So what’s humanism?

Good question.

Isn’t humanism just a fancy word for atheism? Isn’t a humanist simply someone who doesn’t believe in God?

Well, yes and no. Atheism is the larger category; all humanists must be atheists, but not all atheists are humanists.

I thought of an analogy this morning, which, though probably imperfect, seems useful enough:

Think of the world and human society as a house that we find ourselves living in. A religious person tidies it up — sweeping up dust, doing the dishes, making repairs, perhaps fixing more serious damage like leaks and rotting floorboards — because he thinks his parents are monitoring him, or maybe even planning to visit soon, and he wants to make a good impression. We can make lots of qualifications to this scenario: Perhaps his parents only care about some aspects of housekeeping but not others, so he attends to some details but not all. Perhaps his parents have strange ideas about what a well-run house is like — all the lights must be on, the heat must be cranked to 90, the windows must always be shuttered — and so he strives to carry those ideas out. Perhaps he believes that his parents will do all the work for him when they arrive — or that they’ll whisk him away to a more luxurious house elsewhere — so he doesn’t have to do a thing. Or perhaps his parents have sensible, reasonable expectations and he simply does his best to meet them.

But here’s the key point: such a person’s values are externally imposed. He does things because his parents want him to — or he believes they do — and that’s a good enough reason for him.

An atheist is someone who doesn’t assume his parents are coming, and knows that he alone is responsible for the house; no one is coming to pronounce judgment on his housekeeping skills. He’s free to do as he wishes! But this leaves several options open. He can let the house fall apart and turn into a dump; this would be nihilism. He can host wild, reckless parties while neglecting upkeep; this would be hedonism. Or: he can sweep up dust, do the dishes, and make repairs, simply because these acts make the house a better, healthier place to live in.

Call it enlightened self-interest: not in the narrow, short-sighted sense of living for the moment and all else be damned, but in the broadest sense possible: that contributing to the well-being of all the systems one is dependent on — the house, one’s housemates, one’s family, society, the natural world — ultimately benefits one’s own life as well. This is the humanist’s choice: to do good deeds not because they’re demanded by God, but because they’re demonstrably good for people.

(More on that later.)

Perhaps such an analogy doesn’t do justice to the many shadings of belief and nonbelief that exist out there. Perhaps there are people who believe both that their parents want them to maintain the house well, and that keeping house is the right thing to do anyway. But in that case, wouldn’t keeping house be the right thing to do regardless of what the parents believe? Or, as Socrates put it, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Perhaps many people who are nominally Christians or Jews or Muslims are really more humanist than they think. (Again, more on that later.)

More Definitions

From Greg Epstein’s Good Without God:

Humanism is a bold, resolute response to the fact that being a human being is lonely and frightening. We Humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other “acts of God,” not to mention the thousand other fundamental injustices of life, and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then so be it: we must become the superintendents of our own lives. Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place, though we know we cannot ever finish the task.

In short, Humanism is being good without God. It is above all an affirmation of the greatest common value we human beings have: the desire to live with dignity, to be “good.” But Humanism is also a warning that we cannot afford to wait until tomorrow or until the next life to be good, because today — the short journey we get from birth to death, from womb to tomb — is all we have. Humanism rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence. To put it another way, Humanists believe in life before death.

From the American Humanist Association:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Fred Edwords, a former director of the AHA, makes some interesting distinctions between different kinds of Humanism — literary, Renaissance, Western Cultural, philosophical, Christian, and modern — and spends some time discussing, in particular, the nuances between Secular and Religious (!) Humanism. Apparently, Religious Humanists emphasize the functional rather than the theological aspects of religion — that people still have social and personal needs that are served by religious ceremonies, rites, and support systems, even if these functions need not be connected to a belief in the supernatural. I found this passage especially insightful:

I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition of religion didn’t amount to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for people remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.

Moving beyond the different shadings of Humanism (currently I prefer the small “h,” but I’ll capitalize it here as he does), Edwords summarizes the ideas held in common by all modern Humanists, religious and secular alike:

1. Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who think for themselves. There is no area of thought that a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.

2. Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means for comprehending reality. Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge.

3. Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness.

4. Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world. These ideas, after they have been assessed rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to work, often as alternative approaches for solving problems.

5. Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now. Humanists regard human values as making sense only in the context of human life rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death.

6. Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems-for both the individual and society-and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.

7. Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need for careful consideration of immediate and future consequences in moral decision making.

8. Humanism is in tune with the science of today. Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable “soul,” and that human beings have certain built-in needs that effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value system.

9. Humanism is in tune with today’s enlightened social thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties, human rights, church-state separation, the extension of participatory democracy not only in government but in the workplace and education, an expansion of global consciousness and exchange of products and ideas internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving social problems, an approach that allows for the testing of new alternatives.

10. Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment.

11. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.

Objections: Only Humans?

It’s interesting to note that not all atheists agree with the term “Humanism” even if they presumably subscribe to all its principles. Richard Dawkins objects: “For me it suffers from apparent anthropocentrism. One of the main things we have learned from Darwin is that the human species is only one among millions of cousins, some close and some distant.” (Others, like Luke Muehlhauser of the blog Common Sense Atheism, disavow humanism entirely, accusing the philosophy of speciesism.)

I’m not so sure that anthropocentrism, even if only apparent, is such a bad thing in this case. If, as I said, humanism is about enlightened self-interest — about doing what’s good for people — then, in the broadest and most reasonable sense, it means taking care of the planet, of the web of ecological systems that sustains us, and of all the species that are inextricably part of that web. Doing what’s good for humans doesn’t mean disregarding or destroying all that is non-human upon which we depend; quite the opposite, as Principle #10 above shows. And John Shook of the Center for Inquiry argues that humanism and environmentalism are eminently compatible; stressing that humanism must not be confused with human-centrism, he writes:

Over the long history of humanism, humanists certainly have demanded that all of humanity deserve moral dignity and ethical priority. […] But humanists have also struggled, in every century, to expand the circle—to expand the range of creatures who deserve respect and humane treatment.

If contemporary humanism still places excessive emphasis on humanity’s priority [as it did during the Enlightenment], this can alarm and offend people who have turned their worry towards humanity’s harmful dominion over the rest of life on this planet. For example, many pro-environmentalists now reject humanism. This is unnecessary, because humanism only believes that this life has priority over any possible afterlife, and that those capable of taking ethical responsibility (at present, that’s us humans) should do so, for the good of all (that is, for all life and not just humans).

It is true that Enlightenment humanism was so impressed by human reason that it tended to fallaciously infer that only beings with reason had any moral value. We now realize that Enlightenment humanism went too far. Instead, humanity’s ability to reason and make moral decisions only makes it more urgent that we have serious ethical concern and take full responsibility for our impact on the whole planet. Humanism is perfectly compatible with any reasonable pro-environmentalism stance. Humanists should clearly renounce human-centrism, since human-centrism is outdated, and positively irresponsible and unethical. Humanism should help balance the needs of humans with the value of all life.

This seems to be beautifully articulated in Natalie Angier’s article “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” in which she endorses Ursula Goodenough’s world view:

From my godless perspective, the devout remind me that it is human nature to thirst after meaning and to desire an expansion of purpose beyond the cramped Manhattan studio of self and its immediate relations. In her brief and beautiful book, “The Sacred Depths of Nature,” Ursula Goodenough, a cell biologist, articulates a sensibility that she calls “religious naturalism,” a profound appreciation of the genuine workings of nature, conjoined with a commitment to preserving that natural world in all its staggering, interdependent splendor. Or call it transcendent atheism: I may not believe in life after death, but what a gift it is to be alive now.

Such a philosophy is clearly not human-centric, although it is humanist, in the sense that it expands our circle of human ethical concern to include protecting the natural world as a moral imperative. And personally, I think the term “transcendent atheism” holds a lot of appeal.

(I also find the term “religious naturalism” interesting. A devout Christian once claimed I practiced a religion of capital-N “Naturalism” — a claim I reject, if by religion we mean a moral system, or dogma unsupported by evidence. But if by religion we simply mean the act of striving for a sense of profound connection with the universe, then I plead guilty; that’s something every human craves, and science is one of many paths to that feeling.)

As I scan the Web, I see that the issue of the apparent philosophical conflict between humanism and environmentalism is a much-discussed one, perhaps worth exploring in later posts. I agree wholeheartedly with a lot of humanist principles, and I support all efforts to protect the environment; perhaps these attitudes are not as irreconcilable as some may think.


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