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Humanism and Existentialism


[Originally delivered as a speech to Youngstown State University philosophy students, Nov. 13, 1995.]

Some of you have read my book–or at least skimmed as much as university students do–so you have a grasp of my message. For the rest of you, the title–HOLY HATRED: Religious Conflicts of the ’90s – pretty much tells the story.

As far as I can learn, I’m the only writer in the entire world who ever wrote books on the evil side of religion–on all the persecutions, holy wars, human sacrifices, inquisitions, witch-hunts, burnings-at-the-stake, pogroms, ethnic hostilities, massacres and atrocities that have been rooted, to varying degree, in religion.

But before starting on religious horrors, I’d like to say a bit about philosophy. I don’t know how many of you are serious about philosophy–whether you truly care about trying to learn if there’s a purpose to life, and trying to learn the best way for people to live.

When I was your age–about a half-century ago–I plunged into philosophy. I was the typical, naive, young seeker of truth, searching for ultimate answers.

After many years, I finally decided that absolute answers can’t be known. I concluded that the truths people see depend on their personalities, arising from all the subtle, undetectable, psychological factors that shape us as we mature. If you’re inclined to be a believer, you’ll see proofs of a God who runs the universe and decrees rules for human behavior–and if you’re oriented to be a skeptic, you won’t. I’m in the latter camp, but only because of whatever psychological conditioning made me what I am.

Lacking any sense of the divine, I focused on the branches of philosophy that try to make life better for people: humanism, pragmatism, and the like. They teach that better education, better nutrition, better job opportunities, better medical care, more democracy, more human rights–that all these factors can improve the human condition.

They’re right, of course–but they fail to account for one important reality: the irrational, destructive, streak of madness in people. Even when all the good conditions of humanism are present, people can ruin themselves. Two ethnic cliques may demonize each other and begin slaughtering each other. Or a demagogue may preach that Jews or blacks must be purged. Logic gets lost. The world’s richest nation, America, has 25,000 murders and 170,000 rapes a year. Nobody really gains from this gore–it’s just part of the senselessness of the human species.

I finally settled into Existentialism, because it spotlights this crazy element in life. Existentialists strive for all the beneficial goals of humanism, but with an awareness that insanity always lurks in the shadows, ready to lunge out and wreck the best efforts of conscientious people.

Over the years, as I went through this process of understanding, I began to focus on a bizarre enigma: that religion–which supposedly makes people kind and loving–sometimes does the opposite, causing people to hate and kill each other. My first book, Holy Horrors, traced this pattern through history.

To me, the very nature of religion–belief in the supernatural: in unseen gods and devils, heavens and hells, angels and demons, etc.–puts it into the realm of irrational emotion, so it’s hardly surprising that it can produce senseless, harmful results.

I’ve written many articles about the dark side of religion. I brought along copies of a September piece that was carried nationally by The New York Times wire service. I’ll read some of it, to give you a taste of the madness an existentialist sees.

(read the Times wire condensation of the Washington Spectator article)

“Humanism and Existentialism” is copyright © 1995 by James A. Haught. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of James A. Haught. All rights reserved.

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