What is Humanism?

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. According to Greg M. Epstein, “Humanism today can be categorized as a movement, a philosophy of life or worldview, or … [a] lifestance.” In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism.

Secular humanism is a secular ideology which espouses reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making. Secular humanism contrasts with religious humanism, which is an integration of humanist ethical philosophy with religious rituals and beliefs that center on human needs, interests, and abilities. Renaissance humanism is a cultural movement of the Italian Renaissance based on the study of classical works.

Religious and secular humanism arose from a trajectory extending from the deism and anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment, the various secular movements of the 19th century (such as positivism), and the overarching expansion of the scientific project.

History

The term “humanism” is ambiguous. Around 1806 Humanismus was used to describe the classical curriculum offered by German schools, and by 1836 “humanism” was lent to English in this sense. In 1856, German historian and philologist Georg Voigt used humanism to describe Renaissance humanism, the movement that flourished in the Italian Renaissance to revive classical learning, a use which won wide acceptance among historians in many nations, especially Italy. This historical and literary use of the word “humanist” derives from the 15th-century Italian term umanista, meaning a teacher or scholar of Classical Greek and Latin literature and the ethical philosophy behind it.

But in the mid-18th century, a different use of the term began to emerge. In 1765, the author of an anonymous article in a French Enlightenment periodical spoke of “The general love of humanity … a virtue hitherto quite nameless among us, and which we will venture to call ‘humanism’, for the time has come to create a word for such a beautiful and necessary thing.” The latter part of the 18th and the early 19th centuries saw the creation of numerous grass-roots “philanthropic” and benevolent societies dedicated to human betterment and the spreading of knowledge (some Christian, some not). After the French Revolution, the idea that human virtue could be created by human reason alone independently from traditional religious institutions, attributed by opponents of the Revolution to Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau, was violently attacked by influential religious and political conservatives, such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, as a deification or idolatry of man. Humanism began to acquire a negative sense. The Oxford English Dictionary records the use of the word “humanism” by an English clergyman in 1812 to indicate those who believe in the “mere humanity” (as opposed to the divine nature) of Christ, i.e., Unitarians and Deists. In this polarized atmosphere, in which established ecclesiastical bodies tended to circle the wagons and reflexively oppose political and social reforms like extending the franchise, universal schooling, and the like, liberal reformers and radicals embraced the idea of Humanism as an alternative religion of humanity. The anarchist Proudhon (best known for declaring that “property is theft”) used the word “humanism” to describe a “culte, déification de l’humanité” (“cult, deification of humanity”) and Ernest Renan in L’avenir de la science: pensées de 1848 (“The Future of Knowledge: Thoughts on 1848“) (1848–49), states: “It is my deep conviction that pure humanism will be the religion of the future, that is, the cult of all that pertains to man — all of life, sanctified and raised to the level of a moral value.“

At about the same time, the word “humanism” as a philosophy centered around mankind (as opposed to institutionalized religion) was also being used in Germany by the so-called Left Hegelians, Arnold Ruge, and Karl Marx, who were critical of the close involvement of the church in the repressive German government. There has been a persistent confusion between the several uses of the terms: philosophical humanists look to human-centered antecedents among the Greek philosophers and the great figures of Renaissance history.

From Renaissance to modern humanism

The progression from the humanism of the renaissance to that of the 19th and 20th centuries came about through two key figures: Galileo and Erasmus. Cultural critic, Os Guinness explains that the word humanist during the renaissance initially only defined a concern for humanity, and many early humanists saw no dichotomy between this and their Christian faith. See Christian Humanism

“Yet it was from the Renaissance that modern Secular Humanism grew, with the development of an important split between reason and religion. This occurred as the church’s complacent authority was exposed in two vital areas. In science, Galileo’s support of the Copernican revolution upset the church’s adherence to the theories of Aristotle, exposing them as false. In theology, the Dutch scholar Erasmus with his new Greek text showed that the Roman Catholic adherence to Jerome’s Vulgate was frequently in error. A tiny wedge was thus forced between reason and authority, as both of them were then understood.”

