Why I am Not a Humanist

The following is a critique of the basic postulates of humanistic philosophy: it may, in effect, be taken as a concise rebuttal of what humanism stands for, delivered, perhaps unusually, by a secularist and an atheist. My drive to do so has largely been fuelled by the fact that there seems to be, at least in this writer’s experience, a widespread belief that humanism is synonymous with atheism, and that those identifying by either term may do so interchangeably. I’m certain that this is true of many atheists (even though I’m not always as sure that they’ve given it much prior thought), the point I wish to stress is that it’s far from requisite, and that there are those of us who do not find ourselves in accordance with even its most basic assertions.

The worldview that I’m going to focus on is that which I believe most new age rationalists self-identifying by the term connect with or implicitly endorse — something similar to that which is outlined in the latest “manifesto” published by the American Humanist Association (AHA) in the first half of this decade. This manifesto lends itself rather well to critical analysis, as the title — “Humanism and its Aspirations” – would suggest. It sets out to list the fundamental edicts to which its membership subscribes. I don’t claim it to be definitive, or to be a complete description, but it seems to be as popular a document on the topic as exists; signed by 21 nobel prize laureates, all past AHA presidents still living (along with the then-committee), and a host of other internationally-renowned humanists. Aside from all that, its principles are virtually identical to those which similar documents have included.

It meekly acknowledges that “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change”, before qualifying that “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience”. This is moral and intellectual folly at its purest; a classic instance of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it. In the same breath, the distinction between human beings and the rest of the biological world is nonsensed and we’re told that ethics should be tailored only to human desire! Little wonder Peter Singer singled this out for public ridicule; the same human-focused ethics which have underlined and stimulated so much of the damaging religious fervour abounding for millennia bluntly replicated in a worldview that masqueres as a leading light in anti-establishmentary reform.

That humanists could unashamedly advance an ethical system geared towards ruthless maximisation of our own wants and needs from behind a smog cloud of self-congratulatory altruistic pretence is revealing: despite the coy artifice and feigned commitment to a scientific method which offers little to morally justify such a stance, we are dealing here with a philosophy that is fundamentally rooted in unmitigated, unquestioning anthropocentrism, in the exact same manner as are the religions with which it is perceived to be in combat. But it’s more than that – it’s positive speciesism.

It’s simply not true that humanism is singling out elevated intelligence or perceptive capacity as a distinguishing feature – if that was the case, then young children or those unfortunate enough to suffer from severe mental retardation would scarcely qualify for membership of this exclusive ‘club’. All the while, scientific papers are constantly flooding in demonstrating the remarkable cognitive ability and advanced social skills of non-human apes (the fact that Bonobo Chimpanzees have been documented to respond to linguistically-complex commands, for instance, or that Orangutans in natural groups are known to develop distinct auditory communication mechanisms alien to outside individuals). The pathetic response of humanists and the religious alike is to pull the wool over their own eyes by constructing thin lines in the sand. It just won’t do.

This impoverished speciesism promoted in humanistic philosophy simply cannot be justified — it’s 150 years since Darwin blew religious vindications for its practice out of the water by elucidating our place in the grander scheme of things. As Richard Dawkins points out, it’s just a matter of taxonomic convenience that every intermediate form connecting H. sapiens with chimpanzees has subsequently died out – there was no particular reason that it had to have happened; and every ancestor from which you and I are descended right back to the common branching point could have interbred with its immediate descendents and ascendants.

Like Dawkins (see here ), I long for the day when a spanner is thrown in the works and the speciesists have their convenient little worldview confronted with something like a human-chimpanzee hybrid, although perhaps not for the mental welfare of the individual concerned. (I should point out that Dawkins, despite championing this anti-speciesist worldview evident throughout his brilliant ‘Ancestor’s Tale’ and other works, did not join his colleague Singer in refusing to sign the aforementioned manifesto, much to my disappointment.)

Put simply, the tenets of humanism do not represent a radical departure from those of any major religion. It establishes itself on the same fallacies, the same baseless assumptions, and strives for a society modelled in essentially the same manner; with the caveat of not demanding god’s existence or worship. In this sense, it may actually be a more sinister and less consistent worldview – here are supposed naturalists and empiricists modelling their ethics on pseudoscientific claims while simultaneously derogating such acts: the first item on the aforementioned manifesto states that “Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis”.

