Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
The most important humanist beliefs are that that we can live good lives without religion or a belief in God, and that we can know what is good by using reason, experience and empathy with others, not by reference to religious rules and traditions. Most people who call themselves humanists:
1. do not believe in God: they may be agnostic or atheist;
2. believe that we understand the world and what is true though experience and reason;
3. believe that people, whatever their backgrounds, have much in common. They believe that many, perhaps most, of our moral values are shared, because they are based on shared human
4. nature and needs, and what works best when people have to live together.
5. believe that this life is all there is – there is no afterlife and that the rewards and punishments for the way we live our lives are here and now; so we should make the best use we can of our lives.
Humanist beliefs are often arrived at independently, by evaluating the beliefs around one and thinking about how well they relate to the real world and one’s own understanding.
Some humanist parents pass on their beliefs, though usually within a liberal framework of education and discussion which would allow children to choose their own worldview.
Many humanists read or hear something – perhaps in a book, a broadcast, a conversation, a humanist funeral, or an RE or Philosophy lesson – which they realise expresses their own beliefs. “Now I know what I believe!” is a fairly common reaction to learning about Humanism.
Beliefs translate into practices for humanists in two main ways:
1. in trying to live good lives by the light of reason and experience;
2. in trying to avoid hypocrisy; humanists are not “don’t knows”, and having arrived at their beliefs by thinking deeply, tend to be disinclined to compromise over matters such as participating in worship or calling themselves “Christians” for convenience. For this reason, humanists have developed their own ceremonies to mark the significant stages of life.
That said, there are no obligatory practices for humanists. They may choose to join a humanist organisation or to seek out other humanists for comradeship and support – or not; they may choose humanist ceremonies for rites of passage, or opt for civil ceremonies or none at all.
Humanism has no authorities or leaders in the usual senses of these words, that is, individuals, texts or organisations that command obedience or universal respect.
Individual humanists seek and find knowledge, wisdom and guidance from a variety of sources, but they choose for themselves how much weight to give these sources, judging them against their own experience and how applicable these ideas might be to their own lives and times.
For their understanding of the world, humanists will look to and respect the methods and findings of science; for their values and their understanding of other people, humanists might look to philosophers and writers, ancient and modern, testing their ideas against their own. The ultimate moral authority for a humanist will be not be a text or religious authority, but his or her own conscience, though this raises questions about what the conscience is and where its intuitions come from. Most humanists would locate the conscience in the mind, and the feelings of guilt or satisfaction associated with the conscience in our understanding of and empathy with other people.
Because there is no authority, there are no obligatory practices in Humanism which would express authority or respect for authority. Indeed, many humanists distrust authority and obedience per se and rely instead on reason and evidence.
Humanists acknowledge and accept the compromises and sharing and limitations on some freedoms that living alongside others entails. But they tend to be individualistic, in the sense of thinking for themselves and evaluating sources of knowledge and wisdom for themselves, though not in the sense being especially self-interested. One favourite maxim of Humanism is: “Think for yourself, act for others.”
As a result, humanists love to argue, both amongst themselves and with religious believers! But often, despite their different and varied sources and influences, humanists share many moral values not just with each other but with religious people. Humanists attribute this to our most important values arising out of shared human nature and needs.
The impact of humanist beliefs on people’s lives may be considerable and life-changing or relatively uncomplicated, depending on family and social background. To be a humanist in a very traditional family or a society where atheism or agnosticism is not understood or tolerated will be hard or even dangerous, as it once was in Europe. A humanist who has once been a devout believer may feel alienated from family and community and rather isolated. In some societies (e.g. the USA), atheists, agnostics and humanists can be distrusted and discriminated against in various ways.
Others find that their humanist beliefs are acknowledged and respected, even widely shared, and that “open” societies can be as accepting of Humanism as they are of religions. A humanist society would put more stress on personal autonomy and responsibility than on tradition.
The truth claims of Humanism are largely to do with our understanding of the world and ethics (how we relate to and treat each other and the natural world, and why). The source and evidence for both sets of truth claims lie in human experience rather than in authority or tradition.
Humanists understand the world through observation and through reasoning and hypothesizing (not necessarily in that order), processes normally associated with science and not uniquely humanist, of course, though exclusive reliance on them does differentiate humanists from some religious believers.
The distinctive truth claims made by humanists are ethical: that our relationships and moral values are founded on human nature and experience alone and concern for others does not require an external source or authority.
