Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Humanist beliefs impact on humanists’ lives in the following ways:
• Humanists try to live good lives by the light of reason and experience, rather than by relying on tradition or authority;
• Humanists try to avoid hypocrisy and 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. However, there are no obligatory rituals, practices or texts for humanists;
• Humanists may feel rather isolated if they have arrived at their beliefs independently, as many do, and if they never learn about Humanism or discover other humanists or humanist organisations;
• Humanists may be discriminated against in various ways, though this depends very much on the society they live in. Even in our relatively secular and tolerant society, they are often told that religious believers are morally superior to them, or that Humanism has no place in education.
The benefits to individuals of learning about Humanism and defining themselves as humanists include:
• Finding philosophical and practical support for their deeply held beliefs and values;
• Finding a positive way to describe themselves and their worldview, instead of a negative like “atheist” which simply describes what they do not believe, or “agnostic”, which implies that they don’t know what they believe. “Humanist” includes a moral perspective and a respect for human life and human capacities;
• Increased confidence in their values from the realisation that they are not alone, that many great thinkers over the ages have expressed humanist beliefs.
The benefits to communities and to the world from atheists and agnostics learning that their beliefs need not be purely negative ones, that moral values are not unique to the religions, and that there are rational reasons for trying to live a good life, must be considerable. Humanists have always worried that an over-close identification between religion and morality would encourage some non-believers to think that morality has nothing to do with them.
‘Humanism is about the world, not about Humanism’, wrote one of the founders of modern Humanism, Harold Blackham, in 1968, emphasising its capacity to look outwards. In many countries, Humanism supports secular, non-traditional values and developments that help to improve lives, for example human rights, the education of girls and family planning.
Some of the things that humanists value include reason, education, personal autonomy and equality of opportunity. Like most other people, they value honesty, kindness, love, friendship and families, but unlike some, they are often very accepting of non-traditional families. A humanist would think it worthwhile to debunk harmful beliefs or superstitions, as humanists do in India, for example, or to fight discrimination against minorities or gay people, as they have done in many places. These general models of “worth” are exemplified in the lives of individual humanists, some of whom have been very distinguished in their fields and can be read about on various humanist websites. Humanists are just as likely to work in the “caring professions” or to do voluntary work or give to charity as religious believers.
There are no sacred texts in Humanism and, although some humanists do choose to get together, meetings do not involve worship or reading specific texts. (See also the page on “Worship”.) Although many humanists have their own favourite supportive texts and influences (see Bibliography below for some examples), they contain little specialist language and have no particular status or authority within Humanism; indeed humanists are very likely to argue about their relative merits.
Although there is nothing in Humanism analogous to a sacred text, there have been many thinkers and books either reflecting a humanist philosophy or helping to influence or develop it. Very early examples include Confucius, Democritus, Epictetus, Epicurus, Protagorus and Cicero, but it was probably the 18th century thinkers of the European Enlightenment, for example, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft, Baron D’Holbach, and Denis Diderot, who did the most to advance modern thinking about secular morality, though they would not at the time have called this Humanism.
The 19th century brought developments in biblical scholarship and in science which undermined the historical accuracy and literal truth of the Bible for many people, and further influential thinking about rational, atheistic moral values, for example the Utilitarianism of philosopher John Stuart Mill.
20th and 21st century intellectuals built on these influences, to the point where humanist thinking is the implicit basis of much public discourse, though often unacknowledged. This lack of acknowledgment, and various contemporary religious reactions against Humanism and secularism, may lie behind the recent phenomenon of very assertive and popular defences of atheism, for example by Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling.
It has to be stressed, however, that any thoughtful person can arrive at humanist ideas and principles by reflection alone – no reading or authority is required. Reading, for humanists, can be very supportive, demonstrating that there are, and always have been, others who share and articulate a humanist worldview, but it is not essential.
No text has any particular authority for humanists, and there is no special humanist interpretation or analysis of texts, though since the 19th century humanists from the Christian tradition have been strongly influenced by the scholarly analyses of the Bible mentioned above.
Humanists use and may be inspired by poetry and poetic and figurative language (for example, it is often forgotten that Richard Dawkins’ famous phrase “selfish gene” is a metaphor), but it has no distinctive humanist meaning.
Humanists are sceptics about revelation, and consider all texts and authorities to be human rather than divine in origin (a viewpoint that some religions might see as itself an interpretation). Humanists think that wisdom can be found in many places, but that even the most respected thinkers and books may be superseded as new evidence emerges and knowledge advances.
