Humanism

Andrew Copson

Introduction

Introduction

Humanists are people who:

  • accept that the only way of finding out true facts about reality is through the scientific method. They therefore do not believe in anything supernatural (for example, gods, ghosts, angels).
  • accept that the evidence is that we only have one life and there is no afterlife. They accept that when our bodies die, that is the end of our personal existence, though we may live on in the memories of our friends, the lives of our children and the achievements of our lives.
  • believe that human welfare and fulfilment are the purpose of morality and should determine the ethical choices we make. They do not believe in obedience to religious scriptures or other authorities as ways of deciding what is right or wrong, but that the use of reason and human empathy are the foundation of morality.
  • believe that, in the absence of any ‘ultimate’ meaning or purpose to the universe, human beings can and should create meaning and purpose for themselves, individually and in community.

No one invented ‘Humanism’ or founded it as a philosophy. ‘Humanism’ is just the word that was first used just over 100 years ago to describe a certain set of linked and inter-related beliefs and values that together make up a coherent non-religious worldview and stance on life (or ‘lifestance’). Many people have had these beliefs and values all over the world and for thousands of years and they are also very common today. The people who believe these things don’t necessarily call themselves humanists. Nonetheless, ‘humanist’ is the word that describes what they believe, whether it is a word they have heard of themselves or not.

What needs to be improved about the way in which Humanism is typically presented?

What needs to be improved about the way in which Humanism is typically presented?

traditions-small.pngHumanism should not be presented as a religion or faith: Regrettably, some pupils get the impression that Humanism is a religion or faith. This is to some extent understandable since very often all the other ‘religions or beliefs’ that pupils are learning about will be religions and Humanism is often the only example of a non-religious worldview, philosophy or ‘belief’. However, pupils should be made aware that under normal definitions of the words religion and faith, Humanism is not included. Humanists do not rely on any claims about supernatural or transcendent beings or forces, as religions do, and it is implicit in Humanism that there is no reliance on faith for knowledge but only on reason, evidence and experience.

Humanism is not a recent or just a ‘western’ belief: Western Europe certainly has a tradition of humanist thought and action that can be traced back more than 2,500 years, especially to the people of Greece and the West coast of Asia at that time. But this way of understanding the world, of finding meaning in life, and of grounding moral thinking can also be found in China at the same time (for example, amongst followers of Confucius) and just as long ago in India (for example, in Carnaka writings) and many other cultures for just as long.

Sometimes, pupils can get the impression that Humanism is just Christianity without god, or that it is somehow dependent on the religious moralities of previous centuries. In fact, many people have thought and expressed humanist ideas over many centuries all over the world, contributing to a humanist tradition. Today, the largest humanist organisations are in Norway and India and the fastest growing in Uganda and Nigeria.

Humanists think that science answers ethical questions or is the only discipline needed to understand everything: Humanists do believe that the provisional answers arising out of the application of the scientific method are the only way to understand the material reality of the universe. However, as the name ‘Humanism’ implies, they also give a special emphasis to the importance of human beings and those things that make as special, such as the ‘inner’ human life of emotion, imagination, and creativity.

Aside from this, there are many ways in which badly taught or planned RE can exclude humanist and other non-religious pupils.

For example by:

  • assuming that all pupils belong to a religion or believe in an afterlife, or that the existence of God is a given fact;
  • patronising, belittling or trying to convert non-religious pupils;
  • confusing "moral" and "religious", and omitting non-religious ethical perspectives on moral issues;
  • using language or tasks that exclude, e g that involve making up prayers or giving advice to "a close friend of your own religion";
  • confusing story or myth with historic or scientific fact;
  • omitting humanist ceremonies when teaching about rites of passage - so that pupils remain ignorant of ceremonies for the non-religious;
  • omitting humanist perspectives on the fundamental questions of life, such as death or the purpose of life, so that non-religious pupils get no help in formulating their own beliefs and values and leave school thinking that they are "nothing".

Pupils inclined toward Humanism, or old enough to call themselves humanists already, and who happen to have explicitly humanist parents, often get enough support in the free development of their worldview and moral values from their families, limiting the damage than can be caused by exclusory and presumptuous RE. Such pupils with less family support, for example whose parents are not themselves very interested in such matters and don't profess a cohesive "worldview" themselves, may find little support anywhere, and may grow to think that not only religion, but morality too, is of no personal significance.

