Humanistic Naturism

What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?


The well-respected mainstream author Howard Fast has a science fiction story entitled "The Sight of Eden" that offers a poignantly sad appraisal of the human state of mind.

Seven astronauts have just made the first journey to an extrasolar planet. They find a beautiful Eden, with gardens, rivers, fountains - but apparently no inhabitants. Yet there are also beautiful buildings, some of whose corridors are "lined with colorful and masterful murals of naked children at play".

On their third day, they are finally greeted by a man, human seemingly just like them. Though he has no name in the usual sense, he goes by "Smith" for convenience. He reveals that many worlds througout the universe are inhabited by "humans" just like themselves, and that this whole planet has been set aside and developed as a park.

Smith also reveals, with much sadness, that he is familiar with the history of Earth, its wars, violence, and destruction. Worse, it seems that only on Earth have humans exhibited such pathological behavior. The astronauts from Earth, therefore, are not welcome. They must be confined to their own planet and not allowed to join the rest of galactic society.

Naturally, one of the astronauts objects that the past history of Earth is old and now irrelevant. So Smith demonstrates, simply and elegantly, that this is not the case:

Smith opened his robe, let it slip off his body to the ground, and stood before them naked. The women instinctively turned their heads away. The men reacted in shocked disbelief. Smith picked up his robe and clothed himself again.

"You see," he said.

The five men and women stared at him, their eyes full of realization now.

"In all the universe," Smith said, "there is only one race of man that holds its bodies in shame and contempt. All others walk naked in pride and unashamed. Only Earth has made the image of man into a curse and a shame. What else must I say?"

The astronauts comprehend the absurdity and self-loathing implicit in a race of beings which cannot stand to look at themselves as they really are.

Naturism is a way of life believed in and practiced by many people. This way of life is known more commonly in North America as nudism. Many people who practice this way of life prefer one term over the other, and they will argue tirelessly the merits of their preference. The arguments revolve around definitions of the terms, with the preferred term being applied to whatever personal philosophy an individual has, and the other term applied to whatever is seen as the chief alternative point of view. This results in the terms often being used with completely opposite meanings, depending on who you happen to ask.

In actuality, the philosophical nitpicking is pointless, because there are almost as many different opinions on what naturism (or nudism) "is" as there are naturists (or nudists). There really isn't any philosophy shared by all naturists (nudists) - except for one thing: they like to be naked, and they firmly believe this is a good, mentally healthy way to be. For simplicity, I'll just use the terms naturism and naturists to refer to this point of view and the people who hold it.

Some naturists prefer to be naked whenever practical, while others simply prefer it in congenial circumstances like clothing optional beaches and naturist clubs or resorts. Some see nakedness as a state that engenders a more healthful approach to life, both physically and spiritually. Others see it as just the most satisfying and reasonable way to enjoy various recreational activities like swimming and hiking.

These differences don't really matter. What does matter is that naturists believe they have learned to be more fully human because they are able to accept their bodies for what they are, no more and no less. And in this way they overcome the psychologically and spiritually stultifying attitudes suffered by the astronauts in Fast's story.

Since naturists have few common beliefs except as indicated above, they certainly are not a cult. Naturists don't even believe that everyone should go naked - only that it should be a matter of personal choice under appropriate circumstances. Above all, as far as clothing is concerned, naturists share with humanists the belief that reason, rational thought, and respect for others are the best guides to conduct.

Man is the sole animal whose nudities offend his own companions, and the only one who, in his natural actions, withdraws and hides himself from his own kind.
Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebonde"

Naturists believe - at least when they take the time to think about it - that a lot of social dysfunction and growth-limiting beliefs can be traced directly or indirectly to the widespread failure of people in our society to fully accept their own bodies. In some ways this may seem paradoxical or untrue. There is, after all, now a certain vogue for fitness and healthy living. We believe in the value of exercise, in eating the right foods, in keeping our bodies trim and physically fit. And we take pride, sometimes quite a bit, when we are successful in these goals.

But there is a darker side to this fitness ethic. We have become hyperconscious of physical appearance. We judge harshly those who cannot measure up, for whatever reason, to cultural standards of physical attractiveness. To have less than an ideal figure, to be less than in "perfect" shape can be judged as laziness. So some become driven and obsessive about exercise. While others, particularly young women, fall prey to disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Even though our culturally "ideal" figures for either men or women are in fact out of reach of many, many people. And with very few exceptions, even the most fit cannot maintain an ideal bodily appearance in the face of the inevitable sags, bulges, and scars of advancing age.

To compensate for failing to achieve the supposed ideal, which is actually unattainable, we seek, at considerable expense, to artificially "enhance" our appearance with fashionable and stylish clothing. To the point where by far the largest part of retail stores in our malls and shopping centers deal in clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics. And our children will, sometimes literally, do almost anything to get the latest "designer" clothes. Appearance wins over reality - and practicality - by a large margin.

This may seem like a superficial matter. (And, by definition, it is.) But we have become alienated from our bodies in more harmful ways, especially as related to our sexuality. We have become (or, perhaps, merely remained, given our puritanical heritage) terrified of many manifestations of sexuality. Yet obsessed by it at the same time. This seems paradoxical, yet is really just the two sides of the same coin. What is kept deliberately hidden has an unnatural power to obsess us.

