By Dr Mike Flood
Mike is Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists and Chair of the Future of Humanism Group. In this article he praises the recent World Humanist Congress in Copenhagen, while expressing disappointment that some important topics were not adequately addressed.
It was a great privilege to attend the World Humanist Congress in Copenhagen in August. The event was well organised and there was an impressive line-up of speakers – and 400+ interesting delegates from over 40 countries to engage with! But I am troubled by what was not discussed, at least in the main sessions and the breakout talks that I attended, most notably the question of what the humanist movement should do in response to artificial intelligence, ‘fake news’/ misinformation, and the climate crisis. The distinct impression I came away with was that these were issues for other organisations to deal with, and I think this is regrettable. (Note 1)
I would also like to have seen a frank discussion of the state of the global humanist movement and how we might tackle some of the specific challenges we face, including protecting the humanist brand from abuse, and how to convince those who self-identify as non-religious that humanism has something special to offer.
Faux humanism and humanists
I wonder how people feel about faith- and ethics-based groups calling themselves humanists. If you look on the Internet you’ll find ‘religious humanists’, ‘Christian humanists’ and ‘pro-life humanists’. And what about ‘HumanistBeauty’(a skin care product), and a musician’s website called ‘Humanist’ with the URL humanistuk? Then there’s ‘liberal humanism’ and ‘Marxist humanism’, which don’t always sit comfortably alongside ‘evolutionary humanism’, ‘scientific humanism’ and ‘secular humanism’, and most recently, ‘digital humanism’ (more on this below) – not to mention the bombast generated by AI entrepreneurs, who like to use terms like ‘humanistic’ to endorse their mission. And what about ‘humAInism’, which according to its practitioners “combines the concept of humanism with AI”? It's understandable that AI proponents want to use such terms as they sound non-threatening, in contrast to alienating jargon such as ‘machine learning’. I can see this usage becoming increasingly problematic for humanists – and confusing for the public!
Someone who has perhaps done more than most to ‘muddy the waters’ with respect to the humanist brand is Yuval Harari. I respect Harari’s writings but not his views on humanism (see Note 2). In 2018, he was asked by humanist philosopher Andy Norman to refrain from defining humanism as a family of “religions (that) worship humanity, or more correctly, homo sapiens” because “it is so potentially damaging to the humanist movement.” As Andy points out: “hundreds of thousands of well-meaning progressive reformers have [come to find] a sustaining and motivating identity in humanism... this too is part of the history of humanism. This new usage... is 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... humanists [don’t show] blind obedience to anything... To characterize [the millions of people who now identify as humanist] – your natural allies – in this way does them a great disservice.”
Where I do agree with Harari is his observation that “...humanism is in a double bind. It still has to fight the old battles against the biases and delusions of traditional religions such as Christianity. But it also has a new fight on its hands, against the dangerous potential of new technologies such as bioengineering and AI. My impression is that the humanist movement thinks too much in terms of the old battles, while neglecting the new battles.”
Urgent contemporary issues
Two of the breakout sessions that I attended in Copenhagen were concerned with the importance of technology being shaped by humans, and the threat to democracy posed by conspiracy thinking. These topics were skilfully addressed, but there was little or no discussion about what this might mean for humanists and humanism as AI, and online ‘this and that’, take over more and more aspects of our lives. In 2015, a new discipline was born called ‘digital humanism’ which “observes and describes [these] changes and aims at shaping and influencing the development of... technologies and policies towards the values of human rights, democracy, participation, inclusion, and diversity.” I’ve taken this quotation from a ‘roadmap’ on digital humanism co-authored by one of the Copenhagen speakers, Dr Erich Prem, but I’d like to have seen a discussion about whether ‘digital humanism’ counts as ‘humanism’, and if so, what implications follow. As the roadmap says: “digital humanism should not shy away from making a constructive contribution to address the hard problems [not least] war and peace at our borders or inside our own country, safeguarding perhaps even rescuing [digital] humanism in the face of authoritarianism, injustice caused by climate change with all its consequences from starvation to migration, and dealing with dependencies on other countries when sovereignty is at stake.” In a separate session, Dr Hulda Thórisdóttir spoke eloquently about ‘conspiracy thinking’, but again its relevance to humanism was not explicitly explored. (Note 3)
A distinctive brand?
One other thought to throw into the ‘pot’ concerns one of our most valued assets, our brand. Humanists are now represented by a wonderful diversity of colourful logos but I wonder if this enhances or detracts from the notion of a ‘global humanist movement’. I think it might detract, and would like to see this on the agenda for the 2026 World Humanist Congress in Washington, if not before. (Note 4)
Neglecting the new battles?
The Future of Humanism Group (which I chair) has been pressing for a rethink on humanist priorities for some time: our ‘Manifesto’ (published in February) calls for humanist organisations to set up independent advisory panels to guide and advise executives and boards on the multitude of threats posed by AI, misinformation and the climate crisis, and help keep the membership better informed on such issues. Such panels would comprise specialists like Drs Prem and Thórisdóttir and, for Humanists UK, some of its 200+ highly distinguished Patrons, including the two appointed as I write. (Note 5)
As a humble local humanist activist, I’m troubled by the apparent lack of interest in debating these issues with members and supporters – or explaining and justifying the thinking behind policies and priorities. It puzzles me why campaigning for ‘legal assisted dying in England and Wales’, or ‘abolishing blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland’ (two of Humanists UK’s six priority areas), trumps tackling the threats to civil society and democracy – and indeed, to sentient life on Earth. I simply don’t get it. Time is not on our side when it comes to what Jaap van Praag, one of the founding fathers of modern humanism, called the ‘Great Fight’, i.e. tackling the big issues which are making their presence felt more and more with each passing day. And I’m concerned about what Generations Y and Z (i.e. those born since 1980) will make of it all, and what this will mean for our movement. My bet is they’ll be discussing these issues in Washington.
This was the case even for groups in the West/North which are well placed to engage with them. I had the same feeling last year after Humanists International’s conference in Glasgow — see the August 2022 edition of Humanistically Speaking, p 26.
Harari promotes a rather eccentric definition of humanism, which is in many ways the polar opposite of the way modern humanists use the term. His version is more akin to what ‘humanism’ meant back in the 15th Century (i.e. Renaissance Humanism). This is a problem for humanists because of the popularity of his books Sapiens and Homo Deus. Indeed, Humanists UK reports that “misconceptions about humanism have increased” and that a number of teachers and other educators have contacted them for help.
The humanist logos take their inspiration from the ‘Happy Human’, which was created in 1965 in response to a British Humanist Association competition. It's interesting to see that the Norwegian Humanist Association, which is by far the largest national group, has stuck with the original Happy Human design; and so too has the American Humanist Association (with the added strap line: ‘Good Without God’).
If people would like some specifics to campaign on, there are ten suggestions in our Manifesto.