The Humanist Contemplative

by DT Strain, December 2006


Humanist Contemplatives are not a separate group from Humanists, but are individuals who can work with and in existing Humanist organizations. These are Humanists with a particular focus on the personal aspects of Humanism as a life practice.

The Foundation

Compassion is the foundational principle on which Humanist Contemplative thought is based. Compassion means love, concern, and caring for self, our fellow human beings, and life in general. All other principles of Humanist Contemplative thought - the application of reason, the pursuit of a flourishing life, the function of ethics, and our role in society - spring from this foundation and serve its ends[1].

Humanist Contemplatives recognize that Compassion is natural to our healthy development as social beings. This springs from the fact that we are all interconnected and interdependent – a result of the workings of nature and the world[2]. When we nurture our Compassion, we live more fulfilled and meaningful lives because we act in accordance with our best nature as human beings[3].

Compassion includes love and caring for the wellbeing of everyone, which results in several things. For one, this Compassion includes ourselves. When we use Compassion it does not imply allowing ourselves to be dominated or abused by others[4]. Caring for everyone also implies that we attempt to have Compassion even for our enemies. Some people who act poorly may be victims of their own misunderstandings and they suffer greatly for their deeds, even if they do not realize the source of their suffering. When we try to help our enemies improve, we are improved[5].

Being Compassionate means more than speaking the words and simply ‘caring’ within our own minds. Compassion is most essentially practiced through action. Humanist Contemplative thought seeks to move individuals to act on their values to a greater degree - whether it is in their interactions with those around them in daily life, or whether this refers to doing good for others. Humanist Contemplatives do not pray for others – rather, they should do for others. Without action, we are hypocrites.

Many Humanist and other freethought organizations have often focused on reason and rationality as the starting point or foundation[6]. Reason is an important natural faculty but it is primarily a tool. The ends for which that tool is used depend on our underlying motivations – and that is where the foundation of a philosophy is to be found. Rationality leads to a better understanding of our world, but regardless of what is true or false about reality – the simple fact of our coexistence here and now, and the benefits of Compassion here and now, are true. The reason we promote rationality is precisely because of its ability to improve the lives of others and ourselves. This shows that the real foundation of Humanism is Compassion.

The Flourishing Life

The aim of the Humanist Contemplative is to work toward ‘the flourishing life’. This has been described as eudaimonia, ‘the good life’, eupraxsophy, excellence, and even ‘enlightenment’[7]. The flourishing life is a life with true happiness and contentment. This understanding of happiness is not based on materialism, greed, power, wealth, fame, or other short-term gratification – nor is it based on escapist notions about other worlds, other lives, other entities, or abilities.

A flourishing life is one where a person is getting fulfillment and wellbeing from living ethically, meaningfully, responsibly, lovingly, and healthily among those around him or her. The Humanist Contemplative recognizes that ethics and integrity are good for us – they are part of a healthy life[8]. Unethical behaviors may seem to be to our benefit in the short run, but this has longer lasting effects which are not beneficial. Unethical people, or people obsessed with material wealth, rarely experience deep happiness in life as such.

A flourishing life also consists of continually making progress in improving ourselves, learning, growing, appreciating the arts, and achieving greater understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. To the Humanist Contemplative, these notions of ethical integrity, loving natures, and continual growth are what true spirituality is all about.

Thoughts & Beliefs

Humanist Contemplatives try to form their thoughts and beliefs about the world rationally, carefully, and with the utmost humility. Rather than having a set of pre-determined beliefs, Humanist Contemplatives are more concerned with how we arrive at our beliefs. It is understood that those beliefs may change over time as new information arises.

Humility comes into play first, in recognizing our limitations. Human beings are not omniscient (all-knowing) and our senses and ability to know are imperfect and limited. Because of this, we do not attempt to make claims or hold beliefs in things of which we have no verifiable evidence. When asked ultimate questions such as ‘how or why did existence come to be?’ or ‘does anything exist outside the observable realm?’ we are content to admit we don’t know.

However, there are many things we can know. Humanist Contemplatives have a strong respect for the human faculty of reason. Our ability to reason is one of the things that makes us human. While we are imperfect in all our endeavors, including our use of reason, it has nevertheless been our key means of success and progress throughout history. Therefore, our careful use of reason and rationality is paramount.

Reason includes many things such as the principles of logic, the scientific method, a good understanding of what constitutes reliable evidence, and a healthy skepticism regarding unproved or unprovable claims. This means we believe that the degree of belief in a proposition should be matched to the degree of physical evidence for a proposition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence[9].

On the other hand, credulousness, unthinking dogma, unfounded ideology, mysticism, faith-based conclusions, and superstition are perversions of human reason. Some of these tendencies can make us arrogant and presume to know more than we do, which damages our proper sense of humility. Good reasoning is vital to having a sound understanding of our world, and this understanding is vital to making wise decisions with respect to our wellbeing[10]. Therefore, while many good intentions and intelligent people may be involved in some of these activities, such tendencies obstruct our ability to use reason effectively and compassionately for the benefit of others and ourselves.

