What Is Humanism?

The short answer is: A philosophy for people who (a) don't believe in anything supernatural, but (b) who care about right and wrong, and living ethically.

In the past, Humanism was associated by some with socialism but socialism is not part of the core beliefs that defined the philosophy. Especially today, there is no political, economic, or nationalistic association of any type and humanists include economic conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between. The following are some explanations of Humanism in general...

Values of Humanism

Humanism is a naturalistic worldview with a long history of contribution to humanity. It encourages ethical integrity and promotes science and reason in the solving of human dilemmas and moral concerns. The following are some of the general values of Humanism...

Deep concern for the well being and prosperity of all of humanity and its individuals. Support for democracy and human rights. Love and respect of our fellow human being. This includes our entire human family, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or disability.

A commitment to the use of reason in making our personal decisions and forming public policy. We base our actions off of what can be empirically observed in the physical world around us. Alternatives to reason such as mysticism, faith, revelation, or other superstitions are delusional, arbitrary and counterproductive.

The degree of belief in a proposition should match the degree of evidence. A healthy skepticism, as opposed to gullibility, encourages us to think for ourselves. We do not accept dogma, mythology, or ideology at face value without question, be it nationalistic, religious, political, racial, economic, or cultural in nature. Freethought means that there are no taboo subjects when it comes to rational thinking. Nothing should be off limits to review and evaluation based on the physical evidence.

An ethical system based on this world and not an alleged transcendental ('super'natural) one. Natural ethics are created by humans to enable and enhance our relationships and cooperation for our mutual well being. Humanists live by moral deliberation and reflection, open to rational guidance and improvement and not by simplistic, dogmatic, or authoritarian ethical commandments. We believe in Eupraxsophy, the ability to live the 'good life' and achieve moral excellence without superstition or faith in the supernatural.

A belief that humanity need not be doomed to failure or ravaged by evil. Human beings are capable of great works of good, they are capable of great achievements, and they are capable of improvement. History has shown progress and there is good reason to believe that we can continue to prosper - both individually and globally. Humanism is a philosophy that provides meaning and guidance for people seeking to lead happy and socially responsible lives without supernaturalism.

More On Humanism

There have been many philosophical worldviews, some naturalistic and some supernatural. These philosophies form a basis for epistemology (a method of determining what is true) and provide a framework for living one's life.

Humanism is a philosophy that promotes an ethical life based, not on superstition, mysticism, or the supernatural, but on what we can empirically observe in the physical universe around us. Because Humanism is not based on the transcendental, it has come to be one of the more popular worldviews for those who do not have faith-based or supernatural views, but wish to live meaningful and moral lives. Therefore, Humanists tend to consider themselves either atheist, nontheist, or agnostic.

While atheism and agnosticism tells us what a person is not, the term in and of itself is meaningless in terms of telling us what a person is. They could be a vile murderer atheist, or a noble philanthropist atheist. Not holding a belief in a God or the supernatural says nothing of what that person does believe - that's where Humanism comes in.

Of course, like any philosophical worldview, there are a lot of details (not all of which have full consensus). Basically speaking, however, the ethics of Humanism stem from the fact that morality is a human invention and has been created by us for our well-being and happiness while working and living together in society. The basic human decencies: integrity, honesty, altruism, responsibility, etc. all allow us to live happier and healthier lives with a sense of self respect and dignity. It is a foregone conclusion that immoral living will lead to loss of self respect, alienation, and depression at the least, and self destruction, failure, and harm to the greater humanity at the worst. Only when we lead morally upright lives do we encourage trust, cooperation, and all of the things necessary for a prosperous life, society, and world. Ethical living is in the best interest of the individual and the species - no faith-based or superstitious grounds are necessary to justify this. In fact, the very reason ancient human beings first attributed the source of ethics to gods and spirits was because of how important and significant those principles were to them, not vice versa.

But more than the simple logic of ethics, if we are to fully appreciate the virtues of Humanism we must allow our consciences to become attached in a more personal way. Through proper upbringing, loving family, and a moral education stressing empathy and concern, we become fully mature moral agents. This means that we have a conscience. We move beyond the morally immature, simple authoritarian nature of rewards and punishments, to a more independent concern for morality. We develop a true love for our fellow human being. By seeing all of humanity as our extended family, we can take pride in its accomplishments, feel sorrow in its losses, and experience outrage at its misconduct. These sympathetic emotions are part of our instinctive nature as social animals. They can be observed in other similar species and they can be nourished through proper experiences and relationships.

This realization about the nature of morality and ethics brings with it some consequences. For one, we can no longer rest comfortably in the easy security of simplistic or dogmatic rules of thumb - so often relied upon by traditional religions and other systems. In seeing that our ethics are our invention, we must acknowledge that they are imperfect. Instead of seeing them as the perfect word of some alleged deity or deities, we must view them more like a field of human knowledge - like history, psychology, or even a technology. This means we must constantly reexamine our beliefs and measure the worth of our values by the effect they have on human life.

Does this mean that our ethics are subjective? Does it mean that there is no wrong or right? No. While perfect knowledge of ethics is not within our ability, ethics itself is not subjective. Since we know that ethics exists to allow us to cooperate effectively with each other for the benefit of the species, to form meaningful relationships, and to give meaning to our lives - it makes sense that the perfect ethical system would be those behaviors which, to the maximum possible degree, best fulfills those purposes within the confines of human biological and psychological possibility. Unfortunately, discovering these values is a constant struggle and an ongoing process in the history of humanity.