19th and 20th centuries

The phrase the “religion of humanity” is sometimes attributed to American Founding Father Thomas Paine, though as yet unattested in his surviving writings. According to Tony Davies:

Paine called himself a theophilanthropist, a word combining the Greek for “God”, “love,” and “man”, and indicating that while he believed in the existence of a creating intelligence in the universe, he entirely rejected the claims made by and for all existing religious doctrines, especially their miraculous, transcendental and salvationist pretensions. The Parisian “Society of Theophilanthropy” which he sponsored, is described by his biographer as “a forerunner of the ethical and humanist societies that proliferated later” … [Paine’s book] the trenchantly witty Age of Reason (1793) … pours scorn on the supernatural pretensions of scripture, combining Voltairean mockery with Paine’s own style of taproom ridicule to expose the absurdity of a theology built on a collection of incoherent Levantine folktales.

Davies identifies Paine’s The Age of Reason as “the link between the two major narratives of what Jean-François Lyotard[36] calls the narrative of legitimation”: the rationalism of the 18th-century Philosophes and the radical, historically based German 19th-century Biblical criticism of the Hegelians David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach. “The first is political, largely French in inspiration, and projects ‘humanity as the hero of liberty’. The second is philosophical, German, seeks the totality and autonomy of knowledge, and stresses understanding rather than freedom as the key to human fulfillment and emancipation. The two themes converged and competed in complex ways in the 19th century and beyond, and between them set the boundaries of its various humanisms. Homo homini deus est (“Man is a god to man” or “god is nothing [other than] man to himself”), Feuerbach had written.

Victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans, known to the world as George Eliot, translated Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (“The Life of Jesus”, 1846) and Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen Christianismus (“The Essence of Christianity”). She wrote to a friend:

the fellowship between man and man which has been the principle of development, social and moral, is not dependent on conceptions of what is not man … the idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of goodness entirely human (i.e., an exaltation of the human).

Eliot and her circle, who included her companion George Henry Lewes (the biographer of Goethe) and the abolitionist and social theorist Harriet Martineau, were much influenced by the positivism of Auguste Comte, whom Martineau had translated. Comte had proposed an atheistic culte founded on human principles—a secular Religion of Humanity (which worshiped the dead, since most humans who have ever lived are dead), complete with holidays and liturgy, modeled on the rituals of a what was seen as a discredited and dilapidated Catholicism. Although Comte’s English followers, like Eliot and Martineau, for the most part rejected the full gloomy panoply of his system, they liked the idea of a religion of humanity. Comte’s austere vision of the universe, his injunction to “vivre pour altrui” (“live for others”, from which comes the word “altruism”), and his idealization of women inform the works of Victorian novelists and poets from George Eliot and Matthew Arnold to Thomas Hardy.

The British Humanistic Religious Association was formed as one of the earliest forerunners of contemporary chartered Humanist organizations in 1853 in London. This early group was democratically organized, with male and female members participating in the election of the leadership, and promoted knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.

In February 1877, the word was used pejoratively, apparently for the first time in America, to describe Felix Adler. Adler, however, did not embrace the term, and instead coined the name “Ethical Culture” for his new movement  – a movement which still exists in the now Humanist-affiliated New York Society for Ethical Culture. In 2008, Ethical Culture Leaders wrote: “Today, the historic identification, Ethical Culture, and the modern description, Ethical Humanism, are used interchangeably.”

Active in the early 1920s, F.C.S. Schiller labeled his work “humanism” but for Schiller the term referred to the pragmatist philosophy he shared with William James. In 1929, Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York whose advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Potter was a minister from the Unitarian tradition and in 1930 he and his wife, Clara Cook Potter, published Humanism: A New Religion. Throughout the 1930s, Potter was an advocate of such liberal causes as, women’s rights, access to birth control, “civil divorce laws”, and an end to capital punishment.