Humanists may see life as a metaphorical journey, from youth to maturity, from ignorance to understanding, from aspiration and hope to fulfilment, but the journey is not a central concept or metaphor in Humanism (despite some critics seeing Humanism as embracing a naïve belief in human progress).
Humanists recognise the human need for rituals to mark the important stages of life. There are humanist ceremonies to celebrate birth and marriage (and same-sex civil partnerships) and in some countries, though not the UK, the arrival of adulthood. Humanist ceremonies are tailor-made for the people involved, and may involve readings, music, poetry as well as statements from those most closely involved and, possibly, a humanist officiant or celebrant. They will not include hymns, worship or prayer, though they may include time for quiet reflection or prayer for those who wish. They may also include traditional symbols such as flowers and rings.
Humanist baby-namings or welcomings can take place anywhere, and are usually fairly informal occasions, in which family and friends welcome the new arrival and express their hopes and promises, in words such as: “We promise to use all our wisdom, patience and love to help you to fulfil yourself and help others throughout your life.” They may invite a friend to be the baby’s mentor or involve other children in the family in the ceremony.
Humanist weddings or same-sex partnership ceremonies may be indoors or outdoors, formal or informal, traditional or very individual in style. The important thing is for the ceremony to suit the couple and add something personal, particularly the couple’s own readings and vows, to the necessary legal civil ceremony.
Humanists do not believe in an afterlife, and so humanist funerals look back rather than forward, celebrating the life of the deceased as well as offering an opportunity to grieve and say farewell. There will be no suggestion of life after death. A humanist celebrant may lead the funeral and offer guidance and suggestions to ensure that it reflects the beliefs, culture and personality, as well as the life and achievements, of the deceased.
Humanists have no particular festival days. Some humanists choose to celebrate New Year or “Winterval” rather than Christmas; some celebrate International Humanist Day on 21 June, or Human Rights Day in December, or on the birthday of Charles Darwin on 12 February, but none of these is obligatory. Many humanists simply enjoy public holidays such as Christmas and Easter in their own ways, and there are, of course, many non-religious festivals that include everyone: local fairs and celebrations and anniversaries, film and book festivals, Bonfire Night, et al. Humanists would like to see more of these, and some public celebrations that are meant for everyone, such as Remembrance Day on 11 November or “Peace Days” becoming more inclusive.
For humanists, the importance of festivals and holidays lies mostly in the rest and recreation and opportunities to be with friends and family that they bring. Some festivals are also an opportunity to remember a special person or event, or to celebrate human solidarity. Family celebrations such as birthdays and anniversaries are important to humanists too.
Humanists celebrate festivals, even ones that are religious in origin, in secular ways, and tend to stress the ancient (pre-Christian) seasonal origins of some holidays, for example those in the middle of winter or at the start of spring. They may well exchange cards and presents and have special meals and family traditions, just like most other people, but they will probably not join in with the more religious elements of some festivals.
International Humanist Day is important as the only day that celebrates Humanism, though it is not a public holiday or a mandatory one for humanists. Human Rights Day is important to many humanists because humanists value human rights as an international acknowledgment of the shared human values that are central to Humanism. The anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin is important because he provided an alternative explanation for the way life evolved that made it possible for people in the 19th century to envisage life without religion.
There are no particular rituals associated with humanist celebrations; how humanists mark these occasions will depend on the cultures and societies they belong to and on individual preferences.
Humanists have long recognised the need for rituals to mark the important stages of life, such as birth, marriage (and same-sex civil partnerships) and death, but humanist ceremonies are tailor-made for the people involved rather than following any particular tradition or pattern.
The most distinctive features of all humanist celebrations, whether personal, family, public or civic, are the absence of hymns, worship and prayer, and the individual nature of each ceremony.
Aesop’s Fables, ancient secular stories with strong moral (and practical) messages
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Blackburn, S., 2002. Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics.Oxford: Oxford Paperback.
Blackburn, S., 2006. Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Penguin.
Cicero, (tr. Grant, M.), 1979. On the Good Life. London: Penguin Classics.
Condon, R.J., 1974. Our Pagan Christmas. London: National Secular Society.
Dawkins, R., 1998. Unweaving the Rainbow. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.
Dawkins, R., 2006. The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.
Fisher, R. 1996. Stories for Thinking. London: Nash Pollock Publishing.
Fisher, R. 1999. First Stories for Thinking. London, Nash Pollock Publishing.
Gould, S.J., 2002. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. London: Ballantine Books.
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Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2004. Thinking about Death. London: British Humanist Association
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Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2005. Humanist Perspectives 2. London: British Humanist Association.
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Wynne Willson, J. & Ashby, R., n.d. New Arrivals. London: British Humanist Association.
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