Humanism and humanists: A brief introduction

By | 11 Feb 2017
Photo taken of Professor A. C. Grayling at April 2017 CAHS Australian Humanist Convention in Melbourne.

Humans are social animals. We learn the cultural patterns of our society as we grow up. This begins as we learn a language, which helps us name the people, animals, plants and other objects in our surroundings. And by knowing a language, we can communicate our feelings, needs and opinions in more nuanced ways. As we grow older, we gradually acquire the beliefs and patterns of behaviour that enable us to function within our society.

One set of beliefs and practices we acquire shapes our worldview or life philosophy. This might be an identifiable religion, e.g., Buddhism, Christianity or, increasingly nowadays, it is more likely to be a naturalistic worldview such as Humanism. These may remain much the same for our entire life or we may adopt another worldview for a range of reasons.

What Is Humanism?

Humanism is an ethical, naturalistic worldview or life philosophy that offers people a well-developed, alternative to religion. Those who call themselves Humanists believe that we humans are naturally formed beings, a product of biological evolution. We are therefore reliant on our human qualities and capacities in order to live a satisfying and meaningful life.

Human Qualities and Capacities

Canadian humanist, John Ralston Saul, in his book On Equilibrium (2001), lists six human qualities he believes are necessary for leading a satisfying and meaningful life. These are common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason.  He argues that the interplay of these six qualities produces a striving towards an equilibrium between the different interests and tensions encountered as individuals living in social groupings. When these qualities are combined with our species specific capacities to use symbolic language and develop culture, humans have successfully thrived in a wide range of locations and life styles. Although we’ve only been around as a species for about 200,000 years, Homo sapiens have made their home in most places on planet Earth, adapting life styles as far apart as hunter gatherers and city dwelling.

As an ethical worldview, Humanism provides a framework for understanding ourselves and the universe, in naturalistic rather than supernatural or theistic terms. Its ethics are grounded in human values. It is a living philosophy of open-mindedness, freedom and democracy that draws Humanists to be deeply conscious of their common humanity. It leads Humanists to acknowledge the moral worth of all human beings and be guided in their actions by the realisation that humans have common needs and share similar aspirations. Humanists reject absolute authorities and revealed wisdom. They advocate free inquiry, which is the basis of a scientific approach. They defend intellectual integrity, refusing to let custom replace conscience. Responsible freedom of thought and action, and civilised law are of paramount importance to Humanists. To be a Humanist is to desire the well-being of all humans along with that of other life-forms, to celebrate the triumphs and to agonise over the tragedies of humanity. It is to live purposefully and peacefully in companionship with others in the full knowledge that certainty is an illusion.

Modern Humanist Movement

In developed countries, from the early 1800s increasing numbers of people began questioning the veracity of religious beliefs. As a result, some were attracted to leading an ethical and satisfying life based on naturalistic ideas. These people identified themselves by such freethought terms as agnostic, atheist, freethinker, humanist, non-believer, non-religious, rationalist and secularist.  Some formed societies using these terms, but most just got on with their lives, often continuing to pay lip service to an established religion.

The beginning of the twentieth century seemed to herald great possibilities.  Advances in science and technology were pointing to an exciting future for humankind. This optimism was shattered by the First World War, which also left many disillusioned with religion. After the war, freethought groups became active again, however with the religions so long established, societies continued to be overlayed with religious practices. For example, two key passages of life, marriage and funerals, were handled almost exclusively by clerics, a fact that encouraged most people to remain socially attached to a religion.

However, immediately after the Second World War, in the late 1940s, many people were concerned to prevent a repeat of similar widespread war carnage. What especially shocked them was the news that Germany in particular had deliberately planned the mass murder of social minorities such as the disabled, gypsies, homosexuals and Jews. As the horror of this was discussed more widely, many came to the opinion that the existing moral providers—established religions—were morally bankrupt.  As a result many idealistic people worked tirelessly to establish ‘new’ organisations that would hopefully guide humankind into a better, more ethical future. One organisation formed at this time was the United Nations.

Another opportunity arose in 1952 when over 200 people gathered in Amsterdam to discuss these concerns.  Many of those attending were from existing Ethical, Rationalist and Humanist societies already active in European, and North American countries. Others came as individuals who strongly desired an ethical alternative to the established religions. Over a number of days these people discussed whether to form a new body, what name to use and what concerns to express.

After days of deliberation they agree to form a body named the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and they agreed to seek non-government status at the United Nations.  From the range of freethought terms already in use, they decided to call their ethical worldview or life philosophy ‘Humanism’.  The concerns they expressed were to provide an ethical alternative to religion and more specifically to advocate action to curb world population growth.

Today, Humanism is an internationally organised movement, with affiliated Societies in more than 40 countries. IHEU has non-government status at the United Nations where its representatives argue strenuously for a Humanist point of view on many important matters. These encompass human rights for all, including the right to have no religion, responsible freedom of speech and reproductive autonomy for women. Although the number of Humanist society members worldwide is relatively small, the Humanist approach to life is embraced by a much larger number of people. This growing cohort are part of a trend, particularly in developed countries, for increasing numbers to have little or no attachment to religion. Yet they remain guided by the desire to lead ethically responsible and worthwhile lives.

