Countdown to 30 – 5 Days to Go! – Discovering Humanism

The third post in my “Countdown to 30″ series, looking forward to my 30th birthday and back to how I got here.

Discovering Humanism – Something to Believe In

While I was raised nonreligious, I didn’t consider myself a committed Humanist until I reached University. I had gone to Cambridge to study Education, inspired by the idea that people have great potential waiting to be unleashed, and driven by the knowledge that I had a responsibility to help people realize that potential. And, like many leaving home for the first time, I took the opportunity to explore my religious identity, voraciously devouring the major texts of many of the world’s great religions. I discovered the grand tales of the Mahabharata, the poetry of the Quran, the sparse beauty of Zen kōans, and great psalms of the Bible (many of which I had sung as a choirboy). I read gnostic and mystical works, apocryphal gospels and religious apologetics. I read widely in theology, philosophy and psychology of religion (Abraham Maslow and William James were early favorites, as I’ve explored before). And although I found much of value (alongside much to abhor) in ancient religious texts, I found nothing that was convincing to my young philosopher’s mind. It was clear to me that religions, and whatever was of worth within them, are human cultural constructions, and that ethics, community, aesthetics and values can exist – might even exist more purely – outside a traditionally religious framework.

Nor did I find anything that truly captured the values I had been brought up with – no religion I investigated wholeheartedly and unequivocally embraced science and learning. None made a clear commitment to the equal dignity of every individual (and most were extremely disparaging about gay people, women, and people of different tribes). And many had a dismal view of the human future, painting a hopeless picture of sinful, broken human beings facing apocalyptic catastrophe.

Then I stumbled across the second Humanist Manifesto. How I first encountered it I don’t remember, but it was a seismic moment in my development: here, for the first time, was a document which espoused, in clear and unequivocal prose, the values I was beginning to shape my life around. I remember printing the whole thing off – all seventeen statements – and reading through it again and again, making so many notes that I had to print a new copy. I started to buy books by the great Humanist thinkers and writers (Dewey, Sartre, Russell, Rogers), started to view my political activism through the lens of Humanism, and started to debate with my religious friends from a staunchly Humanist perspective. I joined the British Humanist Association. I began to call myself a Humanist. In short, I’d found something to believe in.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Ben Leeman

    Wonderful to come across, unexpectedly, this site of Humanistic ideas. James Croft, through his wide and extensive readings, demonstrate that the ‘unexamined life has little meaning’ and that intellectual and rational progress is possible.
    Fear, the outdated need to dominate, together with the belief that one’s views are superior to those of others, have, and continue, to result in war and destruction.
    Now, with the awareness of climate change, peak oil, CO2, the global financial crisis, together with the unholy rush to ‘secure’ global resources (oil, minerals, land, water, finance, etc.) philosophical wisdom may not be enough to prevent unmitigated conflict and destruction. Due to the type of weapons now in existence and the small number of powerful – unaccountable – people in ‘control’, aided by the military, industrial and political complex we urgently require a new values. International human rights and global social justice are deliberately ignored by capitalistic greed.
    The idea that unlimited growth through exploiting other people and unrenewable resources in our finite globe also requires urgent responses from Humanists as living in a utopia of desirable ideas, philosophy and enriching literature is not enough. Our globe is getting warmer, the water is rising, global competition is increasing for diminishing resources and never before have we directed so many financial and intellectual resources to create (and use) weapons of global destruction.
    For many religious people, focused on a life hereafter, life on earth may be less important. But as Humanists we know we have only this life of this beautiful earth. Humanists, and that probably includes me, appear to live in a philosophical vacuum and appear to deny reality of the actual reality of life on earth. What responsibility do we have, individually and as a global movement of Humanists towards the future of others?
    What do Humanist do to ensure sustainability as defined by the UN Brundland Commission in the 1980s: “Sustainability: meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
    This is an urgent call for action. Is having values and ideas to enhance the wellbeing of ourselves, others and care for the future or our beautiful earth enough without action? We need to mobilise, and stop dreaming.
    Thanks for publishing this series, and I look forward to the next!
    Ben Leeman, Melbourne, Australia

  • Josh Kutchinsky

    There is now Humanist Manifesto III – a document from the American Humanist Association but with world wide signatories.
    The Amsterdam Declaration of 2002 ( ) is an agreed position document of the members of the International Humanist and Ethical Union an umbrella organisation that includes the AHA and BHA as members along with many other humanist/atheist/freethinking etc. organisations worldwide.
    I was also very happy some years ago to come across the BHA and to find that Humanism was a good label to describe the mix of my beliefs and values.