Isms and Identity Politics

"Jim, do you think Humanism is the best non-religious philosophy to follow?"


Humanism is an outlook attaching prime importance to being human. Humanist beliefs stress the value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. Outside the framework of religion or supernaturalism, Humanism affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity. Many people tend to equate morality, ethics, spirituality, goodness with religion or belief in God, while a Humanist sees these as innate and inherent human characteristics and interests.

Humanists also view science as the best framework for understanding the origins of the universe and for creating a coherent and meaningful understanding of our place in the world, as opposed to the narratives of religion. Whereas atheism is more of a position (disbelief in the existence of God or gods) humanism is more of a practice - living a meaningful, ethical, responsible, altruistic, spiritual life.

The potential problem I see is in the last three letters - "ism." Any "ism" runs the risk of taking on the same characteristics that make religion problematic. An "ism" typically starts dividing up the world into who's in and who's out. Think of the language people use around isms - "I AM a Christian, "I AM a Buddhist," "I AM an Atheist," "I AM a Humanist" - we adopt these "isms" as our identify and then soon become another religion. Isms can lead to a tribal mentality that separate and divide people, and pit them against each other. When we are entrenched in our isms, we tend to obsess over what makes us different, and lose sight of what makes us similar or unites us as one human family. For example, Abraham Maslow created the "Hierarchy of Needs" as a way of describing the universal needs and desires we all have as human beings. There is much more common ground for cultivating a meaningful unity and harmony, but we struggle to see this when we are entrenched in our tribes, warring against one another.

A term that has especially risen to prominence in recent years is "identity politics," which are groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity who tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger group.

You can believe something without making it an ism. I have a firm conviction in gravity but I do not tell people I am a Gravitist or follow Gravitism. Consider the possibility of finding a bigger game in life than following an ism. For example, why not decide that what you ultimately want in life is to actualize the fullest extent of your potentialities and possibilities as a human being. Then you can incorporate what you find as meaningful from various philosophies, without becoming attached to one of them as a religion. Even if you find one philosophy to be sufficient as a framework for a meaningful life, you don't have to make it an ism or turn it into a religion.

One of the themes of my upcoming book is how to cultivate a meaningful and fulfilling life without getting sucked into the ism-mentality.

©  2009 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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