a prologue: human. humanity. humanist.
a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens) : a human being : a person —usually plural, humans
(1) the totality of human beings : the human race : humankind;
(2) the quality or state of being human;
(3) compassionate, sympathetic, or generous behavior or disposition : the quality or state of being humane
that which is devoted to a way of life centered on human reason, self-realization, welfare, interests, or values
Finding Our Humanity:
Unlocking the Humanist Manifesto, Part 1
The first time I’d heard a pitch for humanism, it was more of a pitch to stay away from it. Far, far away from it. To essentially stay as far away as possible.
It was when I was working on my undergrad at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, devoting long hours and nights toward a BA in pastoral studies. And it was in a philosophy class. Yes, they have philosophy courses in Bible college. As well as those in psychology and radio production and woodworking.
Ok, maybe not the woodworking.
But it was here in this Bible school philosophy class where I’d first heard about this thing called humanism. The professor didn’t devote a great deal of words to his explanation. He made no time for notes of historical background or profiles of significant thought leaders. Instead, he simply included a couple lines about each of several Enlightenment-era philosophies and perspectives. And the humanism pitch delivered in his evangelical classroom basically went something like this:
“Humanism is an evil concept. It removes God from the central role in our lives and, as the ultimate act of rebellion, puts ourselves in his place. It is to reject God as an authority figure and to worship our own greatness instead.”
Well I guess that’s one way of looking at it.
That is, if you’re absolutely convinced that your own view of godstuff has to be the correct one. And that anyone who disagrees with you has to be in a state of diehard rebellion.
But that bit about “worshipping our own greatness”? I’m not sure if I should be offended by the embellishment or enshrine it within a plaque over my dining room table!
More seriously though, if you speak to actual self-described humanists, you’ll find less of an emphasis on whether or not a god exists—or any attempt to usurp its accredited glory and greatness—and more of an emphasis on simply promoting humanity.
Though it’s true many humanists might dismiss the god concept as little more than silly mythology, very few of us spend much time thinking about it in our day-in and day-out lives. We also tend to spend very little time thinking about other concepts we don’t believe in. Such as sasquatches, boogiemen, and a particular sea beast hiding just beneath the surface of the great Loch Ness.
For many of us, the reason we identify as humanist has nothing to do with any of that. Rather, it’s our felt values and experiences with other people that drives who we are in this regard. It’s the warm smile we receive from a next-door neighbor. It’s the support found with a group of trusted friends. And yes, the laughter exchanged over stories at a local pub.
But it’s also the compassion unleashed with a local service project. The progress advanced in a march for justice. The cumulative total of all the little (and big) things said and done to help make this world a better place for humans—all humans—today and every day forward.
Digging Deeper into Humanism.
So what is humanism? What is it REALLY? For a lot of us, we may find ourselves thinking we kind of like the term humanist and would maybe even use it to describe ourselves. And yet sometimes the term can seem a little too clean and straightforward, making us wonder if there might be more to it underneath its simple pro-humanity surface. (I mean, Scientology just means your pro-science, right?) This is why those new to the concept can sometimes feel a bit skeptical toward it, expecting to discover a bunch of weird-alien-whoo-hoo buried far beneath the surface.
Others of us who are gathered here around this blog post might already feel quite confident in our embrace of humanism but are nonetheless looking to expand and deepen our understanding of all its ideals. And maybe we’re even looking for an opportunity to think further about its implications on our lives and lifestyles.
All of these are things we want to speak to here. Both with this post and with the series that follows. We’re kicking off a series that will dig deeper into what it really means to be humanist. And our guide along this journey will be a document entitled Humanist Manifesto III, a statement offered by the American Humanist Association designed to articulate the core concepts and aspirations as emphasized by leading humanists today.
Our Goal for This Series is Simple.
We want to become better humans. Yes, we want to learn more stuff about humanism, but as we will continue to discover along the journey set before us, building an inactive head knowledge isn’t really what any of this all about. Rather, what it’s really about is the application of knowledge unto the big-picture betterment of a thriving humanity. It’s about each of us becoming better humans. And that is what I hope each of us finds on the other side of this series. That we accept the challenge to live better. And that we find the greatest of humanist successes as we make our way forward.
Where Do We Begin?
In this first post, we’re simply going to take a quick tutorial on the Humanist Manifesto itself. Since this statement will be serving as our humanist tour guide, we want to take a few minutes to catch up on what exactly the document is and where it comes from. In the weeks ahead, we’ll focus on each of its Six Aspirations, one per post. But today we simply want to zero in on the words of its own introduction, which features something called a “lifestance of humanism.”
