Photo of person contemplating sunset over mountainsWe humans need stories to help us answer life’s ‘big questions’ – ‘Who are we?’, ‘Where did we come from?’ ‘Where are we going?’ and, importantly, ‘How should we live?’ Such stories enshrine how to behave, and often past events and notable people. If the stories give a central role to spirits or gods, they can be called a religion.

Once religious stories are established, they often control people’s lives; so anyone who questions them will be punished, even killed. In Western societies, Christian stories have formed the dominant religion since about 400 CE. Without alternative answers few dared question the truth of religious stories. But with the invention of science that changed.

Today, in Western democracies like Australia, many are rejecting religious stories in favour of science stories. In the 2016 Census over 30 percent of people identified as having ‘no religion’. And, contrary to claims by the religious, the fall in their influence has not led to a breakdown of society nor to a rise in crime. This is because, whether non-religious or religious, people generally aim to lead useful, fulfilling and ethical lives.

The explanation for this is that humans are social animals. We live in social groups and have innate behaviours that usually enable us to get along with others. We also show innate caring and nurturing behaviour, which enables us to rear children to adulthood. Successful human thriving requires us to care for the well-being of others and to share goods and tasks, whether motivated by innate behaviour or religious stories.

While both good and bad behaviour occurs in all societies, religion claiming to be necessary for ‘the good’ was severely challenged by the unchristian behaviour exhibited so widely during the two World Wars. Immediately after WWII, with the moral credibility of Christianity so diminished, a group of concerned, non-religious people began calling for an alternative. Some identified as freethinkers, others as atheists, humanists, rationalists and secularists. Yet, after days of deliberation at a Congress held in 1952, they chose to call themselves humanists; and from this gathering was born the international humanist movement [International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), now Humanists International (HI)].

In choosing ‘humanist’, they agreed that it was the best word to describe a person who aims to lead an ethical and worthwhile life based on natural values. That is, a person who is open-minded and a strong supporter of democracy, reason-based evidence, and science for human benefit. Humanists also advocate for freedoms that do no harm to others, including animals; and, knowing we only live once, are eager to make each day worthwhile. Thoughtful humanists, while critical of many claims made by religions, have no difficulty getting along with religious people as family members, neighbours and work colleagues.

Reproduced from Victorian Humanist, Vol. 58, No. 7, Aug 2019

Photo of Rosslyn Ives - Humanist Society of Victoria

Copyright © 2019 Rosslyn Ives

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4 Responses to Giving life meaning as a humanist

  1. Jeff Sale says:

    Good afternoon Rosslyn,
    Not sure if you remember me, Jeff Sale, I used to know Gill Warnecke and of course yourself. Mont Albert Tennis was our meeting point.
    I now live in Hervey Bay in Queensland, I lived in Spain for a while but returned to Australia in 2018. I saw Ray is no longer with us, very sorry to hear this. My email is Best Wishes Jeff

  2. Michael Dove says:

    Hi Ros – I think this is really good answer to the question ‘What is a humanist?’ and I agree that it defines a person who seeks to lead an ethical and worthwhile life without the parameters of a formalised religion.

    However, I do think humanist organisations need to focus on issues that are unique to our collective reason for identifying as a humanist – ie humanist organisations should, front and centre, promote the removal of religious privilege in society and the way resources are allocated. In marketing terms, we need a USP (Unique Selling Point) that defines us, and differentiates us from the many other large and worthy causes confronting humanity.

    Our mission should be to embrace and engage with the >30% who, like us, identified in the census as non-religious (plus a fair proportion of the 10% who chose not to state a religion). This is a well defined target market seeking non-religious meaning in their lives and our message should more clearly resonate for them.

  3. Wendy Rice says:

    My thoughts precisely, Robyn. We humans need to realise that there is no need for the ‘them and us’ attitude that is found world-wide in religious and non-religious cultures. Perhaps a solid education in communication skills from early childhood onward can show how to respectfully engage with each other, especially with the ‘other’.

    • Rosslyn Ives says:

      Thanks for your feedback, it is pleasing to know HV members read what I write.

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