Fundamentals of monistic humanism

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Author – Anil Chawla

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  1. Introduction

Humanism has influenced modern civilization more than any other philosophy has. But, humanism is probably as old as mankind. Its foundations can be found in the ideas of classical Greek philosophers such as the Stoics and Epicurians as well as in Chinese Confucianism and in Indian philosophy. These philosophical views looked to human beings rather than gods to solve human problems.

During the Dark Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies were suppressed by the political power of the church. Those who dared to express views in opposition to the prevailing religious dogmas were banished, tortured or executed. Not until the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with the flourishing of art, music, literature, philosophy and exploration, would consideration of the humanist alternative to a god-centered existence be permitted. During the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, with the development of science, philosophers finally began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as "free thought."

The nineteenth century Free Thought movement of America and Western Europe finally made it possible for the common citizen to reject blind faith and superstition without the risk of persecution. The influence of science and technology, together with the challenges to religious orthodoxy by such celebrity freethinkers as Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll brought elements of humanist philosophy even to mainline Christian churches, which became more concerned with this world, less with the next.

In the twentieth century scientists, philosophers, and progressive theologians began to organize in an effort to promote the humanist alternative to traditional faith-based world-views. These early organizers classified humanism as a non-theistic religion, which would fulfill the human need for an ordered ethical/philosophical system to guide one's life, a "spirituality" without the supernatural. In the last thirty years, those who reject supernaturalism as a viable philosophical outlook have adopted the term "secular humanism" to describe their non-religious life stance.

Let us look at the way Frederick Edwords, Executive Director, American Humanist Association describes the term humanism.

What is humanism?

The sort of answer you will get to that question depends on what sort of humanist you ask!

The word "humanism" has a number of meanings, and because authors and speakers often don't clarify which meaning they intend, those trying to explain humanism can easily become a source of confusion. Fortunately, each meaning of the word constitutes a different type of humanism -- the different types being easily separated and defined by the use of appropriate adjectives. So, let me summarize the different varieties of humanism in this way.

Literary Humanism is a devotion to the humanities or literary culture.

Renaissance Humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the Middle Ages with the revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.

Cultural Humanism is the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved throughout European history, and now constitutes a basic part of the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics, and law.

Philosophical Humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest. Sub-categories of this type include Christian Humanism and Modern Humanism.

Christian Humanism is defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary as "a philosophy advocating the self- fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles." This more human-oriented faith is largely a product of the Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism.

Modern Humanism, also called Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism and Democratic Humanism is defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion." Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories.

Secular Humanism is an outgrowth of 18th century enlightenment rationalism and 19th century free thought. Many secular groups, such as the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism and the American Rationalist Federation, and many otherwise unaffiliated academic philosophers and scientists, advocate this philosophy.

Religious Humanism emerged out of Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, and Universalism. Today, many Unitarian-Universalist congregations and all Ethical Culture societies describe themselves as humanist in the modern sense.

The most critical irony in dealing with Modern Humanism is the inability of its advocates to agree on whether or not this worldview is religious. Those who see it as philosophy are the Secular Humanists while those who see it as religion are Religious Humanists. This dispute has been going on since the early years of this century when the secular and religious traditions converged and brought Modern Humanism into existence.

Secular and Religious Humanists both share the same worldview and the same basic principles. This is made evident by the fact that both Secular and Religious Humanists were among the signers of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933 and Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. From the standpoint of philosophy alone, there is no difference between the two. It is only in the definition of religion and in the practice of the philosophy that Religious and Secular Humanists effectively disagree.

The definition of religion used by Religious Humanists is a functional one. Religion is that which serves the personal and social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical worldview.

To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life's harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose.

To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities (such as Ethical Culture societies and many Unitarian-Universalist churches) offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for the moral education of children, special holidays shared with like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth), an opportunity for affirmation of one's philosophy of life, and a historical context for one's ideas.

Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion (taken in the functional sense I just detailed). They do not feel that one should have to make a choice between meeting these needs in a traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all. Individuals who cannot feel at home in traditional religion should be able to find a home in non-traditional religion.

I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition of religion didn't amount to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.

Religious Humanists, in realizing this, make sure that doctrine is never allowed to subvert the higher purpose of meeting human needs in the here and now. This is why Humanist child welcoming ceremonies are geared to the community and Humanist wedding services are tailored to the specialized needs of the wedding couple. This is why Humanist memorial services focus, not on saving the soul of the dear departed, but on serving the survivors by giving them a memorable experience related to how the deceased was in life. This is why Humanists don't proselytize people on their deathbeds. They find it better to allow them to die as they have lived, undisturbed by the agendas of others.

