Thoughts on humanism

I thought I’d write a piece on humanism because it seems to have a lot of confusion surrounding it. Some view it as a religion or cult, others see it as an organised anti-religious sect of militant atheists. The confusion arises because the term “humanist” can be used to describe a variety of philosophical approaches both contemporary and historical.

I am a Secular Humanist, which effectively means that I am an atheist with beliefs about the ability of people to improve their lives and the lives of others (including other species) by behaving in a rational and socially responsible way. Humanists subscribe to the ‘Golden Rule‘ (don’t do things to others that you wouldn’t like to have done to yourself) as a simple moral guideline and rather than relying on the supernatural as the source of moral principles, humanists rely on rational consideration and those human values that have arisen as part of the evolution of human social behaviour. In short, humanism is explicitly being good without god.

My first exposure to the term ‘humanist’ was in 1998 and it came in an obituary for Professor Bob Savage who had supervised one of my projects when I was an undergraduate student at Bristol University. At the time I didn’t know what a humanist was and my initial thought was that humanism was some sort of religious sect that favoured the interests and importance of humans over those of other species. This didn’t sit quite right with me and at the time I thought it odd that someone as intelligent, fascinating and inspiring as Bob Savage would be affiliated with such ideas. It turns out I should have trusted my instincts (and Bob) rather than my flawed assumptions. It was a decade before I found out what ‘humanist’ really meant, and to my surprise I discovered that I was one in thought and deed, if not in name. What led me to actually do some research was planning the wedding with Melissa.

The trouble with being atheist is that for those big life events (birth, marriage, death) there is a monopoly held by religion. This means that if you want to celebrate these events you either have to be a hypocrite or you have to plan everything for yourself (i.e. reinvent the wheel), just leaving out god. Atheism tends to be restricted to the level of the individual since it is defined by an absence of belief in something – a rejection of theism – which provides common ground, but not necessarily agreement on the most fundamental aspects of how social interactions should be moderated. Humanism is a subset of atheism that makes an explicit assertion about morality (the Golden Rule), which provides a unifying point around which social structures can be established. Social structure allows specialist knowledge to be disseminated, providing a useful source of information and experience. As a result, Humanist organisations can provide an alternative to religion for those wishing to mark those big life events. This is something that Melissa and myself tapped into for our big celebration.

During our research trawl through humanist websites, one particular forum stood out as providing a well balanced and intellectually active humanist community – Think Humanism. By maintaining contact with this forum I have learned a lot about the huge variety of outlooks held by fellow atheists (and some theists) and this has helped shape my own opinions and analytical powers, frequently by taking on board valid criticisms of my existing thoughts. It is this social discourse that appeals to me most about humanism – not only at the level of personal interaction, but at a level capable of influencing policy via the British Humanist Association (BHA) and other secular organisations.

By rejecting the convoluted presuppositions of religion in favour of open and rational debate centred on facts and the ethic of reciprocity, humanism is able to offer a sound ethical base upon which to make decisions in a mixed faith society. Rather than being anti-religion this secular approach provides a degree of impartiality where conflicts between religious interests may otherwise arise. Of course, some humanists may be anti-religion, often after having escaped years of indoctrination that have left a feeling of resentment. This is not unusual, but it should be said that the vast majority of humanists respect the rights of others to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose, as long as those beliefs are not forced on others. Of course, given the evangelical nature of some religions there are sometimes clashes between ideologies.

Despite the atheist and sceptical aspects of humanism, there still seems to be some clashing between sceptics and humanists based on the issue of ideolgy and perceived dogma. I tried to probe Paul Sims and Caspar Melville from the New Humanist about this at Skeptics in the Pub (SITP), but I was a little disheartened to find the response evasive and rather unsatisfying. I tend to think of humanism as being based on the very simple concept of reciprocal altruism being beneficial to social cohesion, which is in turn beneficial to the individuals that function within a society (what I would consider a bottom-up rationale for social responsibility). The response I received was a much more top-down ramble about humanism framing a need, and providing a mechanism, for building a more secular society – something that struck me as ideological and rather lacking a robust foundation.

Part of the benefit of humanism is the diversity of angles at which it can be approached, but I must admit that I was rather disappointed by the failure of the New Humanist team to engage with the (quite tangible) reservations of a sceptical audience at SITP. It is little wonder that atheists and sceptics who may live by humanist principles hesitate to consider themselves humanists, when one of the mouthpieces of humanism is unable to present a lucid argument as to why humanism is not based on a dogmatic or idealistic foundation.

At SITP Caspar Melville did make the point that if you are going to offend people it should be your own audience and it should be for the right reasons. I’m not sure if what I’ve said has been at all offensive to the guys at New Humanist, but if it is, I hope it’s for the right reasons.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on humanism

  1. While he was growing up I was anxious to ensure my son was not indoctrinated with any belief but had enough information to make up his own mind. From this discussion I wonder whether I went too far the other way. I am happy he has come to the same humanist atheist viewpoint – more or less – as me but I could have given him more information.

    Incidentally, it is not uncommon to find religious people who claim to be humanist – and in fairness the connotation of lack of religious belief is a 20th Century superimpostion on an old word.

    • “…I was [a humanist] in thought and deed, if not in name.”

      I think this is a good reflection of why being raised in an environment without indoctrination is beneficial. Rather than having humanism presented as an ethos around which my beliefs were formulated, I identified my beliefs and subsequently found an ethos which matched them.

      I am certainly grateful to my parents for providing the freedom of thought required to formulate my own ideas. It is worth noting that having one atheist parent meant that the cultural norms of religion weren’t automatically instilled in me as a matter of course at an early age.

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