Understanding Humanism

What isn’t humanism?

Many misconceptions exist about humanism.

Humanism is often identified as something it is in fact in opposition with. It is important to beware of the ‘Black or White’ fallacy: the belief that ‘if it’s not this, it must be that’ (e.g. if you don’t believe in some ‘ultimate’ meaning or purpose to the universe, you must believe our lives can have no meaning at all). Beliefs do not have to lie at one or other extremes of a linear scale. Nor do they always easily fit on a linear scale at all.

Humanism is not:

  • Individualism/egoism: humanists believe we should be free to decide how we choose to live; however an excessive individualism or egoism that was overtly self-interested and ignored the consequences of our actions on others would not be compatible with humanism
  • Hedonism: humanists do not deny the pursuit of sensory pleasures; however, these are not the only ingredients of a good life
  • Relativism: humanists do not subscribe to the belief that truth and morality are purely a matter of personal preference
  • Scientism: there will be disagreement among humanists about to what extent science can answer all our questions; however, they will believe that philosophy, literature, the arts, and human experience can support us to answer those questions which perhaps lie beyond science without the need to turn to religion
  • Totalitarianism: humanism is as opposed to atheist totalitarianism as it is to religious authoritarianism; both typically deny human rights and freedoms and devalue individual human beings in the pursuit of some unquestionable goal
  • Utopianism: humanists do not believe we can build a perfect world, but typically believe we can build a better one
  • Nihilism: while denying the existence of some ‘ultimate’ meaning to the universe, humanists believe we can act to make our own lives meaningful

Nor is humanism…

  • The worship of human beings: humanists seek to remove the pedestal on which gods or other idols have been placed rather than place human beings upon it; human beings are to be valued and their positive capacities celebrated, but they are not to be worshipped
  • Utilitarianism: many humanists will adopt a utilitarian approach to ethics; however, it is not compulsory, and other humanists will adopt different ethical approaches
  • Speciesism: humanists do not believe human beings hold some elevated position over non-human animals; a worldview that bases its ethical decisions on evidence, empathy, and a desire to reduce suffering includes non-human animals in its circle of moral concern

The historian Yuval Noah Harari uses a somewhat eccentric definition of humanism in his books Sapiens and Homo Deus. This is not a definition of humanism that most humanists or humanist organisations would share (many would see their humanism in direct opposition to Harari’s). For more about Harari’s unusual use of the word (and of his use of the word ‘secularism’) click here.

Sometimes people will describe themselves as being ‘religious humanists’. This may be because they feel they belong to a religion in a cultural or familial sense, but they hold humanist beliefs. Some may simply define ‘religion’ in a way that includes all worldviews or approaches to life, and therefore define humanism as a religion (this is more common in the USA than the UK). However, some may hold religious beliefs and define ‘humanism’ differently. It is important that students are aware that the word is being used here in a different way. Most modern dictionary definitions of humanism today define humanism as a non-religious worldview and define humanists as atheists or agnostics. That is also the way most humanist organisations understand the term.

Some humanists may use the word ‘spiritual’ to describe themselves. When doing this, typically they are using the word to describe a purely natural feeling of awe and wonder, connection, or escape from the day-to-day demands of life, not a belief in anything supernatural.

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