What is a Humanist?

pat mDefinition

The Oxford English Dictionary defines humanism as a “rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.” Humanism can be described as a godless philosophy based on reason and compassion.

A more in depth definition is one described by the BHA (British Humanist Association). The word humanist has come to mean someone who:

-trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
-makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
-believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

If this sounds like you, congratulations, you’re a humanist.

Characteristics

Humanism is an open ended quest. It seeks to provide answers to life’s questions based on the best available knowledge and philosophy. But sometimes the best available knowledge still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Humanist views are open to change and are constantly evolving. Humanists don’t expect the one, final, absolute truth to be revealed to them. On the contrary, they hold that all opinions are fallible and provisional, and that free inquiry and debate are essential to the process of learning and developing. Thus, humanists value tolerance, pluralism, and critical inquiry as positive and beneficial qualities in society.

The humanist reliance on science and common sense often means many people are humanists without realizing it! Hundreds of millions of people around the world agree with the humanist philosophy of living a happy and productive life, based on reason and compassion. These tacit humanists reach similar conclusions without meeting like-minded people or reading particular texts. They work out their humanist life stance independently by learning what science has discovered, by examining supernatural claims, and by sharing in our universal human values.

History

Humanism is a fairly new name for a very old philosophy. The basic principles of humanism – skepticism of supernatural claims and an emphasis on living a fulfilling and ethical life without religion – have been embraced by a wide variety of thinkers in different cultures for thousands of years. But not until the twentieth century did the word “humanism” become the common term for this worldview.

Throughout history, public expressions of humanist ideas have often been suppressed and destroyed, and, at other times, such ideas have probably been voiced only in private. Sometimes the strongest remaining indications of humanist thinking in a society are seen in the work of artists or in the arguments of apologists who are defending religious orthodoxy against the skeptics of the day. (An interesting example still quoted today is the Old Testament statement that “The fool hath said in his heart that there is no god” [Psalm 14]. This insult suggests that even in Bronze-age Jewish society, atheist thinking was prevalent enough to motivate religious teachers to attack it!)

Humanistic philosophy has a long history. Important humanist traditions include the great teachers and philosophical movements of Ancient China and India between two and three thousand years ago; the philosophies of classical Greece and Rome, which survived in the Muslim world during the European Dark Ages and Medieval period, finally returning to Europe in the Renaissance; and the flowering of scientific and humanist thought in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The Lokayata movement in India -1000 BCE, criticized the Hindu religion of the day and developed a naturalistic philosophy of the cosmos.

Chinese philosophers, sixth century BCE, were also notable for their development of humanistic ethical philosophies. Their criticism of supernatural claims was often sly. The great Taoist teacher Lao Tse (early to middle of the sixth century BCE) indicated his skepticism about supernatural claims when he said, “If lightning is the anger of the gods, the gods are concerned mostly with trees.”

The most famous of these teachers is Confucius. The Confucians tried to replace traditional religious beliefs with an ethical system focused on responsibility to family and society. About the same time humanistic thought was beginning to flourish in ancient Greece and Rome. Pythagoras, Aristotle, Socrates, and Epicurus were some of the great thinkers of that time. Epicurus suggested that two things prevent people from trying to live a full and happy life: fear of the gods and fear of an afterlife. But the materialist philosophy of the Atomists removed the fear of the supernatural and the fear of death. Socrates, or what is known as the Socratic Method can be seen as profoundly humanistic in the way it encourages untrammeled inquiry that is open to all parties. The great religious prophets of human history claimed to bring “God’s truth” and absolute commandments; whereas Socrates is famous for saying he knew nothing and brought not answers, but a method of questioning.

As we have seen, humanism has no country or culture of origin, nor did it spring from any political view. Humanism is simply a product of us, the human animal and our willingness to be honest with ourselves.

What does humanism offer?

Your beliefs inform your actions; that is to say, what you believe very much informs how you behave. Untrue beliefs often give us answers that are untrue. The result can be bad answers and behaviour. All the while the people engaged in this behavior think they’re doing the right thing for the right reasons. We all have an interest to make sure beliefs are true, or as true as possible. Humanism offers a way to get to those truths.

Humanism offers a way rid ourselves of the things that separate us – like the in-group out-group mentality of religion and politics. If we are to make the rules that govern us, we have to make sure those rules apply equally to all people, not just ones of a certain gender, religion or creed. The rights of the individual are paramount, however they must be tempered with empathy and compassion as well as a responsibility to each other. Humanism offers a realization that we have a responsibility to our natural environment as well, our responsibility to our fellow humans who exist now and the ones who will come in future generations. Humanism takes into account the bigger picture for the success of our species.

Humanism offers and endorses the scientific method as the best tool to understand the universe around us. The value we have placed on it is well founded. Without it, we simply wouldn’t have the world we have today, with all of its modern comforts and conveniences.

Finally, humanism seeks to maximize human happiness and understanding. It can free us from what Christopher Hitchens called the “mind forged manacles” of religion and supernatural belief and that truly is a benefit to all of us.

Compiled and adapted from various sources by Pat Morrow

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