Humanism is an ethical approach to life that is concerned with human’s well-being. It is guided by reason and science with no supernatural elements. It is not a doctrine, there is no dogma to humanism and it is not something you convert to either. It is an attitude, a philosophy and an invitation to think for yourself and take responsibility for the meaning in your life and interactions with others.
It was Socrates who began challenging the order of his day by instead of accepting the ancient Greek gods before him and the societal paradigms in place he started to ask the questions of “What is good? What is true? What is noble? What is right?” He wanted to have genuine and honest discussion on these questions, not just repeating a list of popular majority driven answers that had been told to him, but rather a deep thoughtful approach.
Humanism is primarily concerned with these old Socratic questions- it wants to explore ethics, values and morals in the most honest way it can. It uses reason, science and a thoughtful reflection on what it actually means to be a human on this planet, in this Universe as part of nature. This exploration is directly linked to the consideration of how to live a life that flourishes. Humanists want to think for themselves and help others to live flourishing lives on this Earth as an end in itself. This means that humanism wants people to live and be as good as one can whilst alive because this life is what we can actually verify, as far as we can tell it is all that we have. This is real human life in a real world. It is not working for after-lives, not serving deities, and not taking its ethics from superstition but wants well-being for the sake of well-being alone, no ulterior motives. In this life we can feel pain, love, joy, sorrow and everything in between. We can imagine, dream, discover, connect- and if this life, this short but beautiful life of 80 years or so of consciousness is all that we ever experience then we need to make it as good as possible, good in both an ethical sense and an experience sense too. For example, humanism deeply cares about people’s human rights, freedom of thought and expression not because we are especially chosen by a god but because we are human, we are sentient creatures who can feel suffering and therefore deserve rights to be able to flourish.
There is a stark distinction between this approach to life and a religious one. Religions begin with the premise of having all the answers and ask you to believe without question, they value submission and faith. But as aforementioned humanism follows the Socratic bidding of a life thought through, considered, and chosen. It begins with the premise of not having answers. The answers are certainly not readily available in a book; there is no list of do’s and don’ts. Humanist’s answers will change, adapt and progress in light of new evidence and further reason. This ethical outlook allows for the capacity for people to flourish, to accept differences, to learn and grow. Humanism is proof that religion does not have a monopoly on morality. It provides an ethical outlook for those who want to be good but do not need a god in order to do so.
Humanism is a journey that may take all of your life, these questions of what is good? How should I live? How should I view others? They are not easily answered. It is an endeavour; the answer may change and be different according to different circumstances. Furthermore, what is the meaning of life? Humanism holds that there is actually no inherent answer, there is no preordained or supernatural meaning, and no one can tell you what it is either, for their meaning may be quite different to yours. Humanism invites you in this quest for understanding to think of your own meaning – life has as much meaning as we give it. Only you can create, make or take away meaning from your life. It is up to each individual to be thoughtful and responsible for these choices. And that is truly beautiful. You are not a tool in a wider game, no one can tell you that you have to believe as they do or else you are going to hell, where is the choice in that?
Think through this thought experiment; it begins morbid but stay with it. If you ask a humanist, “What is the meaning of life?” An appropriate response (famously posed by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus) is “Would you or would you not commit suicide right now?” If the answer is “No” then the follow up question becomes “Why?” It is your answer to this question that is the meaning of life. Simple as that. Your answer may very well be very different to mine, and that is okay – in fact that is great! It is great because it recognizes the differences in each person. I can’t answer this question for you, no one can. And your answer will most likely change throughout your life as you do too. The important point is that humanism will not tell you what to think but rather it tries to explain how to think, to empower each individual for flourishing.
One of my all time favourite excerpts from literature is from a tale written by Plutarch on the 7 wise men going to a dinner party: “…2 gentlemen are discussing an interesting question on their way to a dinner, as follows: ‘We know what the duties are of a host at a dinner party; but what are the duties of a guest?’ The other replies, ‘The duty of a guest is to be a good conversationalist – that is, someone well-informed, who can articulate his views, express and explain them, make a case for them, and be prepared to change them if offered better arguments or evidence; but who is also a good listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he thinks they have said), can engage with their views, discuss them, debate them, challenge them if necessary; but along with them seek clarity, understanding, and truth.’” As the eminent humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling points out, this is quintessential humanism – to be a good conversationalist at the table of life. To join in on the great discussion and participate in this worthy conversation that will go on long after our time on Earth of living, laughing, loving, learning and questioning is done. It is through this conversation, this pursuit of goodness and adapting our ethics to reason and science that we have the power and potential to actually improve human well-being and live better lives. And that my friends is why, in all its simple profundity, humanism matters.
Over the years articles and sources I have read all contributed to my education on humanism and therefore to the writing of this article. Below is a list of sources that I have found particularly helpful and are beneficial if you are interested in finding out more about Humanism:
- The British Humanist Association has released a series of short 2 minute videos on Humanism with the titles of: -How do we know what is true? – What should we think about death? – What makes something right or wrong? – How can I be happy? Each video addresses these different aspects of life and humanism, narrated by Stephen Fry it is simple and eloquent.
- As mentioned in the article, A.C. Grayling is a renowned humanist and he writes so much better and explains this clearer than I ever could, read his thoughts here.
- If you prefer to watch rather than read then Grayling’s talks are just as captivating, entertaining and informative. This one I found particularly helpful.
- Humanistlife.org has great articles discussing humanism as a practicality in modern day life.
- The Richard Dawkins foundation also has videos, articles and discussions on secular life, cutting edge science and humanist ethics.
- The American Humanist Association has a magazine titled The Humanist. The magazine’s website has a long list of great articles too without having to buy the magazine.