Dear Yuval Noah Harari,
You’ve given me much to think about and argued from premises I cannot readily dismiss. For this I thank you. In what follows, I want to acknowledge your insights, urge a deeper engagement with the challenge I’m raising, and suggest a kind of pragmatic resolution.First, I’m compelled to concede that you have grounds for using the term humanism as you do. It’s true that academics have used the term to designate a broad cultural current with roots in the Renaissance and antiquity, and I’ll grant that that is precedent enough to give you the right to use humanism in roughly the way you do. It doesn’t follow, though, that it’s a good idea to think and speak of humanism as a humanity-sanctifying “religion.” For one thing, there are important differences between religious and secular ideologies. The similarities merit note, but the dissimilarities should not be brushed aside as irrelevant. (Indeed, these differences lead most humanists to insist that humanism is not a religion.) Second, there are important differences between secular ideologies and a system of thought that works very hard to prevent thinking from becoming ideological. (By “ideological,” I mean tenaciously resistant to rational revision.) Third, and most important, the term humanism has developed a new and salutary set of uses—uses that your depiction of humanism threatens to disrupt.To elaborate: progressive thinkers in the early twentieth century recognized the need for a broad social movement emphasizing human rights, reason, and freedom of inquiry. They admired all of the works you mention—those of Bacon, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. They also admired the works of Plato and Aristotle, Da Vinci and Spinoza, Kant and Paine, Bentham and Mill.They needed a word to designate central features of the philosophical orientation that had done so much to enlighten the world. For better or worse, they settled on humanism and began building a movement to spread these comparatively enlightened values. They authored the manifestos, pressed for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supported civil rights movements, and helped make women’s suffrage the rule rather than the exception. They helped inspire Gandhi’s efforts to throw off British colonial rule and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to end segregation. (King himself explicitly thanked the “thousands of humanists,” many of them white, who helped his civil rights movement.) Arguably, humanism’s emphasis on self-determination helped to dismantle European colonialism.To accomplish these progressive reforms, humanists needed to inspire others and build solidarity. They needed to give other progressives a sense of purpose and belonging. They needed a named alternative to dogmatic religious affiliation. For all its seemingly species-centric imperfections, the label “humanism” was their answer. Lacking a better banner to rally around, they began advocating for humanism—not just using the term to describe a venerable past but using it also to prescribe and build a better future. (A better future, I might add, not just for themselves but for all of humanity: these reformers have consistently insisted that all human beings matter. On the whole, they also insist that other sentient beings matter—though their chosen designation has the unfortunate tendency to imply otherwise. The most recent manifesto—Humanist Manifesto III—hints that we need to extend our moral concern “to the global ecosystem and beyond.”)In any case, hundreds of thousands of well-meaning progressive reformers have since found a sustaining and motivating identity in humanism. And here’s the point: this too is part of the history of humanism. This new usage extends far beyond a small circle of academic historians—it’s out there in the world, shaping people, movements, and trends. Given that the term has acquired these uses, you can’t responsibly characterize humanists as advocating the blind worship of humanity. To do so is to caricature. It’s inaccurate because humanists have always emphasized critical reflection; they’ve worked to end the practice of showing blind obedience to anything. Also, millions of people (including a healthy percentage of Europeans) now identify as humanist. To characterize them—your natural allies—in this way does them a great disservice.Your characterizations of humanism as nothing less than the root cause of Nazism, Stalinism, and environmental destruction are also quite dangerous. They could easily frighten religious know-nothings into scapegoating humanists. Given the prevalence of humanists in higher education, it could exacerbate anti-intellectual fervor. What if your portrayals of humanism—backed by your substantial rhetorical gifts—were to inspire Mao-style thought reform, humanist witch-hunts, or intellectual purges in the West? Do you really want to run the risk that this becomes part of your intellectual “shadow”?You write that “Marxists should ask themselves: ‘What about the teachings of Marx led to the gulag?’” Good point. Then you add, parenthetically: “belief in social engineering, in the wisdom of an avant-garde elite, and in the need for violent revolution.” Exactly: it is these addenda to the basic notion of human dignity, not the notion of human dignity itself, that led to the gulag. The Nazis too may have started out with some humanism-inspired ideas, but it was their addition of a lot of nonsense about Aryan supremacy, biological purity, and the inferiority of others that led to the Holocaust. Similarly, secular humanist ideals don’t by themselves yield industrial-scale environmental destruction. The real roots of your four