Saturday, December 19, 2009

History of Humanism - for comments

HISTORY OF HUMANISM

The roots of modern humanism run at least as far back as the Ancient world. The kind of “big questions” humanism addresses – such as, “Does God exist?”, “What makes for a meaningful life?”, and “What makes things morally right or wrong?” – are questions humanity has been asking the world over for millennia. In many times and places, both the approach taken to answering such questions and the non-religious answers given have been similar to the approach taken and answers given by humanists today. As we are about to discover, modern humanism is able to draw on a rich and long intellectual legacy.

Ancient Indian thought


A sceptical attitude towards religious teaching is a feature of some early Indian writing. One of the Upinashads even questions whether the god Brahman exists. Later, a sixth century B.C. Indian school of thought - the Carvaka system - did not merely question whether there was a deity, it positively asserted that there was not. The the Carvaka system of philosophy is essentially atheistic and materialistic, insisting the natural, material world is all that there is, priests are useless and the religion a false human invention. Rather than lead an ascetic existence, we should live life to the full, seeking out pleasure and happiness.

Confucius

Confucius (551-479 BC) is the father of Confucianism, a system of thought that came to dominate China and other parts of Asia for millennia. Although Confucius took the existence of both heaven and gods for granted, the system of ethical and political philosophy he developed stood in large part independently of any commitment to gods and supernaturalism. Confucius is particularly associated with the Golden Rule. He said

Do not unto another that you would not have him do unto you. Thou needest this law alone. It is the foundation of all the rest.

The Golden Rule is embraced not only by many religious people (it is of course also associated with later religious figures, including Jesus), but also by many humanists.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece witnessed an extraordinary flowering of human culture, Particular emphasis was placed on the application of reason. Philosophers developed various theories about the nature of the world and tried to answer various fundamental social, moral and political questions. Their striving to know and understand was rooted, above all, in rational inquiry. Unlike those offering answers and explanations rooted in legend and myth, the thinkers of Ancient Greece felt a powerful obligation to try to justify their positions and answers through the application of reason and evidence. This critical attitude led some to reject belief in gods, supposing that the natural world is the only world there is.

Ancient Greece is also significant to contemporary humanists because it exhibits important political developments important to humanism – most notably a limited form of democracy (limited because it did not extend to slaves or women), though forms of democracy may have existed earlier, for example in sixth century BC India) The word democracy itself means "the power of the people" in Ancient Greek. Some Greek states – especially Athens – were comparatively open, largely tolerating the questioning of orthodoxy and the promotion of a wide variety of philosophical views (though, notoriously, it did eventually clamp down on Socrates’ stinging intellectual investigations).

Three early Greek philosophers ae of particular significance to contemporary humanism. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes lived in Miletus in the sixth century BC, and together comprise “the Milesian school”.

Thales believed that everything was ultimately derived from water, water shaped by a sort of cosmic mind. He believed the Earth floated on water. Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, rejected Thales theory, supposing that the ultimate underlying principle (or arche) is apeiron, a kind of underlying cosmic stuff from which everything we can see is derived. Anaximander offered arguments against Thales’ view – noting that water cannot encompass all the opposites we find in nature (for example, while water can be wet, it cannot be dry). Many consider Anaximander the father of astronomy. He developed an essentially mechanical model of how the heavens operate, in contrast to the largely mythological explanations that had previously been offered. Anaximander also developed a theory, based partly on fossils, that man developed from creatures that lived in the sea. In attempting to offer naturalistic explanations for phenomena that had previously been explained in mythic or religious terms, Anaximander marks an important intellectual turning point in the development of science. Anaximenes, a colleague and/or student of Anaximander, rejected both Thales claim that everything is water and Anaximander’s apeiron. According to Anaximenes, the most findamental stuff is air. Anaximenes’ choice of air as the fundamental arche or stuff was based on empirical observations Anaximenes made of, for example, the way in which air, when condensed, produces rain water. Condense air further, he believed, and it will become solid earth.

The manner in which these Milesian philosophers thought critically and independently, largely putting aside mythological and religious explanations and instead attempting to develop their own ideas and theories grounded in observation and reason, obviously makes them particularly important from a humanist point of view. These three thinkers collectively exhibit several of the key ideas and values of humanism.

