November 2013 – What is Humanism?

wot-is-humDown to basics this month, though the previous two sessions have hinted at much of this content.

The discussion began with a short “primer” on humanism. The first part was a very quick look at an article by Joseph Hoffman (an historian of religion and founding faculty member of the Humanist Institute.) In the article, On the Diginty of Humanism, outlines four characteristics he feels define humanism: its historical grounding in the Renaissance’s (re)discovery of nature as something significant and deserving of study independent church doctrine; its insistance that we all bear responsibility for the “quality and value of the things that make us human” (he finds much of organized humanism fails on this point); its intellectual restlessness and inquisitiveness; and its not being in opposition to religion, in fact sharing with religion the primacy of the dignity of mankind.

A few quick definition were proposed: atheism (Is there a god? No.); agnosticism (Is there a god? Don’t know, not enough evidence.);  ignosticms (Is there a god? The question is meaningless unless you can satisfactorily define “god”.); apatheism (Is there a god? Don’t care.);  secularism (church and state can co-exist but must not co-influence); and freethought (opinions should be based on logic, reason and empiricism).

A very brief history of humanism followed, with information drawn primarily from good old Wikipedia, from Massimo Pigliucci’s essay Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism, and from Jim Herrick’s book Humanism, An Introduction.

A few of the many “types” or labels attached to humanism were mentioned, including cultural, buddhist, literary, progressive, integral, ecumenical and artistic. Religious humanism, as described by Humanist Manifest I (1933) and exemplified by today’s Unitarian Universalist was discussed, as was secular humanism, with Paul Kurtz and Humanist Manifesto II (1973) being instrumental in it becoming dominant today, represented by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Nine lists or manifestos, variations on describing humanism, were compared. Science and rational thought were the most commonly named attributes amongst the documents, with explicit rejection of the supernatural being far less freqently mentioned. The ANAYLYSIS (pdf file), meant to be indicative but far from comprehensive, is based on the following documents:

The ensuing discussion covered a lot of territory:

  • The current tendency by some organizations towards political correctness (see Humanist Manifesto LLL) and attempts to broaden their base through appeal to the religiously “non-committed.” This contrasts with the occassionally extreme views of the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitches etc.),  though it was noted that Dawkins is becoming more accomodating of late
  • Barriers to advancement in public life for atheists and other “non-committalists”;
  • Hoffman’s dislike of organized humanism;
  • The importance of science and rational thought as primary tools in living in a responsible manner;
  • Elaboration on ignostism (and igatheism);
  • Education and reaching out to young people;
  • humanism as doing (active) or being (passive).