Foundations of Identity

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.

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