President of NEP interviewed by Humanist Freedoms
DISCUSSION: LAUNCH OF “THE NEW ENLIGHTENMENT PROJECT”
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find organizations and activities that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The “New Enlightenment Project” caught our eye (particularly the blog section of the organization’s website which features a growing library of articles and discussion) and we asked this new organization’s President, Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson to tell us more. (Note that bold features are ours and may not coincide with any emphasis that Dr. Robertson might prefer.)
1) What is the New Enlightenment Project and why did you (the organizers) create it?
The New Enlightenment Project was established with three objectives. First, we aim to provide education on the enduring qualities of reason and compassion which define humanism. Second, we affirm that the application of humanist values that flow from a stance firmly rooted in reason and compassion will necessarily change over time. One forum for accomplishing this, for example, is provided by Humanists International and their initiative to amend the Amsterdam Declaration of 2002. This process of updating is part of the “new” in the “New Enlightenment.” Third, since there is no deity that can give us the final word, we must depend on each other honing our knowledge through open discussion and free debate. We provide that forum.
2) How will NEP be different from other humanist-branded organizations? What will NEP do that others aren’t already doing?
The NEP is inclusive. We recognize that there is a wide range of opinion within humanism and that humanists often have differences in focus. But we also believe that we need a venue where humanists can have difficult conversations about controversial topics. Humanist Canada had such an open discussion group which they shut down last year. They then engaged in discussions with the Centre for Inquiry – Canada about creating a joint open discussion forum, but they have been unable to create such a forum. In the meantime, NEP has created two such forums, one on our website and one on Facebook, and these forums are open to everyone. To our knowledge, we are the only humanist organization in Canada providing this opportunity, and we invite all humanist organizations to embrace this initiative.
3) What does NEP see as the top priorities for humanism and humanists now and in the coming years? Within Canada? Globally?
There are many contemporary issues of concern. One of our top priorities is to come to terms with indigeneity in a postcolonial world. There are those who consider themselves to be allies of the descendants of the colonized who call science and reason “Western” and who promote “other ways of knowing.” When you think about it, this position is quite racist. It is saying that science and reason belong to Europeans and their decedents. Further, it is patronizing to suggest that faith based “other ways of knowing” is somehow equivalent to the enlightenment afforded by empirically verified research. Humanists need to come to terms with how these fundamental values can relate to traditional indigenous cultures. To help accomplish this the NEP participates in an Aboriginal Circle aimed at combining aborigineity and humanism.
There are other injustices that are worth fighting against. For example, with the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan we are witnessing the re-imposition of Medieval practices that include beheadings and the use of amputation to enforce religiously based authoritarian laws. We are part of a coalition of humanist groups raising public awareness and lobbying for government recognition and support of humanists, atheists and apostates as refugees. While this hearkens back to the original Enlightenment that concerned itself with replacing feudal structures, we must contend with modern economic forces that can also bring injustice.
I think humanists also need to also celebrate the achievements our movement has helped produce. Secularism is on the rise. We have achieved fantastic gains in combating racism and sexism. We need to continue to fight injustice while being wary of beliefs that are anti-scientific and discourage open inquiry. Compassion, which is an essential part of humanism, must be extended to all.
4) What does NEP see as the greatest threats to humanism and humanists now and in the coming years? Within Canada? Globally?
Humanism is under attack. It was always thus. We recognize the primacy of human reason in generating knowledge about knowledge about reality. Religionists have maintained that human reason is faulty and we need guidance from a deity. Totalitarians like Martin Heidegger have argued that science and reason are faulty and we need guidance from a great leader or Fuehrer as to ultimate “truths.”
In Canada we have become quite effective in fending off the attacks of religious fundamentalists. Globally, however, we have to deal with religiously infused authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Muslim world, who harass, jail and even execute atheists. Our defence of these humanists and apostates is hampered by the attitude of some North Americans who should be our secular allies but who provide deference to Muslim authoritarianism under the notion that these authoritarians represent victims of oppression.
In Canada, humanists are facing attacks from these people who identify themselves as secularists as well as from religious fundamentalists. In an article that was published earlier by Humanist Freedoms I identified these secularists as the Woke. These Woke operate from the premise that objective knowledge is impossible and that even science and reason are “white, male ways of knowing.” We have been slow to recognize and respond to their challenge. The NEP aims to take up their challenge.
5) HumanistFreedoms.com attempts to present a portrait of contemporary humanism and humanists in its articles; how does New Enlightenment Project, an organization whose name seems to be focused on the past, relate to contemporary issues and reflect a contemporary humanism?
The Age of Reason never really ended and is responsible for the scientific explosion we still see today, but there are attempts to make it seem old, passe. But without the grounding provided by the Enlightenment, humanism ceases to be humanism. Respecting the dignity of the individual is impossible if the individual is denied. If there is no individual who can reason, then all knowledge must be granted by a deity or some analogous ideological structure. If there is no objective reality, then science, empiricism and reason are empty culturally sanctioned performances. Put succinctly, humanism is grounded on the idea that there is a reality that exists outside of ourselves and we can come to know that reality through careful observation.
The Enlightenment affirmed a capacity that was already present in the individual. In my book The Evolved Self, I trace the modern structure of the self that balances both individualism and collectivism back 3,000 years. Steven Pinker, in his new book Rationality states that the capacity to reason is much, much older than that, and while this is certainly correct, the self that did the reasoning and put meaning to the process has evolved. A new self that was volitional, continuous and uniquely felt evolved from the old, but it was almost immediately constrained by organized religions. The Enlightenment released those bonds for increasing numbers of mankind, and we have been living the Enlightenment ever since.
But social, political and cultural contexts continually change. We have problems such as global warming, overpopulation and globalization that were not present 400 years ago. While the original Enlightenment was concerned with replacing feudalism, the New Enlightenment must concern itself with recent global capitalism in the digital age and the rise of a new Woke educated aristocracy. The New Enlightenment uses the capacities that are already inherent in the self to amend and update humanism making it very contemporary. Those who would deny those capacities would return us to the Dark Ages.
Citations, References And Other Reading
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