The Principles of Humanism

Contrary to common misconception, atheism is not a belief system. Atheism is merely the absence of a belief in gods. It tells us nothing about the world or how we should act in it and is consistent with virtually any view on those matters. For a set of positive principles, a belief system, we must turn elsewhere. I turn to humanism, as do many other atheists. The Agnostic Pastor compiles an excellent list of humanist principles, which I will reprint here:

• We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.

• We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.

• We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.

• We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.

• We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.

• We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.

• We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.

• We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.

• We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.

• We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.

• We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.

• We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.

• We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.

• We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.

• We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.

• We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.

• We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.

• We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.

• We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.

• We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.

• We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

All sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

26 comments on this post.
  1. cptdoom:

    The only thing I would add would be a cautionary note – something like “we understand human beings are fallible – that we are susceptible to greed, arrogance and intolerace – and all man-made institutions are corruptible, so we support a vigorous culture of transparency and examination for these institutions and expectations of responsible behavior by all members of society.”

  2. Sastra:

    This was written by Paul Kurtz. I have a signed copy hanging in … my bathroom. I know that sounds bad, but I put it in a place where I can read it while I brush my teeth. I had hoped to memorize it over time, but I’ve settled for letting it be a regular reminder.

  3. matty1:

    Humanist groups also do an important job providing people with non-religious alternatives to things like funerals.

  4. dogfightwithdogma:

    “Atheism is merely the absence of a belief in gods.”

    (Sorry for the use of quote marks here but I have not been able to figure out how to properly use the blockquote tag)

    Thank you Ed. This is a misconception held by many atheists, including some prominent or well-known ones who post on FtB. Sadly, I doubt your post here will do anything to persuade them of their error. I agree that we must turn elsewhere for our guiding principles, values, ethics and morals. I subscribe to the list you posted here and recognize various parts of it. I see some of Paul Kurtz in the list (common moral decencies) and some of those listed on the Council for Secular Humanism website. I believe that humanism is the set of principles that could most successfully replace religion as our source of moral and ethical guidance and hope that eventually it does.

  5. Tony the Queer Shoop (owner of the pink cotton ball of death):

    While I embrace everything on that list I came to it through my atheism. I asked myself “what are some of the logical implications of lacking a god belief?”. Egalitarian values were the first. When I rejected god belief, I also came to accept methodological naturalism, as I searched for a more comprehensive worldview. Around the same time, I learned of humanism, which I realized was quite comprehensive, so at this point, yes, I embrace humsnism. But I didn’t get there without being an atheist first and working my way from that nonbelief.

  6. Gretchen:

    Humanism as an ethical standard is basically the doctrine that we should do the best with what we’ve got. Right? That we should produce our own happiness, help ourselves and each other in this life, rather than relying on divine intervention or happily wasting our existence waiting for an afterlife, or just the end of life. In this regard, it’s entirely possible for a religious person to be a humanist– all they have to do is agree that flourishing is humanity’s responsibility to itself.

    If that’s the case, then it seems to me that there needs to be some support for these particular principles deriving from humanism. I agree with all of them, certainly, but I don’t think that just any person necessarily would. For example, a person could believe that we genuinely would flourish better as a society if there were no such thing as a right to privacy. I think we can easily argue that this person is mistaken, but not that they’re a non-humanist or a bad humanist.

  7. Carolyn:

    My family was raised Unitarian Universalist, which basically has the same precepts as Humanism. We were never raised to believe in any god, and we all are basically atheists from a young age. However, we attended Sunday school regularly and learned a lot about a lot of religions and many moral foundations.

    My sister and I both separately won huge, prominent Humanitarian awards from the VFW while we were in high school in a big suburb in the Midwest with tens of thousands of Christians. We were recognized by our high schools for being compassionate and tolerant, and we were nominated by many teachers who I assure you were mostly Christian. I attribute our accomplishments greatly to the UU church. Our church/fellowship specifically was founded by humanists.

    The most important lesson here is that even in highly religious areas, you can easily outdo people with “Christian” morals, but your ACTIONS have to speak for you. I know a lot of atheists who say they are just as good as everyone else, but without joining into something to help the greater good, you really aren’t proving it. Get out there, join an organization for the environment, volunteer your time, write letters against injustice. Live your life as a humanist. Truly believe in the worth and dignity of all people, including people who are religious. I am not condemning anyone on this blog at all, Ed you do great work, but I think a lot of “lay” atheists are kind of missing the point on morals. It’s not just a lack of bad actions. UU orgs are great homes for atheists who really want to do good work.

