Introduction to Humanism – Comments & Questions

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Lesson 1 Review Questions

Lesson 2 Review Questions

Lesson 2, Section 7: An open-ended quest

An open-ended quest

As this introduction shows, humanism seeks to provide answers to life’s questions based on the best available knowledge and philosophy. But sometimes the best available knowledge still leaves a lot of unanswered questions!

From this continuing search emerges a humanism which is an open-ended lifestance: humanist views are open to change and are constantly evolving. Humanists don’t expect the one, final, absolute truth to be revealed to them. On the contrary, they hold that all opinions are fallible and provisional, and that free inquiry and debate are essential to the process of learning and developing. Thus, humanists value tolerance, pluralism, and critical inquiry as positive and beneficial qualities in society — not simply as necessary evils.

And humanists embrace change: whether the personal change that comes from self-development, or the changes in society that result from human enterprise and creativity. Indeed, the humanist focus on understanding and adapting to the world around us also helps individuals cope with a society that is changing at an increasingly rapid pace.

Another result of the humanist reliance on science and common sense is that many people are humanists without realizing it! Hundreds of millions of people around the world agree with the humanist philosophy of living a happy and productive life based on reason and compassion.

These tacit humanists reach similar conclusions without meeting like-minded people or reading particular texts. They work out their humanist lifestance independently by learning what science has discovered, by examiningsupernatural claims, and by sharing in the universal human values that have arisen in the global community of the modern world. It is often a surprise to these people to discover their personal lifestance is called “humanism” and that organizations exist to defend and advance their beliefs!

Although it is not necessary to belong to a humanist organization — or even to be aware of the humanist movement — to be a good humanist, individuals who do associate with humanist organizations may experience a welcome sense of belonging and community. These organizations may provide services that connect to a person’slifestance: for example, rites of passage such as weddings and funerals, moral education for children, and some forms of counseling. They may offer a forum for discussion, social interaction, and activism with like-minded individuals. But many humanists support humanist organizations simply because they defend their rights, advance their beliefs, and translate their principles into practical projects to help people and improve society. (Humanist Activism, the cornerstone course in COHE Study Area I, Humanist Activism and Organization, explores how and why humanists can involve themselves in humanist groups and campaigns.)

Humanists are committed to investigating all areas of human life through the lens of critical inquiry. They see education and self-improvement as a life-long responsibility for all individuals. With this in mind, the Continuum of Humanist Education seeks not only to explain humanism but also to apply the principles of humanism and critical inquiry to other areas of human knowledge. We encourage you to explore, debate and criticize the ideas presented in this growing continuum of courses.

Lesson 2, Section 6: Self-determination


There is another political and social area where humanists generally find themselves united behind common goals in opposition to many other groups and lifestances. This is the area of individual autonomy and freedom.

Across the world one encounters laws that limit sexual freedom, that restrict freedom in health and medical choices, that deny individual control over fertility and reproduction, and that outlaw potentially lifesaving medical research and treatments. There are even laws in most countries which, under the gravest penalties of law, deny individuals the freedom to choose whether they live or die.

Humanists are committed to the principle of “self-determination”: the right of individuals to create their own meaning and values in life, and to shape their lives in accord with their values. Religious beliefs and authoritarian laws still deny many freedoms and restrict people’s right to self determination. Many humanist individuals and organizations, therefore, work to expand the right of individuals to control their own bodies and their own lives.

(Humanist positions on many contemporary social and ethical issues are explored in Developing Potential Without Religion, Dr. Jeaneane Fowler’s cornerstone course in COHE Study Area V, Religion and Spirituality. More detailed political and legal issues, specifically relating to the United States constitution, are covered in Religion and the Constitution, Dr. Timothy Gordinier’s cornerstone course in COHE Study Area IV, Law and Politics.)

Lesson 2, Section 5: The open society

The open society

The fundamental concepts of humanism have given rise to a diversity of shared positions and goals among humanists. For example, humanism’s ethical dimension means that humanists have a commitment to building a society that enables more people to fulfill their potential. And the commitment to the scientific method means that humanists try to use reason and evidence to inform their political goals.

Unfortunately, on subjects such as economics, human behavior, and social relations — where facts are often complex, uncertain, and fluid — science and humanism cannot provide comprehensive and definite answers. Humanists, therefore, hold a wide array of political opinions, from socialist and Green, through liberal and moderate, to conservative and libertarian. In fact, humanist thought can be seen as influential in the development of all these political positions.

Humanists do agree on many general political principles, though. They advocate for freedom, democracy, and all the other fundamental human rights. They support what humanist philosopher Karl Popper termed the “Open Society.” (In the Open Society and Its Enemies — written during World War II — Popper contrasted the open societies of liberal democracies with the closed societies of totalitarian states such as the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.)  An open society allows a diversity of opinions, values and lifestances, and encourages the necessary debate and compromises between competing interests and ideals. The open society is a recognition of the impossibility of certainty on political questions and the need for diversity, free inquiry, and debate in a healthy society.

The open society also requires that the state be neutral among lifestances and guarantees freedom of religion or belief. Humanists are, therefore, strong supporters of complete separation of religion and state.

