Is There a Humanism for Everyone?

AHA Communications Associate Brian Magee explores the various types of humanism coming out of religious traditions such as Sikhism and Mormonism.

Even for those with limited knowledge about humanism, it is generally understood that humanism comes in many forms. But even for those with a more an advanced understanding of the humanist lifestance, there is still likely an underestimate in the diversity that actually exists.

Perhaps the most well-known types of humanism are secular humanism and religious humanism, but it might be surprising to even the most familiar with humanism how many people and groups with strong religious traditions use the humanist label. Here is a brief list of a few of those calling themselves humanists that some may find unexpected.

Zen Humanism (Humanistic Buddhism): There are now Facebook and Tumblr pages for Zen Humanism, which is similar to Humanistic Buddhism. From the page of Buddhism philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, this type of humanism is described this way: From the perspective of Buddhist humanism it is human beings themselves, rather than a higher power, who possess the ultimate wisdom about their condition.”

Humanistic Judaism: The Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ), officially organized in 1969, “embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas.” Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, was honored as the 2003 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. Today there are 29 SHJ-affiliated congregations and communities across the United States.

Sikh Humanism: Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the ten Gurus of the Sikhs, is often described as a humanist. The Institute of Sikh Studies concludes that “a Sikh is pious in his religiosity, active in social life, aware of justice, and he is responsive to any injustice done to any one. It is this supreme and difficult ideal, which the Sikh Gurus in all their humanist zeal have given to their Sikhs.”

Humanistic Mormonism: The Society for Humanistic Mormonism has created The 13 Articles of Reason of Humanistic Mormonism that includes an article that states, “We believe that the first principles of the Gospel of Reason include: First, to identify to the best of our ability objective truth and reality through reason and science; Second, to base our beliefs on the evidence and data we gather; Third, to follow and act according to the evidence we gather, and Fourth, to constantly dispute our current beliefs to see if they are true or rational or not.  We believe in accordance with reason and the current evidence it may be necessary to change what we believe from time to time.” Earlier this year, HNN ran a two-part interview with a practitioner of Humanistic Mormonism. (Revisit part one and part two.)

Catholic Humanism: In 2008, Pope Benedict called for “a new humanism,” which some people embraced as “superior” to secularism.  Benedict XVI declared that “…such phenomena as global terrorism blur the distinction between peace and war, seriously compromising the future hopes of humankind. How can we respond to these challenges? How can we recognize the ‘signs of the times’? Certainly, joint action on a political, economic and juridical level is needed but, even before that, it is necessary to reflect together on a moral and spiritual level. What is ever more vital is to promote a ‘new humanism.’”

Islamic Humanism: An essay called “The Spirit of Islamic Humanism” was recently included in a book titled The Humanist Imperative in South Africa. The writer, Ebrahim Moosa, notes that “Islam once played a major role in the intellectual tradition known as humanism” but eventually “more exclusivist and triumphalist also reduced the capaciousness of Islam’s humanistic tradition.” The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard’s Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist, tells the story of how he was introduced to humanism by a Muslim.

These uses of humanism are just a few lesser-known examples of the long history of humanism being used to describe a large variety of movements, groups and individuals, including Renaissance Humanism, Progressive Humanism, Literary Humanism, and Ethical Humanism, among others.

What do you think? Is it appropriate for humanism to be used by such a wide variety of people? Let us know in the comments below.