By Gerald A. Larue, Ph.D.
There is a certain aspect of Humanism that inspires a Humanist to debunk the superstitious and simplistic assumptions of pseudoscience and organized religion. Perhaps through overemphasis, Humanism may project a negative image and be seen as a joyless put-down of everything that does not represent cold, hard rationalism or analytic science. What is there in the continuing questioning and debunking of another’s way of thinking or apprehending the world that adds color and depth and insight to the human scene? What becomes of fantasy and fantasizing, of tall tales and imaginative reflection on the maybes, perhapses, and might-have-beens, that so enrich literature, art, and reflective human thought? Might we be in danger of projecting an image of an organization opposed to everything and anything that doesn’t fit neatly into our particular framework of rational scientific thought?
The immediate response is “nonsense.” For many, Humanism provides the acme of freedom to experience, enjoy, and appreciate the many dimensions of being human. As a Humanist, I am free to experience and enjoy as many facets of my humanity as I wish, without appealing to some archaic tradition or without reference to cultic requirements. For example, during the past Easter season, I listened to Handel’s Messiah, hummed along with the choruses, paused properly before that last triumphant “Hallelujah,” and smiled at the memory of the person who had once stood next to me in a choir and who broke in too soon. I also listened to the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar and hummed the melodies, pondered the role of Judas, sighed deeply and appreciatively at Mary’s song when she tried to get Jesus to relax, muttered to myself that, “If I am experiencing a male chauvinistic feeling, then at this level I am chauvinistic” – I love to be stroked and caressed! This music belongs to me as much as it does to the devout Christian. These compositions are products of human creativity, and they are part of my human heritage. I need not accept the theology or mythology that is implicit in each composition, but I can understand what the artist is attempting to convey of belief, feeling, and interpretation.
Humanists have so many freedoms. Unlike my Orthodox Jewish friends, and unlike my Roman Catholic father in his observance of Friday “fish day,” I can choose my food without reference to taboos established several thousand years ago, and I am free of papal edicts. I have dipped in a common dish with Bedouins, risking roundworm infection and dysentery, all the while knowing they would hesitate to do the same thing with me because of Muslim food laws. I have eaten with Orthodox Jews, knowing that they could not bring themselves to eat in my home because I do not keep kosher. I have drunk with drinkers and abstained with abstainers, eaten vegetables with vegetarians and devoured meat with carnivores. I have eaten with fingers, chopsticks, knives, forks, and spoons, drunk from delicate china and from a bottle passed from one dirty hand to the next. As a Humanist, I am free to set my own standards, to conform or not conform as I wish. The only rules are those that are self-imposed because of personal desires and respect for the ways of others.
In moments of deep passion, I have immersed myself in the art of Goya, Rembrandt, Raphael, Picasso, and countless others who have made creative statements in oils, water colors, ink, and crayons. I have attempted to enter into their art, penetrate their minds, see life through their eyes, feel their moods, be part of their art, and probe the humanistic dimensions of their creativity. The fact that some themes were centered in religious mythology or beliefs of the past is immaterial – these artists are humans perceiving the world. Perhaps, if I am open, I can see and feel something of what they saw and felt and thereby grow in my Humanism.
The literature of the world is open to me as a Humanist – there are no banned books, only those that I consider a waste of my precious time. I enjoy science fiction and have served as a “technical consultant” on several films. Despite my presumed “expertise,” the producer is not compelled to follow my suggestions – a detail that some writers in The Humanist magazine fail to understand. I LIKE fantasy and fiction and imaginary projections. If, as a professional educator, I do my job, my students will have mastered proper scholarly methods to investigate the factuality of the claims of fiction science. And if they have not, well, these programs, too, will pass.
As I speed along the freeway in my little sports car, I often tune into “old fashioned gospel” radio programs, and in my euphoric exuberance in response to wind, sun, and air, I roar out the hymns. Other motorists may think I am a bit mad, but there are moments when the sheer joy of being cries out for expression, and hymn-roaring is, for me, one means of expression. I don’t believe the contents of the hymns; I simply enjoy life and living, love and loving.
At times I feel very close to poorly informed, new converts to Christianity, to those who have lifted out of the morass of Christian theological meanderings an impulse to love and forgive, to understand and reach out in compassion. These values are not uniquely Christian; they are supremely human. I could care less what the individual believes; we meet on the ground of human concern. Should that individual attempt to convert me, the situation changes. If a gentle response to the effect that I have my own belief system fails to dissuade, I can and will debate. Because I am a professional ancient Near Eastern historian, these persons generally fail badly. I do not want to hurt or upset them – I feel no missionary call to convert the world to Humanism – but I am committed to the preservation of freedom of and from belief systems and to the maximizing of the human person.
Religious expression can move me and touch me deeply, because religious expression is part of the human tradition. In the ancient Egyptian temple of the god Amun, I feel chills run along my spine when I realize that, where I stand, the pharaohs of Egypt stood in worship millennia ago. This very spot was believed to have been the first soil to emerge from the primeval abyss. If I listen, perhaps I can hear the footsteps of the ancient priests of Amun echoing in the peristyle hall. I can feel with the pilgrims at the legendary birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, where for centuries millions have come to worship. In a Roman Catholic or Greek or Russian sanctuary, I can let the music move me as I watch the sunlight filter through clerestory windows and seemingly hang suspended in the air. At the same time, I am sharply aware of human stupidities perpetrated in the name of the sacred and that these sanctuaries built to honor a god are really statements honoring the humans who designed, built, and contributed to them.
I excavate a tomb and remove the personal ornaments from a skeleton – a violation of human dignity in the name of scientific archaeology. With some reverence, I place these bones in a plastic bag and rebury them in another setting where they will not be disturbed or destroyed as a token of respect for the personality of which they were once a part. There are no rules to say I must do this, only my responses to and respect for others and for myself. I am free to be as romantic and unrealistic as I wish without losing contact with the cold hard facts of human survival, human cruelty and indifference, human abuses of power and privilege, and human bigotry and bias. A mixture of romanticism and realism – but we are all mixed bundles, we humans, and, as an individual Humanist, I express my particular blend.
There is much more to be said about the positive virtues of Humanism – about freedom to be, to express, to dare, and to attempt to extend our outreach and burst our societal and inherited bonds. Each Humanist can write a personal narrative; indeed, I think each should be prepared to give a personal “testimony” (to use the language of evangelicals). It is absolutely essential that we continue to express the impact of rational and scientific analysis on modern life and thought. It is imperative that we take stands against sloppy thinking, against the imposition of ancient mythic interpretations on modern life and living, against the efforts to impose religious teachings and interpretations on society, against anything that inhibits freedom for all. We have excellent means of confronting vapid, inconsistent, muddled, shollow, unreasoned, nonscientific arguments by debates, lectures, and publications. We must also express through like means the positive virtues of Humanism.
Gerald A. Larue is professor emeritus of biblical history and archaeology at the University of Southern California and chairperson of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. He has served on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association, as president of the Hemlock Society, and as leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Los Angeles. Among his many honors, Larue was named the 1989 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.
“Positive Humanism” is the lead essay in Dr. Larue’s book, The Way of Positive Humanism, published in 1989 by Centerline Press and available from the American Humanist Association. This material originally appeared in volume 21, number six, of Free Mind, the membership newsletter of the American Humanist Association.
© Copyright 1978 by Gerald A. Larue
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