This lifestance of humanism is basically a three-point slogan that sketches out the simplified framework that today’s humanists play within. We’ll take a quick look at it in today’s post, previewing the weeks ahead, and then finish up with a quick word on why we should give a shit about any of it anyway.
A Humanist Manifesto: What the Hell is a Manifesto?
Man, I’ll be honest. I think calling these documents manifestos can sound a tad pretentious. Manifesto is a big, robust, hearty sounding word, one that’s usually used in political or religious contexts. It describes big social declarations and proclamations and pronouncements of vast societal implication. Stuff intended to stir the emotions and pluck the proverbial heart-strings of the masses.
And I guess that’s probably the exact reason why The New Humanist chose this word when they released A Humanist Manifesto in 1933. They were interested in charting out a bold and vibrant future for non-theistic religion.
And “religion” is exactly what they called it. Godless religion was declared the religion of the future. Or at least that’s what the changing times seemed to them to suggest. The perfect match for a reason-forward earth of unbridled harmony. It was to be the utopic destiny of tomorrow. And it was indeed a grand and epic vision that was cast.
And then World War Two hit us where it counts.
And it’s never quite been the same since.
But this manifesto was never intended to be an eternal creed anyway. It was never offered as Humanist Scripture. In fact, right there in that very first version of the very first manifesto, it clarifies its design to “represent a developing point of view, not a new creed” and goes on to explain that even its thirty well-known and influential signatories expressed minor differences of opinion. Yet they all came together to say, yes, generally speaking they all agreed that something along this line was good and needed.
In other words, this Humanist Manifesto was more about generating a dialogue that would result in forward-marching progress than in defining exact and irrefutable tenants for camp admission.
Now, when people believe in the existence of a particular god, their lives seem driven to discern and establish exactly what that god dictates. And it has to be recorded verbatim. And enforced without variation. But when we advance beyond such mythology, we shed the naiveté of thinking such infallible dictates are even possible, much less necessary.
Instead, we grow humbled to realize our perspectives are little more than our own. Even as we grow hungry for the advancement of our species, our appreciation for the diversity of that species leads us to set aside potential disagreement in order to pool our efforts and multiply our ambitions.
More Manifestos to Follow.
After A Humanist Manifesto laid the foundation in 1933, the American Humanist Association (AHA) crafted an updated Humanist Manifesto II forty years later in 1973. It dealt specifically with the global powers and threats of its day. In the decades ahead, other groups and individuals offered additional statements, such as Paul Kurtz’ A Secular Humanist Declaration in 1980 and his book-length rendition in 2000.
But AHA’s third update is not only the most recent offering but also possibly the most distilled and timeless of them all. Which is why we’re using it to serve as our tour guide for the series ahead. Released by AHA in 2003, its full name is Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III, a Successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933.
Seriously, every time I type that name, I’m surprised all over again by how long it is. And when translated into German it takes a whole page.
Intro Text to the Humanist Manifesto.
Now that we’ve seen where our roadmap comes from, let’s look at some of the actual text. You can click here to see the document in its entirety. This is what the intro says:
“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.
“The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.
“This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:”
And then it goes on to share its Six Aspirations, as relating to knowledge, nature, ethical values, life fulfillment, relationships, and societal improvement.
You may notice that we’ve already touched on a lot of the themes described in the intro text. This is because Humanist Manifesto III is a result of the “ongoing effort” established by the background we just discussed above. And now this statement continues the dialogue, articulating “not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe.”
If you’ve been looking for a clear and neatly packaged definition of humanism, here it is. In fact, it’s the very first thing this Manifesto provides.
“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.”
Now you could say that everything else in Manifesto flows out of this definition. And that therefore everything else in this blog series will as well. So there’s probably not much need for delving into great depths at this point. I’ll keep my comments to three brief notes instead.
1. Humanism as Philosophy.
There have been times of intense debate over whether or not humanism is best seen as a religion or as a philosophy (the 1933 Manifesto classified it as a non-theistic religion). We’ll leave details for another discussion, but it really all comes down to how you define what a religion has to be. Bottom line: Everyone agrees that humanism is at least a philosophy, which is why today’s humanists generally leave it at that.
2. Humanism as Explicitly Nontheistic.
Manifesto doesn’t devote much space toward what humanism isn’t. Preferring to define its “conceptual boundaries” with “clear and positive terms” rather than negative ones. As such, it makes very little mention of humanism’s rejection of god-beliefs. In fact, we’ll hardly talk about it at all from this point forward. Yet we do have to be clear. And in an attempt for clarity, our roadmap states it right there in its opening line. As explicitly as possible. Humanism is inherently non-supernaturalistic.
