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April 14 2009

Joss Whedon on Humanism. This time you can hear him. Harvard Humanist Society posts 5:20 of Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism address. We eagerly await the rest.

Love the closing line. That man can deliver speeches, oh my.
Oh sure. I can't watch this now, I'm waiting to board my plane to LA. (That's less a gripe than a taunt.)
Don't bother, b!X, we don't want you here anyway. |-P
Faith in God means believing, absolutely, in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something, with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.


Made me smile.
On the other hand - there is also a great deal of data demonstrating that humans can, in the right circumstances, be noble, generous and self-sacrificing. It's not utterly hopeless. (I guess that's why Joss is willing to have faith in humanity.)
Sigh. The end was good, especially when he said that the opposite of humanism is not faith, but hate. But repeatedly before that, he made the error of assuming just that -- that humanism is a philosophy primarily defined by the absence or rejection of religious belief. That's just not so, Joss, and if your entire talk centered on that, then you missed the boat badly.
Well, it depends what sort of humanist you are. Agreed, it's not necessarily defined by the absence or rejection of religious belief (and it's certainly possible to be a religious humanist) but for many humanists that's part of it. In the sense Joss is using it the OED says:
b. spec. Freq. with capital initial. A variety of ethical theory and practice characterized by a stress on human rationality and capacity for free thought and moral action, and a rejection of theistic religion and the supernatural in favour of secular and naturalistic views of humanity and the universe.

Presumably the "not the opposite of faith" means that a humanst still has faith... in humanity, not in something supernatural. (Admittedly, I have not been able to hear the talk since I'm at work.)
How long was the speech? I'd love to hear it in it's entirety. I hope someone (Harvard?) posts the entire Vid somewhere. The credits for the linked video mentions two cameras in use, so it's the "official" version, I'm guessing.
Hi!!! I agree, cronopiogal, I wasn't crazy about the anti-god slant. However I think he meant it more to stress education (he did repeat that word lots) and critical thinking, rather than blind faith and actions motivated by fear. In that respect, I agree with him - humanism should incorporate tolerance for anybody who respects humanity.

Also, this is the first time I'm posting - I love this site!!! *squee*
Awesome. I love hearing Joss talk about this kind of stuff, its nice to know that not only does he make great TV (and movies and comics) but I love hearing him talk about religion, because he presents us atheists far better than many of the well known ones (like the one he mentioned, God Delusion).

And obviously Joss is a secular humanist, he's not going to be talking about religious humanists.

I also hope that they post the rest of the speech, because the other clips filmed by people are so bad, I can't watch them (sound and video wise).
If I understood the summaries of his speech correctly (and I or they may have missed something) Joss believes religion was a human invention designed to enforce morality, an invention that included an all-powerful "sky bully" as the cosmic punisher of immorality. He's using the term not as a synonym for God, in whom he does not believe, but the way you might use "boogeyman," a term for something made up to frighten children. Typing here as a Christian Humanist. Who'd really like to see the whole speech.

I'm glad he focuses on "where do we go from here?" Arguments about whether there's a god are inherently divisive and, in my experience, unenlightening. They distract from the more important moral question of "what should we do?" That's a question everyone has to answer.

ETA some grammar.

[ edited by Pointy on 2009-04-14 17:05 ]
I love hearing him talk about religion, because he presents us atheists far better than many of the well known ones (like the one he mentioned, God Delusion).


SteppeMerc, have you seen A Brief History of Unbelief? It's a three part documentary made in England in 2007, which has aired on a few PBS stations in the U.S.

I consider myself a religious humanist, but I don't have much confidence in the idea that of a Supreme Being also being a lawgiver for human behavior.

My idea of the SB is more the one who shows up to Job and says, "I don't have to account to you for the suffering in the world; I made this lot." Job (if you discount the happy-ever-after ending which most scholars think was added later) and Ecclesiastes are among the last books added to the Hebrew Bible and were influenced by Greek philosophy. Both of them state pretty clearly that you can't expect fair play or reward for virtue from either God or your fellow men.
Hey, how can I watch the Q & A that he did after the speech? Anyone know? Thanks...
There are links to various questions from it in the related vids at YouTube.
He says it all so much better than I do.
I'm going to leave now before I say anything about the Pope.
Not exactly the poster boy for "Live and let live" is he ;).

