To Confront Fundamentalism, Reclaim Humanist

We need a name for ourselves. If we are going to confront fundamentalism effectively, we need a name for the common the common ground that we share. It's not enough to say, "I'm not that kind of Christian" or "I'm not that kind of Muslim [or Jew, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or what-have-you]. Neither is it enough to say, "I'm that kind of secularist." We're not fundamentalists--okay, fine, got that. But who are we? What do we stand for? We can't move forward together on the common ground we share if we don't have a label--a brand, if you will--for our moral commitments.

I have a nominee. Humanist. Humanists are committed to the humane as an interpersonal standard and to clear, honest language as an intellectual standard. Compassion and critical thinking: as a "brand identity," that's simple, powerful, and morally necessary.

Here's the backstory to my nominee. In late-medieval Europe, beginning about 1300, a group of public intellectuals who were Christians came to be called humanists. Originally, the word referred to their expertise in "the humanities" ("humanist" is to the humanities as "scientist" is to the sciences). Christian humanists were the first Europeans to read Greek in more than seven hundred years. They rounded up previously unreadable manuscripts from the monasteries where these works had been diligently preserved for centuries, thereby reclaiming for the West our immense intellectual heritage from classical antiquity. Using cutting-edge information technology--the printing press--they set loose into general circulation an array of ideas and critical methods that elicited the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. They changed the face of Western culture.

The great Christian humanists also changed Christianity's self-understanding. They did so by studying the Bible in its original languages and cultural contexts, providing all-new translations and commentaries. In the mid-1880s, Christian fundamentalism arose in radical opposition to Christian humanist tradition: the discoveries of biblical scholarship were denounced in the same breath as those in biology and geology. Today's fundamentalists demonize "humanists" just as they demonize "scientists," "moderates," "experts," and "compromise." If you already have Truth, after all, critical thinking is a waste of time. And democracy is nonsense.

In Western tradition, humanists' moral commitment to compassion and critical thinking derives from two distinctive achievements of the first Christian humanists. First, they resynthesized the Platonic and Christian traditions, re-articulating in modern terms the ancient Jewish teaching that all people are children of God and participants in the sacred. That's the Western foundation for democracy and universal human rights. Second, they reclaimed the Greco-Roman heritage of classical rhetoric. What makes an argument valid? What's an honest use of evidence? What's the proper relationship among logic, evidence, and major claim? What's honest and what's dishonest in persuasive strategy? What's honest and what's dishonest in the use of metaphor? That's the Western basis for reasoning from evidence rather than deferring to established authority.

Compassion and clear, honest language are global moral standards. Different conceptual and narrative resources for explaining these moral norms add depth and complexity to our moral ideals. They keep our common ground aerated and fertile. Global interfaith conversation brings our metaphors to life as metaphors. It stabilizes our stories as stories, which are the most robust media humanity has for transmitting wisdom. Such conversation can help to protect all of us from cliché, from literalism, and from the blind spots on the periphery of our clear vision. Above all, metaphors, narratives, and symbolism sustain our perception of the transcendent as transcendent. That's why interfaith conversation has become vital to the mature formation of conscience in any tradition.

And that's why secular humanists must be part of the conversation, as the Dalai Lama argues in Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. Secularism has its own "saints" and "scriptures," some quite ancient, as Pierre Hadot demonstrates in Philosophy as a Way of Life. Secularism also depends upon narratives, metaphors, and complex symbolism. And like every other moral tradition, secularism is at risk from fundamentalism.

Humanist is a word for the opposite of fundamentalist. We need such a word. Above all, we need a word that begins to bridge the gulf between morally sensitive thinkers who are secular and morally sensitive thinkers who are religious. Transcending that divide matters, because together we outnumber the fundamentalists. If we can work together, we can make a difference. The Brookings Institute pleaded for such collaboration in an April 2014 report, Faith in Equality.

One aspect of that collaboration is working together to confront fundamentalism using resources from within the tradition that has been co-opted. My new series, "Confronting Fundamentalism," is one such effort. The first volume, Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination, is available for pre-order both from Amazon and from the publisher, Wipf & Stock. The short first chapters of other volumes are available on my website,

Take a look. Join the conversation. We need one another