What is humanism?

Some religious voices assail humanism as a belief in nothing. Thus blamed for (supposed) moral rot; as if morality needs some supernatural basis. While labeling humanism just another religion or faith, no more provable than any other.

Humanism is not a religion or faith, but a philosophy, originating in ancient times with thinkers like Epicurus and Lucretius, with a rebirth in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It’s a way of understanding life and the world, anchored in reason and reality. This does mean eschewing religious superstitions, all the deities, immortality, etc. But humanism is not simply nonbelief; it’s not believing in nothing.

To the contrary, humanists have strong beliefs — strong indeed by virtue of requiring no leap of “faith,” no suspension of disbelief. Humanism’s truths are self-evident:

All of existence comprises natural laws and processes; there’s no such thing as “supernatural.” Nature has no purpose; it just is. We ourselves are products of nature, evolved with minds enabling us to use reason and science to understand it, tackle our problems, aspire to justice, and shape our own destinies. Thus humanism believes in progress, taking pride in what we strive for and have achieved. Humanism is love for humanity.

Our earthly life is the only one we get; and nothing can ultimately matter except the feelings of beings that feel. This tells us our purpose is to make them as good as possible. Which gives our lives ample meaning, as well as providing the bedrock of morality — to enable every person, oneself included, to live fully and attain happiness. This means equality of human dignity, democracy, freedom of thought and expression.

It’s what our Declaration of Independence says. The Constitution’s preamble similarly targets human flourishing, with no deity mentioned. Thus was America founded not as a “Christian nation” but a quintessentially humanist one.

The humanism elucidated here is the essence of rationality and sanity. Most of us, even if professing other creeds, actually live our lives, most of the time, in accordance with these common sense humanistic concepts. And they’re not necessarily incompatible with a religious faith. Believers act humanistically in battling for social justice. Even if you believe in an afterlife, nobody can be sure, and contemplating the possibility of earthly life’s finality spurs one to cherish it and improve it for all of us. Aiming to solve problems ourselves by confronting earthbound realities — rather than putting the whole burden on a deity who, if he does exist, probably has plenty to do.

It’s when we deviate from these humanistic paradigms that trouble brews. Religions, rooted in different cultures, with irreconcilable claims to ultimate truth, are unending sources of conflict. Humanism offers a universal philosophy to unite us.

Death is tragic, but to live at all is a glorious gift. Only by coming to terms with the reality of our existence, as embodied in humanism, can we live authentically and meaningfully. “Being at one with everything” is a cliché of Buddhism; but I get a similar feeling from how my humanism grounds me in my engagement with life, the world, and humankind. It’s better than religion because it’s true.

2 Responses to “What is humanism?”

  1. Lee Says:

    Most of us, even if professing other creeds, actually live our lives, most of the time, in accordance with these common sense humanistic concepts. And they’re not necessarily incompatible with a religious faith.

    The parts that are common across and among religious faiths and non-religious traditions are where the best stuff is!

    I think there is use in considering a relationship, religion is to humanism as chemistry is to physics. Much of chemistry can be understood via abstractions such as covalent and ionic bonds, valence electrons, and similar. However, these are just abstractions and rules of thumb that enable a quicker understanding of the much more complex underlying quantum physics. In much of chemistry, these abstractions enable the needed understanding and extrapolation for practical use, but in a few examples the abstractions break down; reality (and quantum physics) give a different answer.

    Even though it does not speak to you, I urge you to not rate religion as myth or as second rate. Rather, rate it like chemistry, as useful abstractions that frequently lead to solid truth. With quantum physics, the hard part is working with the morass of equations; you get the right answer in more cases, but it can take a long time, and sometimes you make a mistake with the tricky math. With chemistry the hard part is recognizing when the easier-to-use abstractions don’t apply, and then working with the actual reality rather than the rule of thumb in those infrequent, but important cases.

    Both chemistry and physics have much value. There are chemists and physicists, who by choice of profession have selected their preference, and they should feel proud to highlight the excitement they feel for their choice. Nonetheless, both chemistry and physics are viable and practical professions.

  2. Bumba Says:

    Amen….oops. The age of reason, the Enlightenment, brought us the experiment of democracy. Hurray for the glory, nay elegance of mathematics, epitomized by that Da Vinci drawing.

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