Another important philosopher, from a humanist perspective, is Protagoras (490-420 BC). Protagoras was concerned with the question of how virtue might be taught. His reasoning about morality and virtue was pursued without any reliance on theistic or religious doctrine or belief. Protagoras was a self-declared agnostic. He said:

Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.

The doctrine with which Protagoras is now most closely associated is that,

Man is the measure of all things, of the reality of those which are, and the unreality of those which are not.

The Greek philosopher Plato interpreted this to mean that what is true and what is false is relative to individuals and what they believe. If I believe that Paris is the capital of France then that is true for me; if you believe Berlin is the capital of France than that is true for you. There is no objective fact of the matter – no truth with a capital “T”, as it were – as to which of us is correct. Note that, on such a crude, relativistic view of truth, it is possible to make something true just by believing it. Plato famously attacks this form of relativism in his dialogue Protagoras.

While this kind of relativism about truth is supposedly widespread today (see morality chapter XX), it is interesting to note that relativism is by no means a recent phenomenon, and that Plato considered it a threat even in Ancient times. Contemporary humanists are often caricatured by their opponents as subscribing to some form of relativism, particularly relativism about moral truth (humanists, it is often said, think that morality boils down to mere subjective taste or preference, that there is therefore no fact of the matter about what is right and wrong, and thus that if a murderer believes murder is morally acceptable, then they are correct). This kind of moral relativism is not, however, a position to which humanists are obliged to subscribe, and very few do subscribe to it (I am not sure I have ever met a humanist who does subscribe to it, in fact).

Socrates (469-399 BC) is widely considered one of the most important philosophers. He wrote nothing, and remains something of an enigma. What we know about him comes from the writings of others – such as Aristophanes, Xenophon, and particularly Plato, within whose dialogues Socrates features as a leading character. As Plato presents him, Socrates is no atheist. Nor did Plato’s Socrates favour an open, democratic society. He recommends a rigid, hierarchical political system in which philosophers rule (though Plato’s shifting characterization of Socrates over time suggests this may just be Plato’s view, not Socrates). Nevertheless, it seems there is still much about Socrates that humanists may rightly admire – including his unwillingness just passively to accept what others take for granted, and his relentless application of reason in his attempts to discover the truth. Socrates’ method of intellectually probing the views of others often had a stinging effect on them, and eventually resulted in him facing charges, including the charge of “corrupting the youth”. Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates is electrifying, and helped make Socrates one of world’s best-known martyrs for the cause of reason and truth.


The philosopher Aristotle (341-271BC) is also significant for humanists – not least because of the manner in which he attempts to develop an ethical theory rooted in a close study of the nature of human beings, and because the focus of his ethics is on how to achieve to a particular kind of happiness or well-being in this life (rather than in some life to come).

But perhaps the most important Ancient Greek philosopher, from the point of view of humanism, is Epicurus (341-271BC). Epicurus was a materialist who believed, like the philosopher Democritus, that matter was made up of invisible parts or atoms existing in empty space, and governed by laws. Human beings too are essentially corporeal, according to Epicurus, possessing no immaterial or immortal soul. According to Epicurus, justice consists in our abiding by the contracts and agreements we make between us not to harm each other.

For Epicurus, philosophy is essentially therapeutic. His aim was the development of a philosophy of life that would allow us to enjoy a happy and tranquil existence free from fear – particularly the fear of death and of the wrath of gods.

While Epicurus took the existence of gods for granted, he supposed they could have no interest in human affairs. They neither rewarded nor punished us, and so there was no need to fear them. Nor should death be feared, thought Epicurus, because once we are dead we no longer exists to experience anything. But then there is nothing in death – no pain or suffering – for us to be fearful of. Epicurus’ saying:

I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind

was often inscribed on the gravestones of his followers, particular though out the Roman Empire. It can often be heard recited at humanist funerals today.

Epicurus placed particular emphasis on friendship and living well. He also believed that pleasure and pain were the only measures of good and bad. As a result, Epicurus has often been misunderstood to be recommending a life of unbridled hedonism, of gluttony and orgies. In fact Epicurus warns against overindulgence and excess.

Epicurus was an extraordinarily influential thinker, his influence extending to ancient Rome, where Cicero, Plutarch and Lucretius embraced many of his ideas, as did the Roman Emperor Hadrian. He is of particular interest to humanists because he develops an approach to leading a good life entirely independently of any concerns about gods or the supernatural.

