This has been a long time in coming: I am a Secular Humanist. I’ve been stalking Humanist websites for months, speaking with Humanists at my university, and toying with the idea for over a year now. It’s a philosophy that has always looked somewhat appealing to me, but only recently have I felt comfortable enough to embrace it fully. My recent willingness to embrace this label is due in part to comparative bigness of the Humanist tent. “Humanism,” is an umbrella term for many historical, literary, and philosophical movements, but when people speak of “secular humanism,” they’re usually referring to an ideology of empirically based morality which focuses on the collective well-being of mankind. A couple months ago I explained my Humanism to a friend as part of a letter in which I came out as an “atheist leaning Humanist ignostic”:
I find meaning [in] helping other human beings individually, and humanity collectively…Humans—helping them, educating them, learning from them—are my first priority. I think the ultimate moral system is the one which enables all living things to live in balance[, and] I think empathy is one of the most important traits in a person or a society.
One of my value metrics for ideological systems is an emphasis on empathy and compassion. Humanism appeals to me because it is, fundamentally, an empathy-based value system. It acknowledges that for humans, our various modes of existence (our individual biological makeups, our ancestries, our social and economic positions, etc.) define our interpretation of the world, and thus calls for a compassionate understanding of one another in an effort to exist more harmoniously. With mutual understanding comes an increased ability aide one another in overcoming the diverse hardships we face. My humanism is a philosophical expression of my love of mankind, my desire to serve, and my sense of responsibility for creating the type of world I want to live in. I believe it is unethical to wait for other people or cosmic forces to fix the problems that plague human society. Wars, famine, scientific illiteracy, violations of civil and human rights, and other wrongs have historically been righted by those who cared enough to get their hands dirty.
Humanism also appeals to my sense of reason. Attendant to the recognition that our individual differences beget a plurality of perspectives, is the recognition that our collective humanness comes with its own limited perspective. The boundaries of humanity define our understanding of reality. For both these reasons it is important to foster and exercise methods of objective observation as frequently as we can and as best we know how. We cannot escape the limits of our humanity, but we can develop consistent systems of understanding ourselves, and the world around us. In the same letter to my friend I enumerated my own ‘fundamental beliefs’ concerning reality (not twenty-eight, but five):
- I exist within reality.
- Reality may be empirically explored.
- Empirical information is generally the most reliable, therefore
- Important choices should be based on empirical evidence and logic whenever possible.
- There are limits to human understanding, so if we’re wrong or only have half the picture we should acknowledge that, work with what we have, and keep digging for more answers.
It’s important to me that belief system I espouse harmonizes with the lens I use to interpret the world around me. Empiricism and the acknowledgement that reality as we know it is defined by human experience, are integral parts of the Humanist philosophy. Or to put it another way, Humanism acknowledges that human experience is defined by human understanding, and that the scientific method is a worthy building block in the construction of ethical foundations. There are many formal and informal definitions of humanism, but my favorite comes from the Humanist Magazine and reads:
Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values—be they religious, ethical, social, or political—have their source in human experience and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.
There is so much more to be said about Humanist philosophy, its history, and its various aims, so I’ve linked some of the high points below. In the meantime, I’m still working out how I can live out my Humanism in a tangible way. After all, the worth of a philosophy is not determined only by its argumentation, but by what it compels its followers to do. I see writing and critical discourse as legitimate ways to contribute to the well-being of humanity, but I’d also like to involve myself in more practical efforts. I’ve considered becoming a member of the Foundation Beyond Belief, and while financially feasible, I’d also like to do something with my hands. Now that I no longer attend church my Saturday mornings from 10am to 1pm are completely free. I’d like to fill that time with some kind of service project, and to make sure I do I’m going to put a clock on it. By November 1, I’ll share with you the service opportunity or opportunities I’ve invested in.
More on Humanism:
- American Humanist Association – What is Humanism
- What is Humanism? by Fred Edwords
- Humanist Manifesto (1933)
- Humanist Manifesto II (1973)
- Humanist Manifesto III (2003)