Geisler’s Critique of Cultural Humanism (1997)
In Is Man the Measure? (Geisler, 1983), Norman Geisler assesses a number of forms of humanism, pointing out what he believes to be positive and negative aspects of each variety, and ultimately concluding that all have damning flaws. In Chapter 7, Geisler deals with what he calls "cultural humanism," by which he designates the type of humanism espoused by Corliss Lamont in The Philosophy of Humanism (Lamont, 1949). A footnote in the chapter also links the contents of "A Secular Humanist Declaration" to cultural humanism. Although Geisler has a number of positive things to say about cultural humanism, he ultimately concludes that its project cannot be fulfilled, and that it contains internal inconsistencies. In this paper, I will examine Geisler’s criticisms and see if there is any hope left for the cultural humanist position.
Geisler starts his critique by claiming that although cultural humanism has some noble goals, there is no reason to believe that humanists have any means of obtaining those goals. As Geisler states, "[t]here is no evidence from thousands of years of human history to support the naive assumption that man can successfully control his own destiny" (Geisler, 1983, 92). Geisler also claims that humanism is "unable to inspire men to greater achievements" (Geisler, 1983, 92), citing as support the alleged fact that there has never been a great humanist poet or moralist.
In Principle Unfulfillable?
It is easy to understand why Geisler is pessimistic about the prospect of man’s "controlling his own destiny" in such a way that the humanist ideal would be fulfilled. Human history has been riddled with war, hatred, imperialism, chaos, paranoia, racism, xenophobia, civil unrest, and so forth – all indicators of an apparent inability or unwillingness of humans to cooperate on a large scale. There has never been a point in time in which the people and nations of the world have existed in the kind of harmony cultural humanists would hope for. How easy to conclude, then, that divisiveness is an intrinsic part of human nature, and that man lacks the internal capacity to build a world community in which everyone can live in peace and harmony.
Yet, on the other hand, the picture is not necessarily as bleak as Geisler makes it out to be – although Geisler is quite right to point out that history offers no guarantee that man can ever control his destiny, it does not necessarily guarantee failure either. As much strife as there may be in the historical record, there has also been much cooperation, and much cause for hope. With modern transportation and communication, the boundaries between nations and different individuals within nations are getting less difficult to breach, and the result seems to be, in general, greater understanding of one another. Certainly this is not to say that the world is anywhere near the humanist ideal. But history might properly be interpreted as demonstrating progress towards that ideal. On the other hand, perhaps not. The point is, no definitive answers about what the future will be like seem to be forthcoming from the historical record – neither Geisler’s pessimistic assessment or the humanist’s optimistic assessment is necessarily justified by history. So this leaves the possibility that the humanist ideal may never be fulfilled, but it also leaves open the possibility for one to try for, which is all humanists ask.
Unable to Motivate?
As for humanistic poets and moralists, Geisler may well be right – I don’t know of any great humanist poets or moralists personally (on the other hand, Dewey? Asimov?). However, does this mean that humanism cannot "inspire men to greater achievements" in general, as Geisler claims? Geisler himself seems to admit quite the contrary later on, in Chapter 10, where he discusses the positive elements of secular humanism (remember that Geisler has put secular humanism on par with cultural humanism, in that he discusses "A Secular Humanist Declaration" under the heading of cultural humanism). It will be instructive here for me to quote Geisler at length:
Humanists have enriched our world a great deal by their cultural and aesthetic achievements in such areas as art, education, and drama. Humanists like Mortimer Adler have done much to advance the cause of learning. The Aspen Center for Humanistic Studies has made a significant impact on American culture. Furthermore, many advances in science and technology are the result of humanistic efforts. And UNESCO has influenced the whole world through its philanthropic programs.
Secular humanists have staffed many positions in American higher education. And through the philosophy of John Dewey, secular humanism has left its mark on almost all Americans. In brief, this world is not only freer because of humanism, it is more beautiful, more advanced scientifically, and more variegated culturally.
Secular humanists have made significant contributions to many areas of human life. Ethically, they have advocated many important virtues such as freedom and tolerance. Politically, humanists have worked for peace and equality and against poverty and racism. Religiously, they often exemplify an ultimate commitment to their values and ideals. In the dialectic of history secular humanists have often served as a helpful corrective to narrow, prejudiced religions. And they have culturally and aesthetically enriched human life in many ways. (Geisler, 1983, 129)
So, assuming that the humanists were motivated to make their contributions at least in part by secular humanist ideals (a point which seems implicit in Geisler’s above quote – it would be very strange to argue that so many humanists have made so many contributions for motivations other than humanistic ones), Geisler seems to grant that those motivations can indeed inspire men to great accomplishments.
After discussing the above alleged practical problems with cultural humanism, Geisler then lists what he takes to be five internal inconsistencies in the principles of cultural humanism.
Self-determination vs. world government?