Most modern Humanists describe their life beliefs using the one eight-letter word, ‘Humanism’, while some add a qualifier, such as ‘secular’, ‘non-theistic’, ‘scientific’ or ‘evolutionary’. The use of qualifiers like ‘Secular Humanism’ or ‘Scientific Humanism’ are more common in the USA, while just plain ‘Humanism’ is more commonly used in Australia, Canada, the UK and in European Humanist groups.

Main Humanist Beliefs of Today

Although Humanists may hold differing views on some matters and prioritise the amount of effort they want to invest on any particular issue, they are in broad agreement on the following.

  1. They think in terms of naturalistic, evidence-based answers rather than believing in deities or gods that created the universe, who control human life or who answer human prayers or incantations.
  2. They think that ideas about morally right actions arose in the course of human evolution. The Humanist criterion for the rightness of an action is the effect of that action on human well-being. Actions that increase human well-being are right, that is, to be preferred, whereas those that reduce human well-being are wrong and ought to be averted. Humanists are concerned with improving the well-being of all humanity and believe that improvement can only be brought about by human effort.
  3. They believe that modern science is a much better source of ideas about the origin and nature of the universe than sacred texts written many centuries ago. Humanists consider that the methods used to gain scientific knowledge enable human understanding to grow and change rather than stagnate.
  4. They acknowledge that humans are both dependent on and part of nature and that controlling population and conserving a full range of diverse ecosystems is a central priority for humanity.
  5. They believe this life is the only one we will experience, as the evidence for existence before birth or after death is totally unconvincing.
  6. They continually examine and re-examine knowledge and ideas to achieve ways of improving the living conditions of humanity.
  7. They try to keep an open mind in recognition that no human knowledge is the final answer and much of what we act on now will later be seen as wrong or at least simplistic. New information is continually being added to the bank of human knowledge and some of it may compel us to change our minds. Humanists are prepared to live with uncertainty and accept that they may be wrong.

Humanist Celebrations

Humanists celebrate individual milestones, such as birthdays and anniversaries, and many also enjoy other special times that are public holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. While these are often thought of as specifically Christian celebrations, Humanists know enough about the history of why 25 December was chosen as Christ’s birthday and near the spring equinox was chosen for his crucifixion. These dates were selected by the early church because they were long-established pagan celebrations, embraced and enjoyed by those in Europe and the Middle East in pre-Christian times. The logic of attaching central events of the Christian calendar to existing celebrations makes sense.

The 25th December had long been celebrated as the shortest day of the year, (Northern hemisphere) in anticipation of the return of warmer conditions as the daylight hours gradually lengthened. The day had long been marked with feasting, the bringing inside of boughs from evergreen trees, gift giving and other celebratory rituals.

The spring or vernal equinox had also long been celebrated as a fertility festival, complete with pagan goddesses and gods. Eggs—symbols of fertility—had long been given and eaten. Such is the appeal of coloured and decorated eggs, especially to children, this much earlier pagan cultural pattern has continued, albeit in ups and downs over the centuries. More recently, commercial interests have fostered its expansion, as has been the case for gift giving at Christmas.

Once Humanist societies had formed, it wasn’t long before members began marking select days on the annual calendar for celebrations. An early and obvious choice were the solstices, 21 June and 21 December, and the equinoxes, 21 April and 21 September. As these marked natural events in the yearly cycle, they were readily accepted as the focus for Humanist social gatherings. More recently, the Summer Solstice for the Northern hemisphere has been deemed World Humanist Day.

Another day marked by Humanists is 12 February as International Darwin Day. On this day, Humanists celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday and in doing so recognise his outstanding contribution to human understanding in the field of biology. Darwin is best known as one of the men who identified the mechanism of natural selection as the means by which species can change and new species are formed.

Humanist Writings

Humanists do not have a founder or foundation texts, but they can give examples of well-known people who identify as Humanists. In Australia, this is our Australian Humanist of the Year recipients. Humanist Society web sites, both in Australia and around the world, are good sources of more information Humanism. There are also many books on Humanism. For example, On Humanism by UK philosopher Richard Norman, and two books by another UK philosopher, A. C. Grayling, The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism and his most recent The Origins and Future of Humanism.

Similarly, there is also no binding Humanist creed. Instead, Humanist organisations, from time to time, do draw up statements outlining their aims and attitudes, e.g., the Amsterdam Declaration 2002.  These are not fixed for all time and are changed as new knowledge and fresh ideas motivate active Humanists.

Guided by the overall Humanistic approach to life, as outlined above, Humanists will often actively express the need for change on issues where they believe some groups of people are having their human rights denied or their well-being is unnecessarily affected. Using this approach, Humanists have long expressed support for the rights of homosexuals not to have their choices made illegal, for women to have access to reproductive health and contraceptive support services and for people to leave a religion without being disadvantaged.

Photo of Rosslyn Ives