Humanist as Language Scholar?

Interesting listening to Andrew Copson – CEO of Humanists UK (HUK) – in this brief interview with Talk Beliefs. In part it talks about his excellent recent book “Secularism” which I briefly reviewed earlier, but also covers humanism and ethics more generally.

In summary he sees humanism defined by the naturalistic (scientific, non-supernatural) outlook on human (and wider ecosystem) ethics in particular and on the truth of beliefs in general. And, given secularism in general, he sees religion pretty much as identity politics by any other name and theism / atheism as not really that interesting an issue.

Seems fair enough.

Earlier on in describing the origins of humanist / humanism as an English language term – as well as the Germanic “humanismus” origins that eventually defined the take on humanism that he and HUK hold (above) – he makes a passing reference to a humanist defined as being a grammarian or language scholar in Johnson’s original dictionary entry. A definition that sounds quaint and antiquated here and now?

(Let’s leave aside for the moment that many pre-enlightenment religious traditions – supernaturally theistic or not – may have long espoused basic human dignity – say, individual freedoms and the golden-rule – as key tenets. This is more a matter who might claim to have “invented” humanism, than what we actually mean by it. Spoiler – humans did it.)

I actually think the received wisdom above holds an important issue missing in appearing to dismiss the grammarian from the naturalistic definition.

Many anti-religion / pro-science groups are nevertheless careful to indicate that their humanist outlook is pro science and reason or rationality. That is despite many individual adherents falling into the scientistic trap that science has some monopoly or priority over reason and rationality, in fact most public considered positions recognise the important linguistic nuance in that “and“.

The knowledge content of science may be objectively independent of humanity, but our reason and rationality are not. As Johnson captured, humanist reason and rationality is as much to do with language – and information and epistemology more generally – as it does with objective science. A naturalistic outlook must cover both (objective) science and (human) rationality. We do well neither to conflate these nor reduce one to the other.

Naturalistic is not as simple as scientific.


[Post Note: Also linked by Andrew is a written interview with Conatus News. (Hat tip to Terry Waites for sharing.)

Good, is the recognition that exactly who invented humanism, where and when, is no big deal – empathic rational humans reinvented the idea over millennia, and having invented it had preserved the ideas in cultural (and religious) traditions before they were eventually captured by secular umbrella institutions like the UN.

I would take issue however, as a 60+ “secular, atheist, humanist, rationalist, free-thinker”, with his generalisation of “older humanists”. I think we’re beyond any post-9/11 surprise reaction to fears of “irrational” religion and threats to hard-won liberal freedoms. In this Post-Post-Modern (PoPoMo) world it’s about fixing the over-reaction to those perceived threats that have led to warlike polarisations between Political-Correctness and Intolerance, between Science and Religion, between Liberals and Authoritarians, between them and us generally.]

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