Humanist EDge: Yes, But What Is Humanism?

As the leader of a predominantly humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation, I am asked every day—both literally and by my actions—to define humanism. What is humanism? What do humanists believe? What do humanists do because we are humanists?

I define humanism as a way of life based in the best of human thought and dedicated to the well being of all humanity, living things, and the planet. Humanism uses wisdom from the past and insights of the latest research to direct our actions. This stance implies that yesterday’s humanism is not tomorrow’s humanism. It implies that we humanists are always searching for the best answer available, here, now. But we keep humbly in mind that tomorrow may very well prove us wrong.

What do humanists do because we are humanists? Contrary to what the name might imply, we don’t think that human beings are special or ought to be privileged over other living things. Rather, we know the power of human beings, in both creation and destruction. Our power to build and destroy comes with the responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions. Humanists are not anthropocentric. Whatever the philosopher Protagoras meant by his formulation, “man is the measure of all things,” for us it is a lament. When we measure the world according to our own human biases and social locations, our measurements are way off!

I love teaching the introductory class (“The Humanist Life Stance”) in The Humanist Institute’s Humanist Studies Program (I’ll be teaching it again in January 2018). In conversation with the incredibly talented students that attend THI classes, I gain insight into the many ways to be humanist. To their diverse experiences, I try to add a dimension by discussing the history and development of the humanist life stance. Still, I always keep in mind that the future of humanism is in their hands.

Early humanists such as my predecessor at First Unitarian Society, John Dietrich, and future American Humanist Association president Curtis Reese, saw what they called “religious humanism” as a way of keeping the good that occurs when human beings gather into congregational communities. The good includes a sense of continuity with the past and future; helping one another through life’s difficulties; and a way of discovering and discussing new and controversial ideas. Nowadays, I call what we do “congregational humanism” to underline the fact that “congregational” humanists and “secular” humanists have the same value system. The difference is that one group chooses to congregate, the other group doesn’t. To learn more on this, I recommend taking the Religious Humanism course I wrote for THI’s Kochhar Online Humanist Education (KOHE).

As I mentioned earlier, humanism necessarily morphs over time. In the early twentieth century, it appeared that reason and science would soon drive superstition out of human societies. Fact is, Dietrich and Reese and the others who signed the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933 underestimated the tenacity of superstition. Various human delusions grew exponentially through the twentieth century and keep metastasizing.

The recent acceleration of secularity in the United States does offer some opportunities for reason and compassion to replace superstition. My new book, After the Bloody Mary Game: Living into Humanism, uses the metaphor of a game that kids play. The game itself is about working yourself into a state that encourages a hallucinatory experience. Delusions are the original “fake news.” Those of us who choose reality-based lives have to shake off a lot of social conditioning. Rather than imagining scary things that aren’t there, we must face down our fears.

For humanists, saying what we believe firmly and clearly is an important part of living a conscientious life of integrity. Yet knowing our own minds is only a first step. An examined life starts in the individual mind, but it expands into all that we do, and it embraces all of society and the earth.