Lesson 1: The humanist tradition in ancient Asia

Humanism has often been portrayed as a Western invention, but in fact humanist ideas have arisen in cultures all over the world. India and China, for example, have a rich history of humanist and naturalistic philosophy dating back at least three thousand years.

The Lokayata movement, which thrived in India around 1000 BCE, criticized the Hindu religion of the day and developed a naturalistic philosophy of the cosmos. Four hundred years later, in the sixth century BCE, the Charvaka school of thought maintained that Hindu scripture is false, that there are no gods, that there is no immortal soul, that the priests are worthless, and that pleasure should be the aim of life. In addition to their naturalistic view of the cosmos, the Charvaka promoted a moral philosophy centered on human welfare: in the Mahabharata (the ancient Hindu epic poem) one of the Charvaka is put to death for criticizing the king’s warmongering!

Chinese philosophers of the sixth century BCE were also notable for their development of humanistic ethical philosophies and their skepticism about the supernatural. Their criticism of supernatural claims was often sly. For example, the great Taoist teacher Lao Tse (early to middle of the sixth century BCE) indicated his skepticism about supernatural claims when he said, “If lightning is the anger of the gods, the gods are concerned mostly with trees.”

In general, Chinese philosophers suggested that nothing could be known about the spiritual realm, rather than denying that such a realm existed. This agnosticism about supernatural claims led to humanist conclusions. The great teachers of the sixth century BCE argued that since humans could have no clear knowledge of the supernatural realm, supernatural claims could never provide a sound foundation for morality. They maintained that the best foundation for morality was an understanding of the natural world, human nature, and society.

The most famous of these teachers is Confucius. The Confucians tried to replace traditional religious beliefs with an ethical system focused on responsibility to family and society. Confucianism emphasizes benevolence, respect for others, and reciprocity as the foundations of social order. An early expression of the Golden Rule of ethics is found in The Analects (the collected sayings) of Confucius: “Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself.”

The Confucians dismissed questions about the spiritual realm, instead promoting a practical outlook that rendered the gods irrelevant. According to tradition, when Confucius was asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits, he replied, “Until you have learned to serve men, how can you serve ghosts?”

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