Since we have no reason to hold particular beliefs about an afterlife, gods, spirits, and so on, Humanist Contemplatives focus on living well and helping others to live well in the here and now[11]. This requires a certain moral maturity to accept our finite conditions and focus our energies on living rightly rather than living eternally[12].

Ethics & Practice

Humanist Contemplatives try firstly to always match their life and practices to their beliefs and proclaimed values, without hypocrisy or contradiction. We seek truth first, and try to understand truth without bias, prejudice, favoritism, or ulterior motive, as much as is humanly possible. We do not believe in misrepresenting or distorting facts for unethical purposes and do not hold ideological loyalty to any one conclusion, group, or tradition above the pursuit of truth.

Our values and perspective should show in our behavior, words, how we treat others, and even body language. Humanist Contemplatives are expected to be compassionate in character, deliberative in intellect, and upstanding in ethics. The demeanor of the Humanist Contemplative is one of self control, patience, mindfulness, civility, diplomacy, friendliness, and dignity without snobbery. The Contemplative remains collected and is not easily angered or offended, but instead cultivates his or her rationality and objectivity. Humanist Contemplatives seek to build reputations of integrity and respect, even among those with different or opposed beliefs.

Humanist Contemplatives are always willing to spread knowledge of their perspective to those who would listen. We are also anxious to speak up for what is right. However, forceful, aggressive, and rude attempts at conversion are not our way. While Humanist Contemplatives may not share all beliefs, and may even lack respect for beliefs which do harm, they do not lack respect for the right of all individuals to think and believe as they wish, or necessarily for the people themselves. We have confidence that reason and rational views can flourish well in free, informed, and open human minds, so long as they are not forced into closing as a reaction to sarcasm, aggression, glibness, arrogance, ridicule, or threats.

Humanist Contemplatives also have an interest in the inner, subjective human experience. This includes notions of the ‘profound experience’[13] through healthy sources such as epiphany, emotion, art, music, performance, and literature. We are not opposed to the role of ritual in human life and some of us may be Humanist Ministers, officiating at naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and other important events.

We are also not opposed to exploring a variety of spiritual practices, when there is secular benefit not solely based on ideas which lack evidence. For example, many Humanist Contemplatives may engage in meditation for the sake of stress relief, developing mindfulness, focusing attention, contemplation, or exploring variations on the experience of perception[14].

Humanist Contemplatives do not recoil at anything that has been associated with other traditions or religions on that basis alone. We are not opposed to gathering wisdom wherever it may be found, provided the content is sensible, reasonable, and does not rely on superstitious or unfounded notions about reality[15].


While we certainly hold many social values, one aim of Humanist Contemplative thought is to begin with the person in the mirror. To work first on ourselves and show, by example, real Humanist living and values[16].

Having said this, Humanist Contemplatives do believe that participation in one’s society, government, and community is part of a full and flourishing life. As people who are committed to Humanism proper, we believe in democratic and just systems that promote liberty and individual autonomy[17]. We believe in such things as free speech and freedom of the press, church/state separation, and freedom of religion. Humanist Contemplatives support equal rights for all human beings regardless of race, creed, color, nationality, religion, political status, orientation, or gender. We support rights to birth control, abortion, and voluntary euthanasia. We are generally adverse to war and certainly to unjust or pre-emptive wars of aggression. We support sound and responsible environmental policies informed by the consensus of the scientific community[18].

Other concerns include: the obsessive consumerism and materialism in society, and the power it has over the people; the prevalence of media which encourages taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, and more.

In all of these cases, Humanist Contemplatives may actively work on a social level to affect change. But a big part of the Contemplative’s perspective is in working first on self development so that we can be an example within our own communities and families.


Some might ask, "Is this a religion?" and the Humanist Contemplative response would be that it matters little. To some it may be, and to others not. This is because definitions of ‘religion’ vary greatly between individuals and covers a good deal of ground[19]. We therefore leave it up to individuals, both Humanists and others, to decide for themselves whether they consider Humanism a religion.

Becoming a Humanist Contemplative
Becoming a Humanist Contemplative is as simple as making the choice to try and live by the values expressed here. There is no ‘Humanist Contemplative organization’ that is separate or distinct from other Humanist organizations, nor do we believe there should be. We agree with the International Humanist & Ethical Union’s call for Humanists to drop adjectives or prefixes and simply be ‘Humanists’ (capital ‘H’). Contemplatives are meant to be a part of their local Humanist organizations - serving as examples, guides, volunteers, officers, and (in cases where some may decide to become Ministers) officiates. At the most, and with permission of local leadership, Humanist Contemplatives might consider forming ‘clubs’ within their respective local organizations so that they might gather and discuss their thoughts and support one another in improvement, in a serene location with a non-debating informal and personal format.

To those Humanists who might choose to organize clubs within their organizations around the concept of the Humanist Contemplative, here are the five principles on which the club in Houston, Texas was based[20]:

1) Commitment to the principles of Humanism
The Humanist Contemplative is committed to the values of modern Humanism.

2) Focus on perfecting personal ‘life practice’
The Contemplative Club is inward looking. Rather than merely telling others how they are to live, Humanist Contemplatives start with the person in the mirror.

