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Posted by on Oct 22, 2009 in Humanism | 0 comments

What is Humanism?


The word “humanism” has had, and continues to have, a wide variety of meanings. At its broadest, “humanism” means little more than a system of thought in which human values, interests and dignity are given central importance. Understood in this way, almost everyone qualifies as a “humanist”.

However, as understood by contemporary humanist organizations, the term “humanist” means something much narrower. Those who sign up to “humanism”, understood in this narrower, contemporary sense of the term, are embracing a particular sort of worldview that by no means everyone accepts. That worldview is the focus of this book.

So what distinguishes the humanist outlook? It is hard to be very precise. The boundaries of the concept are somewhat elastic. But most humanists would probably agree on something like the following minimal, seven-point characterization.

First, humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic. They are sceptical about the claim that there exist a god or gods.

Secondly, humanists believe that this life is the only life we have. We are not reincarnated. Nor is there any heaven or hell to which we go after we die.

Third, Humanists reject both the claims that there cannot be moral value without God, and that we will not be, or are unlikely to be, good without God and religion to guide us. Humanists deny that our moral sense was placed in us by God, and generally favour a naturalistic, evolutionary account of how our moral intuitions have developed. Humanists reject moral justifications rooted in religious authority and dogma. They believe our ethics should be strongly informed by study of what human beings are actually like, and of what will help them flourish in this world, rather than the next.

Fourth, humanists deny that that if our lives are to have meaning, that meaning must be bestowed from above by God. The lives of Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale and Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not.

Fifth, humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy. It is the responsibility of each individual to make their own moral judgements, rather than try to hand that responsibility over to some external authority – such as a religion or political party – that might make those decisions for them. Humanists favour developing forms of moral education that emphasize this responsibility and equip us with the skills we will need to discharge it properly.

Sixth, Humanists believe science and reason are invaluable tools we can and should apply to all areas of life. No beliefs should be considered off-limits and protected from rational scrutiny.

Seventh, humanists are secularists, in the sense that they believe the state should take a neutral position with respect to religion, and should protect the freedom of individuals to follow and espouse, or reject and criticize, both religious and atheist beliefs. Humanists obviously oppose any attempt to coerce people into accepting certain religious beliefs. However, they are no less opposed to coercing people into embracing atheism, as occurred under the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao.

A number of other views are sometimes also associated with humanism that are not included here. Note, for example, that, as characterized above, Humanism does not require the following:

• That one be a utopian, convinced that the application of science and reason will inevitably usher in a Brave New World of peace and contentment.
• That one believe that only humans matter, morally speaking. Many humanists believe that the happiness and welfare of other species is also important.
• That one be a utilitarian – supposing that maximizing happiness and minimizing pain are all that matter, morally speaking. While some humanists embrace utilitarianism, and almost all believe that happiness and suffering are morally important (who doesn’t?), not all humanists are utilitarians.
• That one embrace those brands of naturalism that say that the natural, physical universe is the only reality there is, or that the natural, physical facts are the only facts that there are. Many humanists, perhaps the majority, do embrace some form of naturalism. Some humanists and humanist organizations even define their brand of “humanism” as involving naturalism. However, the looser definition of “Humanism” employed here allows humanists to reject naturalism if they wish. Yes, Humanists reject, or are at least agnostic concerning, belief in gods, but that doesn’t require they sign up to natrualism. Take, for example, a mathematician who believes that mathematics describes a non-natural, mathematical reality. This mathematician rejects naturalism, but that does not entail they cannot be a Humanist. Or take a philosopher who believes they have established that, say, moral facts, or the facts about what goes on in our conscious minds, are facts that exist in addition to all the natural, physical facts. Again, I see no reason why such a philosopher cannot be a humanist.
• That one embrace scientism, believing that every genuine question can in principle be answered by science. Take moral questions, for example. Humanists can, and often do, accept that, while scientific discoveries can inform our moral decisions, science alone is incapable of determining what is morally right or wrong. A Humanist can also suppose that other questions – such as “Why is there anything at all?” – are bona fide questions that science cannot answer. Humanists are just sceptical about one particular answer – that the universe is the creation of one or more gods.

In order to refute Humanism as I have characterized it, then, it is not enough that one refute utopianism, naturalism, scientism or utilitarianism. Humanists can reject, or at least remain sceptical about, all these philosophical stances.

Humanists are sometimes criticised for not being “for” anything. They are often caricatured as naysayers, defined entirely by what they oppose. Yet , as outlined here, Humanism is clearly “for” a great deal.

For example, Humanism is “for” freedom of thought and expression and an open society. Humanism is “for” forms of moral education that stress our moral autonomy and the importance of thinking critically and independently. Humanists don’t just reject dogma-based approaches to answering moral, political and social questions, they are very much “for” developing positive, rational and ultimately more life-affirming and life-enhancing alternatives.

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