Review: What is Humanism?

A review of our meeting in September.  

Hester Brown introduced the meeting, saying that it was intended to give members an opportunity to present their personal views on the meaning of humanism. She asked us each to include three ways in which we think that humanism is important for individuals and society.

Our President, Barbara Smoker, opened the batting. She gave a fiery exposition of her beliefs, saying that humanism is a way of thinking and living based on sympathy, compassion and the principle of ‘live and let live’. She admitted that her position had softened over the years – in the past, as chair of the National Secular Society, she had been a fervent critic of religion, believing that religions harm their adherents and often nurture extreme views, even terrorism. She now accepts that religion is a largely private matter, provided that the religious do not attempt to force their views on the non- religious or expect unwarranted privileges.

Barbara was followed by Trevor. He said that he also had modified his beliefs over time, having started as an ardent supporter of Richard Dawkins and the anti-God tendency. He now accepts that religion forms an important part of many people’s lives and he respects this. For him a humanist lifestyle had led to a position of non-belief and thus to humanist membership. He suggested that humanism provides the non-religious with staging posts with which to acknowledge important points in their lives, such as births, marriages and deaths. It also provides a sense of community for the non-religious and provides them with arguments with which to change their minds.

Tony followed next. He said that his journey had taken an opposite direction to Trevor’s. Having started his life with a Christian upbringing he had eventually realised that he didn’t believe in God and therefore had to accept the consequences for his way of thinking and living; in particular, the idea that every individual has agency with the power, and responsibility, to make a contribution to the greater good. He admitted that he is still wrestling with several challenges to his beliefs and described himself as a sceptical humanist.

John then presented his views from a left-wing standpoint. He said that morality is based on the evolution of the human race and that principles of right and wrong emerge from humanity. The political Left is essentially anti- religious, viewing it as a tool of suppression, with religious rules as mere control mechanisms. Humanism encourages people to recognise and address ethical questions.

Audrey said that her position is neither philosophical nor political. She had been brought up in a very restrictive religious environment but now humanism gives her the freedom to treat the people she meets as individuals, without the need to make judgements about them. Embracing humanism has deprived her of the social benefits being a member of a religious group but it has allowed her to become part of a new community, albeit one that is more diffuse and somewhat virtual. For her the greatest value of humanism is that it has released her, allowed her to be herself and to mix and work with whoever she pleases.

Sam said that, unlike Audrey and Tony, his family was completely non- religious with an informal, unconscious humanist lifestyle. He, though, had concluded that since religions have a voice humanism should have a voice as well. He feels that atheism is simply ‘not believing in a god’ whereas humanism is meaningful and positive. He believes that compassion naturally leads to action. For him the three most important features of humanism are its ceremonies, its voice in the public sphere fighting unwarranted privilege, and its provision of a community for the non-religious.

Finally Hester gave her views. For her, humanism is an everyday philosophy to guide our actions; it is exciting to think about meaning in life and how to make sense of our experience. We are always in a state of becoming and every moment offers the opportunity to change course, to make things better. Her top three characteristics are: first, it brings people together, respects evidence and expertise and acknowledges difficulty; second, it gives hope to young people who are trying to find their place in the world; and third, it respects the environment and all living species, and recognises the reality and implications of climate change.

Review by Tony Brewer