By Vexen Crabtree 2012
|Links: Pages on Humanism, Other Religions|
|Area of Origin||Europe|
|Numbers in the UK (Census results)|
|2001||8 297||2011||15 067|
“Contemporary humanism is a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals [...] but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”
Humanism is the approach to life based on rational thinking and includes ethics based on our shared human values and on human compassion. If you live life without religion and strive to do good within society just for the sake of doing good, then, you are a natural humanist. Humanism's core belief is that everything has a natural cause rather than a supernatural cause, therefore it falls under the banner of philosophical naturalism and the vast majority of humanists are atheists although there are some agnostics too2. Science and reason continue to be major positive influences on Humanism3. Humanist activists typically battle for human rights and for secular politics. Secularism, promoted by secularists, is the belief that religion should be a private, personal, voluntary affair that does not impose upon other people. Public spaces and officialdom should therefore be religion-neutral. Secularism ensures that religions are treated fairly and that no bias exists for a particular religion, and also that non-religious folk such as Humanists are treated with equal respect. It is the only democratic way to proceed in a globalized world where populations are free to choose their own, varied, religions.
Humanists include atheists, the non-religious, freethinkers, 'brights', agnostics, secularists and skeptics. In fact; the most prominent annual meeting of skeptics is The Amaz!ng Meeting. It was noted at the latest event how many of the attendants were Humanists, and the president of the skeptic organisation that runs the event (JREF), D. J. Groethe, "began his address by saying that James Randi himself was really more fully described as a humanist than as a skeptic"4.
Modern Humanism can be traced to 1850, according to the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), from four distinct philosophies and movements, three of which came together in the IHEU in 19525.
Humanism as a religion in its own right, rather than a philosophy or outlook, has been proposed occasionally, although it has never gained much support. Sir Julian Huxley (1887-1975) was famous for arguing for the creation of a new religion based on Humanist ideals6. Ernest Renan wrote:
“It is my deep conviction that pure humanism will be the religion of the future, [of] man - all of life, sanctified and raised to the level of a moral value.”
Ernest Renan (1848)7
Most Humanists are not involved in any Humanist organisations and Humanist philosophy exists independent of any institutions. The way people come together is often the same regardless of the specific interest; nearly all hobbies, religions, etc, have many individual, solitary fans, local groups, national groups and international associations. Humanism is no different.
Individual humanists embody humanist philosophy by employing rationality and common sense in their secular lives, and by upholding good moral standards.
Local Humanist Groups will often form and hold discussion groups on various topics such as current affairs and debates on religious concepts, and such groups merely serve as interesting social events where people get to network with like-minded locals. Many local Humanist groups have taken to inviting guest speakers, such as prominent philosophers, scientists or authors. Sometimes, guest speakers will be spokespersons for larger Humanist groups. In Britain, nearly all local groups are associated with the BHA.
National Humanist Associations often represent Humanist more officially and often have roles in advising government, organising national campaigns, fighting for human rights and awareness-raising of issues through advertisements. At this level, connections will also be made with other similar bodies. The British Humanist Association fights many battles alongside bodies such as the National Secular Society, Stonewall (the gay rights lobby group) and Liberty (the human rights lobby group).
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the principal international group, whose main purpose is the exchange of talents, skills, experience and information between national groups, and the facilitating of international meetings and camps. At this high level, representation at bodies such as the United Nations becomes possible. Many battles and campaigns are fought alongside international human rights groups and skeptical organisations such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
The IHEU requires of its member organisations to accept their basic and minimal definition of Humanism:
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."
Accessed 2011 Feb 02
The British Humanist Association's Logo (the bendy blue man reaching upwards, as seen above) is similar to some other Humanist logos, and it is often acknowledged as a general Humanist symbol in the same way the bendy atheist "A" with a long central bar, is a general atheist symbol.
Humanism is protected in the UK under law, so that discrimination against Humanists is illegal. This also covers the concept of 'reasonable accommodation'. In the case of humanists, the only likely requests result from religious behaviour being forced upon them and they request to be made exempt. The following is an excerpt from "Legislation and Faith: Religious Rights and Religious Wrongs" by Vexen Crabtree (2013):
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations), article 18, and the EU's Charter of Human Rights (article 9) state that everyone has freedom of religion and belief. This means you can't punish people for apostasy or heresy or any other element of thought crime. CHR article 9 gives the exception that rights can be curbed for the protection of the fundamental rights of others. On human rights and religion, European Law is most clear when it comes to the employer/employee relationship (which also covers public services):
“The Employment Equality Directive introduced in 2000 requires all Member States to protect against discrimination on grounds of religion and belief in employment, occupation and vocational training. [...] The complexity of [it] comes from the fact that while Europe is committed to upholding religious freedom, it is equally committed to equality and other fundamental freedoms. At times these rights are complementary, [but] in other respects, the rights are in tension, with religious groups failing to recognise equality rights or the right of those outside the religious group.”
