Posted by: Johan Normark | October 11, 2011

Humanism and theism as examples of anthropocentrism

On this blog I do on occasion criticize religion and this has primarily been in relation to the 2012 phenomenon and a few posts have been devoted to Mormon beliefs regarding the Maya. I consider myself an atheist but I do not feel the urge to be a fierce advocate of evolution or atheist standpoints like Myers, Dawkins, or Hitchens. Perhaps this is because I am a Swede, growing up in one of the world’s most secularized countries. I did not grow up in a religious home with Bible thumping parents which I need to rebel against.  

Hence, I do seldom share the standpoints of the Swedish Humanist Association who seems to have hijacked atheism for their own agenda. I follow their blog to keep myself updated and on a few occasions I have even attempted to contribute to their debates with the hope to nuance the black and white scenarios that you tend to find there. One such attempt, that was ignored, was on a recent post concerning Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. The book shows that violence has decreased over millennia, even if we include the last century. Pinker concludes that “when it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights.”

The reason why this was posted on the blog was to show that atheist/humanist based values make the world a better place and that religion (and some versions of Communism) has caused violence and misery. This is a way too simplified scenario. Sure, far less people have died in the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than in the World War II, but it is still an imperialistic violent strategy orchestrated by the world’s leading democracy. My example to the debate concerning the results of Pinker’s book had to do with “passive violence”. As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the Late Victorian Holocausts 1876-1902 killed 31.7-61.3 million people. These people “died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered […] by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill”. The Late Victorian colonies were certainly not liberal democracies like in our time, but some modern democracies and ideologies have these people as their intellectual forefathers. Killing people with a machine gun or depriving them from their food results in the same effects. I therefore do consider forced starvation as a form of violence. Hence, one cannot reduce the complexities of the world into a black and white scenario, something also pointed out at Asebeia regarding another Humanist blog post where it was speculated that the world would have been better without the medieval times if Hellenistic values had survived into our times without being affected by Christianity.

Now, what do the humanists and the theists have in common (with the risk of simplifying a complex scenario myself)? They are both anthropocentric, i.e. they evaluate their worldview from a human standpoint. Theists may believe they evaluate their world from a divine perspective but this god is usually a transcendent human being with extraordinary powers. The Spinozist immanent God is not as common. Humanists value modernist ideals and at the core is human rationality. The strange scenario here, and I guess this is why I have problem with the Humanist Association, is that even though the “trauma of Darwin” undermines the centrality of the human in creation, the Humanists still maintain an anthropocentric perspective despite this fact. They are simply falling into the same trap of anthropocentrism as the theists. That is also why theists and humanists take opposite sides of the same anthropocentric spectrum. They are mere differences of degree, not differences in kind.



  1. Actually, that is not quite correct. Mainstream Humanism accepts utilitarian ethics, which equates happiness to “good” and suffering to “bad”. This takes into account ALL creatures complex enough to be capable of suffering or experiencing happiness.
    The focus of this philosophy is the ability to experience life in a meaningful way (fully accepting the individual subjectivity of what that means in each case), and not, as you say, the human experience.

    Religion is solipsistic, working on the premise that the universe was designed with our species alone in mind.
    Humanists hold no such delusions and acknowledge the simple fact that in this universe, conscious beings are the only things that assign value to anything. Therefore, the subjective perception of conscious beings are the only standard by which value can be judged.

  2. You are partly correct. Perhaps I should have said that deists are anthropocentric and humanists are more “organism centered”. I should have used the term “correlationists” instead. Correlationism is Meillassouxs term for “the often unstated theory that humans cannot exist without the world nor the world without humans”, i.e. our Kantian heritage. Humanists will value suffering and happinness among other organisms from a human perspective.

    The main issue is the organic/non-organic distinction. Both deists and humanists would set humans and other living beings apart from “dead matter”. Deists simply transcend their ultimate cause beyond the organic world. To me that is still only a difference of degree to that of humanism. I am far more interested in perspectives that set humans, other organisms, stones, ipods, black holes, etc. on the same ontological level. No hierarchies of “more or less real”. Hence, I am beginning to favor the object-oriented ontology where it simply does not matter if there is a god or not. Objects don’t care about that.


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