The Humanist Interviews: Barry F. Seidman

The Interview was originally published at Skepoet at the Crossroads of Critical thinking in 2009. That blog is now defunct.   (Note: These interviews seem particularly naive to me now).

In an effort to, as one commenter put in, “nail Jell-O to the wall,” I decided to come up with an operating definition of humanism from its self-indentified practitioners and allies. Sometimes humanism seems almost a simple equation of “reason + compassion” and sometimes it seems like a complex sociopolitical movement. My first interview is with Barry F. Seidman.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Seidman, he has worked as a humanist/freethought community leader and events coordinator for the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry from 2000-2006. Barry has a BA in Video and Film Production from Rutgers University, and a MA in Science Journalism from New York University. He has been published in Free Inquiry, Philosophy Now, The Skeptic UK, The New Humanist, the Daily Record of New Jersey, Biotechnology News,, The Sciences, Skeptical Inquirer and EXIT.He contributed a chapter for the book anthology, “Opposing Viewpoints: Death and Dying,” and is coeditor of the anthology, “Toward a New Political Humanism.” Barry is also the producer of “Equal Time for Freethought,” a live radio program on WBAI-NY covering the scientific, philosophical and humanistic aspects of the Freethought world.

Barry vision of Humanist is more sociopolitical than the more recent versions of the Humanist Manifesto.This interested me because it seemed like a way to focus a humanist agenda beyond opposing theists. While Barry F. Seidman is slightly to the left of me and there some minor points on which I disagree with him such as characterizing Danish Mohammad cartoons being explicitly anti-humanistic (although I do think they were deliberately provocative), I find I agree with him more than I don’t.

C. Derick Varn:I’ve notice you and the crew at equal time for free thought devote a lot of time to giving humanism and free thought more than just a secular and naturalistic world view?

Barry Seidman:Yes, we began as an extension of our then executive producer’s (Sara Kaye) previous WBAI program, Equal Time for Atheism, but soon realized that we wanted to promote a philosophical worldview rather than just articulate what we DIDN’T believe in. Of all the areas of which Freethought entails – scientific naturalism, skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, etc. – humanism was the only “ism” which fit that notion. Of course many self-identifying humanists define humanism in many different ways, but that may be another question of yours later on. But let me make clear that our umbrella term – Freethought – allows us to bring on board hosts and guest hosts who themselves may not be humanists, but who want to articulate a more general Freethought set of ideas.

C.D.V.: : Do you think atheism is necessary to humanism?

Barry:  No. I think there can be humanistic elements to, and humanist “stands” made by religious folks and that these contributions can help create a planetary humanism for the 21st century. I don’t think atheists own the word humanism, in other words. Still, it is my belief, and I think there is much evidence for this, that if such a planetary humanism comes to be, most forms of religion would then disappear. I think Marx said it best when he argued “…the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” What I would also like to add is that being an atheist in no way means you are also a humanist. I know of many atheists who have quite anti-humanistic ideals, so the two words are hardly interchangeable.

C.D.V.:  What is your working definition of humanism?

Barry: : Humanism is a sociopolitical world view, informed by scientific naturalism, which holds that human societies are healthiest if founded on non-hierarchal democratic principles. Accordingly, a humanistic society – in recognizing universal interconnectedness – promotes cooperation in all areas of life, the peaceful and fair allocation of natural and human-made resources, and a commitment that individuals be encouraged and aided in achieving their fullest potential while in turn nurturing the larger society.

C.D.V.:  What do you think gets confused with humanism that isn’t humanism?

Barry:  Some folks think atheism itself is all that’s required to be a humanist. Others feel humanism is merely a “human-centered method of inquiry,” while others say it’s an “ethical worldview” but don’t apply their own humanist ethics to the real world for fear of “politicizing” their humanism. I also think, and surprisingly this may be controversial, that you can’t hold right wing or even conservative ideals and be a humanist. The ethical codes are just too different.

C.D.V.: What kind of agenda would a humanist have in your view?

Barry: Tough question. This can take a book, and probably will someday. Maybe you should be more specific?

C.D.V.: Okay, let’s break a humanist agenda down into three areas.What do you think a humanist position on health care is?

Barry: Health Care, as President Obama said, is a right not a privilege or a responsibility. That said, there is simply no reason a wealthy nation should not be able to offer each and every person living within her borders full health care for free. Of course “free” means it has to be part of the overall budget of the government rather than individuals or families having to pay for it via for-profit insurance companies.

The problem arises, I think, not because people are unwilling to pay toward the entire society’s health care through their taxes (though some will argue this), but because people don’t trust what the government does with their money. But since they don’t really know where their money goes, or are told to believe that when it goes into the Pentagon, that it’s to “protect our freedoms” (when it’s really to protect the political elite’s privilege), they turn on social programs like welfare.

Also, because most people are wage-slaves and make little money in the first place, they don’t want their money going to others who may not work (for whatever reason) as hard if at all. This attitude is created by the divide and conquer method the State uses to get the attention off the low wages in the first place, and the fact that the real money is going to the few elite who then have to devise arguments through their proxies like Rush Limbaugh to pit whites against people of color, men against women, and Middle Class against the Poor. So the only humanist method to full health care for everyone is via real socialism.

C.D.V.:  What do you think a humanist position on education is?