Humanists rarely, if ever, attain positions of authority or influence in society as a direct result of their Humanism, though humanist beliefs and values may well inform their choices of career and how they use authority and influence once achieved. But no individual humanist has authority over other humanists or can claim to represent them adequately in the public sphere. One reason for the development of humanist organisations around the world is to provide humanists with a public voice and representation to public authorities and governments.
Humanist organisations are democratic and egalitarian, usually run by representatives of their members and answerable to them as well as to institutions such as the Charity Commission in the UK. Their success is evaluated by members on grounds such as: Are they providing the services needed by members and the wider non-religious community? Are they responding to public affairs in the ways that members require? Are they recognised and respected as the public face of Humanism?
Humanism had a much more gradual, less defined foundation than most religions, with few “leaders”. However, humanist ideas are part of a long and influential tradition of scepticism and belief in a non-religious basis for morality, and humanists have often been very active in world events.
Influential or inspirational thinkers from this sceptical, humanist tradition range from figures from ancient history such as Confucius, Cicero and Epicurus to contemporaries such Carl Sagan, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, with many, many in the centuries between. Their influence goes well beyond Humanism.
Humanists have contributed to human welfare through science and medicine, including the discoverers of radium Marie and Pierre Curie, Professor Sir Anthony Epstein, one of the discoverers of the Epstein-Barr virus and Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, discoverer of DNA fingerprinting. Others such as writers John Fowles, Ian McEwan, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, and poets Alan Brownjohn and Maureen Duffy, have inspired through the arts. Many humanists have been active in politics, peace movements, the formation of the United Nations, and in campaigns for equality and autonomy.
Some key figures helped to establish the Ethical Churches which eventually, in Britain, evolved into the British Humanist Association. One of the founders of the British Ethical Society movement, Moncure Conway, started his career in America as a Unitarian minister. He fell out with his family over slavery and was dismissed in 1856 from his church over his abolitionist stance. In 1863, he came to London where he became the minister of the South Place Chapel, but he abandoned theism after one of his sons died, and he and his congregation eventually broke from the Unitarian Church. In the 1880s, led by Stanton Coit (who at his American university was called “the most sceptical man in our class but also the most spiritual”), the South Place Chapel evolved into the Ethical Church and then Ethical Society, but Coit continued using the word God to indicate the noblest good, and referred to “the Religion of Humanism”.
A more political, campaigning secularist was Charles Bradlaugh, who became Britain’s first openly atheist MP when he was elected by the voters of Northampton in 1880. As an atheist, he was not allowed to swear allegiance on the Bible or to affirm (a right which did not then exist) and so could not take up his seat in Parliament. Eventually, after he had been re-elected several times, he was allowed to swear allegiance, and the episode led to a change in the law allowing non-religious affirmations the same legal status as religious oaths.
It was still possible in the 1950s to shock Britain by saying, as humanist psychologist Margaret Knight did, that the moral education of children was too important to be built on the shaky foundations of religion. She and others such as Harold Blackham, A J Ayer and Julian Huxley were important in the mid-20th century as leaders of and advisers to the newly-formed British Humanist Association.
Though these 19th and 20th century figures were important in the development of Humanism and humanist organisations, it has to be admitted that many humanists know little or nothing about them. Although humanists may have benefited from their work and campaigns, they could not be said to be directly influenced by them.
These and many others exemplify humanist moral and spiritual values such as searching for the truth, belief in human equality and shared values, and working actively for peace, progress and human welfare.
In living with integrity by their humanist values, sometimes at some personal cost, the figures described above offer humanists good examples of how to live. They were characterised by a belief in the power of reason, which gave them the strength and motivation to speak out against the orthodoxies of their day, and none of them resorted to violence. Their values remain relevant today, as many of the ideas and freedoms they struggled for remain out of reach for large numbers of people.
Humanism, with its emphasis on shared values based on shared humanity and on thinking for oneself, encourages and supports the independence of thought and empathy with others exemplified in many of the people mentioned above. For humanists the meaning of life lies in making the best possible use of our lives and our abilities – and these and many other humanists have done just that.
Humanists would locate the source of their inspiration in those aspects of the human character (or “spirit”) that make them question conventions, and courageous or stubborn enough to stand up for what they believe to be right. One may be born with these qualities or they may be attributed to culture, education or upbringing, but they are human and natural rather than supernatural in origin.
Aesop’s Fables, ancient secular stories with strong moral (and practical) messages
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