The Roman Empire

The Ancient Roman Empire also produced a number of thinkers who, to varying degrees, expressed a broadly humanist outlook.

Cicero (106-43BC), for example, was a sceptic, believing that knowledge about the gods was impossible. He also believed that the question of what is human life’s ultimate end or purpose is one that philosophy, not religion, is best-placed to answer. He believed ethical values are independent of institutionalized religion, and are amenable to rational, philosophical enquiry.

The Roman philosopher Seneca (2BC – 65AD) believed that

Religion is recognised by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful REF

Like most modern day humanists, he also insisted that “the time to live is now”.

Averroes

During the Medieval period, Europe was largely dominated by Christian thought. Almost all artistic and intellectual endeavour was theologically orientated. The questioning of religious orthodoxy was rarely tolerated, and was often met with violence and persecution.

Within the Arab world, however, could be found more liberal intellectual trends. The Arab thinker Averroes (1126-98), was born in Cordoba in Islamic Spain, an area remarkable for its comparative intellectual freedom. Averroes’ clear and accessible commentaries on Aristotle were an important influence on European Christian thinkers who were rediscovering the works of Aristotle, largely lost to Christian Europe since the sixth century. Indeed, the Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) refers to Aristotle as “the philosopher” and Averroes as “the commentator”.

Averroes argued that, where religious scripture is contradicted by what philosophers such as Aristotle had revealed, scripture should be reinterpreted as allegorical. This comparatively radical and liberal approach to religious texts, in effect giving science and reason the authority to challenge scripture as literally understood, was snuffed out within the Arab world. But Averroes had sown an important, liberalizing seed in Western thought – where discussions of how faith and philosophy might be reconciled were to become increasingly important.

The Renaissance


The Rennaissance (literally “rebirth” in French) was a period of great cultural, artistic and intellectual development spanning the 14th to 17th Centuries, beginning in Florence, in Italy. The movement was partly brought about by a renewed interest in Classical thought. The ideas and arguments of Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers were sought out, and gave enormous impetus to intellectual inquiry, which now broadened out far beyond the boundaries of Christian theology. The visual arts, which had been largely focussed on religious subject matter, now broadened in their scope, becoming much more naturalistically orientated, as well as drawing on classical mythologies in addition to Jewish and Christian ones. Drawing in perspective was developed. Leonardo Da Vinci’s studies of human physiognomy, which informed his artistic portrayal of the human form, nicely illustrates the way in which the study of, and importance of, the human and human culture came much more to the fore during the Renaissance.

There were important religious upheavals too. There was growing criticism of the Catholic Church, which was increasingly perceived to be corrupt, especially in its sale of indulgences, which granted heaven-bound purchasers remission of punishment in purgatory. In 1517, Luther published his “Ninety-Five Theses On The Power And Efficacy Of Indulgences”. The development of the printing press allowed such new and radical ideas to be distributed widely. Luther’s attempts to reform the Catholic Church eventually resulted in the reformation and creation of the Protestantism, bringing to an end the Catholic Church’s religious dominance of Europe.

During the Renaissance, the modern scientific method was being developed, perhaps most notably by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). And of course, the Renaissance saw some famous scientific challenges to religious thought. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a polymath Dominican who defended the Copernican view that the Earth moved around the sun, rather than vice verse. Bruno was interrogated by the Inquisition about both his cosmological and also other unorthodox religious views, and was eventually burned at the stake. One of the most dramatic incidents illustrating growing tensions between scientific and religious thought involved the astronomer and physicist Galileo (1564-1642). Galileo had been warned by the Catholic Church not to assert that Copernicus’ heliocentric model was literally correct (it could be used only as a useful predictive tool). Galileo nevertheless did so, and in a rather provocative way. As a result, Galileo was arrested and threatened with torture and execution by the Holy Inquisition. After Galileo recanted, he was merely imprisoned, a sentence later commuted to house arrest.

A number of modern Catholic commentators insist it would be unfair to characterize the Catholic Church as being anti-science at this time. Some maintain it was Bruno’s theological views, not his cosmological views, that got him into trouble with the Inquisition. However, that claim is not born out by the Vatican’s own archives, which clearly indicate Bruno was interrogated about his cosmological views. Some commentators also maintain Galileo was arrested, not for his scientific views, but merely for his views concerning the interpretation of scripture. But this is disingenuous. Because Galileo maintained the Earth moved around the sun, he had no choice but to say either that scriptural claims to the contrary were simply mistaken (which would, of course, have been a suicidal thing to say), or that those parts of scripture that appeared to claim the Earth did not move would need to be reinterpreted.

