What is Humanism?
Humanism is a dynamic life stance that is guided by rational thought, scientific inquiry, personal responsibility, compassion, fairness, and equality. That’s the definition in a nut shell, but it doesn’t tell us much about what it means to be a Humanist or how we apply these ideas to our daily lives. To better understand Humanism, it may be better to ask the question – what does a Humanist believe?
While the term “humanists” has historically referred to humanitarian-focused theists or deists, for almost 100 years Humanism (with a capital H) has referred specifically to a naturalistic, non-theistic skeptical life philosophy with roots going back to ancient philosophies from Greece, Rome, and the Far East. The term “religious Humanism” describes naturalistic, non-theistic Humanists who are members of Unitarian Universalist, Humanistic Judaism, or Ethical Culture congregations, and these groups are still very much active today. However, many folks are unaware of the history and efforts of groups such as Humanist Canada, Humanists International, and the American and British Humanist Associations over the last century in promoting secular Humanism.
Where does Humanism come from?
Aspects of Humanism are found in every culture and every belief system. Very often you will hear religious apologists and other believers in the supernatural suggest that Humanism borrows its views from theirs in order to understand the world, when in fact the exact opposite is true. The good ideas found in every religion can be found in every other religion. No religion has a corner on the market when it comes to truth. As a social species, the ideas of Humanism – leading good, moral, and ethical lives without the help of the supernatural – is part of our nature.
There are literally millions of people who follow the Humanist philosophy of living a happy and productive life based on reason and compassion. These are tacit Humanists, each of them reaching similar conclusions without joining Humanist organizations or reading particular texts. They have worked out their ideas independently by sharing our universal human values and attributes. Humanism is very much a part of humanity; it’s in all of us. Like a sculptor staring at a large block of marble, the masterpiece is in there – we just have to chip away the bits we don’t need.
Humanism is born from the curiosity and natural goodness that is in all of us. People turn to a Humanist life philosophy out of the need to answer our many nagging questions. Religion and supernatural beliefs fail to deliver valid or consistent solutions to life’s toughest issues concerning truth, morality, rational thinking, logic, and common sense.
Humanism is the logical choice.
So what makes a Humanist?
A lot of factors. Our worldview has much to do with our starting point and how we think about reality. We call the starting point our presupposition, and everybody has at least one. The presupposition for Humanism is “the universe exists and we can learn something about it.”
Yes, we share this presupposition with probably every thinking human being on the planet, but what makes it different for Humanists is that we don’t believe that the universe was created by any supernatural force or “god”. Reason and logic would suggest that the universe does exist. Most every worldview holds this belief, but for many it’s buried under many, many layers of gods, spirits, and other supernatural ideas.
There are other suppositions Humanists used to make our understanding of the world a little easier; for example – Demonstrably true statements are more valuable than ones that are not. This one’s pretty straightforward, and it’s necessary for the scientific method to work. It’s remarkable how many religious people will claim to share this view, until it is put to the test.
Trust in science
Humanists trust the scientific method to arrive at the truth. Science is a self-correcting method for understanding the natural world, while at the same time eliminating human bias. This is not dogma by any stretch; we fully realize that science may not give us all the answers, and indeed there may be some questions that are unanswerable. Humanists are often accused by religious believers of having “faith” in science. This is clearly not the case. Humanists trust science because science has proven itself to be the best way of determining fact from conjecture. We trust science because it works.
Doubt is beneficial because it keeps us asking questions and re-evaluating what we believe. Doubt is one of the engines that drives science and personal discovery. Healthy skepticism gives us the determination not to be swept up by fanciful, appealing ideas that have no proper evidence or logical basis. Healthy skepticism also prevents indulgence in lies, distortions, and flights of imagination pretending to be reality.
Humanism seeks to increase human empathy, the mental process of understanding what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. This is not a Humanist attribute but a human one – one that is at the core of Humanism. This is not to say that religious people are not empathetic, but many religious world views dilute natural human empathy by fostering an in-group vs. out-group mentality.
We see this in the Hindu caste system.
We see this when the faithful deny others the same human rights that they themselves enjoy (for example, marriage equality).
We see it when protesters rally to prohibit abortion under any circumstances, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding or sympathy for another person’s situation.
Morality is defined as caring about the welfare and well-being of thinking creatures. We understand what is moral by understanding the consequences of our actions.
It cannot be said that any one Humanist is more moral than any one particular religious believer.
A Humanistic moral system is a secular moral system; it comes from discussion and debate, and then is filtered through a metric of fairness, equality, empathy, and compassion. Contrast that with a religious or “divine command” system of morality (which is not really a moral system at all, but a proclamation about what is moral), and you will find that secular morality comes out on top every time. Why? Because morality evolves – it can’t be commanded.
The American Humanist Association’s Center for Education has developed a set of Ten Commitments (not Commandments) that represent Humanist values. These commitments serve as an excellent guide for those who wonder how Humanist beliefs translate into action. Read about the 10 Commitments here.
There is much more to learn about Humanism. Its history extends back to the ancients, and its philosophy has affected billions.
You can read more about the history of Humanism here.
The British Humanist Association has made some excellent videos about Humanism. All are short (3-7 minutes).
First, a set of 2 videos on Introduction to Humanism. At the end of the part 1, follow the link for part 2.
Here is a set of 4 videos explaining how Humanists know what is true, determine right from wrong, live happy lives, and view death.
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