I'm glad he focuses on "where do we go from here?" Arguments about whether there's a god are inherently divisive and, in my experience, unenlightening. They distract from the more important moral question of "what should we do?" That's a question everyone has to answer.

Ultimately though Pointy, the existence (or otherwise) of God directly relates to that question because the answer for many religious people is "We should do what God - via [part of] The Bible - tells us to do" and clearly many non-religious people take issue with that (or at least, with which parts are followed).

It'd be great if when deciding moral issues we could just say "Let's put God to one side for now" but for many people, where morality's concerned, God is front and centre (and actually must be front and centre because to them he's the source of their moral code, the ultimate arbiter that we've talked about before). Enter humanism with another (inexact) solution to the equation of life ;).

[ edited by Saje on 2009-04-14 19:00 ]
Yeah, I just noticed those as well, zeitgeist. Here's a couple, though the sound quality is quite bad (and as such I couldn't make out all the awnsers):

'Right and wrong'

'Echo's journey'

'Searching for morals

'On Faith and Firefly' (this one features usefull speach bubbles to make the thing more intelligable).

'On close encounters of the third kind'

And here's the clip they showed before Joss came on stage. Given the quality though (the screen is being filmed from quite far off), it only works if you know the source material well enough to recognise what's going on ;).

This is also the Q&A where we've seen reports of Joss saying he was 'ashamed' of some of the early episodes of Dollhouse, right? Anyway: still no sign of that part as far as I can see.

ETA: added a link
ETFA: actually spelled 'zeitgeist' the way it's supossed to be spelled now ;)

[ edited by GVH on 2009-04-14 19:06 ]
Yeah which, interesting as the other stuff is, is kinda what I most want to see.


ETA: It's interesting BTW that of the various accounts and mentions that have popped up on here, no-one else seems to have emphasised (or even particularly noticed) what io9 made sound like the focus of the Q&A. I guess that could be because it's not as much of a surprise to folk on here (he says, trying not to be cynical about io9's motives ;) ?

[ edited by Saje on 2009-04-14 19:07 ]
I think that pretty much goes for everyone yeah ;)
They did say it the whole talk would be posted on WGBH, the Boston NPR station, at some point. I hope so because as others have pointed out, the acoustics weren't the best and it was difficult to catch everything.

Joss did say that he was ashamed of some of the Dollhouse episodes, but I didn't notice him specifying "early" ones. It would be interesting to know which. To me he seemed less conciliatory in his comments about working with the network than he's been over the past year. More of "this what we wanted to do and this is what they made us do."
But...but...what if Joss IS one of my gods?
Twas a lovely event.
But...but...what if Joss IS one of my gods?

Then you're a humanist ;).

It would be interesting to know which... More of "this what we wanted to do and this is what they made us do."

According to io9 he mentioned 'True Believer' as an episode that he felt failed to draw the link between joining the dollhouse and joining a cult barboo. Which struck me strange because on here a few people mentioned the parallels in the discussion thread (it seemed so plain to me in fact that I still wonder if he was being sarcastic and would probably assume so except Tim Minear also said he considered the episode 'workmanlike').

And the specifics of what they "made" them do is exactly the sort of thing i'm interested in.

[ edited by Saje on 2009-04-14 20:17 ]
You could try believing in him only on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays, Noctem. A part-time deity.

Speaking as a Christian, I have to say that a lot of what Joss says makes sense. In fact I'm coming to suspect that if there is a God, said God is itself humanist -- at least to a degree. As in, "I created you and I love you and I want to see what you can come up with on your own."
Wow, you're out of the country a few weeks and everything changes, Dollhouse is on the brink, Andy died, and Joss is giving speeches on things that matter. I should try to get online more when I travel. Anyway, even though I am an anti-humanist I must once again articulate my admiration for the humanist ideals. Joss in particular is really enjoyable talking about this stuff. One thing however, considering how important he thinks it is I ask, how does Joss define education? He seemed vague on that point.
I assume he means the acquisition of knowledge, preferably as devoid of bias as possible. You are an anti-humanist?
According to io9 he mentioned 'True Believer' as an episode that he felt failed to draw the link between joining the dollhouse and joining a cult barboo. Which struck me strange because on here a few people mentioned the parallels in the discussion thread...