In fact, some Catholic theologians, such as Cardinal Bellarmine, who was charged with investigating Galileo, conceded that, were it conclusively proved that the Earth moved, then scripture might have to be reinterpreted. The problem was, Galileo possessed no conclusive proof.

So, to characterize the Catholic Church’s position at that time as wholly entrenched and insensitive to new scientific developments would be to exaggerate somewhat. Nevertheless, it appears the Church was prepared to torture and kill any scientist who was prepared publicly to contradict its Earth-centred cosmology without conclusive scientific proof.

The Church’s current position on whether its treatment of Galileo was wrong is not entirely clear. In 2000, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for, among other things, the Church’s trial of Galileo. On the other hand, in 1990 Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI - quoted philosopher Paul Feyerabend, seemingly with approval:

At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.

The Enlightenment

The European Enlightenment – sometimes known as the “Age of Reason” – spans from late Seventeenth century to the end of the Eighteenth century. The Enlightenment saw increased criticism of traditional religious beliefs and institutions from more radical religious groups, and further fragmentation of Christianity into further denominations. But while there was criticism of religious belief, this tended to come from the point of view of alternative religious beliefs. Atheistic beliefs were still rarely heard, and in many places to espouse such beliefs was to risk persecution.

In mid-Eighteenth Century France, the Enlightenment “philosophes” Diderot and D’Alembert published their Encyclopaedia, an edited compendium of knowledge which contained many radical liberal, naturalist and sceptical ideas. Diderot was an atheist, and both men were highly critical of organized religion. The book was banned before its completion. As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has been characterized in a variety of ways. Diderot and D’Alembert defined the Enlightenened thinker as one who

trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself.

But perhaps the best-known definition of Enlightenment comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in 1784 wrote a short magazine article titled “What is Enlightenment?” Kant characterizes Enlightenment thus:

[e]mergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason!

Some Enlightenment thinkers stand accused of utopianism, of naively supposing that the age of reason would inevitably bring in an age of peace, prosperity and contentment. Enlightenment thought is also accused of being excessively rationalistic, of supposing that society and morality can be given a wholly rational foundation. This, it is now widely held, was a mistake: the rabbit of morality cannot be entirely conjured out of the hat of reason. Many critics of the Enlightenment would add that this was a dangerous mistake: the result of kicking away the old foundations of religious authority and tradition was to leave morality and society without any foundations at all – a recipe for disaster.

However, while some Enlightenment thinkers were indeed utopian, and some, such as Kant, did indeed suppose reason could be founded upon reason alone, notice that neither of these beliefs is entailed by Kant’s characterization of Enlightenment. To believe in the importance of raising Enlightened citizens in Kant’s sense of the term – citizens who dare to think and question, who apply their powers of reason as far as they are able, rather than just passively, uncritically accept what they are told by some religious or other authority – is not to sign up to utopianism or to suppose that morality and society can be given a wholly rational foundation. Modern humanism clearly involves a commitment to Enlightenment in Kant’s sense. That does not mean that today’s humanists are utopians, or that they inevitably overestimate what reason is able to do (yet both charges are regularly levelled at contemporary humanism).

A particularly important Enlightenment thinker, from the point of view of humanism, is the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). Hume was an historian and philosopher prepared to use his brilliant mind independently, subjecting even religious beliefs to critical scrutiny. Hume was sceptical about religious and other miracles, and his Dialogues on Natural Religion published after his death, contain some of the most devastating critiques ever devised of the so-called “arguments from design” for the existence of God. Whether Hume was an agnostic or an atheist remains a contentious issue – but he did not believe in God.

The Nineteenth Century


In 1859, Darwin published his Origin of Species, which explained how new species evolved over many millions of years. Prior to Darwin, it was widely supposed that species could only be created by God. Indeed, Enlightenment thinkers had not possessed an alternative explanation of how species might be created. Darwin explained how purely natural, scientifically investigable mechanisms were capable of producing new species – a very dramatic development. Indeed, that species had indeed evolved in this way was strongly supported by the evidence, which of course flatly contradicted the Biblical account.