"[W]hile cultural humanism calls for a world government, it at the same time affirms democracy and self-determination for all people. But one cannot have it both ways. If one government controls all nations, then no one nation controls itself" (Geisler, 1983, 93). I wish to argue that, quite the contrary, one can have it both ways. Geisler is correct that democracy and self-determination may lead to the fragmentation of nations – if everyone has the right to self-determination, then they may just as well determine themselves to not be part of a world government as to be part of it. However, note that they may determine themselves to be part of a world government. This is what cultural humanism aims at – to respect the rights of every nation (at lea st, every nation that itself respects human rights), but to call for a voluntary banding together of those nations into a world government. If cultural humanism called for the forceful creation of a world government, in a process like British imperialism or the Roman expansion, where all countries, no matter how peaceful, are subsumed into one government by being conquered, that scheme would certainly yield internal inconsistency when combined with an alleged respect for the self-determination of all countries. It is simply the humanist dream that all people mature to the point where they will voluntarily band together into a world government that will ensure the security of all. There is no inconsistency in that.
Freedom of expression vs. offical philosophies
"[C]ultural humanists call for freedom of expression for all points of view (even nonhumanistic views), yet they insist on universal humanist education in values, art, and literature…In theory they reject the imposition of any ‘official philosophy,’ but in practice they would make humanism the official philosophy of mankind" (Geisler, 1983, 93). This is where footnote 9 comes into play – in it, Geisler cites as an example of humanist oppostion to freedom of expression a passage in "A Secular Humanist Declaration" which expresses dismay and opposition to fundamentalist attempts to require the teaching of creationism in the science classroom. I believe Geisler is making an equivocation here: humanists call for freedom of expression in art, literature, politics, and economics, but science is in a different category altogether. Science is not at all about "expression," but about producing correct and/or useful models of the world, so freedom of expression does not apply to the science classroom. Humanists would no doubt defend the creationists right to express his or her creationist beliefs, and whatever reasons that person has for holding his or her beliefs, but that does not equal a right to have it presented on par with confirmed theory in the science classroom. This in the same way as one may grant a person the freedom to express his opinion that steel is weaker than glass, while not allowing that person to have his opinion taught in engineering class alongside confirmed materials science.
Finite Existence vs. Infinite Worth?
Geisler notes that humanists believe that man is "a purely finite, temporal being" (Geisler, 1983, 93), yet assert that man has "infinite potential and is of absolute or ultimate value. But surely what is merely finite has no infinite worth and what is only immediate and mortal has no ulitmate value" (Geisler, 1983, 93). These criticisms seem misguided to me, but whether or not they are really depends upon what the humanists Geisler is critiquing mean by "infinite worth" and "ultimate value." It seems to me that man can have as much value as one wishes to give it. And since humanists consider humanity infinitely valuable, they confer, relative to their position, infinite worth upon humans. In essence, what I think humanists mean by "man has infinite worth and ultimate value" is equivalent to "we treat humans as if they had some transcendental infinite worth and ultimate value." That much is consistent with a denial of the transcendent.
If the cultural humanists do mean the same thing as Geisler attributes to them, then I side with Geisler. To deny the transcendent, yet state that something has a transcendent property, is certainly a contradiction. I hope that the considerations above, however, have at least shown that cultural humanism does not need the transcendent to maintain its claim that man is of infinite worth and ultimate value.
Freedom of expression vs. denigration of religion?
Geisler complains that humanism "permits even moral and religious themes in art, yet [rejects] the religious as a hindrance to cultural advancement and [insists] on a naturalistic view of the universe" (Geisler, 1983, 93). Geisler’s complaint may be legitmate – perhaps humanism is has too depreciating an attitude towards religion. However, this is far from an internal inconsistency in humanism; rather, it is simply a feature that Geisler does not like. This can only yield an inconsistency with freedom of expression if somehow those who adhere to religious views have their views forcibly suppressed, which a humanist society would not do, even if humanist education tries to provide grounds for rejection of the supernatural – Geisler’s claim that somehow "pigment and canvas will be reserved for humanists" while only "crayons and paper" will be granted those who wish to draw religious pictures, is simply unfounded, whether the statement is taken literally or metaphorically. A humanist educational system would no doubt try to present the reasons one should reject the supernatural (unless the supernatural were to become verified), but this does not mean that anyone who believes in the supernatural would receive fewer rights than those who follow the humanist philosophy.
Self-questioning vs. Lamont’s dogmatism?
Finally, Geisler notes that while humanism calls for "unending questioning of basic assumptions and convictions, including its own" (Geisler, 1983, 93), "nowhere in his book does [Corliss] Lamont show the slightest inclination to question seriously his own basic naturalistic and humanistic presuppositions. On the contrary, there is every evidence that a naturalistic hardening of the arteries has set in" (Geisler, 1983, 93). Unfortunately, Geisler does not state what this "every evidence" consists of, so it is difficult to evaluate his reasons for believing that Lamont is dogmatic. Even if Lamont’s book does not contain much analysis, it may well be that Lamont seriously questions his presuppositions, but published the book as a summary account of what beliefs he took to be justified at the time of writing.
In any case, however, even if Geisler were exactly correct about Lamont, that is hardly an indictment of cultural humanism as a whole, much less indication of an internal inconsistency in cultural humanism.
The sum of this analysis seems to indicate that all of Geisler’s criticisms of cultural humanism fail, with the possibile exception of the third alleged inconsistency he tried to point out. However, as noted, even if that criticism does go through, it is possible for a variety of humanism almost exactly equivalent to the one Geisler critiques to escape that particular criticism.
- Geisler, Norman L. 1983. Is Man the Measure? Grand Rapids: Baker
- Lamont, Corliss. 1949. The Philosophy of Humanism. New York: Philosophical Library.
- "A Secular Humanist Declaration." 1980-81. Free Inquiry, Winter.