What is Humanism?
Extracts from an account of Humanism written by members of the HPG and published as a 26-page pamphlet in 2002
The pamphlet was based on discussions between David Archard, Julian Baggini , Piers Benn, Simon Blackburn , Peter Cave , Michael Clark , Antony Duff, Alan Haworth , Brendan Larvor , Sandra Marshall, Richard Norman , David Papineau, Jonathan Rée, Ben Rogers , Peter Simons, Suzanne Uniacke, Nigel Warburton and Stephen Wilkinson.
Buy the pamphlet here.
‘What is humanism?’ This looks like a fair question. Many people call themselves ‘humanists’, and use the word to refer to their most fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world and the meaning of human life. Other people may encounter the word ‘humanist’, think that it sounds attractive and may apply to them, but be unsure whether to describe themselves as humanists, and at that point they’re likely to want to know more about what humanism is. How are they to be answered? There is no humanist Church and no humanist Creed, no Holy Book and no set of beliefs which all humanists have to accept. More worryingly, it is difficult to find a consensus. Ask people who call themselves ‘humanists’ what they mean by the word, and you’re likely to get various different answers. Our enquirer may find this dispiriting. It seemed important to try to define the word, as a way of getting clear about what to believe, but if no one can answer the question ‘What is humanism?’ with a clear definition, then how are you to know whether or not to call yourself a humanist? And if it’s such an ill-defined term, should we perhaps scrap it altogether and use other words instead to label our beliefs?
… Humanism, in the sense that we are interested in, is a view of the world which rejects religious beliefs. We could now get into a whole new search for a definition of ‘religion’, but we shall simply say that humanists do not believe in the existence of a god or gods. By ‘gods’ we mean beings who, like human beings, possess the attributes of intellect and will, have beliefs and knowledge and can make choices and decisions to act, but who are immensely more knowledgeable and more powerful than human beings, and whose supernatural power lies behind some or all of the natural forces we see at work in the universe. Theists typically believe that many or perhaps all of the things that happen in the world are ultimately to be explained as the results of the actions of a god or gods. Humanists, in contrast, are either atheists or agnostics. Atheists simply believe that there are no gods. Agnostics say that they do not know whether there is a god – or perhaps, more strongly, that we cannot know whether such beings exist – and that we must therefore get on with our lives without relying on any such religious belief.
It is worth emphasising that atheists do not, any more than agnostics, need to claim that they can prove that there is not a god. They need only claim that there are no sufficiently good reasons for believing that there is a god, and that in the absence of such reasons, we should not hold such a belief… We can’t look here at all the possible reasons which people might give for believing in a god, but humanists would say that it is up to religious believers to come up with good reasons, that they haven’t succeeded in doing so, and that that’s why we should be atheists or agnostics.
This commitment to rational argument – to the requirement that beliefs should be based on good reasons – is a very important feature of humanism, and we’ll come back to it later. Humanists would say that it’s not good enough to support religious beliefs by saying that their truth has been revealed by inspired priests or prophets. To say ‘The truths of religion must be true because they have been revealed to us by God’ is all too obviously circular. Again, it’s not good enough to say something like ‘I just feel that somehow there must be a god’, or ‘My faith comforts me and gives me an assurance that God cares for me’, for such feelings are indistinguishable from wishful thinking. They are not genuine reasons . The commitment to reason is why humanists reject not only traditional religious beliefs but also all superstitions, trendy ‘New Age spirituality’, and the like.
That then is the negative side of humanism, but the word also implies a positive side: that a belief in human beings can, in some sense, serve as an alternative to religious belief. What can this mean? This is where things start to get more complicated and where we have to accept that there is no humanist orthodoxy. We have no alternative but to try to tackle for ourselves the question: in what sense, if any, should we affirm a positive belief in humanity or in human beings?
… An optimistic belief in human progress has become difficult to sustain in the light of recent history. The decline of religious belief and the growing secularisation at least of European societies have not ushered in the rule of enlightened reason. Though religion still lies at the root of many conflicts, terrible things have, over the past century, been done in the name of secular ideologies and values. They have included the Nazi concentration camps and extermination programmes, the Stalinist labour camps, the area bombing of cities by both sides in the Second World War, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and carpet bombing and indiscriminate massacre in Vietnam. These acts have been motivated by a variety of non-religious beliefs and values, both noble and ignoble – nationalism, fascism, Nazism, communism, freedom and democracy.
… What lessons should humanists learn from this? We will turn in the next section to the question of a humanist morality, and the possibility of values without religion. What about the dangers in the idealisation of humanity? Humanists need not and should not assume that the removal of religious superstition is the only thing needed for human goodness to be liberated and for rationality to prevail. Some strands of the humanist tradition did, in the nineteenth century, take the form of attempts to establish a new religion, ‘the religion of humanity’, but we can now see that for the folly that it was. A credible contemporary humanism must distance itself from any such idealisation of human powers and potentialities.
