The Humanist Philosophy:
Humanism, as a word, seems to be used and/or misused more and more frequently in recent decades. There has probably never been a word in the English language more misunderstood and misused than humanism. This is an attempt to somewhat describe and define what exactly humanist philosophy is. But first, let’s examine what it isn’t.
Many critics claim that Humanism is simply another name for atheism. Others claim that Humanism is a religion. Humanism is separate from religious belief, or lack thereof, noting that one can be religious and still be a humanist. The Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, for example, is Rabbi Greg Epstein – Judaism being his religion, Humanism his philosophy. While secular humanists do tend to be skeptics, agnostics, and even atheists; spiritual humanists usually have some semblance of religious belief. The Unitarians are humanists, but also have a history that traces directly back to the Puritans of Plymouth Rock. The reality is that humanists come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and more importantly, there really are no religious, dogmatic requirements found in humanism. Humanism, instead, encourages open inquiry, analysis, and freethought.
Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. It affirms the dignity of each human being and supports individual liberty consonant with social and planetary responsibility. Humanism advocates participatory democracy, the open society, human rights, environmental responsibility, and social justice.
Basic Principles of Humanism:
1. Humanist thought: Humanists “think” as individuals, and there is no area of thought that humanists, philosophically, are unwilling to explore, to challenge, to question, or to doubt. Skepticism and inquiry are essentials of humanist thought. Humanists tend to be unwilling to blindly follow doctrines and dogmas, especially those supposed to be absolute and never questioned. Humanists take responsibility for their decisions and beliefs, and this necessitates having control over them. Free inquiry, analysis, and examination are cornerstones of a progressing society.
2. Humanists make decisions based upon reason, fact, and observation. Humanist philosophy recognizes that “faith” often requires the abandoning of reason while ignoring fact and observation. As such, faith can be stifling and counterproductive. Reason, when applied to the evidence of our senses and accumulated knowledge, is our most reliable guide for understanding the real world and making intelligent decisions that provide the greatest benefit and the least detriment, for all.
3. Humanism rejects the notions of “moral absolutes” and “leaps of faith”. Anything that is said to make sense, should make sense to us as humans, else there is no reason or basis for our decisions or actions. Rules for humans living in the 21st century should be made for and by humans in the 21st century, relying on experience, observation, human need, a sense of equality and fairness, and the goal to do the least harm, while doing the most good – for humanity, other life forms, and the planet.
4. Humanism holds a strict position on what constitutes knowledge or what qualifies as fact, yet is not critical of the sources of ideas. Humanism does not disparage ideas that come from religious belief or emotions, but does declare that all ideas, regardless of source, must be tested against evidence, observation, and reality, as the means of determining their validity as “knowledge”.
5. Human knowledge is not perfect. Humanism recognizes that the tools for testing knowledge, the human senses and human reason, are fallible, thus rendering all knowledge tentative and subject to future testing and observation. Science is a fluid state of inquiry, where what is believed on any given day is subject to the accumulated knowledge and observations to that point in time, and such beliefs are subject to change with the introduction and testing of new information.
6. Humanism declares that human values only make sense in the context of human life, and only in the current time frame. A supposed, non-humanlike existence after death, or values based upon ancient stories of culturally and geographically different people, should not be included as part of the environment in which our present day values must operate. The here and now physical world of our senses is the world that is relevant for human ethical concerns, human goals, and human aspirations. Humanism measures the value of any given choice by how it affects the world in general, and humans in particular.
7. Humanism holds that ethics and morals should be practiced in a living and current context, rather than an ancient, supernatural, and ideological context. Humanism opposes absolutist moral systems that attempt to rigidly apply ideological moral values based upon ancient texts which, themselves, self declare never changing absolute ideals.
8. Humanism declares that the structure of science – collection of evidence, gathering of data, observation, inquiry, and testing – is the best method of arriving at reasoned and knowledgeable conclusions regarding life, the world, and reality in general. By observation, humans are clearly not unique from other life forms, as all life forms are made of essentially the same building blocks and elements. Science is the best tool for examining life and for eventually concluding the origin and structure of life, to the goal of improving/enhancing life.
9. When people are left largely free to pursue their own interests and goals, to think and speak for themselves, to develop their talents, and to operate in a social setting that promotes liberty and equality, the number of beneficial discoveries increases, and humanity moves further towards the goals of greater self understanding, better laws, better institutions, and a productive life.
10. Humanism views certain freedoms – such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association – as fundamental in a progressing and growing society. Humanism recognizes that the greatest threat to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of association is the determined violation of the principle of separation of church and state. History teaches that when any belief system comes to dominate the political arena, all other beliefs become subordinate and oppressed.
Humanists, in approaching life from a human perspective, start with human comprehension of the world and the goal of meeting human needs. These, in turn, lead to conclusions about the world and currently relevant social policies. Because human knowledge and perceptions need to be amended from time to time, and because situations change with time, human choices must be allowed to change and evolve as well.
Adapted from “The Humanist Philosophy In Perspective”, by Frederick Edwords.