The Nineteenth century also saw important developments in Biblical criticism, particularly in Germany. German scholars such as David Strauss (1808 –1874) and Julius Wellhausen (XX), were beginning to reveal the mythical character of much of the Bible. Also in Germany, the theologian and philosopher Feuerbach rejected orthodox religious ideas, insisting that the god of conventional religion was merely the illusory, outward projection of mankind’s inner nature, and Neitzsche railed against Christian morality, accusing it of being life-stunting and born of feelings of hatred and resentment. And of course the German Karl Marx suggested religion was “the opiate of the masses”.

In Britain the philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) developed a radical ethical theory called utilitarianism that defined moral goodness in terms of happiness. According to Bentham, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation." One radical feature of utilitarianism is the way in which it dispenses with the need to introduce any sort of supernatural being in order to underpin or account for morality. According to the utilitarian, in order to evaluate the extent to which something is morally right or wrong, we need not focus on anything other what takes place in this, the natural, world. For many religious people, such views were, and are, shockingly beyond the pale. Many of the customs, laws, and institutions of Bentham’s day obviously caused misery to many. Utilitarianism suggests that not only is it desirable to alleviate suffering where we can, it is actually a moral requirement. Utilitarianism thus led, and continues to lead, many utilitarians towards legal and social reform. Bentham’s utilitarianism led him to believe that, because other creatures also suffer, we are also under moral obligations to them. About other animals, Bentham said

the day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.

By no means all contemporary humanists are utilitarians. However, the development of utilitarianism was clearly of importance to the development of modern humanism, not least because it illustrated how an intellectually robust and sophisticated view of morality can be articulated and defended quite independently of any religious belief.

The censorship and persecution of non-believers still existed in Europe. 1826 saw the last victim of the Holy Inquisition executed in Spain (school teacher Cayetano Ripoll was garrotted for supposedly teaching Deist ideas). In 1842, G. J. Holyoake (1817-1906) (who first coined the term ‘secularism’) was the last (and perhaps also the first) person in Britain to be imprisoned on a charge of atheism. However, an increasing number of public figures were prepared publicly to doubt the claims of religion. In Britain, the writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Hardy were openly atheist. In 1810, Charles Bradlaugh, joint founder of the National Secular Society in 1866, became Britain’s first openly atheist member of Parliament (though his atheism meant he could not take the Oath of Allegiance, and so was consequently barred from taking his seat for several years)

The Nineteenth century saw the rise of ethical societies, which sprang up in both Europe and the United States. These societies provided a framework within which people could discuss ethical matters and engage in ethical activity – such as charitable work and social and educational programmes. They were freethinkers, encouraging open debate about ethical and religious matters. While many ethical societies described themselves as “religious”, they were often religious only in the sense that they took their ethical commitments seriously - belief in a deity was optional. Felix Adler, founder of The New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1876, said, “Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.” The first British ethical society – the South Place Ethical Society, which exists to this day - was officially established in 1888, having evolved out of a Unitarian church. Numerous other British ethical societies quickly followed.

The various Nineteenth Century ethical societies developed into one of the cornerstones of the modern humanist movement. In 1896 the British ethical societies came together to form the Union of Ethical Societies, retitled in 1967 as the British Humanist Association (BHA). In 1952, the American Ethical Union, an umbrella organization for the various U.S.-based Ethical Societies, became a founding member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the organization that now represents the global humanist movement.

Twentieth Century


In many countries during the Twentieth century humanism became part of the mainstream. In Europe, religious belief went in to sharp decline. Surveys indicate, for example, that at the end of the Twentieth Century, about 36% of Britons share the values of humanism and the BHA. Across much of Europe it is possible to express atheistic or humanistic beliefs without any great fear of the consequences.

Many prominent Twentieth Century thinkers were humanists, including Bertrand Russell, whose book “Why I am Not a Christian” was hugely influential. At the end of the Twentieth Century, comparatively few philosophers suppose that morality requires some sort of divine foundation (indeed, a recent poll indicates that only 14.6% of professional philosophers are theists). Today’s most prominent and influential ethicist, Peter Singer, is a humanist.

The kind of belief expressed by many religious intellectuals is often increasingly difficult to pin down, their religiousity being far more easily characterized in terms of what it isn’t than what it is. The beliefs of some sophisticated theologians appear scarcely distinguishable from those of some humanists.