Humanists do not have to accept any naïve belief in the essential goodness of human nature. We know that in certain circumstances ordinary human beings can do terrible things. By the same token, however, we also know that some human beings, in some circumstances, are capable of the most extraordinary acts of heroism and courage and love. Side by side with the catalogue of atrocities we could set a list of the people who opposed these evils, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Humanists can therefore acknowledge the darker side of human nature without having to revert to a secular version of the Christian idea of ‘original sin’. It makes little sense to talk of human nature either as ‘essentially good’ or as ‘essentially evil’. Human beings are what they are, a complex mixture.
… Likewise a reliance on human reason need not be equated with a naïve trust that rationality will prevail. Any sober and realistic assessment of the prospects for the improvement of the human condition has to acknowledge that much of human behaviour is driven by deeply irrational forces, and that religion is only one manifestation of these. To say that human beings are rational is not to claim that they will always think and act rationally, but that they have the capacity to do so, and that they should seek to exercise that capacity. To those who say ‘Reason is an unreliable guide, forget your reason and trust your instincts’, the answer must be ‘Which instincts?’
… We have suggested that humanism should distance itself from the over-optimistic belief in human progress… We turn now to another characteristic feature of Enlightenment thinking, the claim that human reason can, without the aid of divine revelation, establish the values and moral principles which should guide human actions. There are some very complex issues here, which give rise to deep philosophical disagreements, and which we need to disentangle. In particular we must try to distinguish those views which are characteristically humanist and those on which humanists can sensibly disagree with one another.
Consider the claim that human beings are the source of all value. There’s a sense in which this is a claim which humanists ought to accept, but the sense needs to be properly defined. Most obviously, it stands in contrast to the counter-claim made by many religious believers, that only if we have a set of moral rules revealed to us by a divine authority can we know how we ought to live. This is one of the most resilient features of religious belief, expressed in the vocabulary of ‘commandments’ and ‘obedience’, ‘sin’ and ‘forgiveness’. Many (though by no means all) religious believers talk as though they have a monopoly on moral understanding. Humanists will of course reject the appeal to divine authority, not only because they reject the belief in a god but also because they think that such an appeal is unnecessary. A central feature of any decent morality will be a recognition that we should take account of one another’s needs and interests. Humanists can see that what enables human beings to live this way is not a feeling of awe or reverence for divine authority or a fear of divine retribution, but the ties of love and affection, loyalty and fellow-feeling, attitudes of respect and concern, and the networks of social relationships which are deep-rooted features of human life. The appeal to evolutionary theory can help here, not as an alternative appeal to authority but as confirmation of the obvious fact that humans have evolved as a social species, equipped with the psychological capacities which they need for cooperation. Again there are no guarantees of sweetness and light, but also no need for despair.
There is another position which can be contrasted with the humanist one. There is a philosophical tradition which attributes to ‘values’ an independent existence separate from the natural world and from human life. The classic formulation is that of Plato, who argued that values and other abstract ideas exist as a reality outside space and time and outside the world of sensory experience. This committed him to the view that even if human beings (or any other conscious beings) did not exist there would still be such things as goodness and justice. Though such a position may not be logically incompatible with some kind of humanism, it is unlikely that humanists would endorse it. It is more plausible to maintain that talk of ‘value’, of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, reflects our understanding of what matters to us as human beings, from a human perspective, in the light of human needs and interests. It is in that sense that we might say that human beings are the source of value.
… we think that just as humanism should distance itself from a ‘divine command’ theory of morality or a Platonic realism, so also it should distance itself from what we shall call ‘crude subjectivism’ and ‘crude relativism’. (‘Crude’ is a loaded term, but the positions we have in mind are crude.) The crude subjectivist says: ‘It’s up to you what you think about right and wrong, everybody else’s opinion is just their opinion and no one has the right to disagree with you.’ What the crude relativist says is very similar but perhaps expressed in more collective terms: ‘What you think about right and wrong is just your point of view, it’s just a reflection of your background and the culture you happen to have been brought up in.’ The relativist version is likely to be backed up by assertions such as that ‘we’re all conditioned by society’.
What these often-encountered positions rule out is the possibility of rational argument …
There is no guarantee that the giving of reasons will lead to eventual agreement. Nevertheless the activity of reason-giving is by its nature a search for agreement. To give you reasons for a moral position which I hold is to invite you to see it as a position which you too could and should hold. Moreover there are some grounds for optimism about the possibility of moral agreement, and those grounds are provided by our shared human nature. Human beings may differ in their tastes, their liking or disliking of parsnips, but they share basic needs, not only biological needs for food and drink, shelter and good health, but also psychological needs for love and affection, for recognition and support, for independence and interdependence. As social beings we also have a capacity to sympathise with others’ feelings of enjoyment and suffering, and some predisposition to find ourselves in harmony with other people’s emotions and attitudes. Our common humanity makes it at least possible for us to share a common vocabulary of values and to give and to recognise shared reasons for moral conclusions.