Finally, Religious Humanism is "faith in action." In his essay "The Faith of a Humanist," UU Minister Kenneth Phifer declares --

Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us.

Now, while Secular Humanists may agree with much of what religious Humanists do, they deny that this activity is properly called "religious." This isn't a mere semantic debate. Secular Humanists maintain that there is so much in religion deserving of criticism that the good name of Humanism should not be tainted by connection with it.

Secular Humanists often refer to Unitarian Universalists as "Humanists not yet out of the church habit." But Unitarian-Universalists sometimes counter that a secular Humanist is simply an "unchurched Unitarian."

The Secular Humanist tradition is a tradition of defiance, a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece. One can see, even in Greek mythology, Humanist themes that are rarely, if ever, manifested in the mythologies of other cultures. And they certainly have not been repeated by modern religions. The best example here is the character Prometheus.

Prometheus stands out because he was idolized by ancient Greeks as the one who defied Zeus. He stole the fire of the gods and brought it down to earth. For this he was punished. And yet he continued his defiance amid his tortures. This is the root of the Humanist challenge to authority.

The next time we see a truly heroic Promethean character in mythology it is Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost. But now he is the Devil. He is evil. Whoever would defy God must be wickedness personified. That seems to be a given of traditional religion. But the ancient Greeks didn't agree. To them, Zeus, for all his power, could still be mistaken.

Once we leave the areas of confusion, it is possible to explain, in straightforward terms, exactly what the modern Humanist philosophy is about. It is easy to summarize the basic ideas held in common by both Religious and Secular Humanists. These ideas are as follows:

1. Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who think for themselves. There is no area of thought that a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.

2. Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means for comprehending reality. Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge.

3. Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness.

4. Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world. These ideas, after they have been assessed rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to work, often as alternate approaches for solving problems.

5. Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now. Humanists regard human values as making sense only in the context of human life rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death.

6. Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems--for both the individual and society--and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.

7. Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need for careful consideration of immediate and future consequences in moral decision-making.

8. Humanism is in tune with the science of today. Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable "soul," and that human beings have certain built-in needs that effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value system.

9. Humanism is in tune with today's enlightened social thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties, human rights, church-state separation, the extension of participatory democracy not only in government but in the workplace and education, an expansion of global consciousness and exchange of products and ideas internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving social problems, an approach that allows for the testing of new alternatives.

10. Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment.

11. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, Humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.

© Copyright 1989 by Frederick Edwords

It is also interesting to look at the definition of humanism provided by Joseph C. Sommer, Author, Attorney at Law, and Humanist. He offers a practical point of view.

“In my view, Humanism is a philosophy of life that considers the welfare of humankind - rather than the welfare of a supposed God or gods - to be of paramount importance. Humanism holds that there is no evidence that a supernatural power ever wanted or needed anything from human beings, ever communicated to people, or ever interfered with the laws of nature to assist or harm anyone. Thus, Humanism's focus is on meeting human wants and needs in this world by the use of human efforts. History shows that those efforts are most effective when they include a compassionate application of the scientific method, which involves reliance upon reason, evidence and free inquiry.

Humanism maintains that people can acquire purpose in life and maximize their long-term happiness through developing their talents and using those talents for the service of humanity. Humanists believe that this approach to life is more productive and leads to a deeper and longer-lasting satisfaction than a hedonistic pursuit of material or sensual pleasures that soon fade. While service to others is a major focus of Humanism, recreation and relaxation are not ignored, for these too are necessary for long-term health and happiness. The key is moderation in all things.

Humanism considers the universe to be the result of an enormously long and complex evolution under immutable laws of nature. Humanists affirm this natural world as being wondrous and precious and as offering limitless opportunities for exploration, fascination, creativity, companionship and joy.

Because science cannot now and probably never will be able to explain the ultimate origin or destiny of the universe, I believe that Humanism can include more than atheists and agnostics. The lack of definite answers to these ultimate questions leaves room for reasonable people to hypothesize about the origin of the natural universe and even to hope for some form of life beyond this one. In my opinion, those persons can be Humanists if they believe that humanity is on its own in this world, and that the lack of valid evidence for an afterlife means that this life should be lived as though it is the only one we have.”