Among the world’s faithful, however, such “sophisticated” theological views remain comparatively rare. Religious fundamentalism is rife. In the United States, polls consistently indicate that about a third of citizens believe in the literal truth of The Bible and, consequently, that the universe is just a few thousand years old. Atheists are one of the least trusted minorities in the U.S., with a national poll indicating atheists are the minority group Americans are least willing to let their children marry. Dorothy Edgell, lead researcher of this University of Minnesota study, said: “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good." Misconceptions about what humanists believe, and the discrimination they suffer as a result, even within the world’s leading liberal democracy, obviously need to be addressed.

Even in many comparatively liberal countries, religious beliefs are given a privileged, state-approved, status, and the battle to achieve a level playing field between the religious and non-religious is ongoing. In the United Kingdom, for example, the state funds religious schools that are able to discriminate against both staff and pupils on the basis of their religious beliefs. And every state funded school in England and Wales is legally required to begin each day with a act of collective worship that is "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".

In many countries around the world, to reject the faith into which one was born is to risk social ostracism or worse. Apostate Muslims are executed in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Qatar, Yemen and Mauritania. In Malawi and Nigeria, Christian pastors condemn children for witchcraft, who are then beaten, tortured and sometimes even killed in exorcisms. As a result of powerful Christian lobbying, Uganda is considering introducing the life imprisonment as the minimum sentence for engaging in gay sex. In many parts of the world, religious intolerance is rife, and the fight for even basic rights and freedoms is ongoing.

Both locally and globally, then, there is an enormous number of issues that are of concern, sometimes very grave concern, to humanists – issues on which humanist organizations such as the BHA, Centre for Inquiry (CFI), and the IHEU, continue to campaign.

Humanists do tend to be reformists. Their views often bring them into conflict with the religious – especially the more conservatively religious – on issues such as birth control, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of women, freedom of speech, and an end to religious privilege. This is because what humanists oppose is often (though not always) rooted in religious traditions and institutions and given a religious justification.

However, there are religious people who agree with much or even all of what humanists have to say about such issues – who accept that traditional religious justifications for such discrimination, oppression and privilege are not tenable – and so humanists can and sometimes work co-operatively with religious individuals and organizations to achieve shared goals.

It is not, as some religious people suppose, enmity towards religion that drives the humanist’s reformist ambitions, but rather a positive commitment to approach moral and political issues rationally and fairly. Of course, this commitment does inevitably bring humanists into conflict with religious people on many such issues. But by no means all of them.

It is also worth remembering that humanists are no less opposed to unjust repression and discrimination when carried out by atheist regimes, such as those of the Twnetieth Century dictators Mao and Stalin (both of whom were as ruthlessly committed to eradicating humanist and free-thought as they were religious thought).

A very brief history of the term “humanism”


The term “humanist” was first used to describe a branch of the educational curriculum: the humanities – comprising grammar, poetry, rhetoric and moral philosophy. During the Renaissance, there was, as has been noted, a renewed interest in classical culture and teaching, and an increased focus on the human. This movement was subsequently characterized by Nineteenth Century commentators as “Renaissance humanism”. This variety of humanism is, of course, consistent with mainstream religious belief.

The term “humanism” has since been used in a variety of ways. During the Nineteenth century “humanism” was also sometimes used to refer to a kind of alternative religion – a religion in which humanity took the place of God, and was held to be of ultimate value. Clearly, that is not what I would term “humanism”.

Today, some still use the term “humanism” to mean something like Renaissance humanism, that is to say, a form of humanism consistent with, say, mainstream Christian belief. In the U.S., those who are sceptical about gods tend to place the term “secular” before “humanism” in order to make clear that they are signing up to an alternative to any form of religious belief.

In the UK, on the other hand, the addition of “secular” is generally considered redundant. The term “humanism” is used to refer to the kind of position outlined in my introduction. Had this book first been published in the US, it might well have been titled “Secular Humanism”.

10 comments:

wombat said...

Stephen,

In then line "...such as Kant, did indeed suppose reason could be founded upon reason alone,... "
did you mean "morality could be founded upon reason alone.." ?

Do you think it is worth mentioning Spinoza?

Dan said...

This sentence is a bit mangled:

"In 1810, Charles Bradlaugh, joint founder of the National Secular Society in 1866, became Britain’s first openly atheist member of Parliament (though his atheism meant he could not take the Oath of Allegiance, and so was consequently barred from taking his seat for several years)"

In 1810, Bradlaugh was still 23 years away from being born!

