Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;
Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.
There are few overt signs or demonstrations of humanist belief. Humanists dress like most other secular people of their own societies and there are no obligatory rituals or observances. There is no humanist authority expecting and imposing moral codes or certain kinds of behaviour. On the other hand, to declare oneself a humanist is to commit oneself to a particular ethical worldview, one which demands reflection and a concern for others, as in the humanist maxim: “Think for oneself; act for others”. “Belonging” is an internal and personal matter for humanists, unlikely to be expressed in any obvious external or symbolic way.
Humanists may express their beliefs by, for example, sending their children to an inclusive school (rather than a faith school), and by not participating in prayer or worship. They may choose to celebrate life events with humanist ceremonies such as baby-namings, weddings or funerals. They may simply declare that they are humanists, or they may join a local humanist group or a national organisation like the British Humanist Association, which “supports and represents” humanists and other non-religious people. Or they may simply express their beliefs by trying to live a good life according to their humanist values.
What “belonging” means to a humanist depends very much on time and place. In some societies being a humanist is accepted as perfectly normal, while in others it can lead to discrimination or conflict with the wider community: there are countries where atheism is not accepted at all and where there is no visible humanist or atheist community to belong to, indeed such a thing would be dangerous.
In Britain today, an individual identifying as a humanist and belonging to a humanist family or group or organisation will find reassurance and support of various kinds, philosophical and practical. Joining the humanist community can provide companionship with like minds and help to build the confidence needed in a society that, though very tolerant and in many ways secular, still sometimes expresses negativity or ignorance towards atheism and Humanism.
The humanist community will feel it really belongs in society when its organisations are treated in the public sphere with the same consideration and respect as is accorded to faith groups.
Very little is formally expected of a humanist – humanists do not have to join anything, read anything, perform any rites, or go to particular places on particular days. Informally, when people decide they are humanists (and that is all it takes) they are committed to a worldview that is secular, moral and human-centred.
There are no identifying marks or symbols or dress codes for humanists. Some may choose to wear a “Happy Human” badge.
Humanists are, therefore, not easily recognised. Additionally, it is still considered impolite or unduly provocative in some circles to discuss religious or sceptical beliefs and some humanists may, for that or other reasons, choose to treat their beliefs as a private matter. On the other hand, some humanists will be recognised because they have declared themselves humanists (for example when filling in an official form or choosing a school), or because they have chosen to affirm rather than to swear a religious oath or to have a humanist ceremony for a life event or to opt out of a religious ceremony or festival, or by their membership of a local or national humanist organisation.
One of the basic principles of Humanism, shared with many religions, is the “Golden Rule”: “Treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself”, and humanists would expect themselves, and others, to live by this principle. They also expect to have to think about the consequences of their actions, for others as well as themselves. That both these guiding principles require thought and adaptation to particular circumstances is not considered a bad thing by most humanists, who, without being moral relativists, distrust absolute codes that demand unquestioning obedience.
Humanists are not usually committed to a group view or identity or a group code of behaviour, and in this sense Humanism is probably one of less committing worldviews. This does not mean, however, as some people occasionally imagine, that humanists can do exactly what they please with no thought for others. Humanism places considerable weight on individual judgment and personal responsibility.
Humanists may choose to express their personal worldview in some of the ways suggested. Other ways might include: doing voluntary work; giving to charity; talking about their beliefs; sending their children to inclusive schools rather than faith schools; not joining in public prayers or hymns; saving or investing ethically; being environmentally-friendly. Probably a higher proportion than in the general population are vegetarian, an expression of concern for animal welfare and/or the environment. Neither these expressions of what is valued, or the thoughtfulness about ethics that underpin them, are unique to humanists, of course, but they do seem to be characteristic of them.
Humanists think that every person is unique because they are a unique blend of “nature” and “nurture”, that is, genetic influences (some immediate, from parents and family, and some very ancient, part of the shared human heritage) and environment (upbringing, culture, education – all the external influences on us). Humanists tend not to identify themselves by what they do not believe in, which may be just one element in their lives, and may be more comfortable with the concept of multiple identities, based on nationality, neighbourhood, profession, age, family, race, sex, sexuality, interests, beliefs, political affiliation et al. Humanists also think that we have a great deal in common because we are all human beings, living in human societies, and tend to look to sciences such as psychology, social psychology, anthropology and evolutionary psychologists for explanations of human nature and individual personality.
The family is just as important to humanists as it is to everyone else, though humanists may have a fairly liberal and inclusive idea of what constitutes a family. The humanist idea of a good family, like their idea of a good community, will be based on how members treat and care for each other, including the more vulnerable members, and how much good it does in the world.
Community is important to humanists as a source of friendship and support, and some humanists find these particularly within the humanist community. But many humanists do not restrict their idea of community to those who share their beliefs, and have a strong sense of the wider “human community”.
Humanist families may practise their beliefs by, for example, sending their children to an inclusive school (rather than a faith school), or in withdrawing their children from school worship or Religious Education (though the latter would be unusual and might depend on the local RE syllabus or a teacher’s interpretation of it; most humanists do not object to their children finding out what others in our society believe, though they also welcome the inclusion of their beliefs in RE).
