Student Questions About Humanism

By | 28 Feb 2011
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Photo of boy with hand on chin and questioning lookBackground

Primary school students engaged in Practical Ethics classes may ask a variety of questions about the nature of humanism. Several of the following Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) were suggested by the expert panel, Religions for Peace. This panel was set up by the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) and acted as the accrediting agency for the Victorian Education Department during the review of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in 2006. The Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) aimed for Humanist volunteer teachers to teach Practical Ethics to students aged 4 to 12 in Victorian primary schools.


Q 1. “What is Humanism?”
(The WCRP Panel writes in item 3, “The explanation of Humanism given on page (ii) was too brief and inadequate; it needs to be amplified very considerably with much more detail, especially in regard to the ethical values and behaviours that it wishes to inculcate through its teaching.” Although most of this item is answered in the Manual proper, pp …, a quick answer on capital-aitch Humanism to an enquiring child is suggested here.)

Answer for ages 6 to 8 (approx): “Humanism is about being happy and helpful, but without praying!”

Answer for ages 9 to 12 (approx): “Humanism is about the good life of enjoying ourselves, but combined with responsibility, including compassion for those less fortunate than we are! It does not mean anything supernatural.”

Q 2. “Do you believe in God?”

(The WCRP Panel writes in item 4, “The curriculum at some point needs to explain the attitude to God and to organized religion generally that would be taken in the classroom because it is the view of the panel that it would be inevitable that God would come up in class during discussion or in question form.” Questions 2 – 5, here, ask about religious belief.

Answer for ages 6 to 8 (approx): “Of course I know what you mean by that word, but I think that it’s just an idea in people’s minds. I try not to use the word.”

Answer for ages 9 to 12 (approx): “If you mean an imaginary supernatural force or person, my answer is ‘Only in fun!’”

Q 3. “What do you think of Jesus?”

Answer for ages 6 to 8 (approx): “Such a person, as described in the Holy Bibleprobably didn’t exist.” (Note: In the Bunyip of Berkeley Creek, the concept of ‘existence’ is presented, and hence this word could be used in an answer to such a question from a child as young as six years.)

Answer for ages 9 to 12 (approx): “It’s the name of a mythical person, which is based probably on one or more itinerant Jewish teachers, who left no written record to identify themselves. One can’t go to a library anywhere and find a reliable writing about such a person until a couple of centuries after his supposed death.”

Q 4. “What do you think about the Holy Bible?”

Answer for ages 6 to 8 (approx) who bring a copy to the class: (This happens.) “That book is important to some of the other classes, which meet in this school. I’m unhappy about the Bible because it contains too much stuff, which is very wrong.” (Refer to the lessons on ‘bad’ and ‘good’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.)

Answer for ages 9 to 12 (approx): “The present ‘authorised version’ of the Holy Bible took over sixteen hundred years to compile and is very important to the development of the English language. Unfortunately, many contradictory statements are contained in it and today we have to pick and choose between them, believing only those that our secular understanding can deem reliable.”

Q 5. “What parts of the Bible do you like?”

Answer for ages 6 to 8 (approx): “Those parts, which teach kindliness.”

Answer for ages 9 to 12, “I think many of its teachings are wrong. However, in the books (chapters), LeviticusMatthewMark and Romans, there are versions of the Golden Rule, and in ProverbsMatthew and Romans, the rule is extended even to one’s enemies. This is all good Humanism, but the Golden Rule actually started much earlier than Leviticus.”

Q 6. “What do you think of Christian humanists?”

(The WCRP Panel writes in item 2, “The title name of Humanism as the name of the teaching program be reconsidered to distinguish it from other forms of Humanism, such as Christian Humanism, and, most particularly, Confucian Humanism. Again in item 5, … the document needed to show greater sensitivity to the interfaith perspective and interfaith harmony.”)

Answer for age 12 (approx): “To me Christian humanists are those Christians who nominally belong to a Christian denomination, but who take inspiration from human experience rather than church dogma.

