Millions of people around the world lead satisfying and meaningful lives. They do this by aiming to do the right thing by themselves, family members, friends and the wider society. While some may be guided by religious beliefs, many are not.
Humanists are a subset of this growing cohort of non-religious people. We have felt the need to come together and give collective expression to our worldview. In doing so we are tapping into an inbuilt human desire for a meaningful life. As part of this we look for stories that give us answers to who we are, why we are here, where we are going and how we ought to live our lives. While all humans tell stories for such purposes, Humanist stories differ from religious or Aboriginal dreamtime stories, by being drawn from evidence-based reality.
People who, like Humanists, have rejected religion understand that life, in the here and now, is all there is. We see no convincing evidence for super-natural entities, like gods, nor the possibility of an afterlife. We accept the vast body of evidence that shows humans to be naturally evolved beings, related to and dependent upon the rest of life on planet Earth. We have the same structure and physiology as our biological relatives; and we exhibit many of the same behavioural patterns. We see human beings, not as something specially created, but rather as intelligent, curious animals endowed with additional capabilities due to a large and complex brain. Further we know that as social animals, we need to balance individual desires against the overall well-being of families, communities and the wider society.
Humanists therefore rely on science for stories to explain who we are and where we have come from, and the arts and humanities for creative expression and guidance on how to live our lives. All these human-made stories are replete with the many people who have contributed to our modern worldview, such as Lucretius, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Galileo, Newton, Shakespeare, Darwin, Jane Austen, Beethoven, Mahler, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Carl Sagan, Peter Singer – to name but a few outstanding creative individuals.
Beginning around 2,500 years ago humanistic thinking appeared in ancient Greece, India and China. In Europe this breakthrough was squandered by a ‘failure of nerve’ that facilitated the rise of Christianity. Then in the Renaissance, parts of the vast treasury of human-centred writings by the ancient Greeks and Romans were reinstated for scholarly study and emulation. It was these human-focused contributions, initiated by the ancient Greeks, continued by the Romans, then augmented by Renaissance scholars, Enlightenment thinkers and modern scientists, that have given substance to the Humanist worldview.
Modern Humanism then is shaped from the countless contributions of many people, over more than 2,500 years. This legacy from our freethinking ancestors is what we draw upon today to construct our Humanist worldview.
Today’s lived experience in countries like Australia, NZ, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, UK and, to a lesser extent USA, is very human-orientated and to a large degree therefore humanist. While religion still holds sway in many countries around the world, it is gradually holding a smaller percentage of humanity in its thrall. While religion may never disappear from the mix of human passions, there is considerable evidence that its influence in the public sphere is gradually diminishing. (See ‘World Without God: what if everyone stopped believing tomorrow?’, New Scientist, 3 May 2014.)
In summary, humans are moderately smart animals trying to lead enjoyable and fulfilling lives. Generally we choose comfort over discomfort and prefer to get along with others, on a live-and-let-live basis. Most of us are broadly motivated by some variant of the ‘golden rule’, to treat others as we would like them to treat us.
Armed with these pragmatic attitudes to life and how it should be lived, Humanists have a history of being active on such social issues as education, human rights, freedom of speech, religious privilege and more recently environmental concerns. Humanists are supportive of science and its beneficial applications, and the rights of minorities to be treated fairly and justly. While some issues taken up by Humanists lead us to be in opposition to religious groups, on other matters, such as reconciliation with Australia’s Indigenous people and humane treatment for asylum seekers, we can join forces.
Generally Humanists hold a middle-of-the-road to left-of-centre political views, as they consider the parties representing such a stance are more likely to achieve the types of changes Humanists support. While there are individual humanists who hold a more conservative political stance, such non-religious people are more likely to be active atheists than active Humanists. Their often strong views on personal autonomy and individual rights don’t sit comfortably with the more society-orientated views of most active Humanists.
Organised Humanism speaks for people who are guided by reason, evidence and compassion, though not dogmatically, in the hope that more people around the world can lead satisfying and meaningful lives.
Copyright © 2014 Rosslyn Ives