Extracted from Humanism: an introduction, by Jim Herrick (Rationalist Press Association, 2003).
Humanism is a most human philosophy of life. Its emphasis is on the human and the here-and-now, the humane. It is not a religion and it has no formal creed, though humanists have beliefs. Humanists are atheists or agnostics and do not expect an afterlife. It is essential to humanism that it brings values and meaning into life.
Sense of miraculous
Humanists do not believe in miracles, though they can comprehend the sense of the miraculous. There seems no evidence that the laws of nature are suspended for a particular ‘miraculous event’; but the smile of a child who has been cured by antibiotics can seem miraculous. We can believe that the hidden life of a person can be revealed, but not that there is a supranatural component to the universe likely to hit us as a revelation.
More than atheism
Atheism alone is not humanism – for Stalin was an atheist. Humanism is atheism/agnosticism with values. Our morality is social in origin. It comes from the way we have evolved and from our ability to see that there is general benefit if we behave well towards each other. Humanists derive their moral codes from human need. It is necessary that some of these codes may be regulated in society to deal with those who have not developed a moral sense. But the highest level of morality is developed personally as the individual moves towards an idea of personal and social goodness. Moral behaviour need not involve martyrdom or sacrifice, it is possible to develop a sense of contentment together with a sense of responsibility towards others. This is not necessarily smug self-satisfaction: there may be much struggle needed to attain personal happiness and social harmony. There will never be a perfect human or a perfect society.
Morality is social
Humanists believe morality stems from our situation as social animals. Our morality may affect our relations with other than human animals, but as far as we can tell they do not have moral instincts or codes: what morality controls a cat’s attitude to a mouse? (Perhaps some primates have social instincts.) Morals come from our altruism – even though this is not equally developed in all people. Also the codes of behaviour in society come from our social agreements, our social construct of morals that benefits us all. Without the ability to empathise with the distress of others morality does not operate effectively. Humanists will say that a moral instinct and moral values in society are very important.