Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: a letter and editor's response

letters from our readers
a letter and editor’s response

Editor’s note: Recently Ernest Poser indicated to me that he could understand the criticism some have made of the magazine — that it was ‘too literary.’ I asked him if he could elaborate, and his letter provides an opportunity to discuss, further, our new approach to Humanist in Canada.
—Gary Bauslaugh

images in this article are taken at various newsstands including: Chapters, Magazine House, UVic Student Union Building, 2003 and 2004

Challenging a journal editor for publishing too many ‘literary’ articles comes close to faulting Mozart for using ‘too many notes.’ As in Mozart’s dialogue with the emperor, in which Mozart asks “what notes would you have me remove, sire?” the onus in this case is on the critic to suggest which articles to omit. So here are my personal prejudices on the matter. I advance them in all humility fully realizing that many humanists might disagree.

I used the term ‘literary’ to describe articles, short stories and poems that may have intellectual merit but little or no relevance to Secular Humanism. In the current (Summer 2004) issue for instance, I would class all three feature articles and most of the poetry in that category. They may be fine examples of ‘belles lettres,’ but in my view, and that of some others I have talked to, these pieces could just as well appear in journals for the general reader including those with a religious orientation.

You might retort that these are precisely the people we want to reach and I would agree with that if we had the luxury of having more than one humanist journal in this country. But since we don’t, Humanist in Canada bears the burden of being our only mouthpiece to the general public. As such, space is precious and each author might be expected somehow to relate their topic to mainstream Humanism. Let me illustrate what I mean. Both Zimmerman’s and Goldberg’s articles are essentially film reviews and, inter alia, both discuss Michael Moore’s productions. Yet Goldberg manages to relate her piece to various humanist issues whereas Zimmerman makes no effort to do so. Instead he makes a distinction between Horatian and Juvenalian satire and between pathos, logos and ethos. There’s merit in that and I quite enjoyed the article. But at the end of it, I asked myself, “How has this article advanced the non-humanist reader’s understanding of what Humanism is all about?” and I would have to say it didn’t.

So my beef with the present content of the journal is not its quality, but rather its lack of relevance to the promotion of Humanism in Canada. I also previously mentioned my qualms about the format. Why would a humanist, or prospective humanist, want to buy this journal from the rack? The front page portraits are not that alluring and their names are not those of known contributors to the humanist cause in Canada. My point is that there is very little information value in the appearance and table of content in some recent issues that would lead a person curious about Humanism in Canada to buy the journal. That of course, is an empirical matter. If your subscription numbers can be shown to surpass those achieved by your predecessor I will clearly (and happily) eat my words.

The above, I think, was Schreiber’s point in “Action Plans” published in the [Summer] issue. As I said in the opening of my Report [in the Autumn issue], it is not a matter of ‘Philosophy’ vs Action as much as Humanism vs general reading. I’m sure there’s a place for both but perhaps not between the same covers.

Gary, I have tried to answer your question as frankly as possible. I do enjoy reading your publication and would enjoy it even more if the articles and their discussants stayed closer to the many ‘burning’ issues still confronting Humanism in this land of ours.

Ernest Poser Vancouver, BC

Editor’s Response

I much appreciate Ernest Poser’s thoughtful comments about the magazine. He clearly articulates concerns that others have expressed too about the direction of the magazine. Some want more explicit ‘promotion of humanism.’ Why would a humanist or prospective humanist buy this magazine, Ernest asks, and how is the magazine serving as a ‘mouthpiece for humanism?’ These are good questions and deserving of an answer.

First I should like to make some general comments about promotion and mouthpieces. I think of humanism not as a doctrine that is to be passed along to adherents or prospective adherents of a faith. To me humanism is way of thinking about the world — a habit of mind — that is analytical rather than doctrinaire, that is critical rather than credulous, that is driven by intellectual curiosity rather than faith, that embraces intellectual freedom and scientific thinking, and rejects dogma and superstition. It is about seeking truth while being skeptical of all claims to truth.

It seems to me that humanism, as a reflective, thoughtful and rational philosophy, is not well represented by overt attempts at promotion. It should be demonstrated, not promoted. And the idea of being a ‘mouthpiece’ seems to suggest that we would represent a particular set of fixed ideas, rather than an open but critical and analytical approach to all ideas.

This does not mean that the magazine will fail to create interest in and understanding of humanism. There are many thinking people who are tired and suspicious of the commercialism and exaggeration that characterizes most promotional efforts. These people are interested in hearing a voice of calm reason — a voice that is more understated than overstated. They do not want to be sold anything; they do not want to listen to mouthpieces. They are tired of the aggressive stridency of those who are selling products, or pedaling doctrines.

So I prefer to leave proselytizing to religious people who ‘know’ the truth — I don’t want to be like them, and I don’t want the magazine to sound like them. And I do think that by staying on the high road in this regard — keeping a dignified distance from, as Shakespeare put it, ‘vile commodity’ — we will in the long run appeal to many more readers.

I should emphasize that I do not disagree with the sentiment behind a desire for more aggressive promotion of some of the central ideas of humanism. I agree, for example, that religious belief is a blight upon the intellectual landscape and a source of great human distress — a justification for dividing rather than uniting the human community. But it would be unfortunate if the magazine were to be a voice that is similarly divisive. And, when we adopt the exclusionary language of advocates of religious belief, we come perilously close to thinking ourselves special, like they do.

My approach to the magazine, therefore, is to focus on good, clear, thoughtful, analysis of religious belief and of many other issues of human importance. We try to avoid intemperate and disrespectful language which (though sorely tempting at times) is not useful in helping people come to terms with complex ideas. Such language embodies a serious fallacy — it loads the dice; it makes thoughtful, rational argument impossible. We try to avoid the language and tactics of extremists. We cannot ‘promote’ rational thought by being, ourselves, irrational.

In this context, then, of a general approach to the magazine, let me address Ernest’s main concern about the content of the magazine. Are we too ‘general’ for Canada’s only humanist magazine? My view is that we ought not to have a narrowly conceived range of issues we explore. Humanism is about many things; it is life-affirming, seeking to make the most of the life we have, not life-diminishing in anticipation of redemption in a future life. Humanism embraces a philosophy of making this world the best place it can be, for ourselves and for all humans who share it with us. Humanists are interested not just in issues such as religion, separation of Church and State, and freedom of choice, but in many others that include, according to the IHEU Declaration of 2002, democracy, human rights, personal liberty, social responsibility, artistic creativity and imagination and the transforming power of art. For humanism to be, as the declaration states, ‘a life stance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment,’ it must be about all issues of human importance.

So when some argue that the magazine content suffers from lack of relevance to humanism in Canada, I respectfully disagree. And when Ernest says that our approach will not lead a person to be curious about humanism, I also disagree. We are far more likely to generate interest in what humanism is about if we present it in a large and life-affirming way, exploring issues that make humanity human — ethics, politics, medicine, the environment, art, and yes even poetry and fiction.

But I do take Ernest’s point that we need, as well, to pay attention to ‘the burning humanist issues.’ Others, too, have suggested that we examine our balance in this regard. In thinking about this we have decided to change some of our main themes for next year. I have been attending the trial of Evelyn Martens in Duncan, for example, and we will be publishing a special issue on assisted suicide and euthanasia early next year. And the August issue next year will feature articles about Darwin, and the frightening rise of fundamentalism in a post-Darwinian world.

I hope that others will, like Ernest, let me know about what they think about the magazine, and I want to thank Ernest again for his thoughtful and helpful comments.