Practical Ideas about Humanism: First, the Basics

by Doug Berger

Most of us, when finally discovering Humanism and taking the plunge, ask ‘What’s next?’ Some of us wonder how to apply our new found philosophy to our daily lives. Even some of us want to learn about the different aspects of the philosophy.

This is the first of a series where I will discuss some of the items noted above. I will touch on what the basic Humanist consensus is and how to apply it in one’s daily life.

Of course since Humanism is not dogmatic and I’m not the Humanist Pope, I’m just going to express my view and interpretations of Humanism. You may not agree with everything I have to say, but I hope I give you something to think about.

In future articles I may include what other HCCO members and friends have to say about a particular topic.

To start this undertaking, I need to state some basic common assumptions about Humanism so you understand what I am talking about in later articles. You could call them assumptions, precepts, or foundations. They are based on my reading of various texts from Humanists about Humanism.

My sources include Corliss Lamont and Lloyd and Mary Morain for a start. I’ll try to introduce some other writers and thinkers about Humanism in later essays.

Humanism is a non-theistic worldview. Notice I didn’t say atheist or agnostic. That is because it isn’t about a belief or non-belief in a deity that is important. What is important is that a belief of or about some deity or force outside of nature is irrelevant to living ones life as a Humanist. People may feel good with the rituals or the traditions of a religion but those items don’t have any bearing on living as a Humanist.

In his book “The Philosophy of Humanism,” Corliss Lamont wrote:

Humanism believes in a naturalistic metaphysics or attitude toward the universe that considers all forms of the supernatural as myth; and that regards Nature as the totality of being and as a constantly changing system of matter and energy which exists independently of any mind or consciousness.

It is important to note that while a belief in a deity is not of primary importance, freedom of conscience is important. That’s why it can seem, from the outside, that Humanists are anti-religious. We aren’t “anti-religious.” We support religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all and when we do try and protect those issues we are speaking and acting against religious authoritarians but not the average people who may believe in a deity.

Humanism supports justice and equality for all. This idea is about fairness. Philosopher John Rawls wrote a book in 1971 called A Theory of Justice. Rawls lays out the basic idea.

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. [Rawls, p24]

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that:
a) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity
b) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).[Rawls, 1971, pg. 303]

In 2001 he published a revised theory that had been corrected over the years since the first book but it still contained the core idea that:

Society’s institutions should be set up such that we would find the outcome fair and just even if we entered society without knowing in advance what our race, religion, or social class might be. We should consider the system just regardless of where in that system we find ourselves.

Of particular importance for Rawls in this book is the question of pluralism in society: if people differ on morality, religion, and philosophy, how can they live together in a single democratic society? Rawls argues that conformity on ‘comprehensive worldviews’ can only be achieved by imposing it via a repressive state; therefore, significant pluralism must be accepted. [Review by Austin Cline –]

Humanism is a-political. Neither extreme is correct. Some Humanists have claimed one must be a Liberal while another group thinks one has to be a Libertarian. While applying Humanism to political issues tends to fit a more liberal outlook, the philosophy is not predicated on a particular political belief or agenda.

Most Humanists I know, myself included, are independent politically. We believe in the greatest good for the greatest number of people while mitigating any harm to those who may be left out. It is also about finding the best solution for human problems and the best might come from the right or the left.

Lloyd and Mary Morain wrote in their book “Humanism As The Next Step”:

Consider these central ideas. We ourselves must take responsibility for making the world a better place in which to live, as there is no being or power, called by whatever name, to whom we can shift this task. We have the means to improve the world through effective use of our human abilities.

Humanism is filtered by one’s experiences and background so it important to have new experiences and to learn about other perspectives.

Lamont wrote:

Humanism believes that the individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare of the community.

We must be open to new ideas and challenges to our established ideas if we are progress and evolve toward a better world and life.

Humanism uses logic and reason tempered by compassion to find truth in our world. Rather than relying on faith or revelation, Humanists require concrete evidence and testable information. Using logic and reason to find truth has led to some complaints that we are cold people who support a survivor of the fittest social Darwinism. That’s where the compassion comes in.While we use reason and logic, we also have to remember that we are dealing with issues that affect people ? real people. What might be “true” from reason and logic may not be the correct way as it might do harm to others.

One concept that was “true” but not correct was Humanist support for Eugenics before World War II. It was a social philosophy, which advocated the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention. The purported goals were to create healthier, more intelligent people, save society’s resources, and lessen human suffering. Unfortunately, Eugenics was used to justify coercive state-sponsored discrimination and severe human rights violations, such as forced sterilization and even genocide.

Humanism is not static. It continues to evolve as new information and thinking comes up. Unlike the average theist, Humanists don’t rest when we find an answer. Like on the issue of Eugenics, Humanists can and do change our minds when new information requires it.

Humanism is first about the individual but the community in which we live is also important. It is pretty simple really. We as individuals are better off and happier when the community in which we live is happy, and the community can be happy when each of us, as individuals, work to make it so.

It isn’t an all consuming altruism but we do what we do to benefit the community because it will benefit ourselves.

Notice that many of these assumptions seem to overlap or are dependent on other assumptions. I’m sure many wish it could all be absolute like say the 10 Commandments, but what I like about Humanism is that these precepts feed on one another. It adds interest and complexity that make for good philosophical discussions.

Next time – How do we apply Humanism in our daily lives?

This essay originally appeared in the May/June 2006 Central Ohio Humanist. Doug is the founder and editor of iHumanism, editor of the Central Ohio Humanist, and founder and editor of the Secular Left blog. ©2006 Doug Berger, used with permission. Please give proper attribution if using parts of this essay in other works.

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