Commitment to individual freedom and social pluralism is clearly a major political principle of humanism. But it also helps define the limits of humanist political aspirations. Because humanism affirms that individuals have a responsibility to make up their own minds about politics, it encourages a diversity of political opinions among humanists.

Humanism is committed to an open mind in an open society. For this reason, humanists — at least in the liberal democracies of the West — can give the appearance of having no unifying political agenda. Humanists in the established democracies often say that humanist groups should not be involved in politics because humanists have no common political agenda. In one sense they are right; humanist groups should avoid labeling passing partisan policies as “the official humanist position.” In another sense they are wrong, because there are unified humanist political positions — for example, the belief in human rights, secular government, and the open society.

Lesson 2, Section 4: Meaning and purpose in life

Meaning and purpose in life

A central question addressed by many lifestances is the purpose or meaning of life. Humanists ponder this question too, but they are not persuaded that human life was intentionally created to serve a specific purpose. In fact, humanists do not see reason to believe life was created at all; they agree with the scientific community’s view that it evolved naturally without any guarantee of transcendent purpose or supernatural significance. Humanists don’t feel that their lives are diminished by a scientific explanation of human origins, however; on the contrary, humanists see this knowledge as an exciting opportunity to create their own meaning and purpose in life. For a humanist, this ongoing creative quest is far more rewarding than following someone else’s idea of existential fulfillment.

Creating our own purposes in life and then striving to achieve them can, in itself, provide a sense of meaning. But meaning can also derive from the good we do, the relationships we build, the quest for intellectual growth, the satisfaction of productive work, the enjoyment of creative or artistic pursuits, and the influence we have on our friends and society. The meaning of these achievements is not independent of ourselves; on the contrary, their meaning is ours to define. This attitude has often been summarized as, “The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose.”

There is considerable evidence from psychology that happiness and self-esteem result from the choice to live a full life in pursuit of goals we find meaningful and valuable. Humanists would add that gaining a rational and realistic comprehension of why things happen — and what, if anything, we can do to change ourselves and our world — can give individuals an even greater sense of understanding and control over their lives.

Humanists feel that the humanist lifestance can lead to greater happiness and fulfillment by releasing humans from the chains of original sin, bad kharma from previous lives, and other self-denigrating beliefs. They believe that individuals should take responsibility for their own actions and strive for moral excellence, but not feel guilty about circumstances outside their control. Humanism focuses on living happy, ethical, and fulfilling lives in the here and now, not feelings of sin or shame.

Lesson 2, Section 3: Manifestoes and other statements of humanism

Manifestoes and other statements of humanism

People accustomed to creedal religions that proclaim a core doctrine often assume that humanism, likewise, must include statements of “dogma” which bind its followers to certain beliefs. They conclude that the various humanist manifestos and declarations published over the years are proclamations of faith that all humanists must adhere to. This assumption is false.  There is no requirement for humanists to agree with any manifesto or statement and, indeed, there is an enormous diversity of opinion in the humanist community about virtually every one in print. Each of these statements does, however, attempt to summarize the current beliefs and most widely agreed principles of the humanist movement — to provide a sort of “snapshot” of the humanism of the day.

The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 brought to the public’s attention a movement which explicitly rejected absolute authority, divine commandments, and revealed knowledge in favor of democracy, human values, and free inquiry. This movement used “humanism” as a call to seek human solutions to life’s questions and society’s problems.

The authors of this first Humanist Manifesto included a variety of leading intellectuals but with a preponderance of liberal religious thinkers who had outgrown their belief in God. In contrast to the freethought movement, the 1933 Humanist Manifesto called its viewpoint “religious” — although the only thing it seems to have in common with traditional religion is a focus on finding meaning and value in life.

The description of humanism as “religious” was to prove very controversial among humanists, as was the authors’ foray into economic matters. Written in the depth of the Great Depression, the manifesto argued that the “existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted.”

In the wake of World War II, many new groups sprang into existence in Europe and elsewhere to represent people searching for a democratic and ethical alternative to religion. The term “humanist” was widely adopted, but many of the new “humanist” organizations disagreed with key aspects of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. An increasing number of humanist groups did not share the manifesto’s conception of humanism as a new form of “religion.” In addition, many humanists objected to the manifesto’s criticism of free market capitalism and its call for “a socialized and cooperative economic order.”

Dissatisfaction with the Humanist Manifesto resulted in the publication of new and different statements, declarations, and manifestoes. Like the original Humanist Manifesto, most of these declarations were American. These included the Humanist Manifesto II (published in 1973), The Affirmations of Humanism (1980), A Declaration of Interdependence: A New Global Ethics (1988), and Humanist Manifesto III (2003).

In 2002 the global humanist organization, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, celebrated its 50th anniversary by issuing the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanism. These various declarations further refined the consensus of humanist thought, with a more global emphasis of humanism emerging. They either rejected or ignored any reference to humanism as “religious” — increasingly settling on the word “lifestance” as an alternative to “religion” — and avoided taking sides between socialist and capitalist humanists.

