Does language makes us gods of an empty universe?
I've always found the concept of "humanity" a little human-centric. "Humanitarians" act generously and work together, while "inhumane" people act cruelly. "Humanists" want peace; "dehumanization" encourages war. But a lot of animals seem to do "humanity" better than humans. Ants work together more cohesively than humans do. Bonobos fight less.
I know, I probably sound like I'm just taking the social justice warrior movement to a new, even more insufferable place. "Human" is just a word, after all. But for me, this isn't really about words. It's about a destructive philosophy that's been sneaking into our brains for centuries.
"Humane," "humanity," and other loaded words about our species are just the tip of the iceberg. An entire religious movement called "humanism" takes the idea deeper. This philosophy insists that humans should ignore religion and other archaeic philosophies and instead focus on how humans, with our glorious opposable thumbs and hairless bodies, are the real centers of the world. We create our own meaning.
"Humanism is a philosophy of life that considers the welfare of humankind – rather than the welfare of a supposed God or gods – to be of paramount importance," writes the American Humanist Society. "Humanism’s focus, then, is on using human efforts to meet human needs and wants in this world."
And while many people have never heard of humanism, this human-centric philosophy is everywhere. Walking on the moon wasn't a large step for an astronaut, the U.S., or life on Earth; it was a large step for mankind. Humanitarian tourist missions send people around the world to volunteer for a few days, helping local communities in tiny ways while using tons of Arctic-destroying plane fuel in the process.
"Being human is a good thing!" weirdly insists one scientist at the beginning of a paper on dehumanization.
So here's my question to humanists: if humans are so inherently great, what about other animals? What about the planet? Doesn't a philosophy focused on meeting human needs and wants get in the way of our four-legged cousins?
Humanists probably wouldn't say so. Some humanist organizations even have a green tilt.
"Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion," says The Humanist, a humanism magazine. "Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility."
The problem is, what happens when those values conflict? It's easy to tack on "planetary responsibility" to a mission statement. But if you support the maximization of individual liberty, and you're focused on fulfilling human needs and wants, then you support humans using the planet as they wish. Why not cut down a rainforest, if someone wants a bigger house? Why not eat hamburgers for every meal, if people really like meat?
My "beef" isn't actually with the humanism movement or humanist groups. They're just symptoms of a greater trend: a human-centric philosophy that erases everything but humans from the realm of importance. While humanism may present itself as rational and scientific, this anthropocentric viewpoint is just as fantastical as any story about gods and demons.
In his books "Sapiens" and "Homo Deus," Israeli world history professor Yuval Noah Harari points out that human spiritualism has gone through a series of stages. While humans were hunter-gatherers, people stuck to animism — a belief that humans, animals, plants, rocks and everything else has a soul and is an important player in the grand story of life.
As humans started practicing agriculture, the human world stopped being about animals and become more about humans and their crops. Polytheism and monotheism ushered in an era of humans and gods. Animals were relegated to the sidelines. Now that religion is fading, gods are disappearing too, and humans are alone, kings of an empty castle. Welcome to humanism.
"The world was now a one-man show," wrote Harari. "Humankind stood alone on an empty stage, talking to itself, negotiating with no one and acquiring enormous powers without any obligations. Having deciphered the mute laws of physics, chemistry and biology, humankind now does with them as it pleases. When an archaic hunter went out to the savannah, he asked the help of the wild bull, and the bull demanded something of the hunter. When an ancient farmer wanted his cows to produce lots of milk, he asked some great heavenly god for help, and the god stipulated his conditions. When the white-coated staff in Nestlé’s Research and Development department want to increase dairy production, they study genetics – and the genes don’t ask for anything in return.”
Here's my question: If humans think we're the only relevant things in the universe, what's to stop us from dehumanizing everyone else?