HUMANISM 101 | Defining an Action-Oriented Humanism

Humanism is a powerful thing. Someone seeking evidence of that basic claim can just look to the work done by humanist organizations all over the country, ranging from efforts by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to safeguard religious freedom to the good works done by local humanist organizations to alleviate suffering in their own communities.

Why do all of these different groups do so much work to protect their communities and their neighbors? While others may have different answers for this I have one I would like to present to the readers of this article. I believe that the reason these individual groups, often with few to no connections to other humanist groups aside from, perhaps, common themes in their names, strive to do so much good work is that they unconsciously share a drive to live out an active, action-oriented humanism.

Humanism is a simple thing to understand in theory and can often be challenging to put into meaningful action. It is a philosophy that is informed by science; it is compassion centered; it affirms a life that doesn’t require belief in the supernatural. Critics of humanism often use it as a synonym of non-belief, equating the position with atheism which does humanists everywhere a disservice.

Humanism is not about what is not believed in, it is about positive, meaningful beliefs such as the inherent dignity of human life, and the joys of art, science, and culture. All too often humanists are forced to defend our existences in the context of freedom of religion, rather than joyously affirming the wonders of community and our fellow human beings. This is deeply frustrating as a humanist who has grown tired of people focusing on a humanist’s supposed proximity to atheism, which is amusing in the context of the fact that I came to humanism after becoming an atheist but my personal journey to humanism is not the same as everyone else’s.

To equate humanism with non-belief erases the valuable, meaningful work of thousands of theistic humanists. Theistic branches of humanism do excellent work and help theists develop life-centered lives, just as much as secular humanism does with secular humanists. But today I endeavor to encourage readers to go a step beyond viewing humanism as a philosophy, and to instead view it as something that requires action.

I believe that humanism can be more than a noun. In my opinion, it’s helpful to think of humanism as a verb. Humanism can rightfully be viewed as an action, or even a state someone can be in, in a manner similar to how people use “Christ-like” as a descriptor that is usually applied to someone they admire. I find it helpful to view humanism as something to strive for, and my ultimate end goal is to morph it into a descriptor that people can apply to someone’s actions or state of mind. As an example of this, someone can easily begin thinking about issues from a humanistic viewpoint and come to the conclusion that problems require action-based solutions.

Positive, action-oriented humanism should be the end goal for humanists regardless of our positions relative to theism. This positive, thoughtful humanism can analyze modern-day problems ranging from climate change to the injustices inflicted on incarcerated individuals by the prison system, with the conclusion that actions must be taken to draw attention to and combat these problems. This sort of humanism both requires and encourages actions taken in defense of ourselves and each other, as well as in the protection of society in general.

Action-oriented humanism is something that I seek to both celebrate and encourage. It is my hope that this kind of thinking becomes more common and is something that eventually becomes the norm. By putting forth action-oriented, positive humanism as the norm we want to strive towards, we encourage communal action, foster meaningful community, and work to advance the conversation away from what we don’t believe into what we do. That is why I am encouraging the readers of this article to think about humanism as something other than a noun.

I’d love to know what you think and if this is something you’ve already unconsciously put into action. Please feel free to join me in the comments for this article.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly included Humanistic Judaism as a ‘theistic branch of humanism’. Humanistic Judaism is not theistic.