Humanism PDF Print E-mail

given by John August

Humanism Humanism is an approach to life which is a development from atheism. It is partly an attitude towards life, and partly a particular take on a lot of philosophical concepts. In reviewing those concepts, I cannot really give due consideration to the reasons why Humanists feel their conclusions are justified - I only have time to really review those conclusions. To an extent, some philosophical choices are choices. We can put forward reasons for believing what we do, but some of those choices are contestible. Nevertheless, I do feel the justification we can put forward to be better than the justifications believers would put on a religious slant on life.

I'll be drawing from my experience in Humanism, reading the various journals published by Humanists, but I'll also be drawing on "The Humanist Philosophy" by Corlis Lamont. So, as I've said, Humanism is a development from atheism. But it is very easy to just be an atheist. Humanism gives the notion some depth and structure. You can go a lot further than just asserting that God does not exist, or saying that you don't need the concept of a deity to explain the universe.

Humanism can be reduced to three questions : How do we know what is true ? How do we know how to behave ? How do we value things in the world around us ?

These three questions can be expanded to ten principles : First, the Humanist perspective emphasises the natural world. All of our interactions are "natural", and we do not need to draw on anything "super-natural" to explain the world.

Second, we view humans as an evolutionary product, and see the mind and body as a unity. Third, we see humans as having the ability to solve their challenges through the use of reason, courage and the scientific method - that is to say, without the need for any supernatural forces or any false belief in supernatural forces.

Fourth, Humanism embraces the notion of free will, and rejects determinism, fatalism and predestination. While humans are preconditioned by the past, they nevertheless possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are masters of their own destiny. Fifth, Humanism believes in an ethical framework that is grounded in tangible experience, and believes in the goal of happiness and progress in this world for Humans. This ethical framework focuses on utilitarian outcomes but also endorses flexibility dependent on circumstance and the use of principles to temper raw utilitarianism.

Sixth, Humanism believes that we can only obtain real satisfaction in life by combining personal satisfaction, self development, and productive endeavours that benefit the community. Seventh, Humanism believes in the value of the aethetic experience, and that the appreciation of nature as nature without any divine nature is a positive thing.

Eighth, Humanism believes in the establishment throughout the world of democracy, peace and a high standard of living and a flourishing economic order. Ninth, Humanism believes in a synthesis of reason and the scientific method in democratic government, with full civil liberties and freedom of expression in all areas of life.

Tenth, humanism believes in the application of the scientific method to provide for continous questioning and advance in Humanism as a dynamic body of thought and not a dogma. Historically, humanism did develop from Christianity. Religious Humanism was an assertion of the worth of Human beings within a Christian theology - rather than seeing humans as forever unworthy and tainted in sin, it looked upon humans as God's creation, and as God's creation we had an amount of independent identity and worth, for God would not make something which was not wortwhile in itself.

Over time, some humanistic churches, for example the Unitarian church, diluted their religious vigour and embraced human identity. It is possible to be a religious humanist if you do believe that we are on our own to develop a moral framework of life, while you may believe there to be a creator god. But, mainstream humanism is fundamentally atheistic in character. In many ways, it is a response to religion, but perhaps many of the once controversial claims are no longer controversial. For example, Humanists say that nature is a worthwhile experience as nature for its own sake without any divine interpretation. Once this may have raised eyebrows, but my suspicion is that this is no longer the case.

There was once a time when atheists were discriminated against - for example, it was difficult to be an atheist school teacher. Discrimination is no longer present, but Christian principles and ideas are pushed into institutions like law and education which do not discriminate between believers or atheists - rather, the push is to apply principles derived from religion onto believers and non believers alike. These include religious views on abortion, euthanasia, and same sex marriages.

There is also some amount of separatism as well - some Christians pursue creationism and intelligent design as science. Here, Christians within their own community pursue an irrational line of thought and indoctrinate each each other separately to the mainstream community. But, separately to the more obvious laws on abortion and similar, the current Howard Government's policies have a great deal of religious influence. They speak of "Family Values" but that is in fact code for a particular right wing religious point of view. These influences are detailed in the book "God Under Howard" by Marion Maddox.

However, I do not wish to be seen as criticising the Liberal Party in general terms. In times past, the Liberal party was able to accomodate Dr. John Hewson, and much as Dr. Hewson embraced economic rationalism (and it is questionable whether his version was much worse that Howard's ever was), he was very socially progressive. My criticism is not of the Liberal party in broad terms, but rather to its current policies and the way it is currently configured. I'll now develop a few lines of mostly philosophical thought which develop from the Humanist thread. I'm going to leave out the Humanist metaphysics and a few other ideas.

A first is the endorsement of free will, where we have compatibilist stance between determinism and free will. My resolution is that I think that a sufficiently complex causal chain can have the same emotional significance as free will. But, the spirit of Humanism that I do personally endorse is that I would never want to derive what I would consider to be more negative outcomes from determinism - things like fatalism and a reductionistic approach to the causes behind determinism.

Humanism does believe in Human compassion and goodwill to each other, and does not believe that it is useful to reduce everything to self interest. It is possible to do this if you are willing to develop an elaborate web of ideas, but to me it seems you are making things more complicated than they need to be, when to speak of altruism as a real concept is the simplest and most positive way of relating to human nature. To paraphrase Peter Singer, a philosopher who won Australian Humanist of the Year a few years back, the issue is not whether we can reduce everything to selfish motives, but rather whether we should. We can further delineate altruism by acknowledging that all behaviour is selfish. We only have to say that the selfishness can vary, and identify a category of the least selfish selfish behaviours as altruistic, and then continue as before.