great evils lie elsewhere.There is probably something to the hypothesis that a human-centric worldview tends to excuse the exploitative use of “sub-human” animals and the environment. This, I think, is the legitimate core of your critique. It’s worth noting, however, that contemporary Darwinism—itself a product of humanism—rejects any superiority scale that would license the categorization of other animals as less evolved, inferior, or sub-human. (They’re just as evolved as we are, only to other niches; indeed, they’re better adapted to their niches than we are—and this is the only notion of “better” that the science can endorse.)Yes, early cultural appropriations of Darwinism—most notably social Darwinism—provided convenient rationales for Aryan supremacists and exploitative capitalists, but a fuller appreciation of the Darwinian view of life is profoundly humbling—perhaps more so than Copernican cosmology. Remember, too, that scientific humanism replaced a religious mythology where God created us in His image, placed our planet at the center of Creation, and gave us “dominion” over terrestrial life. Talk about a “dangerously easy” rationale for plundering the environment! God Himself sanctioned its exploitation and commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply.” These words are still used by the American religious Right to justify slashing resources to family planning programs.Exploitative attitudes toward the environment and convenient excuses for pillaging predate humanism by tens of thousands of years. Humanity didn’t need the philosophy of humanism to begin privileging itself. If we want to understand root causes, then we have to examine the matter more carefully. How about this one: Darwinian principles entail that self-care is an utterly basic biological impulse, one that got modified, in the course of mammalian evolution, into a complex concern for self, kin, friends, and tribesmen. I grant that expanding the circle of moral concern to the rest of humanity—perhaps humanism’s essential legacy—doesn’t go far enough, but it was a significant step in the right direction.Has the philosophy of humanism nevertheless exacerbated problematic attitudes? Perhaps. But a causal claim like this needs more than prima facie plausibility. It needs evidence. Yes, humanism’s chosen designation appears to privilege humanity, but is the causal link really there? Did per-capita environmental destruction accelerate as humanist ideas spread? Even if so, mightn’t industrialization be the better explanation? In a matter like this, it’s no small task to separate causation from spurious correlation.Has humanism—initially a force for moral progress—nevertheless become inhibitory of moral progress? It depends on your definition of humanism. If it involves treating human interests as the ultimate source of meaning and value (your definition), quite possibly. If it involves “the greater good of humanity” (the AHA’s definition), probably not, but perhaps in some ways. If it involves understanding and promoting what really matters (my definition of humanism in “Getting Humanism Right-Side Up: An Alternative Humanist Manifesto”), almost surely not.I hope I’ve said enough to persuade you that you need a better term for the phenomenon you find problematic. By all means, decry the assumptions that tend to sacralize humanity in its individual, collective, and “more highly evolved” forms. Condemn sapiens-worship to your heart’s content. I’ll join you. The ideas of self-proclaimed humanists, though, are not the root of the phenomenon you deplore. Indeed, we humanists are your natural allies.You write that “This is how humanists look at human feelings … with deep respect and awe because they are the source of value in life … human feelings are the supreme source of authority” and meaning. I think you’re on to something here: many people today are captive to an outlook that sees all value as rooted in human desire-satisfaction. (Materialism and consumer culture are two dark manifestations of this idea.) But this idea infects more than just self-identified humanists. In fact, the vast majority of self-identified humanists have transcended the delusion that only human feelings matter. We don’t kick puppies because we know that, generally speaking, it’s wrong to cause suffering. Reflective humanists tend to regard all sentient beings as worthy of some moral consideration. (I confess that my efforts to translate this insight into an all plant-based diet founder, time and again, on weakness of will.)Self-identified humanists also understand that mindless deference to human emotions is a really bad idea: combine it with greed, the will to power, nationalism, or other forms of tribalism, and the results are usually disastrous. I think we humanists understand this as well as anyone. In fact, our emphasis on reason, tolerance, and human rights is a pretty direct indication that we recognize the need to temper human desire.It is not self-identified humanists who exacerbate an unhealthy tendency to worship or s acralize humanity. It is plain old human nature: our selfish, greedy, tribal selves. And here’s one of the truly admirable aspects of the philosophy of humanism: many of its tenets function to temper humanity’s worst impulses. Tempted to dehumanize others? Sorry, human rights and dignity are too important. Tempted to demonize and wage war on “them”? Sorry, all humans are your brethren. Tempted to suppress speech you deem blasphemous or hateful? Sorry, censorship is prohibited. Tempted to use state power to advance your religious agenda? Sorry, we need to maintain the wall of separation. Tempted to indulge in dogmatic, ideological