Because of the fact that documents such as the AHA’s manifesto concurrently pledge “participation in the service of humane ideals”, outspoken rejection of the conceited elements of its philosophy tends to result the misconception (being a cynic, I have to fight the urge to suggest that it’s actually an eagerness to assume) that the rejecter does not align his or herself with any such aspirations; that we are positively ‘inhumane’ in our outlook, as it were. (I can’t help but notice a curious parallel here with the so-called “pro-life” movement.) On the contrary, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was quick to point out when challenged, “opposition to humanism does not mean that my thinking aligns itself against the humane and advocates the inhuman, nor that it promotes the inhumane and depreciates the dignity of man … humanism is opposed because it does not set the ‘humanitas’ of man high enough.” What’s needed is a paradigm shift, not a fudged compromise.

by Adam Dinan

Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    Brian Mulligan June 20, 2009

    “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience” – I personally subscribe to this. I may well be speciesist (just like most tigers and spiders). However, it does seem to be part of that evolved human nature that we do not like unnecessary suffering in animals, and so we tend to avoid it and discourage it in others. (i even prefer to eat free range). My reading of Singer was that he is not against killing animals on principle but that humans seem incapable of humane animal husbandry and so opposes it on practical grounds. We are different from the rest of the animal world – we’re significantly smarter (Although you’d wonder about some people).

    To be honest, I’m also selfish, but my human nature also makes me dislike witnessing suffering in other humans (sometimes I try to do something about it and sometimes I look away). In addition I believe that irrespective of my feelings it is best to formalise rules that stop us being cruel to each other – its a win-win agreement, which results in the maximum welfare for the most people.

    I’m just a clever animal in a pointless universe. What other basis do I have to to formulate guidelines for my personal behaviour or to influence my opinions on what would be the best rules for society.

  2. Avatar
    mkaobrih June 26, 2009

    Well I’d eat an ape rather then let an ape eat me. Species wise we should first protect our own and then others. Never the less humans are not the bee all and end all.

  3. Avatar
    Carter, A. July 07, 2009

    I fail to see the rationale for the animosity against humanism. There are some humanist groups in the UK which are exclusively vegitarian or vegan and I have never met or read of a humanist ever having been anything but supportive of animal rights.

    There is of course demarcation, a certain focus on the human species but not to the extent that it deminishes that of others. I don’t want life to suffer and I regret that other life forms invariably have to die to sustain that of others — and I count myself a humanist.

    It seems regrettable that AHA might have inadequately phrased the document to the exclusion of our animal brethren (and they might be open to revision) but such an amendment might be felt to detract from the specific point of the document, which is after all meant to be read by (and applied to) humans.

    It may sound callous but until one of our animal cousins writes in to complain the rubicon shall forever remain extant.

    They require human advocates to speak on their behalf just as do the non-communicative members of our own species (the mentally ill, etc).

    Therefore discourse and arbitration will always fall to those with the communicative faculties to pursue the issues in hand; and – failing the arrival of an alien race – these decisions will continue to fall to humans, for better or for worse.

    Hence the tacit agreement, by most, that humans are superior, in that they are “best-situated” to arbitrate matters on behalf of those who have no voice.

  4. Avatar
    Carter, A. July 07, 2009

    The thrust of this article seems to be based on the idea that Humanists are speciesists; a position that might’ve been true in the early Darwinian era but is only semantically true today (in the same way that “the rights of man” these days implicitly refers to the human race rather than a particular gender).

    The conclusions of this article would only be true if one were to assume humanism is a static unchanging dogmatic philosophy of the religous kind, when in actuality modern humanism is in total accord with Darwinism and recognises the absence of naturalistic lines between species.

    This however does not alter the fact that when interfacing with human society one is forced to adopt human social verbal distinctions, however scientifically inaccurate.

    It would be sheer pedantry to do otherwise, especially in conversations where the distinction is irrelevant to the subject matter.

    Would we do away with personal pronouns because they throw up unnecessary metaphysical boundries of distinction between people of different gender? – Of course not.

    Sexism is deplorable and it should be stamped out, but to go so far as to ban words like “he” or “she” is ridiculous.

    The same is true for Speciesism, there should be know distinction in theory but in practice it just doesn’t work like that.

    Nor is it the case that all distinctions/demarcations are negative:
    Just because one has no exclusive sexual preference, does not mean one does not wish to know beforehand which manner to adopt betwixt the sheets.

    I sincerely fail to see where the vitriol of this article extends from, prehaps it is just a (cynical) mistrust of labels; but with the main spring apparantly broken, I really see no need to dwell on the matter further.

    I will only say that if ever humanism – as I know – it came to be in conflict with science I would abandon it, as I think would Richard Dawkins (himself a Vice-President of the British Humanist Association).

  5. Avatar
    demotic July 08, 2009

    This article caught my eye, perhaps because I’d just read Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian” earlier today – that’s fun and interesting reading by the way.

    To the author – this article clearly comes from an emotional place. Hence throwing out the baby with the bathwater? So humanism missed an opportunity…now you want to exit an already minority movement. That’s not constructive. Instead raise the issue. You’ve raised some valid points here. Spread the word, petition etc., but from within.

  6. Avatar
    An Mailleach July 10, 2009

    Dead right…but it does get us into a lot of moral headaches.

  7. Avatar
    Helen July 10, 2009

    Were the spelling mistakes in mkobrih’s reponse added on purpose to make his reply seem stupider? It wasn’t necessary.

