What Is Secular Humanism?
What Is Secular Humanism?
Secular humanism is a little understood human–centered philosophy of life. It is non-theistic, rooted in science, and it espouses explicit moral and ethical directives. It seeks the greater good for all humanity.
Humanism Seeks the Greater Good.
Wikipedia defines humanism as "a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition."
The London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union defines humanism as “a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
In the United States, the American Humanist Association defines humanism as ”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.”
What Do Humanists Believe?
The Humanist Manifesto III provides a long list of humanist beliefs. (By the way, “manifesto” turned out to be a poor choice of words, since the term became associated with communism.) The first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933. It has been updated twice since then.
Humanists believe a lot of the same things theists believe. Humanists believe that all humans are part of one human family. They strive to treat everyone fairly, to avoid prejudice, and to care for other people. Humanists aspire for a world in which everyone has an opportunity to live a happy and fulfilled life.
Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests.— Isaac Asimov (Scientist and author)
What Are the Precursors to Humanism?
One of the earliest references to a human-centered philosophy, rejecting supernaturalism, can be found circa 1500 BCE in the Rig-Veda, a sacred Hindu text.
In the 6th-century BCE, Gautama Buddha expressed skepticism about the supernatural.
Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes of Colophon, also expressed humanistic beliefs during the 6th century BCE. They rejected the existence of anthropomorphic gods and attempted to explain the world in terms of human reason rather than myth and tradition.
Modern humanism began in Europe during the Renaissance when philosophers rediscovered the works of the ancient Greeks. As Petrarch (1304-1374), an Italian scholar and poet put it, 'It is better to will the good than to know the truth.”
At first humanism and Christianity were not seen as mutually exclusive. “Secular” only meant “of the world” as opposed to monastic life in the church.
In the 17th-18th century, during “The Age of Enlightenment,” humanism began to reject faith and tradition in favor of reason and science. Many philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant espoused the humanistic ideas of “the age of reason.”
In the 19th century, some groups began to call themselves “religious humanists” in order to claim humanism for people who believe in a deity, but did not feel comfortable with the dogma of traditional religions.
Others felt that religion was directly contrary to what they saw as the essential precept of humanism—no belief in the supernatural. These people began to call themselves “secular humanists,” so as to create a clear distinction.
The discovery of what is true and the practice of that which is good are the two most important aims of philosophy.— Voltaire (18th century philosopher and author)
Is Secular Humanism a Religion?
By definition, humanism is not a religion because there is no belief in a deity. It is a philosophy, a worldview that promotes ethical and moral living based on human values.
Atheism--or you might better say non-theism-- is part of this worldview. However, simply asserting that there is no evidence for a belief in God (or gods), does not make someone a humanist. Secular humanists will tell you that “non-theism is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of humanism.” The moral and ethical code is essential. However, many non-theists (or freethinkers, rationalists and skeptics, as they sometimes call themselves) as well as many deists are also humanists.
You may come across a group calling itself an atheist or humanist church. They are using the word “church” loosely to simply mean a congregation of like-minded people who choose to come together to share and celebrate their ideals. The Ethical Culture Union is one such group.
The United States is such a church-centered society that people, even non-theists, wish to align themselves with a church. Membership in a church, even for theists, is about more than worship. It is a community, a place to make friends, a place to go when you need help, and a place that provides you with an identity.
Can Life Have Meaning Without God?
Of course, life can have meaning without God. Humanists believe that they give meaning to life instead of Having meaning come from someplace outside of themselves.
There is a joke, I like to tell, “Question: Who do atheists thank on Thanksgiving? Answer: Well, I don’t know what all atheists do, but I thank the cook.”
Humanists believe that we are living the only life we will ever have in the only world we will ever know, so we must take responsibility to live our lives in the here and now and to live those lives well.
Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.— Jean-Paul Sartre (20th century philosopher and writer)
Can You Be Good Without God?
Of course, you can be good without God! The well known author, Kurt Vonnegut, said, "...being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead." If someone is “good” for ulterior motives, such as reward or punishment, they may be acting as if they were good, but are they really good? (Virtue is its own reward.)
Humanists believe in personal freedom, but also social responsibility. And what is ethics but a set of rules for living harmoniously together with one another?
Morality predates modern religions. Humanists are guided by reason, empathy, and understanding to behave in an ethical way. Humanists believe that reason and science provide the best means for understanding the world around you and that treating others with dignity and compassion is the best way to live.
Humanism is being good without God. It is above all an affirmation of the greatest common value we human beings can have: the desire to live with dignity, to be “good”….To put it another way, humanists believe in life before death.— Greg M. Epstein- (Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and author of "Good without God")
Do Humanists Want to Convert People?
Absolutely not—humanists have a live-and-let-live attitude toward religion. Has a humanist ever knocked on your door offering you tracts or wanting to tell you “the good news”? Humanists do not proselytize, although most humanists will be happy to explain their beliefs if you ask them.
What humanists do not like is having others try to impose their religious beliefs on them. Humanists believe that religious ceremonies belong at home and in the church and not in the schools and at government functions.
There are so many different religions, that religion becomes divisive. There is no one-size-fits-all prayer or belief. The founders of the United States knew what they were doing when they constitutionally required church and state to stay out of each other’s business.
An Excellent Explanation of Humanism.
I think both theists and non-theists will enjoy this book because Epstein makes his case for humanism without rancor. He writes in a conversational tone that I found very engaging. I also liked how he seamless wove history, theology, philosophy, sociology, and even a bit of memoir into his explanation of humanism and why people can be good without God.
There are many polls about belief in God. Here is one more.
Which comes closest to your beliefs about God?
What Organizations Exist to Promote Humanism?
The history of humanism as an organization, and not just a philosophy, goes back to 1927 when the Humanist Fellowship was organized at the University of Chicago by a group of professors and seminarians. In 1935, the Humanist Fellowship changed its name to the Humanist Press Association Another reorganization took place in 1941, when the group became the American Humanist Association (AHA). There are local chapters in every state.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was founded in 1952 in Amsterdam, and is now headquartered in London.
The Center for Inquiry is headquartered in Amherst, New York, but also has branches in more than two dozen cities in the United States and in Canada. The affiliated group, Council for Secular Humanism ,has many local chapters. The focus of these two organizations is on science and philosophy.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation mainly focuses on church-state separation issues. They have about many local chapters.
Openly Secular is a coalition of humanistic and atheist groups formed to highlight and overcome discrimination against atheists and the nonreligious. They ask atheists/non-religious people to come “out of the closet” so the rest of the world can see that they are normal, moral, successful people just like everyone else.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Catherine Giordano