To be a bit academic, one Wikipedia contributor refers to a major voice of Christian humanism as follows:

Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (b. 1463) was an Italian Renaissance philosopher. He is famed for the events of 1486, when at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic against all comers, for which he wrote the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”, and a key text of Renaissance humanism.

However Pico was not the first Christian to take inspiration from the work of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Indeed Charlemagne, 742 – 814 CE, had encouraged secular learning, and today several Wikipedia authors deem the following as exponents of Christian humanism:

Peter Abelard, Basil of Caesarea A. J. Cronin, Christopher Dawson, Tony Campolo, G. K. Chesterton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot, Desiderius Erasmus, Christopher Fry, Gregory of Nyssa, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Maritain, Henri-Irénée Marrou, Justin Martyr, Thomas Merton, Thomas More, John Henry Newman, Flannery O’Connor, Boris Pahor, Blaise Pascal, Francesco Petrarca (Petrach), Dorothy L. Sayers, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Jordan Tidwell, Jim Wallis, Charles Williams, and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II).

These teachers generally promoted the idea that the study of pre-Christian thought, together with the material world, is relevant, provided that the Christian faith itself is still practised.

An important event in modern Humanism was the Humanist Manifesto I, 1933, which began as a formal revival of religious humanism. However, after the horrors of World War II, some who had supported Manifesto I now said in the preamble to Manifesto II, “Many kinds of humanism exist in the contemporary world.”

Q 7. “What do you think of Confucian humanism?”

Answer for age 12 (approx): “Confucius (b 551 BCE) was an impoverished gentleman and an itinerant scholar who sought unsuccessfully to introduce upright governance into several of the Chinese royal courts. No confirmed writings by Confucius survive, but he is identified with the Analects Five Classics written by his followers. No afterlife is postulated in The Analects, but ‘The Master’, Confucius, refers frequently to Heaven, which reads as if it were a composite of a supreme being and nature. ‘Sacrifice’ is also mentioned frequently, although the Master himself is critical of actual flesh sacrifices to parents and ancestors. Today, the message emerges from Confucian temples that sacrificing is a Confucian value.

The Golden Rule appears in the Analects in the negative form as, “not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself”, and in Mencius VII.A.4 as “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” A chapter in another Confucian source is devoted to promoting moderation in all things (i.e., the Golden Mean).

“The basic teachings of Confucianism stress the importance of education for the moral development of the individual so that the state can be governed by moral virtue rather than by the use of coercive laws [Wikipedia].”

The ethics, which developed after Confucius’ death, became very comprehensive and it was adopted by some dynasties as a state worldview. Rites were developed, which involved elements of sacrifice and highly ordered living. It is reasonable, therefore, for the Humanist to say, “The element of filial respect generates a piety in Confucians, which replaces worship of the hypothetical supernatural person of the monotheisms, and hence some forms of Confucianism are very close to a religious worldview.” It is claimed that Confucianism is being revived in modern China with state support.”

Q 8. “What do you think of organised religion and interfaith activities?”

Answer for age 12 (approx): “Humanists try to be respectful of the personal beliefs of others and their associations. The Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) interprets this as accepting corporate membership in the Centre of Melbourne and Multifaith and Others Network (COMMON) and the Darebin City Council Interfaith Group.

The HSV advertises interfaith activities within its membership and in September 2008, HSV made a major contribution to the COMMON annual gathering, which was held in the Aboriginal Advancement League Centre, Thornbury.

Humanists, however, deplore the organising of religion for political purposes, which has led to massive subsidising of religions by governments, even in Australia.

Fortunately, in Australia, discrimination against members of minority worldviews is perhaps less than elsewhere, but it still exists in the Victorian government school systems by (a) the coercing of children into accepting religious instruction from one particular agency over the members of other agencies and (b) the segregation of non-religious worldviews during regular school teaching hours. (Please study the detail of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Guidelines 3-22 to confirm this.)

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