European Commission (2006)9
A second complication is to do with what is called reasonable accommodation. This means: if a worker makes a specific request to hir employer that has something to do with hir beliefs, hir employer has to consider it. A denial must, if it is to be legal, be for clear practical purposes and not merely theoretical ones. So an employer cannot reason that "if loads of Sikhs joined my company, how could I continue to operate if I let them have this?", as this is a theoretical problem. It would be a real problem if specific persons on the roster would be made unhappy at the granting of a specific request.
“Employees whose requests that a work uniform be adapted to accommodate religious practice are refused would suffer indirect discrimination. The employer's requirement that staff wear the uniform would put religious members of staff at a particular disadvantage, and the requirement would need to be justified.”
European Commission (2006)
UK Law: Beliefs are probably only defensible under the Employment Equality Directive in the UK, if they have a certain level of "cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance"10. Thus, it is the case that the person making the complaint of discrimination must prove their level of commitment to their beliefs, and the employer must prove why he cannot accommodate the specific request. The exact details of how such cases will be worked out is not yet clear.
In the first section of Part 2 of the Equality Act 2006, section 44 states in very clear terms that non-belief is protected in the same way as belief, and that the non-religious are protected in the same way that religionists are.
It is no surprise that as Humanism is very much reality-based and has an emphasis on good moral thinking, that Humanists are found to be doing a disproportionate amount of charitable and social work. Simply doing good for its own sake brings joy to many Humanists.
Humanists have taken a rational, slow, non-supernatural approach to morality. It is based on the best-available moral thinking involving the idea of justice, judging what has worked, and not worked, according to human experience. Philosophy-minded folk might ask for an ultimate definition or guide, but the humanistic answer is that things like justice and morality rely on human nature and human thoughts for their conception. Humanists merely try to develop these ideas into a general system, as much as such a thing is possible. The result is "secular" so that one religious group does not start trampling over the rights of others, as they're prone to do, and it is "humanistic" because it is based on human reason and human moral thought.
For those who persist in looking for an ultimate source of morals, remember that morality arises in individuals, communities and species in different ways at different times. We know there are not many generic universal morals. But those universals - pseudo-universals, really - show us that us humans (like other social animals), have some innate and biological moral instincts, just as you would expect us to if Darwinian selection was in play (see "The Selfish Gene" by Prof. Richard Dawkins (1976) for the best introduction to this, which also includes some very well worked-out real-life animal examples). So the ultimate source of morals is in biology, which is no shock, as we're biological. But Humanism is a development from that basis, learning from the many lessons that history can teach us regarding practical ethics.
It is easy to think that humanistic morals can be arrived at by anyone at any time, and therefore, it is a "default" moral system.
However it is more than that, more than "common-sense", because of the amount of deliberation that goes into the development of the concept of Humanism's morals. Atheists and theists alike may come to the same moral conclusions, so there's no claim that you have to be a secular humanist in order to share the morals of secular humanism. In history, there have been proud Christian Humanists, for example. This point is made excellently by the British Humanist Association:
“Humanists believe that moral values originated, and continue to develop, along with human nature and society. [...] If human civilisation were to develop all over again, it is highly unlikely that the same religions would develop all over again. But it is likely that our basic moral principles would be the same, because human beings, who have evolved to live in groups, would always need the kinds of rule which enable us to live together co-operatively and harmoniously.
Humanists have often been very active in charitable work, education and social reform, and campaigning for human rights, peace, and international co-operation. At the United Nations, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), and WHO (World Health Organisation) were all led by humanists in their early years. [...]
BHA members give money and/or time generously and regularly to an average of 6 charities each. Humanists tend to plan their giving rationally and selectively, but most also respond generously to emergency appeals and street collections. The most popular causes were those connected with social welfare (27%) and international development/aid (21%). Only 4% of BHA members in a survey of 2000 did not support any charities.”
As a social and conscientious species, most of us have a natural tendency to want to be a good person. This becomes especially true for those who give thought and deliberation to moral questions and human rights issues, which, includes quite a lot of humanists. Despite the universality of moral codes, many religions teach that their beliefs lead to goodness and that non-belief or wrong-belief leads people to immorality. There is one generic argument that atheists use to counter such arguments:
This text is taken from "Do We Need Religion to Have Good Morals?: 1.2. Rewards and Punishment" by Vexen Crabtree (2014).