Humanist ethics oblige us to consider the total consquences of different actions on both the individual and society; not just their outcomes in a narrow sense, but also the outcomes in terms of what it might say about society. There is therefore a rule-utilitarian slant, but it tempered by the notion that we have principles which must be applied individually. It is not therefore a set of universals, but rather principles which are to be interpreted on a case by case basis, and are never separable from a human doing that interpretation - they are not universals in that sense.

But, things are relative and not absolute, we allow an element of pragmatism; we do not insist on perfection. That is to say, we can endorse a lesser evil if it results in the greater good. Religious writings have captured some worthwhile ethical principles, but religion of itself has also caused a lot of conflict and oppression. While some religious writings do contain good ethical ideas, these ideas are considered good on their merits, not because of their claim to come from the authority of a deity.

There is some tension within Humanism over how much positive credit we should give to religion, and what our overall assessment should be. Some look upon believers as fellow ethical travellers, some look upon religion as being a force for ill in society, with religious people being ones to disagree with. There is currently some criticism of fundamental Islam within Humanism. However, I do believe that this is being unfair to liberal Islam, as is captured around the world in nations like Turkey. It is said that Al Quaeda is to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity. Certainly, today the KKK is a marginalised and a spent force, but in its prime it had a similar "distant cousin" relationship to Christianity.

I think it is fair to say that fundamentalist Islam is the greatest organised source of evil in the world today; but a close second would be the religious right in the US, particularly with its desire to give the US biblical significance - as compared to it merely being a bunch of separatists who didn't want to pay their taxes (or at least not without representation) - and having an important part in the world end game. I've noted a desire for a flourishing economic order. There is some political overlap with Humanism, and I'll relate a few different strands of atheism. I'm trying to identify the "historical centre of gravity" in each group; the different atheists groups cover a broad range, and in fact have people of different inclinations in each, with a continuum from people who only want freedom from religious limitations on their lives to people who see religion as positively evil.

A first strand of atheism is that which develops from Marxist thought. This states that religion has been used to secure the compliance of the working class in willing slavery. Religion is the opiate of the people and all that. This strand of atheism is best represented in the so called "rationalist" strand. It views religion as a definite evil force in the world. It is interesting to note a thread of thought amongst elites that while they may not believe in religion, it is a good thing for the masses to believe in, as it will keep them occupied and subdued. The philosopher Strauss was said to capture this point of view, and we see this sentiment in the words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman statesman (5 BCE - 65 CE)

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." A right wing strand of thought looks upon religion as an important cultural institution which provides us with a sense of identity and purpose, and also captures "good ethical behaviour" and forms the "glue" by which society can function effectively. However, it is difficult to distinguish this viewpoint from the "do as I say, not as I do" viewpoint mentioned above.

The next strand is generic Humanism, what might be called middle class Humanism. The frustration or issue here is not so much the use of religion to enslave the working classes, but rather religion in the world as something that obstructs interests, expression and career development. An example of this in times past was when an person had difficulty getting a job as a teacher if they were not religious. Generally speaking, this strand of Humanism does not see religious belief as altogether evil, but certainly sees it as a constraint on those who are not believers.

Another strand which includes some atheism is the Ayn Rand viewpoint. This views capitalism as a development of a reasoned approach to the world, with atheism as a parallel development. This contrasts with the religious right, which also embraces capitalism - but differently to Rand's viewpoint the religious right (not surprisingly) embraces religion. Unlike contemporary Humanism, however, the Ayn Rand embraces capitalism and laissez faire economics more strongly. A major criticism of it from a Humanist point of view is that it reduces everything to selfish motives without room for altruism. I'm not that impressed with this point of view, but do credit it with being more consistent an endorsement of capitalism than that derived from religious views.

Contemporary Humanists seem to embrace a more left wing approach, but there are “small l” liberals within Humanism as well - such people believe in taking care of those less well off, but also believe there should be room for individual initiative. I'll now review some more contemporary issues in Humanism, which is to contrast human beings to animals, aliens and what Humans might become.

Humanism emphasises humans as contrasted to deities, and asserts their primacy in that context. But, I don't think that also means that it is asserting ultimate primacy over animals. Peter Singer feels that a lot of the distinctions which society makes between humans and animals do not have a rational basis. Which is to say that there are differences between humans and animals, but we should be careful to base our behaviour only on the differences which are objectively valid. Humanism to my way of thinking would also embrace aliens. It endorses entities who think and relate to the world, and they do not necessarily have to be on our familiar biological substrate.

I don't think there is a Humanist consensus, but I suspect we would also endorse artificial intelligences in computers as having potentially the same moral worth as human beings. Lastly, one issue is whether we will remain humans in the way we relate to the notion as technology improves. This is the so called "spike" or other words which are used to describe a world where things are radically different.

I'll put forward my own viewpoint; I'm not aware of any particular humanist consensus. The first point is that a lot of improvement on "raw capacity" does not translate out into a proportionate effect on our lives. If we look at how much the operating speed of computers has increased over the past few decades, this far exceeds the rate at which computer programs and their usability has increased. In the same way, I do not feel that just because you can see some parameters growing exponentially, this does not necessarily mean our lives will undergo similar changes.

A second point is that some physical laws, eg the second law of thermodynamics, are inescapable regardless of your level of technology. These constraints will continue to limit the grand effects that technology will have on us. In sum, I believe that for the reasonably forseeable future that we would contemplate and plan for, we will be human being relating to the world in ways that have a lot in common with today, and the current humanist approach will continue to be valid. Thank you for your interest in Humanism. You'll find references to groups involved in the atheist viewpoint : A queston was asked after the speech on humanism and meditation. My answer was that humanists would meditate as as others would practice tennis; meditation might well improve the mind, but in a naturalistic way. In any case, Ben Felden has given a talk on this subject, at :

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