thinking? Sorry, you have a responsibility to think critically, even about your own cherished beliefs. Tempted to amass great power or wealth? Sorry, but we all matter, and all matter equally. Tempted to factory-farm animals? Sorry, but other sentient critters matter too. Tempted to treat nature as a mere means to our ends? Sorry, but this pale blue dot is our lifeboat; we need to treat it with some reverence.People who believe these things—those I call humanists—have a pretty decent track record of not committing genocide. We consistently opposed totalitarianism and supported the environmental movement. Yes, humanity generally has built a system of industrial food production that is profoundly inhumane and utterly unsustainable. We’re polluting the planet, changing the climate, and driving many species to extinction. No doubt human-centric prejudices are part of the problem. But are Nazism, Stalinism, and environmental destruction all rooted in humanism? Even on your definition, this oversimplifies. And given prevailing usage, it vilifies.You’re quite right that the early Humanist Manifestos contain some unfortunate, species-centric language. Even Humanist Manifesto III claims that “ethical values are derived from human needs and interests”—conspicuously neglecting the needs and interests of other sentient beings. But here’s the neat thing about humanism: it’s self-revising. As a rule, humanists take critical challenges seriously and revise their thinking. We don’t treat our manifestoes as gospel; we work and re-work them. In fact, Humanist Manifesto III makes clear that it, too, is a work in progress: “The lifestance of humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience … continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideas, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understanding advance.”Humanist manifestos get superseded every few decades. (Compare that to the way religions cling to sacred scripture for millennia!) Perhaps it’s time to update humanism again. Your concerns about biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and our “post-human” future are a welcome stimulus to do this. (Our “transhumanist” cousins tend to be bullish on the possibilities of technologically enhanced human beings; they’ve been urging us to pay attention to these questions for a while now. You may well be right that it’s time to address them in earnest.)The American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” I think this is an admirable lifestance and don’t see anything sinister in this aspiration to pursue “the greater good of humanity.” I think we should seek to improve both our condition and ourselves. Not at any cost, of course, but all else being equal? Why not? When you seek and share historical knowledge, are you not seeking to improve humanity? Were a genomic intervention to safely and painlessly spare unborn children crippling handicaps, will you denounce it as eugenics run amok? Surely not. Yes, the project of “perfecting” humanity can become sinister. But doesn’t it become sinister the moment it starts abusing sentient creatures and destroying the environment? Why not improve what we can improve and cherish those we can’t? The former needn’t preclude the latter.You write that “humanism can’t shirk responsibility for the bitter fruits of Communism, Nazism, and ecological destruction.” But this is exactly the kind of causal claim that becomes problematic when your definition of humanism is problematized. Put differently, if your definition is challenged, you can’t use the term humanism to make such claims—not without begging the question. You must first redeem the definition. You made a decent preliminary case for allowing this usage—historians do in fact use the term as you do—but all things considered, I think, academics should refrain from stereotyping humanism in this way. Especially given that a relatively harmless (if less felicitous) alternative exists. “Humanity-sanctifying worldviews can’t shirk responsibility for the bitter fruits of Communism, Nazism, and ecological destruction” isn’t as sexy a claim, but it has the merit of being defensible.Should a person of good will adopt your definition of humanism, recognize the dark shadow of humanism so understood, and work to overcome its baleful effects? Or should such a person adopt my definition of humanism and work to advance the humanist cause so understood? What’s a reasonable person to do?Why treat it as an either-or? Why not both-and? It seems we need two words here. Under the circumstances, it seems best to cede the term humanism to self-identified humanists, and for your purposes, use a designation such as “humanity-sanctifying worldviews.” I’m asking you to make this small adjustment to your usage patterns, and in this way, work with us—your natural allies—to serve the greater good.Humanists have long sought to replace religious ideologies with scientific humility. This makes your question “Why not call it scientism?” worth asking. One answer is that “scientism” has become a term of abuse. Another is that it’s hard to rebrand a movement mid-stream. More important, science combats unreason in the realm of facts but has yet to address unreason about what matters. For these reasons, I prefer “rationalism” to “scientism.”Perhaps the humanist movement needs to rebrand itself as a movement for rationalism. I’m open to that possibility. But the ideas and values we both cherish have long been championed under the “humanist” banner, and that fact merits some respect. We can’t just equate humanism with the worship of humanity—not without doing serious harm to a significant force for human and planetary wellbeing.