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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.


Tony Lloyd said…
I can't see anything wrong with it, it just makes me want to read the next bit. I know that doesn't help, but there you go.

It does raise questions, are you going to touch on these in the rest of the work? The main question is the non-humanist precursors of some humanist thought. eg Kant believing in God but supporting the equal worth of individuals, the Christian existentialists and their ideas of freedom.

Would it be too much of a stretch to say that humanism is what one comes to when you feel morality and truth are more important than religion, that religion gets in the way of morality and truth so you drop the religion?
Martin said…
I don't think you get anywhere near to a decent definition until your very final paragraph.

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.

Definitions 1 to 5 all rely on references to God or to religion, and so seem to breach your own naysayers restriction. 6 is the first that doesn't. 7 might be true of many Humanists, but I don't see that secularism has to be a necessary condition to be a Humanist.

There is however a big difficulty with any collective that claims to be "ultimately more life-affirming and life-enhancing". They must believe that anyone outside their group is less life-affirming and less life-enhancing i.e. a problem. If there were a definition of humanism which didn't assert a moral position above that of other groups, it would avoid the moral superiority trap that the much despised religious authorities fall into. Is it really necessary for humanism to be morally superior for the definition to make sense, or is it just seen as a "nice to have" without looking at the negative implications?
Kosh3 said…
Is it your intention to exclude deists from humanism as narrowly construed? Many deists would regard themselves as humanist but would be excluded by points 1, 2, and perhaps 4.

Otherwise, its a nice little primer on humanism.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I think your points 3,5 and 7 are the strongest. I've always seen myself as an existentialist, but I don't reject theism completely as you know.

The important point, from my perspective, is that God arises out of humanism rather than the other way round. Without humanity there would be no God in my view, which turns the orthodox view of theism on its head. I tend to agree with Feuerbach: "God is the outward projection of man's inner nature."

I think the qualifiers that you add at the bottom are also good. For example, I'm a mathematical Platonist.

Regards, Paul.
Timmo said…
Hello Stephen,

That one believe that only humans matter, morally speaking. Many humanists believe that the happiness and welfare of other species is also important.

If this is the case, then why do you choose the word 'humanism'? One can accept the theses that you advance and follow, say, deep ecology, something for which the term 'humanism' would be grossly inapplicable. The term does hearken back to a "system of thought in which human values, interests and dignity are given central importance" simply in virtue of having the word 'human' in it.

Perhaps you might prefer naturalism to humanism. While naturalism might be construed as a metaphysical thesis about what kinds of objects populate the world, it can also be understood to have the epistemological bent and anti-theistic character that seems to be running through your set of theses.

Though, the seven theses you list aren't especially closely related logically. Rather than a coherent system of inter-related parts, it seems quite a bit more like a political program in which unrelated things are packaged together.
Timmo said…
Perhaps I can say it another way: 'humanism' is very much a speciesist term.
wombat said…
The third and fourth points seems to be so very similar - is it not possible to collapse them together?

Number seven feels as if it is a consequence of the fifth point.

I think overall the list would be a better "selling proposition" if it started with the para "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,
or something like it,
if only to avoid starting out with one of the negative definitions.

Slightly tangentially what distinguishes humanism from Epicureanism, other than it sounding more modern?
Rob A said…
I wonder if it would be better to have bullets starting "To be a Humanists one does not have to...", rather than "That one...".
It seems a little more reader-friendly to me.
Dwight Jones said…
Humanism's burden is that it has been hijacked by atheists, and reduced to a nonbelief in the eyes of the public. It is far from that.

If we consider the Renaissance scholar Robert Grudin's sketch of Humanism in the Britannica, note how little it has to do with religion or atheism whatsoever:

"Humanitas meant the development of human virtue, in all its forms, to its fullest extent. The term thus implied not only such qualities as are associated with the modern word humanity—understanding, benevolence, compassion, mercy—but also such more aggressive characteristics as fortitude, judgment, prudence, eloquence, and even love of honour.