It will not be an exaggeration to say that the philosophy of humanism emerged in past few centuries in Europe and America as a reaction to the power of the Church. The rejection of God by Humanists is indeed a rejection of the Christian conception of a personified omnipresent, omnipotent supernatural being. Islam, Judaism and Christianity have an identical concept of God. The authority of the sacred books is derived from the word of the God. Humanism is a revolt against such unquestionable words of God revealed to a prophet or saint. Humanists argue that the Church (or Prophet) cannot claim any truths as fundamental or based on faith. Humanism is a revolt against the authority of God, as traditionally understood in Europe.

Humanists have not given adequate consideration to other conceptions of Almighty. In particular, humanists have not cared to understand naturalist religions including systems of Indian philosophy as well as the pagan traditions of Europe and America. The word "pagan" comes from the Latin, paganus, "of the earth." The Apostle Paul gives us ‘God's definition’ of a pagan: someone who "changes the truth of God for the lie and worships and serves the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). If Apostle Paul is to be believed, Paganism was the religion of the earth and served the creatures living on the earth. Isn’t that exactly the way one would describe humanism?

The word pagan has acquired such negative connotations in Europe and America that humanists do not like to be called pagans. Paganism conjures up images of dark rituals, witchcraft and black magic rather than of coherent philosophical systems. A similar image problem is encountered in the understanding of Indian philosophical systems, which are believed to be mystic and exotic rather than traditional.

Modern Indians have further complicated the image problem. On one extreme, we find humanists like MN Roy who advocated a radical humanism with strong emphasis on individual freedoms, decentralization and reduction of the power of the state. MN Roy was a Communist who converted to humanism. MN Roy rejected the notions of dialectical materialism and argued for a cultural and philosophical revolution but he could not provide a link between humanism and Indian systems of philosophy.

On the other extreme, we find the work of Deendayal Upadhyay. In 1965, he propounded a new form of humanism called Integrated (or Integral) Humanism (called Ekatm Manavwad, in Hindi). Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (currently ruling party of India) has adopted Integrated Humanism as its ideology. BJP has more than thirty million members. Each member has to sign a declaration of faith in Integrated Humanism. That must make BJP the largest humanist organization in the world. However, Deendayal Upadhyay’s Integrated Humanism is not a very well developed system of philosophy. It is a mixture of Hindu religion, mythology, fanatic nationalism and cultural nationalism. It lays down no essential principles from which working rules may be derived. Not surprisingly, not a single philosopher or thinker has developed or built upon the work of Deendayal Upadhyay in the past four decades. Every book or article on Deendayal Upadhyay’s Integrated Humanism starts with the story of the life of Deendayal Upadhyay and ends with extracts from a few of his speeches on the subject.

It is difficult to summarize an ideology, which is the creed of thirty million people and is understood by none. As far as the author could understand it, Deendayal Upadhyay’s Integrated Humanism advocates a holistic view of man and society. Every person is an integral whole and is a member of the cultural nation to which he belongs. Dedication of life by an individual for his cultural nation is the highest ideal to be pursued in life. Beyond this, the ideology gets muddled by praise of Hindu religion and criticism of Western culture and philosophy. The simplistic assumptions are (a) there are no internal contradictions within Hindu religion and (b) Western culture is a monolithic system of philosophy. Both assumptions are obviously false and display naivety of the proponent of the ideology.

The phrase “Integrated / Integral Humanism” is in fact an inaccurate translation of the Hindi term “Ekatm Manavwad”. A more accurate translation of the term would be “Monistic Humanism”. Integration is a process that can only be performed if there are distinct identities. The concept of oneness is based on the absence of distinct identities. Integration is possible only in case the concept of oneness is rejected and one starts with a pluralist philosophy and aims to integrate. “Integrated Humanism” will necessarily have to be pluralist to begin with. It seems unlikely that Deendayal Upadhyay ever applied his mind to such fine hair-splitting. He was a missionary of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). RSS believes in action and ridicules all such intellectual debates as futile indulgence in luxuries of the mind (Buddhi Vilas).

The term “Integrated Humanism” is used in USA by those who argue for abolition of race and talk of an integration of different races into one human race. This use of the term seems logical.

Monistic Humanism as discussed in the present work is not identical with Deendayal Upadhyay’s Integrated Humanism. At times, it may appear that there is significant common ground between the two philosophies. This may well be expected since both derive strength from the same roots of Indian philosophy, culture and mythology. Some salient differences between Deendayal Upadhyay’s Integrated Humanism and the author’s Monistic Humanism can be summed up as follows:

  1. Deendayal Upadhyay was the President of a political party of India. His target audience was Indians only. Hence, his ideology seems irrelevant to any non-Indian. Monistic Humanism, on the other hand, is intended to be a philosophy of universal application.

