This article was originally published in the newsletter of the Secular Humanist Society of New York (SHSNY). It is reprinted here with permission of the author.
As a humanist, I’ve always been asked a basic question about my belief system and it goes something like this, “David, you don’t believe in god so where do you get your morals?” Since I am an educator, I always take this time of either negative challenge or honest reflection from the questioner and attempt to explain briefly what humanism is all about as concisely as possible.
I tell them that humanism, like any philosophy, is as much a way of understanding, acting, and being in the world as it is an embrace of specific tenets and expectations. That it is equal to religious philosophy and theology in its ability to define “good and bad” but that it does not require belief in any deity to threaten damnation or glory in a religiously expressed afterlife.
To me, humanism is liberation from man-made religious belief and the throws of religious authority which are often subjective and frequently at odds with modernity. You only need to see the growing empty churches and vacant houses of worship to see how the utility of religion and its associated relevance is being neglected even by its adherents.
Humanism is the unvarnished trust in oneself and our fellow humans to be kind and good to each other for the sake of the NOW. To trust science and exploration. A trust in discovery based on the human ability to have an almost limitless curiosity about the worlds in us and around us. A trust in human rights and equal rights for every person on the planet. And finally, to take action based on these trusts, to be good without god while making our time here and that of the planet safer, richer, and kinder.
I also explain that you can also be a humanist and be a religious person. Certainly this seems like a dichotomy. But I know plenty of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people and people of other philosophical and religious beliefs who claim religious identity as well as accept secular humanism. This is a duality I can understand but personally cannot accept because I am an atheist, so it doesn’t fit me.
But that’s the part I love sharing the most about humanism. The fact that humanism isn’t exclusive but INCLUSIVE to anyone who accepts fairness, is open-minded, and supports the Humanist Manifesto III (even if they’ve never heard about or read it) because it dovetails nicely with the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.
In summing up, I conclude there are many bridges to build in this world. Between people as well as between nations. I say that the humanist perspective can only hasten a better and more just world with greater knowledge and understanding. It doesn’t mean humanists wear rose-colored blinders or attempt to excuse away bad deeds. Such relativity isn’t helpful. But it does mean we have an obligation to call out evil when we see it and work for social, economic, and environmental justice.
Usually the questioner walks away–mostly confused–but sometimes they find it comforting knowing that humanism isn’t about hating or stopping people from their own beliefs. Education mission complete!