Most of the recent statements cover very much the same ground: for example, it is hard to find any disagreements among The Affirmations of Humanism, the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanism, and the Humanist Manifesto III, and the rest differ only by virtue of their greater length and detail.

Lesson 2, Section 2: The Fundamentals of Humanism

The fundamentals of humanism

One way to understand the humanist lifestance is to look at its answers to three broad and fundamental questions:

  • How do we gain knowledge and understanding of our world?
  • What do we know about the world and humanity’s place in it?
  • How should we live our lives?

All lifestances seek to answer these ultimate questions of existence. Humanism addresses them by explicitly relying on humanity’s own moral and intellectual resources.

The first question falls within the areas of philosophy called epistemology and methodology. Humanism embraces a rationalmethodology and an empirical epistemology. In less technical language, this means that humanists believe rational inquiry based on evidence is the best tool for gaining reliable knowledge of our world, while accepting that all claims to knowledge are fallible and provisional. This methodology has been formalized into the process called “science.” (For a detailed examination of the scientific method, see Evolution, Creationism and the Nature of Science, the cornerstone course in COHE Study Area II, Science and Humanism.) Humanists are convinced that all aspects of life and every area of human endeavor should be open to free inquiry and rational criticism.

Thus, in answering the second question — what do we know about the world and humanity’s place in it? — humanism looks to the findings of science. It looks to physics and cosmology to explain the beginning and development of the universe. And it looks to the life sciences, including discoveries about the evolution of life, to explain the origins of the human species and its place in the world.

Humanism takes a “naturalistic” view of the world, seeing no good evidence for any supernatural forces or powers. Humanists therefore do not believe in any gods, devils, or “Higher Beings,” nor in any kind of afterlife or spiritual plane. Humanism accepts that humans are the products of natural evolution and that human understanding and human values have no divine or supernatural component: human values and understanding arise from the interaction of human nature, social environment, and intellectual exploration. Humanists know that our scientific understanding of the world will change and improve as science continues its open-ended quest to explore, experiment, and explain.

As to the third fundamental question — how we should live our lives? — humanism is an ethical philosophy aiming to bring out the best in people so that all people can have the best in life. Humanism affirms that people have the right and responsibility to give shape and meaning to their lives. It emphasizes the positive development of our own personal potential, but recognizes that this requires respect for everyone else’s right to fulfill their potential.

Although the philosophy of morality — ethics — has nothing like the level of agreement of science, humanists do agree on certain broad principles, such as support for human rights, and humanists have reached broad consensus on many different issues. (For a humanist exploration of the foundations of morality, see Sacred vs. Secular Ethics, the cornerstone course in COHE Study Area VI, Ethics. For a discussion of the humanist position on a range of contemporary ethical issues from abortion to voluntary euthanasia, see Developing Human Potential Without Religion, the cornerstone course in COHE Study Area V, Religion and Spirituality.

Lesson 2, Section 1: Lifestance explored

Lifestance explored

“Lifestance” is itself an unfamiliar term to most people, but over the past two decades it has become increasingly common — initially in Britain, but now also in Europe and the whole of the English-speaking world — as a term that is inclusive of religion and non-religious world-views. A “lifestance” is, at best, a comprehensive conception of reality, or, at least, a set of ideas that help us understand the world and find meaning and value in life.

Many lifestances are clearly religious; for example, Christianity is a religious lifestance, as are Hinduism and Islam. Some lifestances are generally viewed as non-religious, such as the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx and his followers, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and humanism. Other lifestances, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, have traditionally been classed as religions, but do not always sit comfortably in that category. The concept of “lifestance” encompasses them all. (See Developing Potential Without Religion, the cornerstone course in COHE Study Area V, Religion and Spirituality, for more detailed discussion of the meaning of “religion” and why humanism should not be classified as a religion.)

Lifestances address fundamental existential questions — sometimes called “ultimate questions” — such as, “How do we gain knowledge of our world?” “What is the nature of the universe?” and “How should I live my life?” Everyone has a lifestance: we all have conceptions of what exists and what is of value. But most people may not give much thought to the underlying assumptions that guide their lives: their lifestance has never been made explicit or critically examined. Indeed, it is in the nature of many religious lifestances that we take these underlying assumptions of life as a matter of faith.

Yet our underlying assumptions profoundly affect how we understand the world and live our lives. If your underlying assumptions about life are false, contradictory, confused, or in other ways flawed, you may find yourself leading a confused life marked by harmful illusions, bad choices, and painful conflicts. A well thought out lifestance can lead to greater understanding and success in life. Of course, what you consider “success in life” will depend on your lifestance!

Humanists feel that critically examining your lifestance will not only improve your understanding and success in life, but also make your life more truly your own. Humanists tend to agree with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For the humanist, as for Kant (see sidebar in Lesson I: Brief History of Humanist Thought, Section Two, Part IV:  The Age of Reason), enlightenment means growing beyond dependence on the views and instructions of others — be they parents, governments, or religious authorities — and having the courage to live life according to your own understanding and decisions. The Continuum of Humanist Education aims to help students achieve this state of self-determination.