3) Reclaiming the Spiritual
The Contemplatives are fully comfortable reclaiming spiritual language in a naturalistic context.

4) Rejection of religious conflict and evangelism
The Humanist Contemplative rejects undue focus on attacking the beliefs of others and prefers instead to speak of Humanist beliefs.

5) Behavior
Humanist Contemplatives are expected to be compassionate in character, deliberative in intellect, upstanding in ethics, have self control, patience, mindfulness, civility, diplomacy, friendliness, and dignity without snobbery.



[1] A capital ‘C’ is used for Compassion to designate its specific understanding in Humanist Contemplative thought, and to denote its centrality to the outlook.

[2] This interdependence is recognized in Buddhism, and also shown in our knowledge of the ecosystem in modern biology - and more generally, in complex systems theory.

[3] ‘Acting in accordance with Nature’ is a principle of the ancient Stoics, part of which was the recognition that when we act according to our nature we are happiest.

[4] As Ayn Rand said, no one should ‘sacrifice himself to others nor sacrifice others to himself’, but this must be deeply understood. Both ancient and modern philosophers have observed that helping others is ‘enlightened self interest’. The Dalai Lama has called it "wise-selfishness". In other words, genuinely loving and helping others is good for us – and that is a wonderful thing to understand.

[5] It was Socrates who is written to have said that ignorance is the only evil, and Jesus who is written to have said that we should not hate our enemies, but love them. These notions are best understood not as commandments, but as pragmatic advice.

[6] Atheist, agnostic, nontheist, Humanist, and other freethought groups often make the primary focus epistemology (how we form our beliefs). The emphasis then becomes why we don’t believe this or that. Instead, it is important to realize that, without Compassion for ourselves and others, we would have no impetus to be promoting sound epistemology in the world. It is this overemphasis on epistemology that has obscured a more balanced and accurate view of Humanism in the past.

[7] Paul Kurtz has coined the term ‘eupraxsophy’ to describe ‘wise practice’ and achieving ‘excellence’ in life. This includes moral excellence and is similar to the ancient Greek notion of ‘eudaimonia’ which essentially means ‘flourishing’. Many versions of Buddhist and other traditions refer to enlightenment as a state of mind and living.

[8] Epictetus observed that ‘virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness’.

[9] The phrase ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ was popularized by scientist and author Carl Sagan.

[10] The enlightenment taught us the value of modern reasoning and thinking methods. Our empowerment through technical achievement and human quality of life and expectancy since has shown that these methods are on the right track concerning their accuracy. Buddhists regard the Kalama Sutra in saying that our beliefs should be questioned and not accepted on the basis of authority or tradition. The Christian Bible says, "Come now, let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18), and reason is one of the three pillars of Anglican/Episcopalian thought. Examples can go on and on.

[11] This is similar to (Buddha) Siddartha Gautama’s proclamation in the ‘The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow’ when asked ‘does the universe have a beginning or end?’ and ‘does the Buddha exist after death?’ Siddartha said that the truly spiritual or religious life doesn’t depend on these questions, but rather on addressing suffering in this life.

[12] Avoiding suffering by maturely accepting things beyond our control is another aspect of ancient Stoicism.

[13] This refers to what many might call the ‘religious experience’. Author Sam Harris has expressed the notion that nontheists need to explore further the inner subjective human experience – a realm that has been almost exclusively left to traditional religions.

[14] While some forms of meditation may involve notions of the supernatural or paranormal, many traditional practices of meditation require no such ideas. They are simply natural-based techniques for conditioning our minds, with varying degrees of utility for different individuals.

[15] As, for example, in this very document – where these notes reveal a wide variety of inspirations on good ideas and wise thoughts.

[16] The Humanist movement has often been expressed on more of a ‘social level’, with much attention paid to supporting various social policies such as church/state separation, birth control, education, social justice, and so on. These are all worthy and wonderful endeavors, but the specific aim of the Humanist Contemplative is to focus on the more personal aspects of Humanism. Former American Humanist Association Executive Director, Frederick Edwords, has provided many good perspectives on this in his essay, "Life is to Be Lived Now: A Vital Personal Humanism", which can be read HERE.

[17] As the Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tsu says, "I think one who knows how to govern the empire should not do so. For the people have certain natural instincts -- to weave and clothe themselves, to till the fields and feed themselves." (Horses’ Hooves).

[18] Many of these social values are elaborated by Frederick Edwords in, "The Humanist Philosophy In Perspective" (1984), in the section entitled, "Current Positions on Social Policy" and can be read at HERE.

[19] Some might say the very epitome of religion is that it consists of faith and/or the supernatural, such as in the various criticisms of religion by notable freethinkers. But, as stated in note [11], the Buddha said that what was central to religion was the opposite – those things which address well being in this life. Albert Einstein held a similar notion when he said, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity..." Given these divergent views, it is far more helpful to speak of specifics such as traditions, rituals, beliefs, practices, methods, values, and ethics rather than the vague notion of ‘religion’.

[20] The first Humanist Contemplatives Club was founded as a focus group of the Humanists of Houston in Houston, Texas on June 29, 2006, by Daniel Strain. These five points were part of the ideas on which the club was created.