As religions and philosophies over the ages have attempted to make sense of our existence and our world, there was always the risk of dividing rather than uniting humanity. Similarly, Harvard University’s “New Humanism” has the potential both to elucidate and to be divisive.
Lately I’ve been doing some research on what the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard University is calling “The New Humanism.” And after digesting several of the more recent articles posted on this organization’s interesting website I have found myself contemplating many of the key concerns and realities of human existence this modern movement attempts to address. In so doing, I have been struck by what appears to be an unfortunate duality of thinking in some of the articles with respect to humanistic and religious philosophies. I think this is unfortunate because I find that all the major metaphors that attempt to describe the human condition and give meaning to human existence contribute something of merit. And I think it inherently and unnecessarily divisive when adherents of any philosophy take their metaphors too seriously. Other articles posted on the site did appear somewhat more broad-visioned and embracing. And reading these articles reinforced the notion in my mind that perhaps those who advance very different perspectives on the most fundamental matters of existence — despite the unique and seemingly poles apart character of those perspectives — are all trying to say pretty much the same thing, albeit in poignantly dissimilar ways.
The new humanism the Harvard chaplaincy references is not merely an intellectual pastime for the enlightened at upscale universities. It has even made its way into broader discussions of politics and the different spheres of human relations. An excellent article on such matters was published in the March 7, 2011 edition of the New York Times. The article’s author, David Brooks, asserts that many of our failures at attempting to reshape and improve our cultural, educational, and political structures “spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature.” By this he primarily means that we have forgotten that we humans are, first and foremost, emotional creatures with some fairly common yearnings and passions. And, he laments, when we forget or ignore this fact, our attempts to ameliorate our problems more often further divide and frustrate us, as opposed to making a positive difference in our lives. He further argues that “many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else,” disregarding the all-important emotional human factors. But he takes hope in the notion that advances in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics will inevitably change perspectives and simultaneously help usher in the new humanism. Perhaps most importantly, he points to the necessary shift in attitude that necessarily follows when, from a humanistic perspective, one seriously contemplates the latest scientific findings on human nature:
When you synthesize this research, you get different perspectives on everything from business to family to politics. You pay less attention to how people analyze the world but more to how they perceive and organize it in their minds. You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people.
The new humanism about which the folks cited above have written is not identical to the holistic philosophy or neohumanism advanced by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. Although there are some striking similarities, the more recent new humanism appears to take a dim view of religiosity per se, whereas neohumanism seeks to distinguish between spiritualism, which is considered to be the essential awareness of a supreme cosmic consciousness, and religion based on dogma, which necessarily “imprisons” the mind and also invites people to perpetrate acts of injustice because of their unwillingness to sacrifice image and prestige by admitting the errors they’ve made in violation of the core principles of their professed beliefs. Both the new humanism and neohumanism, however, agree about how tremendously inhumanely we can behave toward one another when we rigidly cling to our religious dogmas.
I find a great deal to embrace in this so-called “new humanism.” We live in an age in which many different disciplines are accumulating mounds of fresh data about who we really are, what our place is in the world and in the cosmos, where we came from, and where we might be headed. And I don’t really find all that much in the new humanism or in secular science that radically contradicts the more noble and enduring perspectives advanced by our more traditional and once dominant philosophies both religious and non-religious. Whereas such notions were once taboo, even secular science now promotes the view that there was indeed a moment of creation, that all the visible material in the cosmos literally came from nothing, and that an immaterial yet infinitely powerful source of energy was behind the creation of everything. This sounds eerily similar to other non-scientific metaphors. Moreover, I find a common thread of purpose and a supremely challenging common message at the core of humanism, secular physical science, and all the various philosophies and faiths. Whatever the system we might adopt, we’re all just trying to understand the ultimate realities and find harmony in our relationship to the rest of creation.
Advancing a healthy understanding of and appreciation for ourselves and the universe in which we live is the goal of all the humanistic perspectives. But to get our relationship with others and the world around us right requires a lot of deep and unprejudiced reflection. I alluded to this reality in the closing paragraphs of Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. If we’re really going to succeed in our bid to survive and prosper as a species, then we’d better be prepared to put all of our preconceptions aside and get fiercely but benignly “honest with ourselves about ourselves and with each other about each other.” There are billions of us now on the planet, and we have at our disposal a level of knowledge that could just as easily save us as cause our ruin. But as divided as we are most times, the challenges to our survival, welfare, and general prosperity have only become greater. Still, I have hope. For in the end, there’s far more that unites us than divides us. And it’s the full recognition and unreserved acceptance and embracing of that fact that really defines the “new humanism.”