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Humanism book introduction, 2nd draft, for comments...

INTRODUCTION – 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 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 more focussed. Those who sign up to “humanism”, understood in this 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 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.

First, 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.

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, it must be bestowed from above by God. The lives of Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa and Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not.

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 religion or political leader – 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 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. The humanist’s scepticism concerning gods, angels, demons, an afterlife, and so on is not a “faith position” but rather a consequence of their having subjected such beliefs to critical, scrutiny and found them severely wanting.

Seventh, humanists are secularists, in the sense that they favour an open 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 beliefs, 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 I have characterized humanism, 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 believe 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 (who doesn’t?), 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, 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, angels, demons, etc., but that doesn’t require they sign up to naturalism. 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.
• 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, naturalism, scientism or utilitarianism. Humanists can reject, or at least 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. 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.

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 also 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 god, you will be sceptical about the claim that our moral sense was placed in us by god), and (iii) the unifying role played by the sixth: these views on the “big questions” are collectively embraced, not as a series of dogmatically held “faith positions”, but because, having subjected the various alternatives to rational scrutiny, the humanist considers them the most reasonable position to adopt.

Finally, I want to say something about humanist antipathy to religion. Clearly many humanists consider religion, not just false, but dangerous. Some view religion as a great evil. But not all. A significant number religious people actually share a good proportion of the views in terms of which I have characterized humanism. They too are secularists. They also accept that a morality and a meaningful life would be 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. Just this week, the Bible Society’s thinktank Theos donated towards a British Humanist Association advertising campaign insisting that children should not be labelled with a religion, but allowed to grow up free to make their own decisions about what religion, if any, to embrace.

This book aims to further explain, and begin to make a case for, humanism, as characterized above.


Unknown said…
I don't think all five of the uses of the word 'humanism' in your first two paras should be in quote marks. In a phrase like the word "humanism" you need them. Otherwise, I'm not so sure.
Unknown said…
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Timmo said…
Hello Stephen,

I will repeat my previous objection to donning 'humanism' as a philosophical/ethical vision: as the very term 'humanism' implies, it does not go beyond the morally degenerate views it critiques, as Peter Singers notes.

Stephen, if you want to take a stand for animals, you have to drop the word 'humanism.'
Flea said…
"The lives of Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa and Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not."
Do you really think Mother T deserves to be in this list?
I know, may people will like it, but...
(Hitchen's take:
Tony Lloyd said…
I think the Theos example needs tweaking. "Just this week" is more blog terminology than book terminology. "At the time of writing"?
Kosh3 said…
I have great difficulties with your way of using the word humanism. You tie it so integrally to atheism and agnosticism that it basically becomes a synonym for 'atheistic humanist' or 'agnostic humanist'.

The 16th century Italian humanists, for example, were (on your defn) not humanists. Practically nobody in the Enlightenment was a humanist. Something is wrong with such a definition if it excludes that much. You say right at the start that the other way of talking about humanism is so broad that virtually everyone is included: but on religious worldviews, its not human values and needs that have primary consideration, it is god's values and demands. I don't see then that it is so broad as you suggest.
Stephen Law said…

Singer describes himself as a humanist, I believe. he just objects to certain definitions. But not mine, I think.

Kosh 3. My way of using humanism is the way used in UK by humanist organizations and as defined in books on humanism such as Peter Cave's, Jim Herrick's etc. It is an established use. In the US, such humanists qualify "humanism" with "secular" or whatever but not here.

re para 1. Notice I said central importance. Not primary. That was deliberate. More than one thing can be of central importance. Hence a religious person can be a humanist in the weak sense outlined in para 1. And surely most are.
Kosh3 said…
a) which would show that I have a problem with UK humanist's conventional way of using the term.

b) I didn't mean to deny that religious people cannot be humanists, rather than to suggest that it is not a... how can I put it... natural, or easily-aligned-with-religion, position for anyone religious to take.
anticant said…
I second Flea's objection to praising that ghastly sacred cow Mother Teresa. Her life was rich in ostentatious poverty while she gladly hobnobbed with wealthy tyrants. She was significant in her primitive denial of adequate medical care to the dying poor of Calcutta because she believed prayer was more effective than science. She was only meaningful as a dire object lesson of the humbug and hypocrisy which characterises the Roman Catholic Church.
marinareal said…
Thanks very much for this! I watched the whole debate (made work easier this afternoon) and I relished the results of the audience!

I'd love to see a debate base it's question on something like "Is Humanism a Force of Good in The World"? I reckon the more we focus on Humanism the less credit we give to these belligerent religious institutions. After all, Humanism has been with us for a while, it needs no introduction, just more appeal to those undecided!

Theresa is still there, but she doesn't deserve to be.
Giford said…
Ah, so I *am* a humanist. I thought I probably was :) And thanks for some good answers to the question of what humanism is *for*.

I have only one major comment on this:

>Take, for example, a mathematician who believes that mathematics describes a non-natural, mathematical reality.

I'm not sure 'non-natural' is the right word here. 'Non-natural' would imply to me 'designed' or 'created' - I would suggest perhaps 'non-physical' or even 'metaphysical'.

And because I'm a pedant, here are a couple of nitpicks:

>While religion typically also 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.

Possible conflation of 'religion' with 'Christianity'? Suggest 'any modern religion' (provided that's still true).

>A significant number religious people...

A significant number *of* religious people...

Giford said…
Oh, I might have some qualms about point five as well... I think we get a lot of our 'moral sense' from our upbringing, which could be classed as 'external' (though perhaps not an 'external authority')

Tom Morris said…
With regard to the fourth thing you don't need to accept to be a humanist, I'd say that generally humanists are naturalists of some description, but naturalists aren't all physicalists. I'd say someone like Armstrong is a perfect example of a naturalist who accepts some form of abstracta: namely, immanent universals. Similarly, Michael Martin (of "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification" fame) is a "pluralist naturalist" as opposed to a physicalist, in that he believes in non-physical abstracta.

Good response on the animal rights/Peter Singer front.

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