“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 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 "Morals With or Without Religion: Theory and Practice: 3.3. Theism: Rewards and Punishment" by Vexen Crabtree (2012).
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 he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, 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?
British Humanist Association, the
Newsletter. Website also contains news: www.humanism.org.uk
Humanism: A Short Course (2011). Published by the British Humanist Association, 6th ed. First edition published 2001.
Religion and Belief Discrimination in Employment - the EU law (2006). Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Unit G.2
Gasenbeek, Bert & Gogineni, Babu
International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-2002 (2002, Eds.). Published by the 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.
Gregory, Richard L.
The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987). Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Quotes from 1987 reprint.