Graffiti saying 'be the change'

On humanism

It’s not easy being human. Especially at the moment, with the world becoming more complex and less comprehensible by the day. It can be difficult to discern what is right, what is wrong and what (if anything) we should do about it all. However, a strong ethical stance can help to bring order to the chaos. And I’d like to tell you a little about mine.

I’m a humanist. Humanism is a philosophical stance – a way of seeing the world – that focuses on the inherent value in all human beings. And it’s been around for a while. It has its roots in the pre-Socratics of ancient Greece. And similar strands are interwoven through Chinese and Islamic philosophical thought, too.

I didn’t set out to become a humanist, though, or take a conscious decision to espouse a humanist philosophy. Rather, I stumbled upon the notion by chance some years ago and realised that it described me quite well.

There’s no single definition of humanism. It means different things to different people. And it manifests itself in our lives in different ways. But most humanists’ understanding of humanism espouses three fundamental tenets.

Firstly, we believe that the world around us is a natural phenomenon that can best be understood through science, reason and free inquiry. We do not accept supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. And we trust in the scientific method, rather than religious doctrine or revelation.

Secondly, we make decisions on the basis of our compassion for human beings, our concern for other living things and our responsibility to provide stewardship of the world in which we live. Our goal is the welfare of humanity and the flourishing of human society, without the need to follow a religious creed.

And finally, we believe that we have only one life on this Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter). And that there is no greater purpose for the universe or for the human species. We create meaning for our lives by seeking growth, happiness and fulfilment for ourselves and by helping others to do the same.

There are, however, various schools and strands of thought within the humanist family. Some humanists are agnostic or atheistic, while others combine humanism with a religious faith. Some reject religion in all of its forms, while others seek greater secularism through increased separation between church and state.

On a more philosophical level, there is a distinction in humanism between one tendency towards individualism and another towards collectivism. The former leads to a more libertarian way of thinking, while the latter leads down a more socialist or communitarian path. And there is, of course, a wide spectrum between these two extremes that combines in different ways elements of both tendencies.

There are also, inevitably, various criticisms of humanism, too. Some critics argue that, by rejecting the role of religion, humanism provides no basis for morality. Which seems odd, given that history shows us time and time again that religious belief is hardly a guarantee of moral behaviour, either. And that people can be good even when there’s no divine being threatening to smite them.

Humanism is also criticised for being vague, for being difficult to define and for offering no concept of justice and of what constitutes a good life. But this, for me, misses the point of humanism. We’re saying that there isn’t one way to be a humanist or one way to live a humanist life. We’re all free to choose how to live our lives and to help others to do the same.

In my quest to live an intentional life, the humanist stance provides me with a valuable way of making ethical decisions and of making sense of the world around me. You don’t have to share it, of course. Everyone’s entitled to their own way of thinking about these things. And this is mine.

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Image: Maria Thalassinou on Unsplash





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