Humanism and the Open Society

An article for the Prometheus Society, Slovakia – 25 July 2005

Humanists have no afterlife to redress the imbalances of this world; so for us this life – the only one we have – is of supreme importance. Being social animals with the morality of cooperation bred into us over hundreds of thousands of generations, we seek a good life not just for ourselves but for others.

Likewise, we have no god to lay down the law and dictate how we should behave or what we should believe. Though we adopt (by definition) a naturalistic outlook and rely heavily on reason and scientific method to reach provisional truths, we can seek only to persuade others of the all-too-obvious virtues of this approach and have to accept that others – usually (and sadly) the majority – take other paths.

It must therefore be basic for us to speak the language of human rights. If we want the right to think our own way, we must allow it for everyone and rely on our powers of persuasion to win others to our own views. We rely therefore on freedom of conscience and freedom of speech to be able to live as humanists in a world still substantially in thrall to religion and dogma. And we need to take full advantage of the protection that both the Universal Declaration and the European Convention of Human Rights give to beliefs as well as religions, where both the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights have laid down that ‘beliefs’ includes not just lack of religious beliefs but also non-religious world-views such as Humanism.

The consequence is that we not just accept but embrace a world of differences of belief and opinion, of disagreement and dispute. That ease of travel and the shrinking of distance makes it a world of migration and multi-ethnicity only adds to the diversity with which we have to cope.

How should such a society organise itself? This is a modern question, for the diversity within societies us a modern phenomenon. Traditionally in any society there was a dominant religion or philosophy, favoured or even enforced by the custom or the civil power. It may have been Confucianism in ancient China, Catholicism in mediaeval Europe or communism in twentieth century eastern Europe, but whether by custom, the inquisition or show trials the orthodoxy was enforced. Rarely was there a degree of explicit toleration (as in Moorish Spain) or any embrace of choice in belief (as briefly in Moghul India).

In most of the modern world, minorities have been emancipated and given the right to dissent, but usually there is still a dominant belief, often legally recognised or favoured. Thus, in some countries there is an established church or a treaty or concordat giving privileges to Roman Catholics, in others (such as Belgium or Norway) the law favours a limited group of beliefs – say, Lutheran Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity and Humanism. In others a political orthodoxy holds sway, even if coupled with a degree of freedom of individual belief.

None of these offers a good model for the new world of diversity of belief. Nor does democracy, in the sense of elected and accountable government, in itself provide an adequate answer: democracies can be intolerant of minorities and majorities can happily infringe the human rights of unpopular groups.

The answer lies in adopting in politics the philosophy we adopt towards knowledge. Science, we say, can yield only provisional answers. Newtonian physics seemed established for all time until Einstein fatally undermined it; Einstein himself could not accommodate quantum physics in his system, yet quantum theory lies at the heart of modern electronics, still unreconciled with the theory of relativity. If good scientists can accept that even the best tested knowledge is only provisional, awaiting possible further refinement or even overturn, we need to apply the same attitude generally in our disparate world.

We need to adopt the ideal of the ‘open society’, opposed to the closed systems of rule by elites propped up by unsubstantiated theories, whether (as in Karl Popper’s magnificent The Open Society and Its Enemies) rule by Plato’s guardians or by Marx’s historicism.

What do we mean by an ‘open society’? We mean one that is inclusive, open to people of all persuasions, ‘based’ (to quote George Soros, the financier who devotes such huge resources to his Open Society Foundation) ‘on the recognition that people have divergent views and interests and that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth’ (George Soros: appendix to The Bubble of American Supremacy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)).

What could be more humanist than that?

In such a society, the government, other public authorities and social institutions have the task of reconciling guarantees of individual freedom with maintenance of social coherence. Differences of opinion may be stark, but they must not be allowed to prevent their adherents from peaceably living together in the community. The answer is to entrench human rights and the freedoms (not least of belief and speech) that they guarantee but simultaneously to build on common interests and work to promote dialogue and cooperation so as to reduce conflict. Thus people may live together constructively despite their differences – indeed, their differences will add to the strength of the community: monocultures, whether in agriculture or in human society, are vulnerable in their oversimplicity.

In an open society it is therefore necessary that the government and shared institutions must be neutral as between the rival religions and beliefs of its citizens. Only so can their freedom of conscience not be prejudiced. An open society is necessarily therefore secular, in this sense of neutrality. There must be no established religion or dogma, no institutionalised or legal privilege. But ‘secular’ does mean ‘neutral’ and not ‘atheist’. Religious groups must have the just as much right (but no more) to participate in society as avowedly non-religious or anti-religious ones.

So in an open society Humanism is just one more ‘religion or belief’ competing in a crowded marketplace. We must learn to see Humanism as just one of a great variety of lifestances or world-views, special only because it is ours, ours because it meets our criteria for truth & acceptability, but no more legitimate in civic society – no more to be privileged in an open society – than the faith of a Jehovah’s Witness or a Roman Catholic.
Supporting such a society, we have to accept as humanists that, just because we are certain religion is dangerous nonsense, we do not have the right to cut corners in achieving its elimination, even if that were possible. Remember, the humanist commitment to reason is logically prior to our commitment against religion: we are against religion because it is contrary to reason, not as a matter of dogma. We need to win our battles by argument, not by force.

In societies still dominated by religion or dogma, the niceties of how we should treat other beliefs if we were in a potentially dominant position may seem remote. But we should be clear on the question. Our stance raises us above the simple power struggle. We are not just another contender for domination, willing to subordinate the interests and freedoms of our opponents if we have the chance just as they have oppressed us when in power themselves. By making our aim the creation of an open society in which we and our rivals participate on terms of equality, we take the moral high ground and invite them to join us. The struggle for an open society can be a shared one, and declining to engage in it marks out a group as unwilling to respect the rights of its rivals.

It is, of course, easier for humanists to endorse the open society than it is for those whose religion tells them they have the ultimate answers. Respecting the rights of others does not follow naturally if your main purpose is saving souls for the greater glory of God or enforcing behaviour in conformity with your own morality or political creed. By contrast, the values of the open society are entirely consonant with Humanism. They are not, of course, identical with it: the open society is neutral, not atheist, and Humanism is a lot more than respect for human rights.

However, the open society with its acceptance of diversity and respect for the rights of others will be seen as threatening by those who prefer to seek success by power, privilege and secret dealing. We must expect some of our opponents to misrepresent the open society as an atheist one and we must rebut the charge decisively. To do so, we must separate clearly in our own minds the secular neutrality of the open society and the atheist or agnostic humanism of our own world-view.