If I am threatened into behaving in a good manner then I am at best amoral, because I am not acting with free will. If you believe that a supreme god is going to punish you (in hell) or deny you life (annihilation) if you misbehave, it is like being permanently threatened into behaving well. In addition, if you believe there is some great reward for behaving well, then your motives for good behavior are more selfish. An atheist who does not believe in heaven and hell is potentially more moral, for (s)he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, both act morally. Some of both groups act consistently immorally. The claim that belief in God is essential or aids moral behavior is wrong, and any amusing theistic claim that they have "better" morals, despite acting under a reward and punishment system, is deeply questionable. Who is more moral? Those who act for the sake of goodness itself, or those who do good acts under the belief that failure to do so results in hell?
The Pathfinders Project was founded by Conor Robinson and sponsored by the Humanist organisation Foundation Beyond Belief, saw four atheists and humanists spend a year working in Africa, Asia and South America building clean water supplies, empowering human rights and engaging in environmental and conservation schemes. The team involved is Conor Robinson himself, Ben Blanchard, Wendy Webber, and Michelle Huey. Their eventual goal is the creation of a permanent Humanist Service Corps, based on the widely acknowledged demand for such an organized body. Chris Stedman, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, inteviewed Conor Robinson (linked on ReligionNews.com).
“Human Rights have had a very powerful positive effect on the world, ratcheting humanity away from barbarism, political oppression, gender inequality and religious prejudice. Humanity has felt the need for Human Rights for a long time. The derivation of ethics from religious codes has been inadequate as either a source of governance or as a guide to personal conduct: too many old and archaic rules lead to needless segregation, sectarianism, suffering and pain, especially of minorities. Even the well-loved Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated) fails as thugs indulge in their dog-eat-dog barbarism. Many have built secular (non-religious) frameworks. Immanuel Kant theorized on the categorical imperative13; but this required everyone spend an inordinate amount of time indulging in long-term strategic thinking when making any moral choices. John Stuart Mill in the 18th century constructed his under-appreciated utilitarian ethic14. But the most successful secular work in this area is by far the push for human rights.
Human rights solves some of the "deliberation overhead" issues by stipulating some things you cannot deprive people of. One of the earliest Western legal systems that declares the existence of Human rights was created by Hugo Grotius in his book Der Jure Belli ac Pacis in the 17th century CE, famous for being based on reason and humanitarianism without without any need for divinity at its source15. The wheels had been set in motion in the Enlightenment, as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau deliberated upon secular sources of morals in France in order to prevent the Christian abuses of the Dark Ages from occurring again16 and it was this that brought HR to the fore in the West17.
It is now widely acknowledged that "the source of human rights is man's moral nature"18 and the international Vienna Declaration states that "all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person"19. Governments, institutions and individuals are now held to account across the world for failing to respect basic human rights.”
If the secular Human Rights approach is correct, if it engenders good morals and civility and progress, then, there should be statistical evidence which can be consulted to support or detract from it. There is, indeed, such evidence.
The Social and Moral Development Index concentrates on moral issues and human rights, violence, public health, equality, tolerance, freedom and effectiveness in climate change mitigation and environmentalism, and on some technological issues. A country scores higher for achieving well in those areas, and for sustaining that achievement in the long term. Those countries towards the top of this index can truly said to be setting good examples and leading humankind onwards into a bright, humane, and free future. See: What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life. The graph here shows clearly that social and moral development is at its highest in countries that are the least religious. As religiosity increases, each country suffers from more and more conflicts with human rights, more problems with tolerance of minorities and religious freedom, and problems with gender equality.
For more, see "Human Rights and Secular Morals: Ethics Without Religion or Faith" by Vexen Crabtree (2014).
Current edition: 2012 Sep 17
Last Modified: 2014 Oct 05
Originally published 2011 Feb 24
Vexen Crabtree is a member of the
British Humanist Association
Parent page: A List of All Religions and Belief Systems
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British Humanist Association, the
Newsletter. Website also contains news: www.humanism.org.uk.
(2011) Humanism: A Short Course. Paperback book. 6th edition. Originally published 2001. Current version published by the British Humanist Association.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Paperback book. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2017) "What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life" (2017). Accessed 2017 Aug 02.
(2013) Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 3rd edition. Published by Cornell University Press.
(2006) Religion and Belief Discrimination in Employment - the EU law. Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Unit G.2.
Gasenbeek, Bert & Gogineni, Babu
(2002, Eds.) International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-2002. Published by Humanistisch Archief (Humanist Archives), De Tijdstroom uitgeverij, Utrecht, Netherlands. IHEU (www.iheu.org) is an umbrella organisation for Humanistic groups worldwide. This book available online on the IHEU website.
(2001) Religion and Social Transformations. Paperback book. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This was a course book for the OU module "Religion Today: Traditional, Modernity and Change" which ran until 2011.
(2011) Religion and Nationalism. This essay is chapter 22 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 406-417).
Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913).
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Paperback book. Published by Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK.
Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co..