What is Humanism?
(From my OUP book – A Very Short Introduction to Humanism). One aim here is to nail various myths about what Humanism involves, which in turn lead to a whole series of strawman attacks from its critics.
What is humanism?
The word “humanism” has had, and continues to have, a variety of meanings. At its broadest, “humanism” means little more than a system of thought in which human values, interests and dignity are considered particularly important. Understood in this way, perhaps almost everyone qualifies as a humanist (including those of us who are religious).
However, those who organize under the banner of “humanism” today, particularly in the UK, usually mean something rather more focussed. They embrace a particular kind of worldview that by no means everyone accepts. That worldview is the focus of this book.
So what distinguishes the humanist outlook? It is difficult to be very precise. The boundaries of the concept are elastic. But I think most humanists would probably agree on something like the following minimal, seven-point characterization (in no particular order):
First, Humanists believe science, and reason more generally, 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.
Secondly, humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic. They are sceptical about the claim that there exists a god or gods. They are also sceptical about angels, demons and other such supernatural beings.
Third, 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. Notice that the humanist’s sceptical position regarding both gods and an after-life is not a dogmatic “faith position”, but a consequence of their having subjected such belief to critical scrutiny and found them seriously wanting.
Fourth, Humanism involves a commitment to the existence and importance of moral value. They also 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. Humanists reject such negative claims as 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 offer moral justifications and arguments rooted other than in religious authority and dogma.
Fifth, humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy. It is our individual responsibility to make our own moral judgements, rather than attempt to hand that responsibility over to some external authority – such as a political leader or religion – that will make those judgements for us. Humanists favour developing forms of moral education that emphasize this responsibility and that will equip us with the skills we will need to discharge it properly.
Sixth, humanists believe our lives can have meaning without it being bestowed from above by God. They suppose that lives of, say, Pablo Picasso, Marie Curie, Ernest Shackleton and Albert Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not.
Seventh, humanists are secularists, in the sense that they favour an open, democratic society in which the state takes a neutral position with respect to religion, protecting the freedom of individuals to follow and espouse, or reject and criticize, both religious and atheist beliefs. While humanists will obviously oppose any attempt to coerce people into embracing religious belief, they are no less opposed to coercing people into embracing atheism, as happened under the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao.
There are a number of other views sometimes also associated with humanism that I have not included here. Note, for example, that, as characterized here, a humanist need not:
- be a utopian, convinced that the application of science and reason will inevitably usher in a Brave New World of peace and contentment.
- believe that only humans matter, morally speaking. Many humanists consider that the happiness and welfare of other species is also important.
- be a utilitarian – supposing that maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering are all that matter, morally speaking. While some humanists embrace utilitarianism, and almost all believe that happiness and suffering are morally important, not all humanists are utilitarians.
- embrace those brands of naturalism that say that the natural, physical universe is the only reality there is, and/or that the natural, physical facts are the only facts that there are. Many humanists, perhaps the majority, embrace some form of naturalism. Some even define their brand of “humanism” as involving naturalism. However, the looser definition employed here allows humanists to criticize naturalism if they wish. Yes, humanists reject, or are at least agnostic concerning, belief in gods, angels, demons, etc., but that doesn’t require that they sign up to naturalism. Take, for example, a mathematician who believes that mathematics describes a non-natural, mathematical reality (a sort of numerical heaven). 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 of the natural, physical facts. Again, I see no reason why such a philosopher cannot be a humanist. A recent survey revealed that while only 14.6% of professional philosophers believe in god, just under 50% of them are committed to naturalism. I consider it unnecessarily restrictive to define “humanism” in such a way as automatically to exclude the significant proportion who fail to believe in either gods or naturalism.
- 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 and reason alone are incapable of determining what is morally right or wrong. A humanist may suppose that other questions – such as “Why is there anything at all?” – are also bona fide questions that science cannot answer. Humanists are merely 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, utilitarianism, scientism or naturalism. A humanist can reject, or remain neutral concerning, 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 – belief in a god or gods.
However, notice that even the theist rejects belief in the countless other gods people have believed in down through the centuries (such as those of the Ancient Romans, Greeks, Norse, Mayans, Egyptians, and so on). Humanists are unconvinced of the existence of just one or two more.
Moreover, notice that, as outlined here, humanism goes far beyond mere atheism or agnosticism, and 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.
Humanist thinking is also sometimes caricatured as a hodgepodge of disparate, unconnected ideas – but again this is untrue. Humanism’s focus is on the “big questions”: e.g. of what ultimately is real; of what ultimately makes life worth living; of what is morally right or wrong, and why; and of how best to order our society. While religion typically addresses such questions, they are clearly not the unique preserve of religion. Such questions also belong to philosophy, and were being addressed in a rational, non-religious way before the appearance of Christianity. What pulls our seven characterizing views together into something like a system of thought is (i) their shared focus on the “big questions”, (ii) a degree of interconnectedness (for example, if you are sceptical about gods, that will lead you to be sceptical about the claim that our moral sense was placed in us by a god), and (iii) the over-arching role played by the first: these views on the “big questions” are collectively embraced, not as a dogmatically held “faith positions”, but because, having subjected the various alternatives to rational scrutiny, the humanist considers these the most reasonable positions to adopt.
Finally, I want to say something about humanist antipathy to religion. Clearly many humanists consider religion, not just false, but dangerous. Some even view religion as a great evil. But not all. A significant number of religious people actually share many of the views in terms of which I have characterized humanism. They too are secularists. They also accept that morality and a meaningful life are possible even in the absence of god. They may also share many of the same goals as humanists. Many humanists are happy to work in conjunction with religious people and organizations to achieve such goals. And of course there are religious people willing to work in conjunction with humanists. At the time of writing, the Bible Society’s think tank Theos donated towards a British Humanist Association advertising campaign promoting the idea that children should not be labelled with a religion, but should be allowed to grow up free to make their own decisions about what religion, if any, to embrace. Humanists and religious people obviously disagree on certain fundamental issues. But there is often a great deal on which they often can agree. There is no particular reason why humanist organizations cannot develop constructive working partnerships with their religious counterparts.
This book aims to further explain, and begin to make a case for, humanism, as characterized above.