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.