- The Norwegian Humanist Association (NHA) is in no position to annex this word, says Director of the Nansen Academy, Dag Hareide.
Text: Even Gran
Norwegian version published: June 10, 2008
For a long time the Norwegian Humanist Association has tried to establish an understanding of the concept "humanism" as a description of the Association's non-religious life stance.
In particular, the former Secretary General, Levi Fragell, has promoted this work. Among other viewpoints, Fragell refers to the fact that all over the world the concept is being defined much more precisely as an inherent, non-religious life stance compared to Norwegian practice, and he also mentions reference works like Collins', Webster's and Little Oxford Dictionary.
However, in Scandinavia the use of the concept has been more vague than what we find in English-speaking countries, he argues.
During the nineteen thirties, liberal Christians in Norway and Sweden took hold of the concept, supported by the Nansen Academy at Lillehammer and the Sigtuna Foundation in Sweden and established "Christian humanism" as a prevailing form of expression, Fragell wrote in a Fritanke.no commentary in September 2006.
As a building block in the work to establish a more precise understanding of humanism as a non-religious life stance concept, the Norwegian Humanist Association has now decided to rename all its ceremonies with the prefix "humanist". Replacing the term "human-ethical" with "humanist" in the Norwegian name of the Association is also being considered. Furthermore, the Association has recently defined its life stance in the so-called "Norwegian Humanist Manifesto".
This does not go well with Director Dag Hareide of The Nansen Academy at Lillehammer. He is the manager of a school defining itself as "a Norwegian Humanist Academy", and finds the attempt of NHA to annex the concept unacceptable.
- Historically, humanism has been a trend in several religions. It is impossible for NHA to just ignore this definition, Hareide maintains.
Hareide maintains that the proposed Norwegian wording of "Christian and humanist values", contained in the Constitution and the legal directive for schools and kindergartens, is based on the view that this concept is understood to be precise and unambiguous.
- NHA must not tow the line with the Christian Democracy Party and other conservative Christians as regards the concept "Christian", giving it a narrow and excluding definition. Assuming that NHA wins the argument for its definition of humanism, this concept will not be approved as a description of basic ethical values by a (united) National Assembly, neither in the Constitution nor in the legal directives, Hareide points out.
He adds that it ought to be a national obligation to give the concept "humanism" a precise content.
- What is your reaction to the fact that most international reference books define humanism as inherently non-religious?
- This does not apply to my reading. Admittedly, the reference works I have consulted state that humanism is directed against authoritarian religion, and that a non-religious life stance humanism does exist. Furthermore, it is maintained that humanism, evidently, is a way of thinking that have promoters in a number of religions. You have to use a lot of eraser on history in order to ignore this.
- Which reference works are you thinking of?
- Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance. And Wikipedia. But I must admit that I have not made thorough studies of this.
- But Wikipedia's English and French versions state explicitly that humanism refuses to accept the supernatural.
- Yes, but it also says that humanism has been incorporated in several alternatives of religious philosophy.
The Nansen Academy reintroduced this concept
Hareide adds that the humanist concept, of course, lives its own life and has revised its general ideas in Europe from Italian renaissance to English protestantism and German new humanism to the French Age of Enlightenment.
- Accordingly, the concept might be connected to cultural trends on other continents. The Nansen Academy reintroduced the concept at the end of the nineteen thirties, and has been a common denominator from the start. The Academy's founders Kristian Schjelderup and Anders Wyller were Christian humanists and adopted the name of a freethinker, Fridtjof Nansen, to illustrate this wide span. Since this time, the Nansen Academy has been a meeting place for people, irrespective of religion, life stance and ideologies, he conveys.
- In your opinion, what is the essence of humanism?
I would like to define humanism as a basic mind-set where the substance is human values as defined by the Declaration of Human Rights and the Golden Rule, stating that you should treat other people in the way that you want them to treat you. A central element is free thought; the independent right to freely choose one's own faith and one's own opinions. However, for me personally, humanism is an attitude, not a life stance, he says.
Hareide ascertains that various religions, life stance and science might be used as a justification for humanist ways of thinking.
- Thus, you let a number of adjectives precede humanism: Buddhist humanism, social humanism, Christian humanism. It is also meaningful to apply the term "life stance humanism", which I have seen used by NHA members. Consequently, it is possible to make humanism into a life stance. But this does not entail that you are necessarily a "more genuine humanist" than others, he emphasises.
A two-way split is too simple
In Hareide's opinion, the thought that we have one ethical alternative based on God and religion on one hand, and a non-religious alternative based on human values on the other, this is dangerously simple.
- Then you have Gandhi and Bin Laden on one side, and Stalin and Nansen on the other. This is absurd. More accurately, the question should be related to your view on human beings and what kind of god we are discussing, he says.
Hareide would like to support another alternative.
- I advocate another two-way split, and that is a division between those who split everything into two and all the others. - This discloses something of the inherent danger of fanaticism in religions, ideologies and in the Norwegian Association of Humanists, he underlines.
- Life stance humanism is not identical to "humanism"
Hareide thinks that it is a good thing that NHA intends to define humanism as a life stance.
- In that case, however, it must, obviously, be called "life stance humanism", and not claim an exclusive right to the concept of humanism in Norway. I define myself as a humanist and I have been christened and am a member of The Norwegian Church. If NHA proposes to stand above me and tell me that I have no right to call myself a humanist, or that I am some kind of second-rate humanist, I think this is very arrogant, says Hareide.
However, he adds that it is not his impression that this is a prevailing attitude within NHA.
Beware of species egotism
In Hareide's opinion, an important priority for anybody who wants to be known as humanists is to avoid species egotism on behalf of human beings.
- Stating that "human beings are the ultimate purpose" is getting on dangerous ground. This point of view entails that nature has no value in itself, but that nature is valuable only through what it can offer to human beings. This view has influenced religious as well as secular humanists. People representing such an attitude, should take a good look at themselves, maintains Hareide.
Personally, he argues that other life has a value, independent of human beings, and this can be sustained in different ways.
- This can be motivated in the faith of God as creator, in pantheism and agnostic wonder. However, I doubt that it can be motivated in rational science. But, please try to convince me, he says.
Hareide advocates further debates on this matter
- We need further relevant discussions, because this is where constitution, legal directives and ethical values fall short in our society today.
Recognising different interpretations of the concept
Former Secretary General of NHA, Levi Fragell, does not try to hide the fact that the concept of humanism may be understood in different ways. Nevertheless, he emphasises that the understanding of humanism as a non-religious life stance, as defined by NHA, now is in the process of achieving a universal position, especially in English-speaking countries.
He questions Hareide's attitude and refers to statements from the former Director of the Nansen Academy, Inge Eidsvåg, published in Humanist magazine no. 1/98.
Here Eidsvåg declared: "..Even if I said before that the Norwegian Humanist Association has unlawfully tried to monopolise the humanism concept, I would not express myself like that today. The use of the concept has changed, and I might as well admit that humanism in English language practice often is understood as humanist ethics or life stance humanism (..) Today, the humanism concept is perceived by an increasing number of people to be identical with humanist ethics or life stance humanism. It would be imitating Don Quixote to insist on another interpretation of the word".
- Now, another ten years later, our definition of the concept has been even more widespread. I feel that it is unwise of Dag Hareide to continue pretending that this issue is still wide open, Fragell says.
He underlines that NHA's efforts to conquer the humanism concept is also a matter of trying to adjust to the international interpretation of the concept.
- As our definition is in the process of achieving a unique international position, it would be remarkable if NHA did not try to establish this understanding here in Norway as well, says Fragell.
Translated by Tone Haugen Jensen