It is commonly supposed that naturism (nudism) is just another sexual obsession, that naturists remove their clothes only as a prelude to free and indiscriminate sex, and that naturist clubs and resorts are havens for swingers and orgiasts. This just isn't so. Naturists have the same sexual needs and desires as anyone else. And many of the same fears about sexuality too. But what they do not have is the very erroneous idea that nudity and nakedness are inseparable from sexuality. In fact, they know that the opposite is true, that it is possible to fully enjoy nakedness, in an appropriate setting, as a pleasurable concomitant of being human. Because nakedness is separable from sexuality, it is an available pleasure that is not inextricably enwound with the deeper perplexities of sex.

A contradictory myth, which is also popular, is that naturists go to the other extreme and deny sexuality altogether, with special puritanical conventions of their own. That isn't so either. What is true is that naturists have overcome the sex-related fears of seeing others naked and being seen naked. The fact of sexuality is brought out into the open, but its power to intimidate is removed. Naturists have learned that they can control their own sexuality, and that other naturists can and will do likewise.

Through this understanding, naturists lose the fears of their bodies that are associated with sexuality, just as they lose the fears that are associated with mortality. Sexuality and mortality are accepted, alike, as part of being human. In this body acceptance is the beginning of the process of overcoming the self-loathing demonstrated by the astronauts in Fast's story. And this facilitates the development of truly humanistic values, unconflicted with debilitating fears that are the legacy of a more superstitious and less rational stage of culture.

Sexual modesty cannot then in any simple way be identified with the use of clothing, nor shamelessness with the absence of clothing and total or partial nakedness. There are circumstances in which total nakedness is not immodest....Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness. Immodesty is only present when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person...The human body is not in itself shameful, nor for the same reasons are sensual reactions, and human sensuality in general.
Pope John-Paul II

Naturism does not take any stand on religious questions per se. Many naturists are devout Christians or members of other religious faiths. There are even various organizations specifically catering to the interests of Christian naturists. On the other hand, many other naturists are atheists, agnostics, sceptics, or humanists.

Likewise, most religions do not actually include prohibitions on nudity in their doctrine, as the above quote illustrates. This is the reason that many religious people, including clergy, can be naturists as easily as anyone else.

However, it is also obvious that many forms of religion, especially fundamentalist kinds, are very hostile to nudity. It is rather hard to determine the historical reasons for this. There are no Biblical references, including Genesis, that mandate this hostility. In the case of Christianity, the roots may lie in the beliefs of pre-Christian Jewish sects or in the attitudes of early figures like Paul and Augustine. The problem is bound up in general attitudes of religion to sexuality and the body, especially since there is also so much confusion about the relationship of nudity and sexuality.

There is another, less obvious problem. Much of the hold that religion has over people can be traced to the natural human fear of death and mortality. Religion tries to allay this fear by holding out the hope of an afterlife. Nudity, particularly of older people, reminds us of what we fear about growing old. But if this fear is assuaged by other means, such as by learning to accept our bodies, one of the supports of conventional religion is undermined.

More generally, apart from specific doctrine and unvoiced fears, perhaps the main problem that religions have with nudity is due to the simple fact that religion is based on faith rather than reason. Consequently, false ideas that gain the support of authority or tradition are difficult to dislodge, because appeals to reason and rational thinking are without effect. It's possible to believe almost anything if objective proof isn't required. A proper application of critical thought to issues about nudity would quickly dispel negative attitudes, just as in the case of so many other religious superstitions.

Humanists understand this process very well.

How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?
Katherine Mansfield

Why should naturism be of interest to humanists? In brief, I think it's because naturism, like humanism, is a belief system and a way of life that promotes positive values and fosters personal growth. The values and way of thinking of naturism and humanism are very similar. Both emphasize clearing away traditional but erroneous myths, prejudices, and preconceptions that stand in the way of greater interpersonal understanding, self/other-acceptance, and growth. Both achieve this by rational, critical thinking that questions conventional, conformist opinion.

Naturists believe that such rational thinking will necessarily find that clothing is very often simply superfluous and an encumbrance, though sometimes it is beneficial for comfort or protection. And whenever clothing truly is unnecessary for comfort or protection, there are many benefits to just doing without it, especially in the company of others who agree - all the while granting others the right to dress or not in the manner that seems best to them.

Naturists believe the ideas that nudity is "offensive", "lewd", or harmful and clothing is necessary for propriety, control of "lust", or covering supposed aesthetic shortcomings of human bodies are no more than unfounded myths passed on unexamined from one generation to the next - like many other myths perpetuated by traditional thinking and religion.

For further investigation...

There's quite a lot of information about naturism available on the Web:
Quotes on nudity
A collection of the thoughts on nudity of respected thinkers like Montaigne, Walt Whitman, and Khalil Gibran. There are also (elsewhere on the page) quotes on many other topics, with a very humanistic bias.
Nakedness and Nature
An essay that goes into the reasons "naturism" is based on the word "nature", and why it is "natural". This is a good place to go for more on the underlying philosophy.
Being and Nakedness
This is my Web site on the subject. There are many pages here, including over 750 links to pages elsewhere. Topics range from further philosophical essays to information on the practicalities of trying a naturist way of life.

Humanist naturism mailing list

If you would like to discuss this topic with others who are interested in both naturism and humanism, I have an email discussion group just for that purpose. It's called Humanist Naturism. Click here for the main page. You may request membership from the main page or simply by entering your email address below and pressing the button.

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Last updated: February 15, 2003