Barry: On education, it’s really the same as with health care. All education including college and post-graduate work should be free to all. The way it is now, only the rich can get the elite education, which does not mean they gain any more real knowledge, but instead the “credentials” to get better jobs. Eliminate capitalism and education may instead be sort after for, well, education! I think the Modern School movement of the past and the notion of Democratic Education people from Alfie Kohn to Jerry Mintz talk about is the humanist way to go. Surely it will be more about education than indoctrination or work-place preparation than we see in religious and public schools respectively.

C.D.V.: : What do you think a humanist position of freedom of belief and conscience is? I have seen several atheists who come very close to wanting to restrict freedom of conscience and freedom of belief. Sam Harris seems to waver on this, and he is often linked to humanism.(Note: I was specifically referring to some statements in The End of Faith that appeared to advocate violence.I understand, however, that Mr. Harris has clarified his position on the matter. )

Barry:On freedom of belief and conscience (and speech I take it) we may need further dialogue, even in humanist quarters. Unlike Sam Harris – whom I would call an atheist and not a humanist – I feel anybody should be free to believe anything they want, religious, new age, racist, secular, humanistic, non-racist. . . whatever. Thought control – or conscience control – is certainly anti-humanistic. Likewise, people should be able to say in public anything they want, but this part gets a bit trickier. I think when speech is meant to rally people behind an idea – no matter what we think of that idea – that such speech should be always allowed. But when speech is meant to rally people to action, well, then it gets tricky. If we disallow people to speak to rally folks to achieve racist political policy, then we have to disallow people to speak to rally folks to achieve socialist political policy because in both cases there will be people who very much disagree with such policy. I think we can draw the line when speech is meant to incite people to violent actions, but it isn’t always easy to know what will or will not incite violence. I think it was clear that in a time of mass killings of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine by Western powers that the Danish Cartoons published by a right-wing newspaper was meant to incite violent protest. . . and it did. I may not use the word disallow to describe what I would do about publishing those cartoons, but rather use the word selfish and stupid.Surely that was an example of a non-humanist act, no matter what Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens think.

C.D.V.:  Do you think that there has been a recent movement to de-politicize humanism in ways that involve economics and to mobilize things that involve science in specific?

Barry: I am not sure there has been a recent movement to de-politicize humanism and move towards mere atheism and/or science advocacy, though that is what indeed has happened to at least one major American humanist organization since 9/11 – just when we NEEDED to talk about politics and economics, mind you – but there certainly has been for quite some time an overall unstated separation of politics-economics from what some have called “pure humanist philosophy” due to the early 20th century association of many humanists with socialism and Marxist Humanism. With the many anti-communist movements in the US since before WWII, many advocates of humanism like Dr. Paul Kurtz wished to separate humanism from politics because humanist politics were usually no more right-wing than New Deal democracy and often quite socialist and even anarchist. These leftist connections scared many American humanists because they thought humanism would become tainted with communism, but of course atheism itself – which these same people strongly advocated for – was already compared to “godless communism.” And so, after neutering humanism politically, atheism slowly became the core issue for humanist – rather than applied ethics – which opened the flood gates for capitalist, conservatives, Right-Libertarian and Objectivist atheists. . . . forever confusing the issue that humanist ethics opposes the core ideals of such ideologies. I think this is why so many self-identifying humanists talk about ethics but don’t apply them within their humanist framework, and this is why some people simply define humanism as “a human-centered method of inquiry.”

C.D.V.: :This may seem like an odd question, but I have always wondered if the socio-economic situation in the US has led to many people who profess humanism to be slightly distrusting of democracy because of the religious inclinations of a lot of the population?

Barry As for humanists distrusting democracy, I don’t think this is the case. The ‘new atheists’ might distrust democracy because they want religionists to somehow keep their beliefs from influencing their political activism (and I am not just talking about their worry concerning religious folks breaking down the wall between church and state), but most humanists argue that democracy is central to humanism. The problem I have with that is not – as some would believe I might argue – that humanism is threatened when the core elements of Jeffersonian-Madisonian democracy are trampled on as was the case under the Bush administration, but that Jeffersonian-Madisonian democracy – representative democracy – is not democracy at all. The term “representative democracy” is as much an oxymoron as “anarcho-capitalism” or “capitalist libertarianism.” So what humanists fear is that some folks might decide that conservative, reactionary religionists and secularists might decide THEY are the proper representatives of the people (and there are many people who would, and do, vote for such people), when in a real inclusive democracy, no such thing could happen because ALL THE PEOPLE represent themselves and each other. To me, you can’t fully realize a humanist future society unless you have REAL democracy in place.

C.D.V.:  What do you think are the most important concerns for humanists in the short term?

Barry: I don’t know if there are any ’short-term” concerns that are not really long term ones as well. I suppose we really have to be vocal and vigilant about keeping President Obama’s feet to the fire and encourage him to make the progressive changes he promised in his campaign. And on what issues do we have to push him in the interest of making the here and now better? Universal, Single-Payer, Non-Profit Universal Health Care, bringing about the end of the Fossil Fuels Era to reverse Global Warming, and Global Economic Change that will severely tighten the gap between the rich and the poor so that we eventually HAVE NO rich or poor people in the world.

C.D.V.: Do you think the current political situation will make humanism a more publicly viable agenda?

Barry: In a word, yes!


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