Review: What is Humanism?


Every now and then it proves a worthwhile exercise to go ‘back to basics’.  At our group meeting on 18th September we decided to do just that, trying to pin down what humanism is – never an easy task among a group of free-thinkers…

Humanist celebrant Trevor Moore led and facilitated the discussion, based around three of the BHA’s animated films in their ‘That’s Humanism!’ series, narrated by Stephen Fry.  You can watch the films on our ‘what is humanism’ page here or download the films here. As the films are fast-moving, as well as densely packed with gems, it is worth knowing that there is a tab to open the film scripts at the bottom of the BHA web page.  You can then read the content at your leisure.  Here are a few comments on the content of the films from our discussion:

How Can I Be Happy?
Everyone agreed that a core aspect of being a humanist lies in trying to achieve happiness, not just personally, but for others too.   Our life president Barbara Smoker thought that more could have been made in the film of how happiness derives from co-operation and in particular from helping others.
A debate ensued about whether life has meaning beyond what we ourselves create.  No conclusion was reached about whether we are simply animals driven by the constant pursuit of feel-good serotonin, or whether we have wider control of bringing contentment into our lives and those of others.

How Do We Know What’s True?
No-one challenged the central message of this film, that the scientific method – i.e. observation, experimentation and the testing of theories against evidence – is the best way for us to find out what is true about the world around us and our place in it.   Of course, we don’t know everything there is to know – identifying what we don’t know is trickier.  But just because we can’t yet prove something, doesn’t mean the gap should be filled by the concept of a supernatural designer.

‘What Makes Something Right or Wrong?’
Many humanists face claims from the religious that you cannot be good, or act in a moral fashion, without guidance from an external force, such as a god.  Yet the so-called Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated yourself – pre-dates its adoption by the religious mainstream (especially Christianity).
The film refers to humanist values being ‘human’ inventions.  In fact many animals share values such as fairness too.