What Is Humanism?

I’ve written on the meanings of freethought and secularism, and in the third entry of this series, I want to discuss humanism. More so than the other two, humanism is a complex and fully formed life philosophy, so it’ll take the most effort to adequately define.

Most concisely stated, humanism is the worldview which treats human beings – our lives, our needs, and our concerns – as of supreme importance. Humanism recognizes our deep and profound interconnection with the natural world and with all living things on Earth, yet it values human beings above all else – not because of unjustified bias, but because that humans are the only living beings who are moral agents: the only ones who are able to reason out the consequences of their actions and choose to act based on that evaluation. Other animals lack that moral competence, and so regardless of what considerations we owe them, they are not of equal importance with us.

On the other side of the scale, humanism gives greater weight to human concerns than to matters of faith or dogma. To a humanist, the decree of a religious authority, scripture, or creed can never take precedence over the life and well-being of a conscious, feeling person. This doesn’t mean that a humanist must be an atheist; there are theistic humanists, although in my experience, the secular kind is more common.

Statements like the Amsterdam Declaration and the Humanist Manifesto have defined in detail what humanists believe. My interpretation of the tenets of humanism would add the following:

Humanism is strongly ethical. The most fundamental principle of humanism is that all human beings are equal in moral worth and dignity. By virtue of being conscious, reasoning, foresightful beings, we gain the privileged status of personhood that confers us with rights; and we likewise incur a responsibility to treat others in accordance with this principle. Thus, we should refrain from doing harm or oppressing others, and to the greatest degree possible, we should respect their freedom to make their own choices and lead their own lives as they see fit. Humanists believe that morality is not a matter of following the decrees of authority, but of the sense of conscience that every person possesses, guided and informed by reason.

Humanism is rational and undogmatic. Humanists hold that no belief is too sacred to question, and are always willing to engage in self-examination, to revise our prior beliefs in the light of new evidence, and to accept newly discovered truths. More fundamentally, humanism supports free inquiry in all its forms and opposes censorship in all its forms. Humanists recognize the scientific method as the most reliable and effective method of gaining knowledge about the world, though we don’t discount the value of art, music, literature and other modes of cultural expression to bring people to recognition of truths they had overlooked.

Humanism is both individual and collective. Although people’s freedom to choose their own course is of paramount importance, humanists also recognize that we are social creatures, and that we find the greatest fulfillment by interacting with others and joining communities based on a shared identity or common interests. Although solitary geniuses and entrepreneurs have contributed to human progress, the greatest works of artistic creativity and intellectual achievement have come about only through connection in a shared culture.

Humanism encourages us to turn our attention to this world. As part of respecting the freedom and dignity of individuals, humanists seek to build a society where all people can flourish to their greatest extent. In addition to ethical behavior on the level of individual interactions, then, humanists are willing to contribute to the greater good, to devote their efforts toward creating a freer, more rational, more just civilization. Where we see injustice, we seek to correct it; where we see evil and tyranny, we battle against it; where we see senseless waste and destruction, we work to put a stop to it.

Humanism encourages the full development of human potential. It states that human nature is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil, but that we have instincts that tend in both directions. Through education and training, we can learn to encourage the better instincts and rechannel the worse ones. Although the project of moral education is a difficult undertaking, it’s a worthy and important one. Humanists recognize that the improvement of society’s attitudes benefits all people who live in it, and only through this means can we end poverty, war, climate change and other global threats that demand collective effort to solve.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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