The Roots of Humanism

One question about Humanism that seems to come up time and again is, “Where did Humanism come from?” Humanism, at the root, is a philosophy. It evolved from previous philosophical thought, adopting bits and pieces that worked and made sense, and discarding the stuff that didn’t work. Two similar philosophies make up 90% of what we call Humanism; one is called Naturalism and the other is Materialism.

Naturalism explains that nature is the only thing that exists and that anything considered outside of nature doesn’t exist and is irrelevant. This rules out dualism, the separation of mind and body, that Theism depends on for its belief structure, and of course immortality is out of the question since that would be outside of nature.

Some expressers of Naturalism include Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century. He developed the laws of logic that we still use today and was the first to recognize that science was made up of an interrelated body of facts. He also developed “Aristotelian” psychology that was based on the unity of mind and body and ruled out immortality.

Benedict Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch atheist who wrote, in his book “Ethics”, an entire philosophy of life that didn’t require any supernaturalism.

One of the best known Naturalists is Charles Darwin, who wrote the classic ” The Origin of Species” in 1859. He showed, through a collection of evidence, that life was part of nature and that supernaturalism had little or no effect on anything.

Two Naturalists of the 20th century include Professors John Dewey and Fredrick J.E. Woodbridge of the United States who developed the ideas that the mind adapted for survival through evolution and that intelligence, reason, and thought made up the scientific method, which is used to investigate and test ideas about how the world works.

Materialism is a philosophy which explains that everything in the known universe is made up of matter and has an atomic structure. Materialism finds order in Nature, using the scientific method, which it expresses in scientific laws. Like Naturalism, it doesn’t depend on supernaturalism for any of its explanations.

Materialists include Democritus who, in 400 B.C.E., developed the Atomic Theory. Epicurus wanted to see people live using reason rather than fear. He added to Democritus’ Atomic Theory by forwarding the idea that there were chance deviations which allowed for free choice. Epicurus also said that negation of religious dogma was required for a happy life here on earth. He defined Happiness as pleasure guided by wisdom and adjusted to the hard realities of life.

The French “Encyclopedists” of the late 18th century (La Mettrie, Helvetius, Holbach, and Diderot) used Materialism as a weapon against superstition and the reactionary Catholic Church. In the 19th Century, Germans came to the front of Materialist thought. Jacob Feuerbach proposed that traditional religious mythologies were based on unfulfilled human feelings, longings, and needs. Karl Marx and Frederick Engles, influenced by Feuerbach, developed Dialectical Materialism, which improved on Materialism by recognizing the interrelatedness of things in nature and society.

Humanism has a long history and one can see the influence of Naturalism and Materialism. Each bases its philosophy on science and doesn’t depend on supernaturalism to make sense.

In the first part of this essay, I gave the philosophical roots of what we know today as Humanism. Modern Humanism also owes a debt to religious dissenters, who made room to replace faith with critical thinking.

During the Dark Ages, before the Renaissance, the dominate religion in the world was Roman Catholicism. The Church controlled land, money, and in some areas it controlled the government. People depended on the Church to educate and to explain the world. The Church suppressed ideas that didn’t conform to its teachings and dogmas and in some cases persecuted those who tried to advance new ideas.

The Renaissance, which began in Italy during the 14th century and reached its height in the 15th and spread to the rest of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, occurred when the classic writings of Plato and other great Greek thinkers were rediscovered after being lost or hidden for centuries. Even though these writings were old, they seemed fresh and new to the thinkers of the Renaissance. These ideas created new questions and encouraged more exploration. Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) was its real initiator in the field of literature and learning. He wrote many exquisite sonnets in Italian. He also “aroused classical antiquity from its long winter sleep” and gave direction to the talents of a hundred others. To the studies of Petrarch and his followers, as distinguished from scholastic philosophy and theology, the name litterae humaniores (“more humane letters”) was given. From this we derive our term “humanists” for such scholars. Classical literature not only supplied them with standards of better literary form, it disclosed a new conception of life; a conception freer, larger, more rational, and more joyous than the medieval; one which gave unfettered scope to the play of the human feelings, to the sense of beauty, and to all the activities of the intellect.

This enlightenment began to raise questions about everything in the world including the Church. It had become bloated with greed and corrupted by power. Many felt that the Church had lost its way. This led to the Protestant Reformation and formation of different Christian denominations. Each denomination contained people with like minded views of religion and these views were quite different than that of the Church.

These splinter groups were harassed and persecuted by Church authorities and civil authorities influenced or controlled by the Church. The Pope didn’t like competition. These groups moved from place to place in order to worship as they wanted. Some of these groups came to the new world that would become the United States.

The Protestant Reformation split the Catholic church. This alone didn’t create Modern Humanism, but one can see the seeds of Humanism sprout. Protestant churches had a humanistic tendency in that they stressed good works and moral achievement instead of magic, or supernatural salvation. It looked to a religion based on reason instead of revelation. Some liberal Protestant denominations that rejected revelation included the Friends, Deism, and Untarian Universialists.

Friends, also known as Quakers, were a Protestant sect that replaced revelation with reason and believed in a more personal relationship with God. Quakers have no one who interpets the scriptures like priests or bisops in other sects. Everyone gathers together for a “meeting”, hold hands, and each quietly prays to God. Some Quakers of note include Richard Nixon.

Deists believed that God created the universe and then left to allow for self-evolution according to natural law. The Deist position in general strengthened the secular, Humanist view we see today. It implied that people should depend on their own efforts and intelligence and not count on God to bail them out in a crisis. Some Deists of note included Thomas Jefferson, Sir Isaac Newton, and Voltaire.

Unitarians are another liberal Protestant church that helped in the development of Modern Humanism. Unitarians held the view that insisted on the oneness of God and the humanity of Jesus Christ. This view rejected the idea of the Holy Trinity. Even though the Unitarian worldview is non-Humanist, they were liberals in theology and backed most of the important social reforms of the 19th century. They believed in individual religious freedom and welcomed even those who questioned the existence of a God. It was Unitarians who started the religious Humanism movement that led to the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933. That was the start of what we call Modern Humanism.

Since 1933, the Humanist movement has continued to evolve and grow. It has become more secular with the publication of the second Humanist Manifesto in 1973 and the Secular Humanist Declaration in 1980.

The Renaissance started the beginning of questioning and discovery. It led to the end of domination by the Pope and the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation led to the formation of many Christian denominations that made room for reason instead of revelations. Modern Humanism was an out growth of liberal theology that has further evolved as a reasonable alternative to religion.

Note: The article, The Roots of Humanism, appeared in 2 parts in the Central Ohio Humanist newsletter. Part 1 appeared in the Jan/Feb 1997 issue and Part 2 appeared in the Jan/Feb 1998 issue.

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