Does this leave ethics up in the air for us to rationalize one way or the other as it suits our individual needs? Not exactly. It means that there are normative standards we discover together. Through consensus, human beings come to agreement on basic values because we share the same basic needs, interests, and desires. While this concept is thought disturbing by the conservatively religious, this exact process has been going on throughout history, starting with the most basic concepts of not killing each other, the codes of Hammurabi, the "golden rule" of Confucius, the development of equality and self government, anti-slavery, equal rights, and so on. More recently we have developed the concept of animal rights and environmentalism, both of which have less consensus than earlier ethical "discoveries" in their details. On the ethical horizon we face cloning, genetic engineering, electronic privacy, etc. One should take note of this point: it wasn't that we didn't care about, say, rights for women in earlier centuries - the concept itself was alien to both men and women. We didn't suddenly decide to start being "good" by paying attention to the environment - we simply did not comprehend the issue. You will search the Bible in vain for many of the latter moral developments we are concerned about today, such as outrage against slavery, animal rights, etc. because they were developed after its writing.

You might wonder, "But this still means I can rationalize anything I want doesn't it?" Indeed, if you are not honest with yourself or others, you can make attempts to convince people of all sorts of things. Most people will recognize a rationalization quickly, especially if they understand your motives and/or basic human behavior. This is an example of immoral (or at least irresponsible) behavior that we must be on the lookout for. However, this sort of deed is not absent in Christian or other major religious histories to any degree either. The Bible has been used to rationalize slavery, torture, murder, rape, abuse, war, injustice, and a whole host of miserable endeavors. These sorts of “rationalizations” usually get worked out in the larger picture of general consensus. It is when we abandon freedom of thought and speech and objective questioning of authority in exchange for dogmatic authoritarianism and “bandwagon logic” that we risk being deceived on a larger scale. We learn through history (both personal and social) the difference between rationalization and the rational. As Abraham Lincoln said in the famous quote, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

So how do we go about this moral exploration? Since our ethics must be measured by their effect in this world we must begin with a picture of the world that is as accurate as possible. Since we do not accept the unproved attainment of knowledge through supernatural means, we rely on the most effective means of gaining information, as demonstrated through its enormous effect on our knowledge since its development about three centuries ago: science. Not seen as merely a collection of tentative theories, it is the scientific method that is viewed as a valuable source of both personal and social truth in all matters: physics, cosmology, history, psychology, and even morality. This reliance on science is not baseless or given out of faith, rather, it is because of its proven ability to allow us to control our environment and make accurate predictions about it - the extremity of which have never been even remotely approached through alleged psychic powers, revelation, mysticism, or magic. No other method has been able to provably, reliably, or so commonly allow powers such as flight, healing, prediction of the future, remote communication, etc.

Keep in mind that science itself does not say that there is or is not a supernatural or non-physical reality. Yet, because it is a process for analyzing physical reality, and because our philosophy is a naturalistic one, we have come to embrace science as an important and integral part of the continued prosperity of all of humanity. Although science is the most effective tool we have for gaining knowledge, it is unfortunately just that, a tool that can be used for good or evil. This is why temperance with proper ethical principles is so crucial.

The Origin of Humanism

Modern Humanism as an organized, provisional philosophy is relatively new but it is the product of several millennia of human growth and development. Hints of scientific and humanist thought can be found among the earliest nomadic tribes and civilizations. The Ideas of some of the later classical Greek philosophers, as well as the Chinese Confucians, serve to highlight areas where human-centered (as opposed to god-centered) ideas were especially prevalent.

During the Dark Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies were violently suppressed by the dogma and political power of the church. Not until the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with the flourishing of art, music, literature, philosophy, and exploration, would consideration of humanism be permitted.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century brought the development of science as philosophers finally began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as “free thought.” In the nineteenth century, with the challenges to religion by celebrities such as Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll, the Freethought movement made it possible for the common citizen to reject faith and superstition without risk of persecution. The twentieth century has seen remarkable influence from science, technology, and humanist philosophy. Despite attempts of the unscrupulous to twist science to serve their ends, despite continuing local fluctuations in crime or other problems, the overall growth, prosperity, and human well-being remains unparalleled throughout history. This is a direct result of scientific thinking in the solving of human problems.

These historical foundations have lead many who reject supernaturalism as a viable philosophical outlook to adopt the term "humanism" to describe their nontheistic ethical life stance. Humanism is a positive philosophy that encourages a commitment to a set of principles, promoting tolerance, compassion, science, critical analysis, moral excellence, and philosophical reflection.

For more information on Humanism, these sites are very informative:

- Humanist Manifesto III
- The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective
- A Secular Humanist Declaration
- Wikipedia article on Humanism
- ReligiousTolerance.org on Humanism

Some national/international Humanist organizations:
- The American Humanist Association
- The Council for Secular Humanism
- The Institute for Humanist Studies
- The British Humanist Association
- The International Humanist & Ethical Union

I'd like to thank Amanda Chesworth for helping to write the section "The Origin of Humanism".