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Nuremberg Trials, both of which decisively undercut absolutist claims of the political state in favor of the autonomous morality of the individual. As Jefferson held, the rights of humanity are independent of and prior to all government. And what was Emersonion Transcendentalism if not an early form of naturalistic spirituality, drawing its inspiration from the universality of the human condition as announced in Jefferson’s Declaration?
In an essay in the most current issue of Religious Humanism, Harvey Sarles observes and asserts that the “world is truly human and secular,” that nonetheless aspects of the sacred abound within it. Religion and religious experience are equally fully human. What, then, he asks, do we mean by the humanist religious notion of “the sacred-in-the-secular”? What is meant, I’d submit, is that the sacred is the depth of the secular, depth implying that universal common ground which demonstrates the truth that people everywhere are more nearly alike than different even as we cherish the differences.
In August, 1993, I attended the centenary observance in Chicago of the amazing first Parliament of World Religions. Humanism, thanks mainly to Michael Werner’s advocacy, was accorded a place in the pantheon of world religious outlooks–in this instance as an alternative spiritual lifestance to traditional religions. Actually, at the Parliament of 1893, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, then Secretary of the old Western Unitarian Conference, arranged presentations to be made on behalf of the Free Religious Association, Ethical Culture, and the Theory of Evolution. According to Jones, an altogether new approach to the religious enterprise, such as he was putting forth, was called for.
Declaring that anthropology, not theology, be the taproot and impetus of the spiritual quest, Jones was reaching for a humanist universalism born of the diversity of both secular and religious philosophies of life. Unlike our secular humanist brethren today, he was not pronouncing what we call religious humanism to be an oxymoron, deserving more of our contempt than our admiration. Jones’s aim, in his historical context, was to elicit the universal ethical sympathies of the hitherto unchurched along with those who were fed up with their conventional childhood religious upbringing.
What I’m ultimately suggesting we think about is that if we want humanism to go global, so to speak, we should stress its universalist components as a way of resonating with similar aspects in other points of view that differ from ours yet with which we should be in dialogue and, perhaps, in coalition as well. We need to get out of our closed loops and expend our energies outward rather than back upon ourselves. I’m not advocating syncretism, which connotes meshing–usually haphazardly–different forms of belief or practice: that is to say, the fusion of original inflectional forms in order to effect a false harmonization bereft of the benefits of critical inquiry or logical unity. As for eclecticism, which connotes the effort to build a point of view from the outside in by eliciting the supposed best from various sources of inspiration–it tends to be devoid of any centrally animating system. Eclecticism may be said to be the means by which syncretism seeks its ends.
To sum up: the world becomes ever more pluralistic: syncretistic groups began appearing at the end of the 19th century and have been multiplying ever since. Bahai, the Unification Church, New Age–these all exemplify syncretism of one kind or other, much of it inspired by the intersection of Eastern with Western thought and lifestyles.
What I suggest Humanism’s approach be in this incipient global era is one of synthesis: the bringing forth of constituent elements from separate sources, wherever they may be found, in light of a coherent foundational worldview, such that the resultant unified construct represents not indiscriminate borrowing but an enhanced yet open Humanism of global proportions. In short, I would aim to renew Humanism chiefly along universal lines, echoing Jones’s insight that natural religion is universal faith, not a world religion so much as a spiritual lifestance for one world.
© 1998 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.