It is fairly easy to make the mistake in thinking that Humanism is just a fancy name for humanitarianism. It is part of Humanism, but even people who label themselves Humanists tend to forget the non-theistic basis for the conclusions we come to that then lead to our humanitarianism. We are “good without God” because we don’t expect any reward in an afterlife. People who are theists may also do humanitarian work but the difference is Humanists don’t give any credit to an irrational belief like religion.
Humanitarian concerns naturally develop from a Humanist world view. Since Humanists do not find evidence for an afterlife or the supernatural, our focus is on things in this world. It’s up to us to use our heads and make life go well. We aim to live wisely by human effort and intelligence as we humanely share this world with others. Kurt Vonnegut put it this way, “Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.”
There are theists who help other people all the time. Habitat for Humanity, a well known program that builds houses for those in need, is a Christian ministry. The difference is Humanists help other people because it is the right thing to do not for any religious rewards or beliefs.
Fred Edwords wrote an excellent essay, some years ago, that establishes how Humanism isn’t just humanitarianism:
We base our understanding of the world on what we can perceive with our senses and comprehend with our minds. Anything that’s said to make sense should make sense to us as humans; else there is no reason for it to be the basis of our decisions and actions. Supposed transcendent knowledge or intuitions that are said to reach beyond human comprehension cannot instruct us because we cannot relate concretely to them. The way in which humans accept supposed transcendent or religious knowledge is by arbitrarily taking a leap of faith and abandoning reason and the senses. We find this course unacceptable, since all the supposed absolute moral rules that are adopted as a result of this arbitrary leap are themselves rendered arbitrary by the baselessness of the leap itself. Furthermore, there’s no rational way to test the validity or truth of transcendent or religious knowledge or to comprehend the incomprehensible. As a result, we are committed to the position that the only thing that can be called knowledge is that which is firmly grounded in the realm of human understanding and verification.
Though we take a strict position on what constitutes knowledge, we aren’t critical of the sources of ideas. Often intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, and flashes of inspiration prove to be excellent sources of novel approaches, new ways of looking at things, new discoveries, and new concepts. We don’t disparage those ideas derived from religious experience, altered states of consciousness, or the emotions; we merely declare that testing these ideas against reality is the only way to determine their validity as knowledge.
As Edwords writes in the essay, Humanists have a way of determining what we think is true which leads us to decide what we think is good. When we reach that point it leads us to work to put into place what we think would further our goals – such as bettering the human condition. That includes being humanitarians.
While we don’t disparage ideas from religious experiences, we also shouldn’t look the other way for the sake of making “friends” and when we work on humanitarian issues with people or groups who aren’t Humanists, we shouldn’t have to entertain their irrational beliefs just because they are being humanitarians too.
In the everyday world when people of divergent beliefs work together neither person is forced to give up their beliefs in order to work with the other people. We can work on common issues without having a lobotomy first.