Saje, he did mention "True Believer" and joining a cult, but due to that acoustics problem mentioned earlier, I couldn't actually tell if he was saying that it failed to make clear why people would be drawn to a cult or praising it as an example that succeeded.

And much as I respect Joss' opinion on many things, I have to utterly disagree with one point he made during the event. I don't remember exactly how he phrased it, and it's true there has been some very fine work on "Battlestar Galactica" but contrary to Joss, it has never been better than any of his shows.
I often wonder if the beauty of his art is seen better in our eyes. As if being the creator makes him blind to his creations. Like the Buffy and Faith subtext that he didn't see. As Saje said, the parallels between the cult and the Dollhouse are clearly there, even if he doesn't see it.
Most of the time, fans see what they want to see.
Nothing to see here, fans, move along!
That's not what I wanted to see !

To me any viewer sees what they want to see, I don't buy this idea that fans specifically are blinkered in some way by their fan-ness, if anything i'd say they're probably more likely to get allusions etc. just because they're familiar with the creator's previous work and have very likely "read around" the show and thought more about the themes etc.
I think there's usually some truth to what people see. It's just that then people take it to different places. Some people see, for example, Xander/Spike. I don't but I adore the YouTube mashups set to music because they are clever and hilarious. I'd never realized how much those two stare at each other, before seeing those. Loathing is a strong connection, and I think some people had clued in on the strength of it rather than the context.

Of course I probably would've said similar about Buffy/Spike before well, Buffy/Spike.
"As for Xander and Spike, God alone knows what those two big daft monkeys will come up with."

Seriously, Joss gets a lot of it. He understands what faith in God is, even though he doesn't have it. And I doubt if he's read Bonhoeffer but he has the same theory of the nature of religion.
korkster, I don't think being a creator makes you blind to your creation. I think a creator wants to achieve something specific and that is the part he will focus on. No matter how good the overall product might be, the flaws in what he tried to achieve will stick out. I remember listening to Joss' commentary for "The Body" where he seemed surprised that viewers had such a strong emotional reaction to the episode because that part was not his main focus.

I'm new here by the way. Hi, everybody.
janef, I'll have to check that out, sounds very interesting. It has to be better than the most recent 'documentary' on the subject I saw was Religolous, by Bill Maher (a comedian). I find him quite funny, but was still angered by his presentation of religion and religious folks in it.... especially since he painted Muslims as somehow more violent than say the Jews, despite the huge amount of violence in the Torah, not that finding such things in accounts of herder tribal people would be surprising. But any documentary about religion that ignores Hinduism and Buddhism is focused far to much on the West, which annoys me as a student far more concerned with folks in the East. And the way he was talking about it struck me as very similar to how Richard Dawson or others speak about religion, without perhaps the understanding of the cultures in which the religions derived from.

Which is why I love hearing Joss talk about it, he has a far more balanced and intelligent viewpoint that I can agree with far more. Though I really like hearing Joss talk about anything... I loved the commentary for Objects in Space despite the fact that a large majority went over my head (I just don't understand existentialism... but I did get the references to Boba Fett and to General Early).


Anyway, welcome Michael!
I dunno, ignoring Buddhism in a documentary of religions isn't that weird to me; a lot of Buddhists don't consider Buddhism a religion per se (those that I know don't). I think its best to back slowly away from "who is more violent than whom" discussions rooted in religion, at least for our purposes here.
Buddhism is a way of life as opposed to an organised practice of worship...they have no deities an only aspire to achieve enlightenment through self discovery and understanding...I live with one...it's awesome!
Depends on the kind of Buddhism as to whether it's deistic.
That was what I was trying to say zeitgeist, I agree an argument about levels of violence is unfair, which is why I took issue with the documentary. But I digress.