Raymond B. Bragg, the associate editor of The New Humanist, sought to consolidate the input of Leon Milton Birkhead, Charles Francis Potter, and several members of the Western Unitarian Conference. Bragg asked Roy Wood Sellars to draft a document based on this information which resulted in the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Potter’s book and the Manifesto became the cornerstones of modern humanism, the latter declaring a new religion by saying, “any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present.” It then presented 15 theses of humanism as foundational principles for this new religion.

In 1941, the American Humanist Association was organized. Noted members of The AHA included Isaac Asimov, who was the president from 1985 until his death in 1992, and writer Kurt Vonnegut, who followed as honorary president until his death in 2007. Gore Vidal became honorary president in 2009. Robert Buckman was the head of the association in Canada, and is now an honorary president.

After World War II, three prominent Humanists became the first directors of major divisions of the United Nations: Julian Huxley of UNESCO, Brock Chisholm of the World Health Organization, and John Boyd-Orr of the Food and Agricultural Organization.[46]

In 2004, American Humanist Association, along with other groups representing agnostics, atheists, and other freethinkers, joined to create the Secular Coalition for America which advocates in Washington, D.C. for separation of church and state and nationally for the greater acceptance of nontheistic Americans. The Executive Director of Secular Coalition for America is Sean Faircloth, a long-time state legislator from Maine.

Attitudes toward religion and atheism

The original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, declared themselves to be religious humanists. Because, in their view, traditional religions were failing to meet the needs of their day, the signers of 1933 declared it a necessity to establish a religion that was a dynamic force to meet the needs of the day. However, this “religion” did not profess a belief in any god. Since then two additional Manifestos were written to replace the first.

In the Preface of Humanist Manifesto II, the authors Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson (1973) assert that faith and knowledge are required for a hopeful vision for the future. Manifesto II references a section on Religion and states traditional religion renders a disservice to humanity. Manifesto II recognizes the following groups to be part of their naturalistic philosophy: “scientific,” “ethical,” “democratic,” “religious,” and “Marxist” humanism.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, members of Humanist organizations have disagreed as to whether Humanism is a religion. They categorize themselves in one of three ways. Religious Humanism, in the tradition of the earliest Humanist organizations in the UK and US, attempts to fulfill the traditional social role of religion. Secular Humanism considers all forms of religion, including religious Humanism, to be superseded. In order to sidestep disagreements between these two factions, recent Humanist proclamations define Humanism as a life stance; proponents of this view making up the third faction. Regardless of implementation, the philosophy of all three groups rejects deference to supernatural beliefs and addresses ethics without reference to them, attesting that ethics is a human enterprise. It is generally compatible with atheism  and agnosticism, but being atheist or agnostic does not, itself, make one a Humanist. Nevertheless, humanism is diametrically opposed to state atheism. According to Paul Kurtz, considered by some to be the founder of the American secular humanist movement, one of the differences between Marxist-Leninist atheists and humanists is the latter’s commitment to “human freedom and democracy” while stating that the militant atheism of the Soviet Union consistently violated basic human rights. Kurtz also stated that the “defense of religious liberty is as precious to the humanist as are the rights of the believers.” Greg M. Epstein states that, “modern, organized Humanism began, in the minds of its founders, as nothing more nor less than a religion without a God.”

Knowledge

Modern Humanists, such as Corliss Lamont or Carl Sagan, hold that humanity must seek for truth through reason and the best observable evidence and endorse scientific skepticism and the scientific method. However, they stipulate that decisions about right and wrong must be based on the individual and common good. As an ethical process, Humanism does not consider metaphysical issues such as the existence or nonexistence of supernatural beings. Humanism is engaged with what is human.

Optimism

Contemporary Humanism entails a qualified optimism about the capacity of people, but it does not involve believing that human nature is purely good or that all people can live up to the Humanist ideals without help. If anything, there is recognition that living up to one’s potential is hard work and requires the help of others. The ultimate goal is human flourishing; making life better for all humans, and as the most conscious species, also promoting concern for the welfare of other sentient beings and the planet as a whole. The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now, and leaving the world a better place for those who come after. In 1925, the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead cautioned: “The prophecy of Francis Bacon has now been fulfilled; and man, who at times dreamt of himself as a little lower than the angels, has submitted to become the servant and the minister of nature. It still remains to be seen whether the same actor can play both parts.”