Consequently, the possessor of humanitas could not be merely a sedentary and isolated philosopher or man of letters but was of necessity a participant in active life. Just as action without insight was held to be aimless and barbaric, insight without action was rejected as barren and imperfect. Humanitas called for a fine balance of action and contemplation, a balance born not of compromise but of complementarity.

The goal of such fulfilled and balanced virtue was political, in the broadest sense of the word. The purview of Renaissance humanism included not only the education of the young but also the guidance of adults (including rulers) via philosophical poetry and strategic rhetoric. It included not only realistic social criticism but also utopian hypotheses, not only painstaking reassessments of history but also bold reshapings of the future.

In short, humanism called for the comprehensive reform of culture, the transfiguration of what humanists termed the passive and ignorant society of the “dark” ages into a new order that would reflect and encourage the grandest human potentialities. Humanism had an evangelical dimension: it sought to project humanitas from the individual into the state at large."

As another approach see my thumbnail of Collective Humanism in wikipedia:

I am thinking of recasting it as Inclusive Humanism to drive home this distinction. What think?
Anonymous said…
What is the book going to be about? Will it be refuting Humanism? How good this introduction is could depend on where the rest of the book will be going.
Greg O said…
In the early paragraphs, is it worth acknowledging the US convention of referring to what we in the UK call "Humanism" as "Secular Humanism"? People might easily come across that terminology on the internet, so it might be good to spell out that yes, secular humanists are just what you're calling 'humanists'.

Speaking of American humanists, I wonder how you feel about the Council for Secular Humanism's 'Affirmations' - a very positive and surprisingly lengthy statement of what humanism is all about. It's obviously not supposed to be the sort of minimal definition of humanism that you're trying to offer, but it does make a nonsense of the claim that humanists are entirely defined by what they're against. They're here if you want to take a look:
Padster1976 said…
i've considered myself a humanist for sometime now. I cannot see anything from the list that i would drop.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Reading Dwight Jones's site and the link provided by Greg O, they are almost political manifestos, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think that should be stated upfront.

It seems to me that these are arising out of what's seen as religion infecting politics, even though they are philosophical treatises.

I think Stephen's 'manifesto', if I can use that term, is also a response to theistic trends in politics and in the discussion of ethics and human rights. It's a response to the claim that, without God, we are all moral relativists.

In all the above cases, it's saying this is what we want for the future, in education and in politics, both domestically and globally.

I'm not sure that humanism can replace religion, though I'm sure many see them as antithetical, but I would like to see them as complementary. I believe in a pluralist, secular society, where religion is personal and subjective rather than political.

I think the fact that Stephen balances what he includes with what he excludes in his 'definition' provides a good basis for discussion with people who might have alternative views.

Regards, Paul.
anticant said…

I keep on making the point that religion is inherently political - it cannot be otherwise, because if you have a 'faith' which tells you how Jehovah or Jesus or Allah want the world to be, you are bound as a conscientious believer to strive to realise that visionary state of affairs in the society around you. Even religious quietists who don't take an active part in political life are doing this. So are humanists. 'Non-political religion' is an oxymoron.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Anticant,

This is a point of contention between you and I, and I guess it's a matter of personal perspective.

Religion can and does 'inform' an individual's political leanings and viewpoints, but this is not the same as saying that all religion is politics, nor does it have to be.

And, in a secular society, religious viewpoints are going to become part of discussions on issues like justice, rights and ethics, otherwise it would not be a secular society.

However, on a personal level, religion can be part of one's search for self-knowledge and sense of purpose, which is completely separate to politics. This is a distinction that I make and you don't.

Regards, Paul.
anticant said…
I do make that distinction, Paul, and have done so more than once, here and elsewhere.

However, an individual's search for self-knowledge and greater insight into the nature of things does not necessarily have to be carried out in a religious framework; it can be (and in my case, is) sought through non-theistic meditation and contemplation.