As for Buddhism, I know its more a system of belief than religion, but many historical people had it as there system of belief, far more numerous than many of the religions (or rather sects of religions) he mentioned. It also deals with spiritual and afterlife matters, so its not just a system of morals, though Buddhism isn't really concerned with, as Joss would put it, the sky bully (though again it depends what sect of Buddhism you practice). Of course it was synthesized with native belief, but so was Christianity and Islam.

Plus it is always interesting to look at warrior people who practice a religion (or belief, or whatever) that specifically forbids harming anything, both animal and human, like the numerous medieval Buddhist monasteries who had their own armies. And while it was not so much a religion, it was certainly the closest thing that for a long part of its history that East Asia had to a major religion, as Confucianism and Daoism are a lot less concerned about the afterlife.

[ edited by SteppeMerc on 2009-04-14 22:56 ]

[ edited by SteppeMerc on 2009-04-14 22:56 ]
Yeah, I know Buddhists who (I'm fairly certain, from previous conversations) approach it as religion. I think the degree to which it's religious varies a lot, depending on the specific tradition and culture. Pretty sure it's got a lot of religious elements as practiced in Burma, anyway.
Is the sound really quiet for anyone else? I am having a hard time hearing it.

ETA: Nevermind, it was just the first vid that was really quiet I guess.

Very cool stuff. Wish I could have been there.

[ edited by ShanshuBugaboo on 2009-04-15 00:03 ]
"To me any viewer sees what they want to see, I don't buy this idea that fans specifically are blinkered in some way by their fan-ness, if anything i'd say they're probably more likely to get allusions etc. just because they're familiar with the creator's previous work and have very likely "read around" the show and thought more about the themes etc."

Just quoting so I can agree.

It was fun sitting in the audience and watching the reaction of everyone as Joss would say that or this that someone would agree with so much they were in danger of spraining their neck nodding. I also appreciated him pointing out how crazy I am. I hadn't really thought about it before but having the basic belief that people don't suck is pretty nuts. And yet... I've drunk that koolaid. (Even if I slip occassionally while in traffic and once again hate everyone and wish for a Night of the Comet. ;) )
Wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing that. It was gratifying to hear Joss say that finally, someone made an important statement that included him, a non-believer, and that it was Obama who did that for him, is even better: "Now I know that feeling." The same one he's given to so many with his work.
So...religion is a man-made construct, designed to create a moral code...sounds like humanism to me.

Have always been amused by the certainty that atheists have in their disbelief of God's existence...I mean, can they PROVE it? His non-existence, I mean.

(I know, I know...but, as Oz said, "Check it out", meaning, the world...we humans, as brilliant as we can sometimes be, can't create so much as an atom, and well, the universe, check it out.)

[ edited by Chris inVirginia on 2009-04-15 04:13 ]
Right on. The atheistic humanist position is one of the most respectable that a person can hold. I'm so glad that I got into Joss's shows... and in turn... to existentialism, humanism, etc.

Have you guys read Nausea or Sartre at all... it was Joss's mentions on the Firefly commentary that first pointed me in the direction... now I'm writing my undergrad thesis on existential ethics. So thanks again, Joss.
Yeah, I've read Sartre, but for the most part I find twentieth century philosophers to be sub-par writers (with several exceptions). Sartre was a very conflicted person and his constant struggle to mix his existential views with his marxist views make for a more interesting study then a lot of his writing.
This was so typically Joss...it takes awhile to meander to the point, and sometimes I wonder where he's going, but then he gets there and POW, it's perfect.

I am a devout atheist and (secular) humanist, but I also didn't particularly like Religulous -- it goes for the cheap laughs and attacks, instead of engaging the subject. What I found most annoying is that it comes *so close* sometimes to being good -- when Maher's interviewing the astronomer at the Vatican, when he's in Hyde Park and the Radical Christians (who are Christian atheists) are there...and then he goes for the cheap shot and focuses on the Scientologists instead of the actually interesting people, who would have made better critics of the more ridiculous varieties of religion than he does. Oh, well...it's his movie...

Although I think it's possible to be a religious humanist in the sense of being both a humanist and a believer in God, most "religious humanists" I know (and I know a few) don't believe in God; they are just more into the forms and rituals of religion -- some are nontheist UUs or Sea of Faith or Ethical Culture members -- than the more secular variety of humanist.