Humanism (life stance)

Humanism (capital ‘H’, no adjective such as “secular”) is a comprehensive life stance that upholds human reason, ethics, and justice, and rejects supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition. Many Humanists derive their morals from a philosophy of Ethical naturalism, and some acknowledge a science of morality.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world union of more than 100 Humanist, rationalist, secular, ethical culture, and freethought organizations in more than 40 countries. The Happy Human is the official symbol of the IHEU as well as being regarded as a universally recognised symbol for those who call themselves Humanists (as opposed to “humanists”). In 2002, the IHEU General Assembly unanimously adopted theAmsterdam Declaration 2002 which represents the official defining statement of World Humanism.

All member organisations of the IHEU are required by IHEU bylaw 5.1 to accept the IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism:

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.

Polemics

Polemics about humanism have sometimes assumed paradoxical twists and turns. Early 20th century critics such as Ezra Pound, T.E. Hulme, and T.S. Eliot considered humanism to be sentimental “slop” (Hulme) or overly feminine (Pound) and wanted to go back to a more manly, authoritarian society such as (they believed) existed in the Middle Ages. “Post Modern” critics who are self-described anti-humanists, such as Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, have asserted that humanism posits an overarching and excessively abstract notion of humanity or universal human nature, which can then be used as a pretext for imperialism and domination of those deemed somehow less than human. Philosopher Kate Soper notes that by faulting humanism for falling short of its own benevolent ideals, anti-humanism thus frequently “secretes a humanist rhetoric”. In his book, Humanism (1997), Tony Davies calls these critics “humanist anti-humanists”. Critics of antihumanism, most notably Jürgen Habermas, counter that while antihumanists may highlight humanism’s failure to fulfill its emancipatory ideal, they do not offer an alternative emancipatory project of their own. Others, like the German philosopher Heidegger considered themselves humanists on the model of the ancient Greeks, but thought humanism applied only to the German “race” and specifically to the Nazis and thus, in Davies’ words, were anti-humanist humanists. Such a reading of Heidegger’s thought is itself deeply controversial, Heidegger includes his own views and critique of Humanism in Letter On Humanism. Davies acknowledges that after the horrific experiences of the wars of the 20th century “it should no longer be possible to formulate phrases like ‘the destiny of man’ or the ‘triumph of human reason’ without an instant consciousness of the folly and brutality they drag behind them.” For “it is almost impossible to think of a crime that has not been committed in the name of human reason.” Yet, he continues, “it would be unwise to simply abandon the ground occupied by the historical humanisms. For one thing humanism remains on many occasions the only available alternative to bigotry and persecution. The freedom to speak and write, to organize and campaign in defense of individual or collective interests, to protest and disobey: all these can only be articulated in humanist terms.”

Inclusive humanism

Humanism increasingly designates an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet and lives. While retaining the definition of the IHEU with regard to the life stance of the individual, inclusive Humanism enlarges its constituency within homo sapiens to consider Man’s broadening powers and obligations.

This accepting viewpoint recalls Renaissance Humanism in that it presumes an advocacy role for Humanists towards species governance, and this proactive stance is charged with a commensurate responsibility surpassing that of individual Humanism. It identifies pollution, militarism, nationalism, sexism, poverty and corruption as being persistent and addressable human character issues incompatible with the interests of our species. It asserts that human governance must be unified and is inclusionary in that it does not exclude any person by reason of their collateral beliefs or personal religion alone. As such it can be said to be a container for undeclared Humanism, instilling a species credo to complement the personal tenets of individuals.

Dwight Gilbert Jones writes that Humanism may be the only philosophy likely to be adopted by our species as a whole – it is thus incumbent on inclusive Humanists to not place unwarranted or self-interested conditions on its prospective adherents, nor associate it with religious acrimony.

Edited by Deskarati from Humanism

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