Humanists believe that this life is the only life we have. In order to lead a rich, meaningful life we must live ethically with each other and make decisions based on reasoned thought.
Modern Humanism began during the enlightenment when the idea that you shouldn’t sacrifice this life for the next was spreading. Back then, Humanists believed that you should balance both this life and the next, and so are called Humanists because they shifted the balance toward the world that humans live in. Their belief was that secular ideas about social justice and making this life better became just as important as religious concerns for the afterlife.
Eventually, some Humanists realized that there is no reliable evidence for any afterlife at all, whether you mean heaven and hell, reincarnation or any other concept of life after death. This view began to attract lots of people, and was called ‘Scientific Humanism’ by some because it relied on an evidence based approach. However, the phrase that is now used is ‘Secular Humanism.’ Over the years Secular Humanists became the largest group of Humanists and now when people use the word Humanist they mean the secular kind, and the other Humanists are called ‘Religious Humanists,’ who focus more on religious ritual.
Modern Humanists tend to believe in methodological naturalism. This means that we believe in the natural world, but not supernatural beings. We haven’t been convinced that these beings exist. We believe that we must solve our problems ourselves and can’t rely on a divine power to do it for us. Humanists believe that the only responsible way to live your life is based on critical thinking and using empiricism to discover knowledge. “Show me the evidence” could be considered one of our creeds, if we had any creeds.
Not only do we not have creeds, but there are also no sacred documents, doctrines or dogmas. I am impressed by the fact that Humanism changes over time and refuses to say ‘on this idea we are completely correct and there can be no discussion about this.’ We learn from our mistakes and when you get Humanists together we debate all issues with each other.
There is no Humanist pope or official organization that makes you a Humanist. Humanism is a life stance. You either are or are not a Humanist. Humanists tend to be fiercely independent and avoid using labels. (Ironically, one of the best indicators that someone is a Humanist is that they refuse to call themselves Humanist.)
There are no official organizations but there are social groups where like minded people meet and explore their passion for knowledge. You don’t convert to Humanism like a religion, though it can be thought of as an alternative to having a religion.
We endeavour to be guided by discussion, debate and rational thought when making choices. We come together to disagree: it’s our like minded approach to knowledge and reason that draws us together, not our conclusions. Where Humanist associations exist, we prize honest discussion, ethics, science and other forms of human knowledge, along with community.
Modern humanism may have begun during the Enlightenment, but do not modern humanist at least owe their philosophical origins to the Renaissance humanists? I am unsure if the Renaissance scholars self-identified as humanists, but I am fairly certain they created the curriculum called the studia humanitatis. This curriculum, which recaptured classical ideas, may be the foundation for modern humanism. It may be worth a further investigation.
Britannica agrees with you. In addition, slightly before Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe would definitely qualify as an atheist humanist. The return of Classical humanistic studies and ideas arrived in Italy along with Greek scholars fleeing the fall of Constantinople.
That is a large and direct contribution. Humanist studies was based out of all of the classical ideas being recaptured. Humanism as a term developed centuries later to mean the life stance we are talking about. But it was influential immediately.
Humanist ideals have been developed around the world, and Wikipedia has section for Ancient South Asia, Ancient China, Ancient Greece, Medieval Islam.
Ancient Greece is what was discovered in the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment was when all those ideas really took hold, to my mind. It is from there that modern English Humanism grew.
Hi Shawn, nice article, but as a humanist, I have to be a bit picky! Refusing to call yourself a humanist should not be considered any kind of indicator that you are in fact a humanist. Apart from the fact that it infringes on people’s rights not to be called humanist, it also applies – better – to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and followers of the Global Standard Deity.
Hey Billy, thanks for your comment.
Perhaps that was an ill-advised sentence or two on my part. I did mean it as a joke, but only to heighten the statement about how must Humanists seem to be individualists and often smart enough to understand the inherent limitations of labels. I apologize for any confusion with my article here.
Obviously, most non-Humanists would not call themselves Humanists, and that doesn’t mean that they are, in fact, Humanists. It was more tongue in cheek.
This statement makes me uncomfortable. Am I doing something wrong? If someone is a Humanist as I laid it out, but claims not to be, do I do something wrong by calling them a Humanist? I’m not aware of any legal right to not be labeled. Is there an ethical one? I feel as though there should be one, perhaps. But that doesn’t compute.
If someone believe that Jesus is their lord and saviour, or the example to follow to achieve salvation, are they not a Christian? What ‘right’ do they have to not be called a Christian?
I think this is a very interesting thought, and I’m glad my joke brought it up. I’d like to discuss it more. But I’m sorry my joke caused this confusion.
Shawn, I appreciate your clarity and this post answers a lot of questions.
I have one question that I do not see a specific answer to: what would be the end goal of humanism? So finish this sentence: “Society would be ideal if all people would focus on __________.” What is the thing that all people being humanists would accomplish?
I’m not trolling. I see several things you said that could finish the sentence but I wanted to ask you for calrity.
Humanists would think society would be ideal if all people would focus on the full development of all people, and had the required resources and time to do it.
A crude but effective way of explaining this would be Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Ensuring people have the physical and emotional support as a baseline to thrive, and then the opportunity to develop a little in all areas of your life but especially get a sense of accomplishment in areas that are of interest to you.
For some these will be intellectual pursuits, for others civic and community engagement. For some it would be producing goods people need, for others luxury items. For some teaching and speaking, for others it’s having enough time to spend with friends and loved ones in the community. For most, it’s a little bit of everything.
Everyone’s needs are a little different. What they need to feel a sense of accomplishment is different. For some it’s things others would never know about. For others, it would be world altering.