In fact, Bradlaugh was elected one of the MPs for Northampton in 1880. He claimed the right to affirm, but was not permitted to do so. He then tried to take the oath, but this too was refused. That's how his struggle to take his seat began.

Dan

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Stephen,

I thought, on the first reading, that it is a good historical summary and a balanced one. I thought for a moment that you were going to overlook John Stuart Mill (he's featured in the November/December, Issue 76, of Philosophy Now).

I believe our political and justice system (Australia's being modelled on the English 'Westminster' parliametary system) is more humanist than Christian, and shows the influence of the Enlightenment and Utilitarian philosophies.

You make no mention of 20th Century existentialism. I'm thinking of people like Camus and Sartre, in particular Sartre's essay, Existentialism is a Humanism. I believe it is this form of humanism that influenced the cultural revolution of the 1960s, particularly the rise of feminism and the youth challenging the politicians of the day over our involvement in the Vietnam war.

Of course, this last event has a specific resonance in America and Australia, but there was a backlash against conservatism in politics and religion, at that time, throughout the entire Western world, albeit expressed largely through pop culture.

I know that, in Australia, this period pretty well extinguished the Church's overt role in politics.

Regards, Paul.

Sabio Lantz said...

Many sites and people make weird generalizations "Eastern" as opposed to "Western" philosophy and religion. Few realize that in the East they had equally as huge variety of thought as the West. Your essay illustrates this well. Thank you.

pikeamus Mike said...

It was my understanding that the what Confucius said was called the silver rule, rather than the golden rule. They are similar though I think they differ enough in practice to deserve different names.

There is also the proverb:
When someone said, "What do you think of repaying evil with kindness?" Confucius replied, "Then what are you going to repaying kindness with? Repay kindness with kindness , but repay evil with justice."
This could be considered a comment on the limits of the golden rule could it not?

pikeamus Mike said...

Apologies for the sloppy grammar in the last post, I should really proof read before clicking submit.

Tony Lloyd said...

“sixth century BC India)” there’s no opening bracket and no full stop.

“like the philosopher Democritus, that matter was made up of invisible parts” should that be “indivisible”?

On the conflicts between Humanism and Conservative religion, is this not a function of the privileges afforded to religion over the years? Whilst there are things on which Humanists and the conservatively religious will agree, as the religious have had their own way, these don’t tend to be “issues” anymore. There are issues that Humanists can work with the “progressively” religious because the progressively religious will embrace new ideas that do conflict with conservative thought.

Is it worth making more of the parallel development of Humanism and religion? A. C. Grayling in the Intelligence Squared debate “Atheism is the new Fundamentalism” claimed that much of “Christian” morality was taken wholesale from the Stoics and you’ve got the “golden rule” as far back as Confucius. A common complaint of the religious (eg Dinesh D’Souza) is that humanist ethics are parasitical on religious ethics. The history sketched out suggests that religion and humanism at least cross-fertilised and if one way is dominant then its religion’s borrowing from humanism.

Stuart Brown said...

Stephen,

Ancient Indian Thought section:

One of the Upinashads”: typo; should be Upanishads. More seriously, it is a bit odd to mention the relatively minor Carvaka school, but not to cover early Buddhism which is not only totally atheistic but also, unlike Carvaka, powerfully altruistic, totally oriented towards not only the individual’s desire to end suffering, but a moral requirement to ease the suffering of others too. It’s worth noting that — in the early Buddhist texts — not only are gods rejected but reincarnation in any sense of continuity of a “soul” (atman). Early Jainism was also atheistic, although it did have a concept of continuity of the soul.

George Jelliss said...

Humanist philosophers are fond of citing Epicurus as an important precursor, but was he really that influential? It seems to me that the Pythagoreans with their idea that "all is number", Aristotle's formulation of logic, Euclid's axiomatisation of geometry, Archmimedes' principle of leverage, were of far more significance for the modern world, and the development of science. Beacause some of the other ideas of the Pythagoreans and Aristotle were wrong or contrary to Humanism, doesn't lessen their significance.

Anonymous said...

Your quote "Religion is recognised by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful" may not be directly from Seneca.
In http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Seneca_the_Younger it is suggested that the quote derives from Edward Gibbon's remark "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful."

Gordon Peckham