Humanism is an ethical non-religious worldview – not just an atheist or agnostic one – deeply committed to Human rights with a range of beliefs and attitudes
Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.
International Humanist and Ethical Union’s “Amsterdam Declaration”
Humanists believe :
- that we have only one life
- that we can live good and fulfilling lives without religious or superstitious beliefs
- that we can make sense of the world by using reason, experience and shared human values
- that morality is a natural human attribute, the result of our long evolution (since before we were human) as social animals
- that we can ourselves create meaning and purpose for our lives
- that we should seek to live happy and fulfilled lives and that one important way to do this is to help others to do so.
Humanism is not an ‘-ism’. That is, it has no source book of unquestionable rules, no leaders to define infallible doctrine. You don’t ‘convert’ to Humanism and then have to take the rough with the smooth. Instead, most people become humanists without contact with any humanist organisation, without even knowing the word.
Humanism is an ethical worldview, not just an atheist or agnostic one. For many non-religious people it is a ‘lifestance’ that frames answers to so-called ‘ultimate questions’ about life in the same way that a religion does for believers. It is a ‘belief’ in terms of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the article that protects freedom of ‘religion or belief’.
Humanism itself is fundamentally committed to human rights: if this is the only life we have, people should have the maximum freedom to live it according to their own beliefs. In this commitment to the open society, where difference is acknowledged and no final answers are imposed, Humanism differs utterly from those religions and ideologies that seek to impose their own notion of truth or right living on everyone. Humanists defend the civic virtues of democracy, which requires the negotiation of differences and the art of compromise as the best method for achieving social consensus.
Humanists defend the right of others to their own beliefs and life styles, subject only to them not interfering with other people’s rights – hence our hard work to oppose constant religious efforts to restrict personal freedom, especially sexual freedom, reproductive freedom for women, especially contraception, abortion, and artificial insemination, to oppose scientific research in matters such as genetics and to resist voluntary euthanasia – the right to die with dignity. We are also opposed in principle to attempts to inculcate religious or other beliefs in children at an age when they are unable to decide for themselves: we value the autonomy of the individual over the rights of communities to indoctrinate to their children.
Ideologies, nationalism, fundamentalism, partisan opinions have no place in Humanism which instead stands for tolerance, openness to others, the wish to build bridges between different beliefs, religions and political forces. Humanism, in short, is diametrically opposed to any system of thought that emphasises differences and fuels them artificially in order to establish ideological dominance more securely.
One noted humanist writer, the late Paul Kurtz, emeritus professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has written :
Contemporary humanists have focused primarily on humanist ethics. They affirm . . . that ethics can be an autonomous field of inquiry. Although ethical judgments are relative to human needs and interests, they can be evaluated rationally, tested by their consequences in human experience and social practice. Thus they reject command ethics, which seeks to derive moral beliefs from theological premises. . .
Humanist ethics include the following principles :
A belief in the inherent dignity and value of each person, a basic moral principle of democracy.
A focus on happiness, or eudaimonia (Aristotle), as the good for each individual. By this it means creative actualization and hedonic pleasure.
There is also a concern with happiness in the community in general, i.e., the social good…
Humanists maintain that humans need to take responsibility for their own destinies…
They also believe that a set of common ethical principles and values, virtues, and responsibilities have evolved over time in world civilization. Although culturally relative, many of these principles and values cut across cultures and provide a general or universal basis for ethics, transcending narrow parochial interests — for example, the widely accepted doctrine of Human Rights.
(quoted from “Humanism and the Global Community” in Humanism and laicity in Europe).
Where does humanism come from ?
Humanism is an outlook inherent in our very lives as men and women living together in communities. Elements of humanist beliefs are found throughout history in all parts of the world – in the teachings of Confucius, for example.
The most fundamental ethical principle – the Golden Rule or ‘do as you would be done by’ – is first found in Egypt almost 4,000 years go, and it re-appears in almost every religious and ethical tradition. It springs from human existence, not originally from any religious teaching.
As a result humanist beliefs appear and re-appear, however much is done to suppress them. Humanism is certainly the oldest ethical and philosophical tradition in Western civilisation. Developed in Classical Greece and Rome, it was expounded by thinkers as diverse as Socrates, Protagoras, Aristotle, Democritus, Epicurus, Aesop and Lucretius. After the Dark Ages, humanist thinking – albeit accompanied by at least nominal religious beliefs – reasserted itself in the Renaissance and in writers and thinkers such as Erasmus and Shakespeare. In the Enlightenment and after, we find David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Denis Diderot, Jeremy Bentham, the Curies and endless other and more modern examples.
Increasingly in the 19th century religion came under explicit challenge from thinkers and reformers. However, the explicit formulation of Humanism as a ‘lifestance’ or system of belief came about only in the 20th century when it became acceptable to live openly as an atheist or agnostic.
This content last updated 11 February 2013 @ 10:39 am