3. Humanism as Striving for a Greater Humanity.
This right here. This is what it’s all about. The proverbial cream of the crop. It’s what Humanism DOES. And it’s what each of the Six Aspirations that lie ahead will unpack step by step.
The Humanist Lifestance.
Manifesto’s introduction centers on its lifestance. For those less familiar with this word, a lifestance describes someone’s all-encompassing view of reality and highlights how they assign valuations for daily living. Your lifestance is kind of like your worldview and incorporates both your religious and philosophical perspectives. It’s what you understand to be The Ultimate Reality. What you find to be of The Utmost Importance. And of How You Personally Relate to those uppermost valuations. Consciously or not, our individual lifestance directs everything we do and all that we strive for.
So it only makes sense that humanists embrace a humanist lifestance. And we can think of Manifesto’s lifestance as the rudder directing the Six Aspirations it proceeds to outline.
So here it is:
“Guided by Reason, Inspired by Compassion, Informed by Experience”
Reason, compassion, and experience. This is the humanist lifestance. Or at least this manifesto’s attempt to articulate it. More of a slogan than a definition, really. And one that provides us a sketch drawing of the humanist perspective and lifestyle. All the while, perhaps serving as a teaser of sorts, setting up the Six Aspirations to follow.
Our Lifestance: Humanists Guided by Reason.
We strive to be intentional in thought and action, in our ideals, assessments, and valuations. We seek to make sense of things, applying logic to the experiences around us. We work to eliminate assumptions and ground our framework in verifiable facts that are consistently scrutinized by the ongoing flow of new information.
This isn’t to say that all humanists must necessarily be deep and detailed thinkers. This doesn’t mean that to be a humanist you have to have a large and scholarly library or even that you have to find the least bit of enjoyment in reading. And it’s not saying that we all have to spend our free time drafting detailed hypotheses from the worlds of physics or geology or evolutionary biology.
For the record, I detest crossword puzzles.
No, all this means is that it simply means that we try to have good reasons for doing the things we do. And good reasons for the ideas, ideals, and values we do or do not embrace or chose to believe in. Regardless of how much we actually like to study them.
And it means that at the end of the day, we allow that reason to lead us. We seek to be led by the bigger picture. To keep it in mind. And to let it guide us. We work to not give in to overly emotional pleas. We don’t change our position for convenience. And we don’t automatically believe someone just because their argument sounds good on the surface. We try as best as we’re able to think on a deeper level. We refuse to indulge tradition for the sake of its familiarity, current social structures for the sake of our own comforts, or ever-popular fake news for the sake of its easy narratives. And as we advance our society, our species, our world, we confess that not all change is progress. Here too we need reason to guide us in distinguishing the worthy candidate from the repackaged sabotage.
Our Lifestance: Humanists Informed by Experiences.
We’ve discovered that some of us interpret the words “informed by experience” to sound pretty much exactly the same as “guided by reason.” And yet to others of us, these two can sound like complete opposites. The truth is that the kinds of philosophy we’ve read—or haven’t—might make all the difference in how we understand these two.
How I look at it is like this. Though it’s reason that guides us, that reason isn’t anchored in some set of lofty principles that are unverifiable by human experience. It doesn’t come to us from some book that must never be questioned. Nor is it handed down based on the lone account of someone claiming to have interacted with a divine messenger. It’s never been something that all the rest of humanity just has to trust, no questions asked!
No, the sense of reason that guides and directs us is grounded in and informed by human experience. And even as we rely on the interconnected nature of human community, each individual’s knowledge and understanding is their own. As such we must each take personal responsibility for the independent conclusions we reach. We are bound to no creed, no mandate. You are your own highest authority when it comes to the perspective you embrace. Humanists see each individual as fully autonomous and stands to see every fellow human recognized as such.
You see, at the end of the day, it all begins with our humanity. Our human experience begins and ends with what we humans observe, perceive, understand, feel, and do. Humanism recognizes that at the end of the day this is all we have. This human experience is everything. And it all begins here. You and me and the community we find ourselves within.
That, in and of itself, is a pretty tall order for theism. No, the human experience does not begin and end with a god. And our primary responsibility is not to worship some elusive Being that’s so far removed from our existence we have no measurable way of detecting it. For this reason, the vast majority of those who choose to identify as humanists have had a very hard time recognizing any other variety of humanism than the secular or nontheistic.
So Is Humanism Just Another Word for Atheism?
Atheism and humanism are oft’ conflated concepts. In other words, people easily treat the two terms as synonyms. As if the atheist community and the humanist community are inherently the same thing. As if one’s sense of ethical drive automatically hinges on whether or not they believe in the existence of a supernatural realm. But as appealing as this connection might appear, by no means is it either inherent or even typical. By no means does growing beyond theism automatically grow you into a humanist.
