Credibility And Humanism

Credibility And Humanism- What is an Extraordinary Claim?

Presenter: Barrie Webster

April, 2011

Humanism has no dogma and no mantra to be recited by the faithful. We aspire to base our life-stance on free inquiry and scientific thought. On the one hand, we know that all Humanists are likely not to agree on specific issues. To make Humanism credible, then, we must be careful not shoot to ourselves in the foot. Zero-order thinking1 is easy to fall into, but it does not serve us well. Consider the following recent campaign by CFI Canada.

“The Centre for Inquiry Canada’s Extraordinary Claims Campaign features bus ads, educational events and online discussions to challenge many well-known – and widely believed – claims by demanding evidence as extraordinary as the claims themselves. Why is the belief in Bigfoot dismissed as delusional while strident belief in Allah and Christ is respected and revered? All of these claims are equally outlandish [see list below] and demand critical examination. At the Centre for Inquiry we are always challenging ideas and asking tough questions with the purpose of promoting reason, science, secularism and freedom of inquiry.”

Do we really see all of the following (quoted in the bus ad) in the same light?

“allah – bigfoot – ufos – homeopathy – zeus – fairies – christ – god – prophets – miracles – satan – heaven – hell – afterlife – angels – xenu – thor – vishnu – wicca – tarot – chiropractic – iridology – acupuncture – reflexology – reiki – alternative medicine – spiritual healing – vitamin therapy – magnet therapy – astrology – reincarnation – resurrection – mediums – psychics – young earth – creationism – flat earth – esp – channeling – ghosts – alien abductions – parapsychology – prayer – intelligent design – dianetics – feng shui – ouiji boards – karma – exorcism – dragons – gnomes – elves – ogopogo – mermaids – boogieman – tooth fairy – easter bunny – wizards – witches – vampires – auras – magic – chi – spontaneous human combustion – voodoo – past lives – virgin birth – water memory – clairvoyance – rapture – geocentrism – souls -leprechauns – gremlins”

I would suggest that the list, by attempting to be exhaustive, defeats itself. Specifically, the inclusion of chiropractic, acupuncture, alternative medicine, spiritual healing, and vitamin therapy (and likely, several others) makes the campaign much less appealing to those of us who, nevertheless, readily agree that the supernatural itself is at best, myth and at worst, pure fantasy. The practices just listed are sometimes used by many, including Humanists, in their pursuit of good overall health. There is also the question of respect for the mythology behind some of the items on the CFI list as literature and part of our culture. If we base our thinking purely on literal interpretation of reality, we become less human and much less compelling as Humanists. I suggest that there is an inherent problem if we tar everything on the list with the same brush.

And there is the influence that private US medical insurance companies have over the treatment of controversial diseases such as chronic Lyme disease (currently in the press and the subject of a recent 2-hour special on the Knowledge Network on TV).

If Humanists are to make their views known and respected, I believe that they need to pick their battles carefully. The case of unconventional or alternative therapies is sufficiently distinct from religious beliefs and folk legend that lumping them all together is likely to do Humanism a disservice. Further, if Humanist thinking is followed, some of these “alternative” therapies may be found to be evidence-based, but in ways that are hard to test with standard double-blind clinical trials. In the case of conventional medicine, we also need to be careful not to regard our doctors as infallible high priests, but as knowledgeable professionals who are there to help us to the best of their (perhaps somewhat limited) abilities. A clear, consistent demonstration that the Humanistic approach is open, inquiring, and responsible is likely to serve us best.


What constitutes an extraordinary claim?

How many examples do we need to make the point about religious beliefs?

How can we show that Humanists are capable of higher order thinking?

Oh yes! What happened to Santa Claus – why wasn’t he on the list? 🙂

“You don’t need God – to hope, to care, to love, to live.” New CFI slogan. Now there’s a slogan I can identify with. See it at .

1Zero-order thinking: us-and-them – as GW Bush stated, “You are either with us or for the terrorists.” First-order thinking uses a linear scale. Second order thinking uses a two-dimensional array and third-order, a three-dimensional one. In the context of this Humanist Cafe topic, I invite you to use at least a linear scale to classify the items included in the CFI list.