  8. dogfightwithdogma:

    @5 Tony…

    Are you saying that humanist principles are derived from atheism? If so, how can one be sure this is true and not a self-deception born out of some cognitive bias? I know many believers who also subscribe to the principles of egalitarianism and most of the principles on the list Ed posted. They certainly did not arrive at them through atheism. I suspect that acceptance of egalitarianism and most of the listed humanist principles stems from how the brain works and not from whether one is an atheist or a theist. I suspect the answer to why one person accepts humanist principles and another does not is far more likely to be explained by neuroscience than it is by atheism. I still think Ed is right. I think atheism does not provide us with any ethical or moral guidance about how to interact with our fellow humans or the world. I could be wrong of course. To my knowledge there is no good empirical science that addresses any possible link between atheism and humanism, so this is all conjecture. I have been tempted at times to credit my atheism as the source of my humanist principles. But skepticism reins me in with the at least equally plausible notion that I am committing a logical fallacy by linking the two. I am inclined to think that linking atheism to my humanism in this way is a self-induced deception, possibly a correlation–is-causation error.

  9. Gretchen:

    dogfightwithdogma:

    I think atheism does not provide us with any ethical or moral guidance about how to interact with our fellow humans or the world. I could be wrong of course.

    Correct; it doesn’t. However, in a person who rejects religion along with the moral precepts that come with it, the deconversion to atheism could be a chicken-and-egg push toward egalitarianism, sexual freedom, value of scientific inquiry, and other stances that religion often opposes. By “chicken-and-egg,” I mean that a person might decide to leave religion wholly or in part because they already have these values, or they could acquire these values along with their move toward secularism, but it’s probably a little bit of both.

  10. Tony the Queer Shoop (owner of the pink cotton ball of death):

    @8:
    I am speaking only for myself. So no, I wouldn’t say humanist principles are derived from atheism. I would say my atheism led to my humanism. As an example, being a gay POC, I already had an awareness of the inequities both minority groups face. Looking at god belief, specifically the treatment of queers, women and other minorities, I realized if you remove religion, you remove *an* impediment (and a strong one, given the armor of religion) to equality. I also realized that removing god belief affects the ‘Teach the controversy’ malarkey that has strong political support. So I was able to see that lacking a god belief and applying what that meant to other aspects of life could have political implications. No, it doesn’t *have* to, but it can and did, in my case. From there, I came to methodological naturalism (I was searching for a way to comprehend the world without divine influences), and ultimately, humanism (I was searching for a comprehensive worldview that expressed what I believe in).
    Does that clear things up a bit more?

  11. Area Man:

    “Moral principles are tested by their consequences.”

    They probably could have just left it at that. Ultimately, a moral system in which human welfare and happiness are given primacy is one in which you will naturally end up with most of the conclusions in the above list. In fact, I tend to be suspicious of comprehensive, overarching belief systems precisely because they’re usually designed to carve out exceptions that simple idea.

  12. tacitus:

    Having lived in the US for almost two decades now, I can’t read through that set of admirable principles without thinking about how liberal they must sound to a majority of American conservatives these days.

    After the decades of suspicion and paranoia coming out of the Religious Right, many of the principles will seem like little short of liberalism and socialism — anything to do with equality, helping others, and healthcare, etc. That’s even though they are carefully written to exclude any mention of government involvement in their implementation.

  13. Gretchen:

    Area Man said:

    “Moral principles are tested by their consequences.”

    They probably could have just left it at that.

    Indeed. This is why “relative morality” is a slur used by many believers to suggest that if a secular morality does not have absolute rules, it must be an “anything goes” morality, when it fact it’s generally more of a “If this doesn’t fit the circumstances, it doesn’t apply” morality– that is, a consequence-based one.

    If you think God said “Don’t do X” and meant it (and he’s God– why wouldn’t he mean it?) then you bloody well don’t do X, and try to prevent other people from doing it too. That’s teleological, or ruled-based, moral thinking. It might be absolutist, but the choice are not “absolute” and “anything goes.” There are plenty of us who think rules are just fine, but are willing to adjust the rules if they don’t fit the game.

  14. matty1:

    This is why “relative morality” is a slur used by many believers to suggest that if a secular morality does not have absolute rules

    The funny thing is that divine command theory is the most relativist version of morality going. All morals amount to one guys point of view and the question of why it is moral to obey is simply ignored. Of course any philosophy if you drill down deep enough ends up with “that’s just the way it is” but this stance doesn’t even make an attempt at justifying anything.

  15. Gretchen:

    matty1 said:

    The funny thing is that divine command theory is the most relativist version of morality going. All morals amount to one guys point of view and the question of why it is moral to obey is simply ignored.

    “One guy”?
    One guy?!

    That “one guy” is GOD, mister, and you defy him at your peril!