  2. Deendayal Upadhyay considered Hindu religious texts and ancient traditions as sacred and as the fountain of all knowledge. He did not admit of any contradictory views within the Indian ancient tradition. In the author’s view, Indian philosophical thought is like an ocean where all shades of philosophical systems are present. Ancient Indian thinkers included monists, dualists, pluralists, materialists, mystics, theists and even atheists. It is not possible to accept the complete body of ancient Indian philosophy as a guide for a system of philosophy. One must pick and choose. This freedom of choice is integral to Indian tradition. The author in defining the fundamentals of Monistic Humanism has exercised this choice, while Deendayal Upadhyay has avoided exercising a choice.

  3. Deendayal Upadhyay spares no words in criticizing the evils of western civilization and culture. A reader may get the impression that the West is an incarnation of devil. The author disagrees with this approach. Western civilization (just like ancient Indian tradition) is not a single system of philosophy. Christianity has had a profound influence on European mind, but even Christianity is a complex set of beliefs and rituals that have evolved over centuries. It is too simplistic to describe Christianity as dualistic. There have been Christian thinkers who have been monists (more about it later). Similarly, Christianity is not materialistic. There have been mystics in Catholics as well as among Protestants. Monistic Humanism does not criticize Christianity or Western civilization or philosophy. The author’s attempt is to seek shades of monistic humanism in all cultures and religions. The author passes no judgments on any culture or philosophy and instead looks for gems of wisdom in all cultures and philosophies.

  4. Deendayal Upadhyay’s Integrated Humanism has no connections with the modern humanist traditions of Europe and America. In contrast, Monistic Humanism derives its strength on one hand from the humanist philosophy and on the other hand from ancient Indian philosophy. In the true humanist tradition, the author rejects all authority. Dogmas of humanist philosophy as well as of ancient Indian tradition are rejected. But, simultaneously there is no hesitation in accepting any idea just because of its source of origin.

  5. Deendayal Upadhyay defines some terms in a manner that baffles any reader used to more traditional definitions. For example, culture (sanskriti) is defined as “seeing unity in the universe, recognizing mutual complementariness among its various parts and internalizing them”. Culture (sanskriti) is given an antonym – “distortion” (vikriti). Deendayal Upadhyay goes on to further define culture as “making nature favourable to one’s goal”. Making nature unfavourable to one’s goal is defined as distortion. (Deendayal Upadhyay, Ekatm Manavwad, Seventh Edition, Published September 1990 by BJP, Madhya Pradesh; p. 28) The sources of these definitions are not mentioned. The above definition of culture forms a link of Integrated Humanism with Cultural Nationalism. The author has not come across any other thinker who defines culture in such a manner. Hence the author is unable to accept Deendayal Upadhyay’s creative definitions.

  6. Human freedom is an essential foundation of any humanist philosophy. Deendayal Upadhyay does not appear to be very clear on this point. Individual as part of a cultural nation appears to be bound by the cultural heritage that he inherits. Monistic Humanism accepts the freedom of individual as a fundamental principle that cannot be overruled by any historical or cultural necessities. The only restrictions on human freedom that are acceptable are the ones necessary for collective welfare of the society.

Notwithstanding the above differences, the author respects Deendayal Upadhyay as a thinker, politician and ideologue. The present work is intended to be a step in the direction of evolution of a personal, social, political philosophy, which is of a holistic nature. There can be no doubt that Deendayal Upadhyay also attempted to develop such a holistic philosophy. Development of any system of philosophy is an iterative process that continues over centuries. The present work hopes to be just one link in the long chain. Deendayal Upadhyay deserves credit for being the one of the first in modern times to recognize the need for a holistic philosophy in the political arena.

Monistic Humanism has the same starting point as Deendayal Upadhyay’s Integrated Humanism. It is an attempt to present a holistic philosophy that can guide individual, family, society, country and world towards a more harmonious life. The attempt is neither the first nor can it be the last. Shrimad Bhagwad Gita gave such a philosophy to Arjun in the battlefield. Jesus tried to do the same two thousand years ago. Each age and generation needs to carry out the exercise of restating the truth. This book is an attempt to carry out such an exercise for the present age and times without making any claims towards a new discovery of truth and with full realization that just a few years later someone else shall be able to do a much better job.

Anil Chawla

19 June 2002

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