Organised religions are, I repeat, inherently political. They understandably seek to promote their view as the best for society. As a non-religious taxpayer, I strongly resent the government pouring millions of public money into the coffers of 'faith schools' which exist to teach small children that their beliefs are "the truth". This is indoctrination, not education.
Paul P. Mealing said…
The point is, Anticant, that religion doesn't have to be political. I live in a country where it went from one to the other. When I was a kid, religion was very involved in politics, through every strata of society, but after the 1960s that disappeared. So it's not a necessity at all. Yes, there are members of our society who would love to bring that back, but they are outnumbered.

A secular society can include religions, in fact, I would argue that it has to, because they are not going to go away, and you can't legislate to make them go away.

I'm sure you would agree with that.

Regards, Paul.
anticant said…
Yes, I do agree with that. But here in the UK they are coming on strong - both Christians and Muslims - and getting £millions annually for 'faith schools' and other activities which are socially divisive because each sect preaches and teaches its own exclusive possession of "the truth".
scott roberts said…
Although I reject (1) and (2), I agree with the rest (subject to some rewording). I would say, for instance, and speaking metaphorically, that at this point in history God wants us to be morally autonomous.

Hence, for political and practical purposes, those with my kind of religion are on the same side as the humanist as here defined. Which to me means that (1) and (2) are politically counterproductive. There are two agendas at work here, which should be separated.
anticant said…
Scott, I'm sure you are a lovely person, but I view with the utmost suspicion anyone who claims - even metaphorically - to know the mind of God.
scott roberts said…

So do I, and those I am suspicious of include myself. I was just being lazy in not prefacing my metaphorical statement with something like "In my opinion, after examining human religious history and considering the thinking of X, Y, and Z, and if one accepts certain philosophical assumptions, then it might be the case that (metaphorically), ..."

But does not my overall point stand? Regardless of how I have come to think that we should be morally autonomous, that we should apply reason to all problems, and that secular government (as defined) is preferable -- then what is the problem? I am not, by the way, insisting that I be called a humanist. Just pointing out that what really matters here does not depend on agreeing to (1) and (2).
Martin said…
How about - Humanism: a creed dedicated to the construction of a plausible morality from the unlikely roots of naturalism.
crabsallover said…
As a member of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Dorset Humanists (DH) we often discuss what we mean by Humanism. In September DH had a talk by Dennis Bannister about whether or not Charles Darwin would have declared himself a Humanist.

I would agree with Stephen Laws' definitions of Humanism. I'd also add that the aims of morality should be human welfare, happiness and fulfillment. More about Humanism from BHA:
Timmo said…

Crabsallover writes,

I'd also add that the aims of morality should be human welfare, happiness and fulfillment.

This is a very explicit statement of the speciesist element in humanist ideology I mentioned earlier. By emphasizing homo sapiens in the very name of one's basic moral convictions, one asserts their support for the continued instrumentalization of the broader biosphere, especially of non-human animals. The unspoken suggestions/presuppositions of 'humanism' make it unclear how 'humanists' are not necessarily committed to the claim that "one believe that only humans matter, morally speaking." It's like saying 'I don't think niggers should be slaves', right?
"So what distinguishes the humanist outlook? It is hard to be very precise. The boundaries of the concept are somewhat elastic. "

You'd never let a theist get away with something so woolly.
Stephen Law said…
The lack of precision is because we are dealing with a group for people whose views vary somewhat. There would be a similar problem characterizaing, say, "religion".

However, when it comes to my own views, I can articulate them pretty clearly and precisely.

I don't, for example, make an analogies that I don't bother to explain, answer questions with questions (the "way of questions"), trade on ambiguities, employ pseudo-profundity, etc. etc.

When religious people are asked what they believe, and employ such strategies in order endlessly to frustrate any possible critic, well yes that I do condemn.

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