More generally, humanist parents encourage their children to think for themselves and to become responsible adults.
Humanist families may choose humanist ceremonies such as baby-namings, weddings or funerals. In some countries, particularly those where most adolescents are confirmed, young humanists participate in alternative humanist summer camps or classes, leading to humanist coming-of-age ceremonies. For example, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association runs a preparation course for “civil confirmation” taught by philosophers, which includes:
“ethics, human relations, human rights, equal rights, critical thinking, relations between the sexes, prevention of substance abuse, skepticism, protecting the environment, getting along with parents, being a teenager in a consumer society, and what it means to be an adult and take responsibility for your views and behaviour … There are 2 main rules in our course: 1) it is all right to be different, to dress differently, look different, and hold different views from the majority. And 2) One should be honest.”
The humanist community may practise its beliefs by developing courses and ceremonies for its members – and, usually, for anyone else who feels they are appropriate. It may come together in national organisations like the British Humanist Association, which “supports and represents” humanists and other non-religious people, or humanists may meet together locally.
Both of these are linked by the desire and need for humanists to live lives of integrity, according to their own beliefs. One impact on the wider community is the availability of a choice of ceremonies suited to the non-religious. Another is the greater visibility of humanists and a growing awareness that, for example, legislation on discrimination and freedom of belief protects humanists too.
The impact of belonging to a humanist family or community depends very much on time and place. In some societies it may be accepted as perfectly normal, while in others it once was or is still a source of tension or conflict with the wider community: there are countries where atheism is not accepted at all and where there is no visible humanist or atheist community, indeed such a thing would be dangerous.
In Britain today, to belong to a humanist family and / or community would be a confidence-building source of support, helpful in equipping one against some of the negative assumptions that still exist about atheism and Humanism.
The humanist tradition entails trying to do some good in the world and a commitment to working with others for the common good; many humanists work alongside religious believers in, for example, education and the “caring professions”, and in projects, campaigns and charities which aim to improve the world in some way. In many of these settings whether one has religious belief or not is less important than the task itself and may not come up as an issue.
Humanists are fairly diverse, as humanist ideas have arisen independently in many places at many different times. There are humanist groups and organisations all over the world. In the UK and the USA, most humanists come from a Jewish or Christian background, but in other societies the religious or ethnic heritage may be very different. As with religions, shared ideas, beliefs and values can create strong bonds across different nationalities and cultures.
Humanists sometimes worry that Humanism lacks a clear “identity”. For the non-religious it is not always easy to find a group identity, but many humanists are satisfied by their belief in human solidarity and / or the concept of “multiple identities”, which may include family, profession, politics, hobbies and interests, neighbourhood, nationality and their humanist worldview. One humanist answered a child’s question “Who am I?” like this:
“You are an intelligent human being. Your life is valuable for its own sake. You are not second-class in the universe, deriving meaning and purpose from some other mind. You are not inherently evil – you are inherently human, possessing the positive rational potential to help make this a world of morality, peace and joy. Trust yourself.” (Dan Barker in “Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist”)
Humanists will be divided, as are philosophers and scientists, on the “mind / body question”: Is the mind is simply another way of talking about the brain, or is the mind (or consciousness or “spirit” or “soul”) something separate and different? Whichever it is, humanists will look for a naturalistic explanation; it is inconceivable to a humanist that there is anything within us that could exist independently of the brain, or after death. For humanists the only possible survival after death is in the work, the memories, the children, that we leave behind, and in the fact that our remains will sooner or later become part of natural world.
There is some diversity within Humanism about the merits of religion and of interfaith dialogue. Humanists are often excluded from interfaith dialogue and networks on the grounds that Humanism is not a religion, and thus do not always know what it involves. However, most humanists would prefer to see dialogue rather than religious conflict, and many would like to enter into dialogue with others, regardless of their worldviews, about common concerns such as climate change and world poverty.
Some humanists, like some religious believers, are very interested in what other people believe and would like to find out more in a neutral setting that does not compromise their own beliefs. Humanists do participate in some local interfaith groups and SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education).
Increasing diversity during the past half-century has made the UK a much more interesting place to live, but humanists are often concerned that the freedoms associated with an open society may be threatened by too many concessions to religious groups. Humanists are not on the whole separatists, and do not seek their own schools, or youth or scout groups, or welfare services – and would prefer that pluralism was expressed in “reasonable accommodations” of religious and cultural needs within a framework of shared values and shared public and community institutions.
Whilst strongly believing in a democratic secular state that does not privilege religion in any way, humanists also have a clear commitment to human rights, including the rights to religious freedom and freedom of expression. Humanist beliefs rarely, if ever, clash with the requirements of citizenship, at least in secular democracies, though, of course, humanists do not necessarily agree with everything that their governments do. Humanists believe that citizenship should be based on the acceptance of shared values and institutions, but should not demand abandonment of religious or cultural beliefs and practices, as long as they do no harm.
Aesop’s Fables, ancient secular stories with strong moral (and practical) messages
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