Humanism’s Passionate Love Affair with Life

For all the talk about reason and science, humanism is really about a passionate love affair. It is a love affair with life, not a mythical hereafter. Humanism is a love affair with a progressive vision of civilization where each of us can add to our growing library of wisdom, our evolving knowledge of what there is, and what is truly important. None of the great achievements in history would have been possible without a love of the adventure of learning and of creating a better life. We have great cultural achievements in science, art, music, literature, philosophy, history, psychology, and political thought that all inform each other and were borne of that long humanist tradition.

Both the secularists and the religious today have retreated from grander ideas to mere personal inward meanings and purposes. The Enlightenment, modernism, and a commitment to progress have been challenged by the horrors of the Holocaust and instances where reason turned against itself as a tool for power and control. We fear grand narratives, labels, and larger stories of how life is and could be. We live in a cynical, narcissistic age without vision, and our retreat from community and larger commitments has sapped our passions.

For centuries, humanists overcame huge barriers, and they never would have succeeded except for their passion for truth, for justice, for mercy, and for making the world in some way a little bit better.

Humanism is merely that ongoing, evolving lifestance that challenges us beyond atheism, beyond our own self-centeredness, and beyond our own fear of larger commitments to embrace the best of what we and society can be. We have a statement of our vision in the Humanist Manifesto lll, which is not a rigid doctrinal statement but more an evolving consensus. Its purpose is to help people understand what one can believe if you don’t believe in God. It is merely a jumping-off point for the real ongoing quest.

Some have neglected to use the full breadth of humanism’s resources. Some would see science answering everything we need to know, but that ignores the many tools the humanities have given us. Democracy and the concepts of human rights are gifts of history and civilization. Philosophy gives us tools for critical thinking and a conceptual framework. Literature and art heightens our awareness about what values are important. As Curtis Reese, one of the founders of modern-day humanism, said we must relate to others in a purposeful fashion in order to “weave the best personal values into a noble social order.”

All human beings seek a whole, integrated story for our lives, something that gives us power, meaning, hope, joy, and purpose. This deep identification of shared values of all people is what humanism offers beyond atheism. Most of us privately long for something worthy of our noblest devotion. Humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz warned in his book The Transcendental Temptation of the temptation of irrational, other worldly visions, yet his whole life reflected a Promethean urge toward a transcendent, humanist vision of how we might structure our lives in a profoundly meaningful way.

In our troubled anti-foundational times, I think it’s time to relook beyond society’s failings, the universe’s inherent meaningless, our own needs, and our avoidance of grand purposes. Instead, we should once again look toward commitments of the heart to the best of who we and what society can be. Being a humanist takes passion, courage, and commitment. It requires a love of life that can help us rise above our age’s vacuous cynical malaise and empower us with a vision of what a humanistic society would look like.

Humanism is that grander vision of life. It is a devotion to humanity and the biosphere that humanity is part of. It is our passionate commitment to the best ideals that are supported by what experience, science, and civilization have taught us. That vision tells us humanism is larger than any of us. I believe we have a duty to continue humanism’s evolving tradition which has inspired countless individuals to make the world better. At the same time it motivates us to fill our lives with transcendent purpose for a meaningful, exuberant life that makes life worth living.