Resources

Resources

www.humanismforschools.org.uk is designed for teachers who are including Humanism in their RE. It includes ‘toolkits’ www.humanismforschools.org.uk/teachingtoolkits/index.php of flash presentations including video, for interactive whiteboards, with accompanying worksheets. There are toolkits for all ages, primary and secondary, covering questions such as what makes human beings special, right and wrong and the meaning of life. The website also includes thorough briefings in pdf on humanist perspectives www.humanismforschools.org.uk/humanist-perspective.php on all the philosophical and ethical questions that feature in RE, such as war, assisted dying, abortion, god and ethics.

Humanist Perspectives 1 (for primary schools) and _Humanist Perspectives _2 (for secondary schools) are A4 booklets of resources for teachers. They include photocopiable pages for students as well as much information for teachers on Humanism and teaching about Humanism in RE in particular. They are available to buy at www.humanism.org.uk/shop

www.humanism.org.uk is the website of the British Humanist Association and contains much information of relevance. There is general information about Humanism www.humanism.org.uk/humanism as well as very detailed information on the humanist tradition www.humanism.org.uk/humanism/humanist-tradition and important figures within it. There is practical information on humanist ceremonies www.humanism.org.uk/ceremonies and specific pages for teachers www.humanism.org.uk/education/teachers and students www.humanism.org.uk/education/students. There are also additional books and pamphlets on Humanism www.humanism.org.uk/shop/Humanism available to buy. The website of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at www.iheu.org is also interesting.

www.humanistlife.org.uk is a magazine site where ordinary humanists write about topics of interest to them. It is useful as an insight into the humanist approach to many contemporary issues, and many of the articles are also be useful as resources for classroom discussions.

http://www.simpleguidetohumanism.org.uk/ explores Humanism by means of quotes, videos and answers to many frequently asked questions. It is useful both for teachers wanting to improve their own knowledge of Humanism and for study by older learners.

www.youtube.com/britishhumanists is the YouTube channel of the British Humanist Association. It contains videos of many lectures as well as talking head interviews with famous humanists.

On Humanism by Richard Norman (Routledge, 2004) www.routledge.com/books/On-Humanism-isbn9780415305235
A powerfully argued philosophical defence of Humanism by a very humane and open-minded humanist philosopher. Many religious readers have found it the best introduction to Humanism for improving their own knowledge. Norman emphasises that Humanism is not a denial of the more mysterious, fragile side of being human. He deals with big questions such as the environment, Darwinism and 'creation science', euthanasia and abortion, and then argues that it is ultimately through the human capacity for art, literature and the imagination that Humanism is a powerful alternative to religious belief.

Humanism: a beginner’s guide by Peter Cave (Oneworld, 2009) www.oneworld-publications.com/cgi-bin/cart/commerce.cgi?pid=440&log_pid=yes&gclid=CPTL7ruFzZ8CFQdl4wodR1Wl0Q
Written in a chatty and wide-ranging style, Cave explores the humanist approach to religious belief, ethics, and politics, together with moral dilemmas and ‘meaning of life’ questions that can keep us awake at night. Showing how humanists make sense of the world using reason, experience, and sensitivity.

Humanism: a very short introduction by Stephen Law (OUP)
Covering history, ceremonies, morality, politics, the meaning of life, this is an excellent concise introduction to Humanism.

Humanism by Jeaneane Fowler (Sussex 1999) www.sussex-academic.co.uk/sa/titles/Philosophy/Fowler(Humanism).htm
This is a detailed study of what humanists believe about a wide range of philosophical, ethical, and political questions. It also covers ceremonies and a wide range of other practical questions of how humanists live. It is the closest thing there is to an ‘ethnographic’ study of humanists in Britain and the United States.

Humanism: an introduction by Jim Herrick (Rationalist Association 2009) www.humanism.org.uk/shop/68
Excellent short introduction to Humanism written by an author with a life-long involvement in humanist organisations in the UK and internationally. This book looks at more than just the philosophy of Humanism to cover ceremonies, politics, social action and humanist organisations.

Atheism: a very short introduction by Julian Baggini (OUP 2003) link to the uk catalogue site
Baggini looks at the history, philosophy and morality of atheism. In spite of its title, as the author says within its pages, this book is really about Humanism, in that it goes beyond exploration of the simple questions of whether or not there is a god, and looks at the consequences on our lives of not believing in gods.