Worm's eye view of five people in a circleHumanism as a world-wide movement had its beginnings in 1952 at a Congress in Amsterdam, whereas the strand of thinking that gave rise to a humanist world-view had its beginnings 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, India and China. This was the period when at least some people started to think in an evidence-based, sceptical way about life’s big questions: Who are we?, Where did we come from? and, in particular, How should we live? These earlier thinkers could see that attributing creation and how life unfolded to a god or gods lacked the reflective thought of maturity.

Today, at least in the countries with an adequate standard of living and levels of education, many people have rejected religion. They have realised that it is possible to live a fulfilling and ethically responsible life drawing only on human knowledge and experience. Typically, they see religion as an invented cultural crutch, and although it offers meaning and guidance, it also gives too much power to the social elite.

From the last census (2011), the Australia Bureau of Statistics reported that over four million Australians had no religion, i.e., were non-religious. Many of these call themselves atheist, humanist, rationalist, sceptic or secularist, among other names.

Considering the range of names non-religious people call themselves, how did the people who gathered at the Amsterdam Congress in 1952 decide on ‘humanist’ rather than one of the other possible non-religious names?

A key motivation at the inaugural Amsterdam Congress was the perceived urgent need for an ethical alternative to the thoroughly discredited moral guidance of Christianity. The countries of Europe, all proclaimed as Christian, had been responsible for perpetuating terrible atrocities on fellow humans. Such gross crimes against humanity made Christianity morally bankrupt to many thinking people.

Times were very sober in the aftermath of the Second World War atrocities. What was called for was a thoughtful and measured response, and at that time the two words that delegates found most fitting were ‘ethical’ and ‘humanist’. This led the delegates to finally agree to call their non-religious world-view humanism and to form an international body, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

Considering the available terms, I think their choice of ‘humanist’ was apt, for it links modern humanism to a greatly admired strand of sceptical, humane thinking begun by the ancient Greeks, continued by the Romans, almost obliterated by Christianity, and then resurrected by Renaissance and later Enlightenment thinkers.

When people reject religion they are usually in their teens or twenties. Unsurprisingly, rejecting religion dominates their thinking, hence the popularity of ‘atheism’ with the young of today. They know what they are against, but haven’t given much thought to what they are ‘for’. Such considerations will come later, if at all, because the deeper, more reasoned thinking associated with maturity requires real effort, as was pointed out by Dr Meredith Doig in her public lecture, Reason vs Emotion [23 Oct 2014].

Humanism then is an ethical world-view that has depth and requires maturity. As pointed out by American humanist, Corliss Lamont:

Humanism is a philosophy for mature people and grows increasingly influential with the maturity of the race.

The Philosophy of Humanism, 7th ed., 1990

The founders of the international Humanist movement were many of the same idealistic people who set up the United Nations and its associated bodies, e.g., UNESCO and WHO. Their idealism led them to advocate within organisations for a better future for all of humanity.

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2015 Rosslyn Ives

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