It's also possible to be religious and to believe in God and yet not to believe that God is a sky bully or even about power -- in his letters from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.24). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us." Lots of other good stuff in those letters, including repeated discussions of the need for Christianity to become "religionless" and a curmudgeonly dissertation on Bonhoeffer's reasons for preferring the company of the atheists in prison to the Christians...but my point is that "God," whatever the word means, doesn't have to be about power, a message that seems totally lost nowadays in public discussions of religion.

So, if I were going to criticize Joss based on the limited excerpt which may or may not reflect full context, I'd say the "sky bully" reference was a bit of a cheap shot and we need to get past that kind of stuff. Which may have been his ultimate point, anyway.

And I think he's a prophet rather than a God.

[ edited by Eileen on 2009-04-15 06:01 ]
I don't buy this idea that fans specifically are blinkered in some way by their fan-ness,


There's a lot of places out there that I run away screaming from because of the blinkeredness. It's something shocking. I'm not even sure they should be called fans anymore.
Yeah but my thinking is kind of like Joss is saying about religion Simon - in that situation it's not being a fan that's the problem, it's being a frikkin' idjet that's the problem.
Have always been amused by the certainty that atheists have in their disbelief of God's existence...I mean, can they PROVE it? His non-existence, I mean.

Good point, Chris inVirginia. I've always been struck by the certainty that believers have that their particular version of "God" is the one, true one. How do you go about PROVING that the tens or hundreds of thousands of other Gods who have been or are currently being worshiped by other people whose certainty in their existence is just as definite as yours in your God, don't exist?
Have always been amused by the certainty that atheists have in their disbelief of God's existence...I mean, can they PROVE it? His non-existence, I mean.


The burden of proof is usually on those trying to prove rather than those trying to disprove, as evidenced by most justice systems. You can say absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it certainly isn't evidence of presence, either :).
zeitgeist; Legal and scientific systems aren't necessarily the only possibel systems, so standards can differ. Not saying you don't know that could be possible already, just want to put the point into the discussion.

NYPinTA: Yes, not liking anybody very much is an exhausting and not-fun way to live, I can testify to it, but it has its compensations.

Eileen: "Sky bully" is just a term Joss has apparently used for years so while I agree that it's too narrow a concept it's probably sort of automatic for him anymore.

I read parts of Letters and Papers from Prison back in 1976 for a course. I'm coincidentally currently reading Hunteman's the Other Bonhoeffer.

[ edited by DaddyCatALSO on 2009-04-15 16:46 ]
Have always been amused by the certainty that atheists have in their disbelief of God's existence...I mean, can they PROVE it? His non-existence, I mean.


It is very hard to fully prove a negative outside of mathematics really, except in trivial instances. The cases of “prove that [X] does not exist” require more indirect methods and can really only tell us what is reasonable to believe.

The bigger picture is what is needed then and as an atheist this is how I look at it:

The naturalistic world view offers a far more intellectually consistent/honest explanation for our existence than any religion.

Theology has still not overcome the catastrophic inherent problems in what it proposes, not even after thousands of years of trying.

There are attractive explanations for why we, ourselves, would invent belief in the supernatural. And invented we have, just look at the thousands of gods and belief systems lying on the scrap heap of human thought.

If nearly all arrows point to the same conclusion then that is what is most reasonable to believe.

About the speech, I don’t fully agree with Joss’ notion of tolerance. Faith is very much a part of us, and we probably all need it, but it can be hijacked by some pretty awful ideas (not necessarily religious) and I don’t see what we stand to gain by tolerating those. A ceasefire in the cultural wars, maybe.
"Catastrophic" being mainly a technical term in this case for the level of failure of an argument, I assume.
Yes, mainly. I could have formulated that much better. What I meant to say was that what I perceive as flaws inherent in the God “hypothesis” are catastrophic to its claim of being true. But also, mainly to try to sidestep my use of hyperbole, that it would be a terrible defeat for humanity if it were.

I actually respect the enormous amount of thought that has gone into trying to make sense of religious belief.

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