Talk of ‘human nature’ and a ‘common humanity’ has been viewed with suspicion by some philosophers. The suspicion has sometimes been formulated in the language of a recent philosophical tendency which has been called ‘postmodernism’ and which sometimes opposes itself to what it calls ‘humanism’. These critics point out that the appeal to a common humanity can mask real differences of class and gender and race, and that the imposition of supposedly shared human values can amount to a kind of intellectual and moral imperialism which silences other voices and excludes other experiences. That is a real danger, and it should alert us against too quick and too easy an appeal to ‘human nature’, but it need not require us to abandon the idea. There hasbeen slow but real progress towards sexual equality and racial equality over the centuries, and that progress has taken the form not only of recognition of differences but, more importantly, of greater recognition of what human beings have in common, undermining glib sexist talk of ‘separate spheres’ and racist talk of ‘inferior breeds’.
We should therefore resist the arguments of those who preach the total failure of the Enlightenment Project.
… We have asserted the possibility of shared human values. It is time that we said something about what those values might be. One suggestion may readily occur at this point: that if human beings are the source of value, then the only thing that can have value must be the satisfaction of human desires, that is, human happiness and the prevention of human suffering. However, that conclusion doesn’t follow, and though there is some truth in it, it’s too simple.
…though considerations of what will promote human well-being and help to reduce human suffering will have an important and central place in any humanist morality, they need not be the whole of it. How far and in what ways it will extend beyond those central concerns will be a proper matter for rational debate among humanists. What that commitment to rational debate will exclude, we suggest, is a morality consisting entirely of simple and dogmatic general rules – a ‘ten commandments’ morality. Rules may have a place in a humanist morality, perhaps as useful rough-and-ready guides for conduct, perhaps as something stronger than that, but humanists will not accept a simple list of rules either as revealed moral wisdom or as self-evident truths. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’? Humanists will want to dig deeper, to ask about the nature of love and its relation to exclusivity, and to think about what exactly is involved in the values of loyalty and fidelity. ‘Thou shalt not steal’? Humanists will want to look more closely at the importance of private property, and its relation to other aspects of social and economic justice. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’? Humanists will recognise the importance of honesty and trust as features of our relations with one another, but will also want to ask whether that rules out the possibility of ever telling a lie for the sake of some greater good.
There are also traditional moral rules which have been widely accepted in the past but which rest on nothing other than an appeal to religious authority, and which humanists will simply reject. Typical examples are rules prohibiting certain kinds of sexual practices, such as homosexuality or masturbation. Some fundamentalist Christians try to support such rules by quoting from the scriptures, but a sentence from the Bible or from any other religious text is not by itself a rational basis for any moral position. The deepest feature of the humanist approach to morality, then, is the commitment to the importance of rational thought and debate.
… Some religious believers will claim that only the promise of immortality can give our lives a meaning and a purpose. Humanists reject that false promise. They believe that this life is the only life we have. The conscious experiences that make up our lives are tied to the existence of a physical body, including a brain and nervous system, and when the body ceases to function, those conscious experiences cease too. Humanism embraces an acceptance of the inevitability of our own deaths and the deaths of those we love, without any false sentimentality or phoney consolations. Hence the practical importance (and growing popularity) of humanist funeral ceremonies, which allow for the frank acknowledgement of grief and loss, without the need to ‘look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’ [i]
Humanist funeral ceremonies do not just serve for the expression of grief. They are also the celebration of a life. That is a kind of optimism, but an optimism that is authentic and hard-won. It is a recognition that the pleasures and achievements of that life were real and have not been undone by death; that even a life which has included its share of pain and tragedy has been a unique and irreplaceable human endeavour; and that those who live on can find their lives enriched by the memory of the person who has died. It is also an opportunity to recognise that we in turn may be remembered after our deaths, that how we live now can help to shape the future after we are gone, and that those continuities can give our lives a significance which transcends our individual life-span.
… We have discussed both the negative and the positive side of humanism. The negative side is the rejection of religious belief. The positive side is the belief that in virtue of our capacities as human beings we can live good and meaningful lives without the false consolations of religion. We have distinguished that positive side from a naively optimistic belief in the inevitability of human progress. We have associated it with the recognition that human beings can make choices and by doing so can shape their own future for better or for worse. We have associated it with the belief that human beings are the source of value, and can through rational debate and argument attempt to agree on shared values and a shared morality. We have recognised that our definition of humanism should leave open some fundamental questions about what those values should be and about what their logical status is. Finally we have suggested that humanism incorporates an acceptance of the fact of human mortality and the possibility of finding something positive in the continuity of human life despite the experience of grief and loss.
… If someone were to insist that we summarise our account in the form of a definition, perhaps the best that we could offer would be something like this: Humanism is an evolving tradition of thought which starts from the rejection of religious belief and attempts, through rational argument and debate, to work out the positive implications of that starting point.
If you accept that starting point and want to be involved in that on-going debate, you are probably a humanist.
Read the complete philosophical discussion by buying the pamphlet here
[i] It’s worth noting that in any case the promise of immortality, even if it were credible, would not itself serve to confer meaning on human existence. If someone finds their life pointless, they would be unlikely to find it any less pointless if they discovered that it would last for ever. Indeed, the prospect of a life continuing endlessly into the future might come to seem unbearably repetitive and tedious. The prospect is dramatized in the play The Makropulos Caseby Karel Capek, which was made into an opera by Janacek and is discussed by the philosopher Bernard Williams in a paper ‘The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality’ (in Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973).