I have been thinking, over coffee, in Canada (again, who would’ve thought?). If you’re just tuning in, I’m Canadian and am a sucker for coffee. This is less of a scientific thought, maybe a demographic one if that, and more of a philosophic thought — a thinky piece.
In conversations — not many — with young and old humanists, men and women, various people open about their sexual orientation or not, I see two broad, loose, strokes of humanism.
One, I’ll call big humanism. Another, I’ll call small humanism. Big humanism is expansive, inclusive, and pluralistic. Small humanism is contractive, exclusive, and monolithic. Monolithic does not mean bad; pluralistic does not mean good. They mean what they mean, and no different than that here.
Perhaps these can be seen as two poles on a spectrum of belief for humanism. Big humanism includes many, many more types of humanism, or humanistic beliefs. There’s no necessary requirement for the full belief set for this type of humanism. People can align themselves at the periphery, simply holding fast to the moral imperatives in the core doctrines.
It’s not really too precise. More gooey, more fuzzy, less solid, less specified, big humanism has a big net and catches lots of people. Small humanism contrasts with this in every way, except in the core belief structure of humanism. It includes fewer, and fewer, humanisms the more you move into its side of the spectrum. Its south-most or north-most pole is the bare bones, nugget of humanism.
Folks can only consider themselves truly humanist in this framework by adherence to the most stringent of standards in, probably, a formalized framework of viewing the world with humanism. Small humanism is like an Orthodox Humanism. By implication, its community is much smaller.
It is super-precise. Less gooey, less fuzzy, more solid, more specified, small humanism has a small bait and catches a minority within the humanist community. When I talk to some people within the humanist community, there are different criteria. Some believe you can only reject gods or God and affirm human values to be a humanist.
Others adhere to some logical principles to ground ethical precepts without reference for science. Others believe formalized scientific processes are the sole means to acquire knowledge, hard and fast empiricists. The list goes on, right? Still others view humanism as akin to militant atheism with the importance of combating religion as its highest modern aim, the destruction of religious structures, and so communities — and damn the consequences.
But what about the others? In a bigger frame of reference, which seems like a tendency in me, big humanism seems more cooperative, integrative, and workable in the wider world. And I don’t have an answer to any of these stylistic preferences or self-defined, usually — sometimes other-defined, goals.
But in the end analysis, I guess it comes down to, on at least one grounding, preference in life. How do you want to live your own life? How do you want to relate to others, and other communities, and to your own family — inherited or made? Big and small humanism are a bit hand-wavey, but, for me at least, they provide some context for more thought on the all-encompassing, all-important question, “How do you want to live your life?”
Original Publication in Humanist Voices.