This distinction is found in the final of our three lifestance points. But you’ll notice that though we’re saving “inspired by compassion” for last, it’s actually listed second in the slogan, forming compassion as the centerpiece upon which true humanism actually hangs.
When you allow your perspective to be “informed by experience” and “guided by reason,” you may very well come to the conclusion that all that godstuff just doesn’t make sense anymore. And you might even call yourself an atheist (or an agnostic or both or something totally other) as a result. But if you stop there, you’re no humanist.
Humanism is more than non-theism.
Our Lifestance: Humanists Inspired by Compassion.
Compassion is the key ingredient that completes the journey. When we stop seeing a world full of cold and competing individuals and instead catch the vision of a connected global family overflowing with wonderfully diverse sisters and brothers, it’s here where we begin to tap into the heartbeat of humanism.
And it’s here where our compassion not only feeds into how we look at the world but where it also motivates our truest, largest, and most influential values. And in so doing, it radically alters our sense of empathy, justice, and civic responsibility, both locally and globally, potentially reaching beyond humanity itself and into its surrounding ecosystems.
You don’t need to disavow belief in gods to be compassionate. But what I’ve seen time and time again is that even for those on the more progressive end of theism, god-beliefs can inadvertently box one’s compassion into a pre-approved grid. But with humanism, the creed is dismantled. Compassion unleashed.
This is why non-theism is so critical to humanism. It’s only here where the leash is taken off. All the way off. Where all boundaries of dogma and traditional teaching are removed. No longer do you have to qualify your desire to help create a better world with the tenants of your theology. No more do you have to pretend it’s good enough to say, “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” No, it’s here where we’re able to draw upon the full resources of human reason and experience, to truly make the most of our potential, both for our own good as well as for that of the whole world, as we animate the fullness of our heartfelt connections.
It’s here at the intersection of reason, compassion, and experience where humans become humanists.
The Goal: To Live Life Well and Fully.
So what’s the point of all this? Well I guess the point is to live life well and fully. At least that’s what we read in Manifesto: “The lifestance of Humanism … encourages us to live life well and fully.” This may seem a bit vague, but keep in mind it’s only the introduction. I have a sneaking suspicion we might find more clues to what a full and well-lived life looks like through the course of Manifesto’s Six Aspirations.
But it really shouldn’t be that hard to figure it out at this point. Especially if we’re defining “well and fully” according to reason, compassion, and experience. Sure, we’re each going to stress our own little nuances to what well and fully looks and feels like. I, for instance, would have preferred to see some element of community and relationships in Manifesto’s introduction. I would argue that well and fully necessarily must include a community or relational dynamic.
But however exactly we elaborate on it, well and full humans are the goal. Regardless of the diverse measurements and methods we may each employ along the way.
Maybe the big deal here is that, at minimum, if we take our humanism seriously, we would do well to feed on the diet of the humanist lifestance: reason, compassion, and experience. Maybe we could say that a good way for each of us to live life well and fully to an even greater and more enjoyable extent begins with looking for little ways to feed and grow our reason, compassion, and experience. That we read books, foster conversations, and engage in activities that nourish our understanding, stretch our connection, and expand our knowledge of the world around us.
And in so doing, we just might find ourselves not only becoming more humanist but also becoming more fully embodied humans who are more in love with life, enjoying and connecting with the fullness that surrounds us. Not in a whoo-hoo-metaphysical-force sort of way. But in an eyes-wide-open and driven-with-intention sort of way.
A Manifesto to Live By.
As we wind down our introductory tour, we land here on the practical side of humanism. On a lifestance that is guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience. And on the goal to live life well and fully. In the midst of talking about philosophy and reason and non-supernaturalism, what we’ve seen emphasized from beginning to end is a deep and compassionate focus on helping one another become the best humans we can be.
And this is what I love about humanism and its manifesto. This is why I call myself a humanist. Its focus on the big picture betterment of a thriving humanity. And as we’ll increasingly see in the weeks ahead, this betterment concerns each of us both individually and in community, both locally and globally, now today and into the future.
Join me in the weeks ahead as we consider the Six Aspirations: knowledge, nature, ethical values, life fulfillment, relationships, and societal improvement. Together we’ll grow a little more fully into the goodness of our humanity.
Here’s to a better humanity!
Looking to start your own website or blog? There’s a reason for the WordPress bandwagon. Click here to join the WordPress bandwagon and start creating your own amazing website. JUST CLICK RIGHT NOW.