The short version
Humanism is an ethical approach to life without religion. Humanists think we can be good without God.
The longer version
“A rationalistic system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.” (Oxford English Dictionary)
“The rejection of religion in favour of the advancement of humanity by its own efforts.” (Collins Concise Dictionary)
“… a non-religious philosophy, based on liberal human values.” (Little Oxford Dictionary)
“… seeking, without religion, the best in, and for human beings.” (Chambers Pocket Dictionary)
“… an appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and destiny of man, and also giving a grounding for morality… Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)
Unlike religionists, Humanists have no faith. Having “faith” means having a strong belief in something without proof. Humanists are essentially sceptics. Where religious people might offer supernatural answers to some of the fundamental questions about life, the universe, and everything, we prefer to leave a question mark. Humanists are atheist (meaning “without god”), or agnostic (a term coined by the 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley to mean “without knowledge”, since Huxley said one cannot prove or disprove the existence of God).
Humanists reject the notion of an afterlife; we think that this life is the only one we have, and we must make the most of it.
Humanists don’t have the equivalent of the Bible or the Qur’an, or a book of rules to guide us through life, though we may refer to great works of history, philosophy and literature. You don’t actually need to have read the history of Humanist ideas to be a Humanist, but most, being inquisitive, thoughtful people, will investigate the ideas that interest us.
We can trace Humanist influences over 2,500 years to the Chinese sage Confucius and to the philosophers, scientists and poets of antiquity. One was the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who, starting from Aristotle’s principle that human happiness depends on good conduct, defined the good life as one of pleasure and friendship, absence of pain and peace of mind. His disciples included women and slaves, which was almost unheard of at that time. Epicurus said, “Of all the means by which wisdom ensures happiness throughout life, by far the most important is the possession of friendship.”
For centuries, it was unsafe to openly express unorthodox views about religion, but with the dawn of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries it gradually became possible to do so, with caution. Some described themselves as “rationalists”, “secularists” or “freethinkers”, terms that are still used by Humanists today.
Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution made a huge impact on our understanding of where we come from, has been a strong influence on Humanism. The scientist Marie Curie, the 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the authors Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, the first Prime Minister of Independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the American creator of the Star Trek TV series, Gene Roddenberry, are just a few of the influential people who’ve lived by Humanist principles.
Professor Richard Dawkins, a tireless advocate of secularism, said, “I arrived at my beliefs, as everybody should, by examining evidence.” Many Humanists have worked out their own beliefs and are delighted to find that others have reached similar conclusions. Because we are independent thinkers, Humanists differ about many things, but most of us agree about some basic principles. We believe that we should accept responsibility for our own behaviour and how it affects other people and the world we live in. Because we think that this is the only life we have, we believe it’s important to try to live full and happy lives, and to help others to do the same.
Humanists were involved with the establishment of the United Nations; we value human rights, freedom of communication, freedom from fear, want and suffering, and education free from bias and the influence of powerful religious or political organisations.
In his book Humanism, an introduction (Rationalist Press Association), Jim Herrick wrote, “Humanism is the most human philosophy of life. Its emphasis is on the human, the here-and-now, the humane. It is not a religion and has no formal creed, though humanists have beliefs. Humanists are atheists or agnostics and do not expect an afterlife. It is essential to humanism that it brings values and meaning into life.”
In 1996, the International Humanist and Ethical Union General Assembly adopted the following resolution. Any organisation wishing to become a member of IHEU is now obliged to signify its acceptance of this statement:
“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.”
This article was written by Margaret Nelson for Suffolk Humanists & Secularists and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author. It is also available on the Suffolk Humanists & Secularists website along with further information about humanism.