Is There Any Hope for The Humanist?


Vic Stenger

 About a year ago I discontinued my membership in AHA, despite being the president of its Hawaii Chapter. I don't know if that was against the rules, but I did it anyway. I had no great problem with the national organization, although I felt it was not particularly effective. I thought then, and still do, that CODESH and Free Inquiry are doing a better job than AHA and The Humanist in articulating humanist philosophy and helping fend off the religious right in its avowed campaign to take over America.

The Humanist struck me as more interested in promoting a left-wing social agenda than humanism. That would be all right, if AHA was a liberal political action group, but it is not. AHA is supposedly an organization whose purpose is to spread the humanist philosophy, which is based on a non mystical, rational interpretation of events. Not all left-wing positions meet this test, and not all humanists are political liberals. My personal political position is as far away as I can get from both the extreme left and right wings.

Perhaps others in AHA felt a similar aversion to The Humanist, because shortly after, through no influence of mine, the editor resigned and an interim editor was named. Recently, when I read that Don Page, the editor of International Humanist would be taking over The Humanist, I decided to rejoin AHA. I had corresponded with Don previously, and was familiar with the good work he had done with International Humanist, so I was happy to give him a chance. I am looking forward to the new The Humanist.

Unfortunately, I re-joined too early. I just received the November/December 1992 issue, still produced by the interim editor. Reading this issue only served to remind me why I quit AHA in the first place and prompts this diatribe.

The lead article is the text of the acceptance speech by the new honorary president of AHA, Kurt Vonnegut, who has replaced the late, beloved Isaac Asimov. I enjoy Vonnegut's books, but this article was mostly random babble that he undoubtedly made up as he went along. I am very concerned of the type of spokesman Kurt Vonnegut will be for AHA. His equating of the fruits of science with the "cruelties and stupidities" of the Spanish Inquisition, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible and "most of the demented Roman emperors, not excepting Heliogabulus" did not exactly endear him to me. I have some questions for our new president: Kurt, do you go to the dentist when you have a toothache. Do you see a doctor when you're sick? Do you drive a car, ride airplanes, talk on the phone, listen to recorded music? I bet you don't live in a cave.

The next article was about humanism supporting the oppression of people of color. Just what Jerry Falwell wants to hear!. Following this was an interview with Reverend Cecil Murray on the Los Angeles riots, appealing to Christian values for social justice. That's fine. but don't preachers have plenty of opportunities in their own pulpits, on TV, and in Church periodicals to air their views? Humanists have a hard enough time as it is getting their ideas out to the public. Humanist publications should be providing their limited space to humanists or those with humanist principles.

If all this was not enough to drive me ballistic, an article entitled "The Wise Silence" by Robert Lanza finally did. This could have been written by New Age guru Fritjof Capra. After telling us that "the Big Bang is a step backward into classical physics," the author proceeds to say that the universe is all in our heads. Hindu idealism triumphs after all!

Calling on quantum mechanics as his authority, Lanza says "We are all the ephemeral forms of a consciousness greater than ourselves. That consciousness which was behind the youth you once were, and is behind the person you are now, is also a part of every mind existing in space and time." This sounds very much like the "cosmic consciousness" promoted by the Maharishi and his Transcendental Meditation cult, which also calls on quantum mechanics as its authority. In Lanza's view, all human minds are united in one mind and "the entities of the universe - electrons, photons, galaxies, and the like - are floating in a field of mind that cannot be limited within a restricted space or period. . ." This is pure, supernatural religion - not science.

Lanza can write whatever he wants, and I am not saying his ideas should be censored; but The Humanist should not be publishing them. There are any number of New Age periodicals that would have eaten up this stuff.

I have written a book and a number of articles about the Big Bang and criticized quantum mysticism in my 1990 book, Physics and Psychics. Let me make a brief retort to Lanza's article. The Big Bang is not some throwback to discredited classical physics, but a widely-accepted theory of the origin of the universe that is founded on our best current scientific knowledge, including quantum mechanics. The idea that quantum mechanics provides us with a basis for a new (really, old) form of mysticism in which we are all part of some cosmic mind has no rational basis. Quantum mechanics has nothing to say about human consciousness, and The Humanist should not be promoting the misinformation that it does.

Now, I don't mean to imply that everything in the latest The Humanist was without redeeming value. In fact the regular columnists continue to produce excellent, and very humanistic, commentary. In particular, the Science and Society column by Shawn Carlson is must reading for those who worry about the health effects of nuclear radiation. These columnists will form a good foundation from which the new editor can build. Good luck, Don!