  8. Avatar
    Dave July 11, 2009

    This “speciesist” (talk about a clunker of a word, by the way) seems to have come a little out of left-field. It’s over-dramatic at the very least. I’m sure Dawkins took a long, hard look at the humanist manifesto and, like lots of other intelligent people, didn’t draw the completely ridiculous conclusion made it in the article.

  9. Avatar
    galileo July 12, 2009

    Don’t be fooled – this article actually was written by an orang-utan. No human author could possibly manage nine paragraphs of such craneoschitzent verbosity without making one single clear point.
    “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.”
    How about this?
    War arises from human need and interest as tested by experience.
    Crime arises from human need and interest as tested by experience.
    Toilet paper arises from human need and interest as tested by experience.
    All human culture arises from human need and interest as tested by experience.

  10. Avatar
    Chris London July 13, 2009

    Philosophical arguments/rants of this nature are caused by the human race’s incessant need to categorize and label everything. In truth, ‘environmentalist’ would indeed be a better label than ‘Humanist’ if we find ourselves forced to assign a label, since in reality, humans are just one small part of the entire environmental system as a whole. Yet ‘environmentalism’ is not only within the domain of atheists & humanists, it contains Christians, jews, voodoo worshippers, Wiccans, and many others. So what can we do? Maybe look at the basis for each of these labels and see where we stand?

    ‘Atheism’ is the non-belief in a deity or group of deities, whereas religion proposes belief in a deity or deities as well as leadership at a philosophical level that includes a structure for behaviour and society. Humanism also promotes a structure for behaviour and society. This author’s argument that “the tenets of humanism do not represent a radical departure from those of any major religion” is very true! However, in this case, also very misplaced. In essence, the major tenets of Humanism step in where Atheism ends.

    It is without a doubt that the human race has evolved to a point where it can think rationally beyond the here and now and at a higher order than simply “must feed, hungy now”. Because of this, (most) humans are able to understand that for a species as intelligent, industrious, populous, and potentially destructive as we have become, a set of ‘guidelines’ that ensure a peaceful co-existence are highly desirable.

    Atheism by itself does not provide that system of values and ethics by which society should conduct itself. It simply proposes that there is no higher power that is responsible for everything (or at least that there is no evidence pointing to that, depending on how deeply your belief runs). In contrast, Humanism encompasses a much more philosophical viewpoint that includes an ethical framework that is not inherent within Atheism, yet complements it very nicely.

    As the title states, Humanism is a framework for humans, not the entire planet. Because Humanism places humans in the center of importance, it is not a perfect philosophy, but it is one that is generally for the good of all and is the best available for those who are ‘non-religious’ or ‘non-believers’ until everyone begins to think of humanity more as a partner than as a master within this planet’s systems. Some ‘fundamentalist’ atheists sometimes forget that not everyone who is an atheist or humanist is or ever cares to be a geneticist or biologist.

    So, for anyone to argue against the need for a set of governance rules in any type of advanced civilization is illogical, and contrasting atheism to humanism in this manner is no different than arguing that an apple is not an orange

  11. Avatar
    ChicagoPat July 13, 2009

    “I long for the day when a spanner is thrown in the works and the speciesists have their convenient little worldview confronted with something like a human-chimpanzee hybrid, although perhaps not for the mental welfare of the individual concerned.”

    After spending 8 years dealing with my country being run by a human-chimpanzee hybrid, I’m less concerned about them, especially their mental welfare..

  12. Avatar
    Notagod July 17, 2009

    Right on! Quite often I see other species doing things that I wish I could do as well as them, we aren’t better than other species just different. Humans have excelled at making a synthetic world that is out of sync with the processes that allowed the human species to be formed. Being out of sync with the harshness of nature is good but, being out of sync with the life sustaining basics is very bad. Humans are a part of nature, not the most important part, only a part. We are capable of deciding to be the most destructive part or we can decide to be a beneficial part, we cannot change the fact the we are a part.

  13. Avatar
    Dónal July 25, 2009

    It appears that the first item on the agenda is a schism amongst non-believers. I don’t think the breathless tone of the piece lends itself well to rational and reasoned debate, which is the atheists’ best assest and primary method of understanding the world.
    I agree that ethics do not derive from human needs and that they must be expanded to encompass our non-human relatives. However, ethics do derive from human experience. To say otherwise is to postulate the existence of natural rights, which I reckon are as difficult to believe in as a god. This is not to say that other species do not have ethics. Perhaps the more intelligent animals like apes and elephants. But human ethics do derive from human experience.

  14. Avatar
    dick spicer September 20, 2009

    A reply of sorts from a humanist perspective will be aired on RTE s Living Word Broadcasts from the 28th September to the 3rd October.
    These broadcasts of 2 mins each go out at 6.40 am monday to friday. They are repeated at 12.58 am tuesday to saturdat.

    The slot has previously broadcast contributions without a religious aspect but this is the first from a declared Humanist. The series of broadcasts revolves around my encounters with birds and the commonality of all life forms on the planet.
    Dick Spicer Chair of Humanist Association of Ireland.