There are several aspects or components of Humanism. Most of these elements can also stand alone (for example, you can be an atheist but not believe in right and wrong, then you wouldn’t be a humanist.)
Humanists are likely to agree with most of the following claims, at least in their broad intent.
We live in a natural world
There are no gods or “ghosts in the machine”. There is no divine realm. Of course there are strange or as yet unanswered questions about the world, but when we really know or understand the answers then these phenomena are always brought into the natural world, or under the laws of nature (or however you like to think of it). This view is also sometimes known philosophically as naturalism.
Naturalism usually entails atheism (dissent from the existence of a God or gods) or at least some form of agnosticism (the idea that the existence of gods is unknown or unknowable, or even a meaningless question).
- “Isn’t it arrogant to rule all these things out?” Naturalism readily accepts that we might discover profoundly strange answers to certain questions. For example, it’s possible we will one day discover a greater frame for our present reality: the best science may tell us that the universe is a holographic simulation or part of a wider multiverse! But any such discovery would then be part of “our reality” or the total “nature” of the universe; the discovery would not be protected by divine mystery, or sealed off by a supernatural barrier. So, naturalism’s dissent from “the supernatural” is not an arrogant prejudice about what exists, but a kind of logical or conceptual or methodological constraint. (For a naturalist, it seems far more arrogant to assert the existence of such things as spirits, gods, or otherworldly realms.)
- “But don’t we sometimes learn amazing new things?” Yes, the universe is often surprising! But when humanity does discover strange new things about the universe we live in, they are usually quite unexpected (such as evolution! other galaxies! quantum mechanics!). Such discoveries rarely cohere neatly with supernatural elements of ancient mythology.
We learn about the world using conjecture, reason and experience
The world is amenable to rational investigation. Humanists agree that we can come to know more about the world through the use of reason and scientific method, or conjecture tested against logic and empirical evidence. This position is sometimes called rationalism.
As rationalists about the best way to learn about the world, humanists value free inquiry, in that they reject artificial limits on investigation. Rationalism also embodies freethought, i.e. it focuses on publicly accessible knowledge which people can share and test as one community, rather than the acceptance of authority, tradition, or dogma.
- “So you think you know it all, then!” Rationalism does not imply that humanists think they know everything. On the contrary rationalism raises the standards for truth-claims: it makes it harder to claim to know everything. Rationalism readily accepts that not all scientific questions yet have satisfactory, explanatory answers. But it at least resists answers which are logically unsound or contrary to scientific evidence.
- “So you think you’re purely rational all the time, Mr Spock!” Rationalism does not imply that any one is capable of being rational all the time in everything they do. Nor does it imply that every proposition worth stating must have a logical basis or that logic and evidence are the only ways we interact with the world. For example if we ask ourselves “Who do I love?” or what we value in life or how others are likely to feel in some situation, then we may turn not to logic, but to emotional introspection, empathy, memory, art… All these things in turn may be subject to some logical analysis, but are not reducible to rationality. Rationalism does mean that humanists tend to be suspicious of any claim to grand truths based more on myth than on evidence. Rationalism does mean that humanists are likely to reject any attempt to limit free inquiry by invoking ineffable mysteries.
We must make the most of the one life we have
We give our lives meaning and purpose
Not believing in an afterlife, humanists focus on making meaning and purpose for themselves, on living a good life here and now.
- “Doesn’t that mean you can do whatever you want?” Living a good life is not the same as unrestrained hedonism, or living a life of unadulterated pleasure or self-interest. Rather, it may mean living in community, helping others, flourishing at what we are good at, contributing to our global society, and exploring and marveling at the world we find ourselves in.
Morality arises from human nature and culture
Human beings were not suddenly blessed with love and reason at some point in the past by an external power! Rather, our nature as deliberating, social beings, able to empathise with others and reason about social dynamics, fairness and justice, all evolved over time.
- “Doesn’t that mean you’re moral relativists?” Emphatically, no. This is not at all the same as the relativist position: that all human behaviors are equally moral (or equally amoral). Compare to the situation with language. Like morality, human language — a combination of written, verbal, signed and gestural communication — is a complex phenomenon that evolved over time. It maps our needs and capabilities, but was not fundamentally designed or enforced from the outside. It varies significantly from place to place but is near-universal in some of its broadest features. Nevertheless, there are still better or worse expressions of language: expressions that are well-formed or badly formed, expressions that communicate as intended or which miscommunicate, some that are true, some that are false. Morality, too, is a complex, evolved set of thoughts and behaviours, but particular actions can be just or unjust, fair or unfair, beneficial or detrimental, ethical or unethical, moral or immoral.
What is morally right promotes welfare and fulfillment
The moral sphere exists because of human nature, including the needs and desires we share, and the needs and desires of individuals; because we interact with each other, and can deliberate over what we do; and because our actions effect both ourselves and others normatively. That is, we can hinder or help, make people sad or happy, impoverish the lives of others or enrich them, live life with dreary fatalism, or with human flourishing. The answers to moral questions are here in the world, in ourselves, others, and our relationships, not in the mystical beyond.
- “But I heard that without God nothing would have any moral worth?” We need make no reference to some absolute law-giver or a designer outside space and time to understand the basis of morality: that some of our actions detract from, and others promote, the welfare of living things, or the advancement of society, or the fulfillment of ourselves and others.
- “Is this some sort of human supremacism?” No. Humanism puts the human moral agent at the centre, because we are the only (or at least, by far the most sophisticated) moral decision-makers that we know of. Humanism does not deny that there are other moral subjects, such as non-human animals. For humanists, moral considerations include moral subjects such as human beings, other animals, our environment, as well as ethical principles, the health of society, and the future we are creating through our actions.