#Humanism: Who We Are; What We Do; Why It Matters

#Humanism: Who We Are; What We Do; Why It Matters March 3, 2016

I. Who We Are

Religions and philosophies serve as heuristic devices for life, providing shape and meaning to what otherwise may seem a shapeless, chaotic rush. For some, religious views are chosen by birth or circumstance, for others religions are a matter of passing indifference in the rush toward the goals of a given social order.

Some people, a fortunate few, have both the chance and take the chance to consider which heuristic device is best for them in pursuing meaning and purpose in life.

Some choose humanism as a way of being and a way of life.

Humanism has grown up. It is past the polemics common to new belief systems. Humanism’s existence is established, its voice clear. Those who wish to live an ethical life based on reason, the humanities, and evidence will find humanism if they search. Humanists choose to live a meaningful, purposeful life, consciously and ethically, outside of traditional religious traditions.

The dream and opportunity of humanism is the dream and opportunity for a responsible and purposeful life. A life free of the fears that have haunted the human mind for so long. Humanism is freedom—the freedom to realize that the old demons of the human mind are mere chimeras. The freedom to live in the world of the real and the possible.

Humanists realize that it matters what one thinks is right and wrong with the world. The humanist life stance is clear concerning our commitments: political and legal equity for all; preferential treatment for the historically marginalized; freedom of religion and from religion; the separation of the public and private spheres. Compassion; acceptance; equity.

II. What We Do

In constructing our life stance, many Humanists attempt to live up to what the Stoics called a rational nature. The path to a rational nature includes these guides:

1. Do not give assent either to what is false or to what is unclear.

2. Act only in ways that serve the human community and the planet

3. Joyfully greet that which is of the nature of the universe.

As Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius phrased the way to a rational nature: “Wipe away your illusions. Control your inclinations. Extinguish your desires. Control your will. (Meditations, IX.7)

Another way of saying this:

“To what should we give serious attention? Just intentions; social actions; telling the truth; and a disposition joyfully accepting the nature of the cosmos.” (Meditations IV. 33)

Admittedly, the Stoics of old sought two universals that we now know do not exist—universal reason (“logos”) and cosmic purpose (“teleos”). Still, the Stoics and Epicureans and others of pre-Christian thinking offer usable alternatives for a post-Christian worldview. After all, there are two very different world views: to disdain the nature of this existence, naming it tedious and transitory, or to commit to it as the only life we know. Disdain or commitment? This is a central question for each of us.

Consider what leaps to mind when you hear the phrase “spiritual practice”—prayer perhaps; scripture reading perhaps; or some form of meditation. This is imagination driven by the influence of Christianity on the Western mind. (The Latin word “meditatio” meant everything from study to practice to habit.) It is perhaps surprising that, before Christianity, the Stoics considered “applied physics” a spiritual discipline. So was the contemplation of logic and ethics.

Why? Because physics reveals the nature of the reality we live in and are part of.  The Stoics thought that adjusting to the reality of what is is in itself a virtue, and the only cure for the anguish inherent in the human condition. A philosophical life centers on the realization that the world around us is not a means to an end. It merely is. From this, using logic, flows our ethical stances. “Ethics” in this context means “doing that which is good.” Meditation on physics, logic, and ethics leads to adjustments in our way of being each day, which is the point of living a philosophical life whose goal is that rarest of human gifts: wisdom.

3. Why It Matters

Humanism is not the contemplation of the perfect human action, “WWJD?” (What Would Jesus Do?), but rather the contemplation of human action within the context of the cosmos itself, “WDCR?” (What Does the Cosmos Require?).

We know, for example, that human beings evolved as prosocial creatures in tribal circumstances. This tells us much about human behavior and how we act toward each other. The ethics codified in religious systems are in truth evolved prosocial traits. A conscious knowledge of this fact helps in understanding how to hone and increase our prosocial traits, our ethics.

Here is a humanist heuristic for life: If this is our only precious life, then it is up to us, isn’t it? First, to love what happens, or at the least to have the strength to grin and bear its punch when tragedy strikes. Second, to wring from existence all the joy life may provide and share it with as much of the world as we can. Third, to make this world a better place, now and in the future, for the sake of the planet and all conscious beings.

Humanism matters because life, here and now, matters.

(Many of the ideas concerning Stoicism HUUare better stated in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot)

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