William Edelen: Proud to be a Humanist…

The Contrary Minister

H. L Mencken, the renowned syndicated columnist for the Baltimore Sun, once wrote that he had no need ever to attend a circus. Why? Because he lived in a society that was a circus, with clowns everywhere. Mark Twain made similar observations. I always remember Mencken’s words when I read the rantings and ravings of those aiming their tirades at some mirage they call “secular humanism.”

I saw a wonderful cartoon recently. The picture is of a man and his wife dressed in puritan “do good” clothing. She is holding a book called The Book Hit List. He reading a newspaper. The man says “Holy Guacamole! Here’s a story about a school system that doesn’t pervert children’s minds with philosophy, literature, social studies, the arts, history and the rest of that secular humanism bunk.” The woman responds, “Hallelujua! Where is it?” The man answers: “Syria.”

How individual members of the fanatical right define “secular humanism” depends on where they are on a scale of 1 to 10 of brain constipation. An example. In a pamphlet entitled Is Humanism Molesting Your Child? a Texas parents group described “secular humanism” in these words: “a belief in the distribution of wealth, control of the environment, control of energy and its limitations, the removal of the free enterprise system, working for disarmament, the creation of world government.”

For some, attacking “secular humanism” means taking great literature out of our schools. It is called “book burning”… which they did in Nazi Germany. It means not exposing our young people to what a small group of parents have described as “obscene.” By their own standards and definitions, they will have to ban the bible from home and school libraries, for the bible is full of every obscenity known to the human race… rape, gang rape, sodomy, adultery, genocide, incest… and all in lurid detail.

What extremists do to magnificent words and ideas is frightening. Humanism, for example, is one of the most beautiful words in our language. A vast majority of everything that an enlightened citizenry cherishes is due to “humanisn.” As my Webster’s Dictionary defines humanism: “a devotion to the humanities… literary culture… the revival of the classics… a philosophy that asserts the dignity and worth of human beings.” And from the Columbia University Britannica: “Humanism… the distinctive characteristic of the Renaissance… an emphasis on classical studies… a return to classical ideas.

Contemporary meanings of the word emphasize lasting human values with a cultivation of the classics. We were rescued from ignorance and the Dark Ages by the Renaissance and the humanists. Scholars were once again recognized as a cream of society. The humanists became advisers and counselors to senators, dukes and popes.

As the historian Will Durant put it in his volume Renaissance: “The prestige of their learning, combined with their eloquence, conquered Europe. It was the humanists who liberated man from dogma, taught him to love life rather than brood about death, and made the European mind free.”

How proud I am to be associated with humanists, humanitarians, the humanities, and all that it means to be truly human in the most noble sense… as one devoted to the classics and emphasizing lasting human values. Humankind is still our main business. And humankind is what the humanities and humanists are all about.


Humanist vs. humanitarian? Humanitarians show compassion toward humanists.

A person new to English asks: “If Vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?”

I once was headed toward a career as a professional humanist as a Unitarian minister. As I grew into middle age I had abandoned all the ideologies of my youth. Humanist was the last “-ist” I abandoned, regretfully in this case. Unfortunately any kind of thought that attempts to rank life I now find flawed. Some life is not better than other life. Balance, not dominance, is the natural object of worship. We grieve the loss of balance in our world that is the result of human dominance. Like a flywheel that has lost its balance, we are in the process of dissolution born of inordinate success of one species at the expense of all others. Hence I no longer see the ideology of humanism consistent with my experience in the world. Sorry. Not a misanthropist, just a lapsed humanist.


Great reflection on humanism. I am an atheist and a humanist. ( I was an Evangelical pastor for 25 years) I am a humanist+. While humanism tends to focus on humans, I extend my humanist beliefs to encompass non-human animals and the environment. I don’t think humanism is antithetical to animals or the environment. It is just a matter of focus.

I have been “insulted” so many times by radical conservatives who called me a humanist that it is a pleasure to see the word used in its authentic meaning.