    (Never mind that “God” says different and mutually exclusive things, according to different believers…or often the same believer….and that the word of God is indistinguishable from the word of man, whom God insists on communicating through for unknown reasons….and that there’s never anything in the content of the “word of God” that makes it superior than anything man has ever said….)

  16. zippythepinhead:

    “Atheism is merely the absence of a belief in gods.”

    I would go farther than that, that atheism is the conviction that there are no gods or supernatural beings.

  17. Gretchen:

    Then, zippy, you go farther than many who call themselves atheists do.

  18. davefitz:

    ” We are citizens of the universe”

    Anyone else find that to be a bit too New Agey?

  19. Area Man:

    This is why “relative morality” is a slur used by many believers to suggest that if a secular morality does not have absolute rules, it must be an “anything goes” morality…

    The ironic thing is that this is a form of consequentialist argument. If there’s no absolute morality, then people will go crazy! And think of the consequences!

    This can only be convincing to people who think it’s a bad thing for people to do anything they want irrespective of its effects on others. And if you already believe that, then you don’t need an absolutist moral code to tell you so.

  20. dogfightwithdogma:

    @10

    Thanks for the clarification and elaboration. It does in fact clear up for me what you said. While this is not the route by which I came to humanism, I can certainly see how the path you describe could be one road upon which an atheist might travel and find humanism along the way.

    @16
    Given the definition of the word conviction, I’d have to say that atheism is not a conviction for me. My rejection of God is not based on any belief nor is it an opinion in any form of the word. I reject the existence of the christian god, the islamic god, the jewish god, the hindu gods, and the thousands of other gods humans have worshiped on the basis that there is an insufficient body of compelling and convincing empirical evidence to support the existence of any of them.

    @18
    I find the comment just plain silly, nonsensical. One can’t be a citizen of the universe since the universe is not an established political entity. You can only be a citizen of a nation or commonwealth or some such political entity. Citizen of the universe has no real meaning. Ah! Perhaps in this sense it is New Agey since New Age nonsense is nothing more than meaningless gibberish.

  21. jonathangray:

    Gretchen:

    This is why “relative morality” is a slur used by many believers to suggest that if a secular morality does not have absolute rules, it must be an “anything goes” morality, when it fact it’s generally more of a “If this doesn’t fit the circumstances, it doesn’t apply” morality– that is, a consequence-based one.

    If you think God said “Don’t do X” and meant it (and he’s God– why wouldn’t he mean it?) then you bloody well don’t do X, and try to prevent other people from doing it too. That’s teleological, or ruled-based, moral thinking. It might be absolutist, but the choice are not “absolute” and “anything goes.” There are plenty of us who think rules are just fine, but are willing to adjust the rules if they don’t fit the game.

    But tweaking the rules to fit the game assumes an ultimate goal which playing the game helps you attain; or how else do you know if you’re winning? That goal must be an absolute; otherwise there’s no reason why you couldn’t keep on tweaking the rules until one day you find you’re playing a completely different game. The rules may change but only in order to better attain the desired end — the inviolable meta-rule that is the game’s raison d’etre.

    For humanists, I suppose the absolute is human wellbeing. So we need an objective, absolute definition of what constitutes human wellbeing. Is it liberty? Equality? Prosperity? Overcoming obstacles through an ecstatic exercise of the will to power? Winning the favour of Huitzilopochtli by making the requisite offerings? A combination of the above ordered according to a hierarchy of value?

    Before that, it would be helpful to know why human wellbeing should be our ultimate goal. Why not the wellbeing of just one particular section of humanity, eg our nation or race or class?

  22. serena:

    Regarding ‘citizens of the Universe’, perhaps ‘denizens’ would be more apt? And perhaps ‘society’ instead of ‘universe’, as the context of the entire message is (in my opinion) of place in society, rather than mere existence in the universe.

  23. serena:

    Gosh that was wordy, I’m sorry :S

  24. Kilian Hekhuis:

    “We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences” – This is the weakest of them all, imho, and doesn’t apply to me.

  25. dingojack:

    Is Humanism a set entirely within atheism or vice versa. Are they conjunctive only?

    RE: Blockquotes:
    <blockquote>[Type your quote in here]</blockquote>
    like this

    This is a blockquote

    Hope that helps
    Dingo

  26. dogfightwithdogma:

    @25 Thanks dingo so very much for the assist with blockquotes. I was really becoming frustrated by my inability to figure it out.

    More likely they are conjunctive. I don’t think either humanism or atheism is the source of the other, though one can be found while journeying down the road of the other. But I can’t say what links the two. I suspect it has something to do with recent findings in neuroscience about how people form their worldviews, including their political and moral viewpoints. Haven’t read enough on the topic as of yet to write about it with a high degree of confidence.

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