James Croft on what Humanism is


While I largely disagree with James Croft that humanism (small H) is what Humanism (large H) delineates, owing mostly to the confusions brought about by self-identification and the frequent re-use since the Renaissance of the word “humanist” to mean various things, this post is worthwhile if you’re looking to understand what exactly Humanism comprises and what does not, actually, fall under its banner.

Humanism is a philosophy of life which embraces three central values: reason, compassion, and hope. Humanists believe that the best way to figure out how the world works and what is really true is through the exercise of our reason, using disciplines like science and philosophy to better understand our situation. We believe that every person is of equal moral worth and dignity, meaning that no person should be discriminated against or treated poorly based on their race, sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, class or other identifying characteristics. And we believe that human beings must solve our problems ourselves – that any hope for the future we have comes through our efforts as individuals and groups to improve the human condition.

Humanism is defined in the third Humanist Manifesto* in the following way:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

A short version: a rational mind plus a heart aflame for justice = a Humanist.

It is for that reason that I have defined Atheism Plus as the intersection between social justice advocacy, humanism and atheism. They, and we, are very similar. We are natural allies. We are willing to put the priority on the “atheist” part of the name not only because we want to challenge the stigma it’s accumulated, but because we demand that our positions on humanism and social justice are the consequence of our lack of belief in deities and the supernatural. Since there are no gods, we are the only ones we can turn to.

I believe that Humanists (large H) are very much in the same intersection as Atheism Plusers. We don’t intersect on a few other circles, though; like our predilection toward antitheism, coming from movement atheist stock.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … three central values: reason, compassion, and hope.

    I’m not particularly optimistic.

    Must I therefore resign from the local Humanist Society?

  2. Steve Schuler says

    Hey Pierce!

    I think the answer to your question depends on whether or not somebody like Richard Carrier is the shot-caller.

    Jason,

    I appreciate your efforts to advance humanity, but to be frank I think that the real difference between Atheistic Humanism and Atheism Plus is that in the not too distant future the former will still be a useful and meaningful expression while the latter will have found it’s way into the linguistic dustbin.

    Time will tell, though.

  3. says

    Pierce R. Butler:

    I define hope quite carefully so that it is not synonymous with optimism. My preferred definition, in short, is Maimonides':

    “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”

    This avoids the problem of optimism, in a it doesn’t commit the Humanist to believing that the future will necessarily or even probably be better. It merely commits them to th belief that the possible is plausible and that the probable is not necessary – I.e. through our efforts we CAN make change and that things are not fatally determined.

    I also like Felix Adler on this front, who has the benefit of being a proto-Humanist:

    “An optimist is a person who sees only the lights in the picture, whereas a pessimist sees only the shadows. An idealist, however, is one who sees the light and the shadows, but in addition sees something else: the possibility of changing the picture, of making the lights prevail over the shadows.”

    I consider this central to the Humanist worldview because without the belief in the changeability of the future there would be literally no reason to act on our values, and the rest would be for naught.

  4. says

    Oh, and it looks to me like I actually use the exact same distinction between “Humanism” and “humanism” as Jason – I use the capital H to designate the worldview and the little h designate the broader historical concept.

  5. Sheesh says

    Meliorism seems like a prerequisite to activism of any sort. So, yeah, yet another place where the Humanist and the A+ overlaps.

  6. says

    @sheesh

    Well yes. If you don’t believe human intervention can make something better why would someone commit time and energy trying to intervene on something. It just seems to go without saying that activists think they can make things better :P

  7. says

    James: yes, I suspected that’s where the confusion lay with your comment on the Venn diagram post. By virtue of my labels all having initial capitals, I can see why you might have thought I was claiming Humanism was that bubble, as opposed to humanism. I tried to make it clearer here. Glad to see that we disagree less than I thought!

  8. Sheesh says

    without the belief in the changeability of the future there would be literally no reason to act on our values, and the rest would be for naught.

    Yes, michaeld, I’m agreeing with James Croft (and pretty much everyone else) that we (atheist social justice proponents) aren’t fatalists, no matter what the label. I hope it didn’t seem like I was disagreeing!

  9. says

    @ sheesh nope I figured we more or less agreed I just found it a little amusing and wanted to put some thoughts down. Sorry if it seemed like I was arguing.

  10. John Morales says

    Jason quotes James thus:

    Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

    This definition excludes theists, who are (definitionally) supernaturalists; therefore, no theist (or even Deist) can be a Humanist.

    A short version: a rational mind plus a heart aflame for justice = a Humanist.

    That would be the Aztecs. :)

    (Or the Thuggees at the Temple of Doom, I suppose)

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    James Croft @ # 3: “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”

    Even with your elucidation, this comes across to me as word salad.

    I’ve been a political activist for over four decades, without any need for hot air as the wind beneath my wings. “The probable” is not necessary for me; perseverance is.

    Perhaps the difference in our outlooks has more to do with whether we find validation internally or not.

  12. says

    Though I get the idea that there are subtle differences in the definitions and understanding of hope versus optimism, I consider the terms to be synonymous enough where I don’t worry too much about it. For the purposes of my work with the Humanists of Rhode Island, I prefer to use the word optimism, because the word Hope is on the state flag, along with the image of an anchor. The symbolism on the flag comes from the New Testament, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:18-19, according to one source, which reads, “Which hope we have is anchor for the soul.”

    Given that the historian laureate of Rhode Island has used this fact as proof against the concept of separation of church and state, I think it behooves me for political reasons to talk of optimism rather than hope when speaking about the future and about my groups commitment to social justice.

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