Ask a Humanist, Vol. 4: Isn't Humanism a Faith?

(Part 4 of an ongoing, meandering stream of undefined scope.)

There was a period of several years between the point when I accepted my lack of religious belief and the point in which I referred to myself as a Humanist/Secular Humanist. I honestly didn't know how to refer to myself, and I probably would not have settled on anything if it weren't for the fact that I kept running into situations where I was asked about my religious affiliation. Human beings love to classify things, including ourselves, and each other. 

Those several years where I wasn't sure how to classify my religious views were not unlike trying to self-diagnose a nagging chronic illness. (To extend the metaphor, as a formerly religious person, it did feel at times that something was wrong with me.) Most of us have plugged symptoms into a search engine in order to pinpoint a diagnosis. And most of us have been overwhelmed with the array of returned possibilities. There was atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, Humanism, and Universalist-Unitarianism. There was Ignosticism, Skeptcism, Secularism, Naturalism, and so on. And to complicate matters, many of the aforementioned philosophies have any number of definitions, or serve as an umbrella for any number of other, more specific philosophies.

At about the same the time that I was starting to figure out how to classify my beliefs, or lack of beliefs, Atheism was beginning to see a surge, specifically in bookstores, as tomes by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens enjoyed considerable success (and ignited quite a few discussions in the media). Although these books were instrumental in making non-belief less of a taboo (and helping non-believers feel less of a minority), their perceived antagonistic tones, as well as the backlash from religious figures and institutions, only seemed to further associate "Atheism" with negative characteristics.

As someone who has many wonderful religious friends and family members, the last thing I wanted to do was to seem hostile towards religion (something with which I haven't had tremendous success.)  Although, I had lost my faith, I had not lost my faith in humanity.  In fact, during the period in which I came to terms with my non-belief, my appreciation of humanity, of nature, and of life, grew.  I felt that if I had to label myself, I wanted not to focus on what I didn't believe, but rather what I did believe. 

The American Humanist Association describes Humanism as follows:
  1. Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who think for themselves. There is no area of thought that a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.
  2. Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means for comprehending reality. Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge.
  3. Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness.
  4. Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world. These ideas, after they have been assessed rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to work, often as alternative approaches for solving problems.
  5. Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now. Humanists regard human values as making sense only in the context of human life rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death.
  6. Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems -- for both the individual and society -- and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.
  7. Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need for careful consideration of immediate and future consequences in moral decision making.
  8. Humanism is in tune with the science of today. Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable "soul," and that human beings have certain built-in needs that effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value system.
  9. Humanism is in tune with today's enlightened social thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties, human rights, church-state separation, the extension of participatory democracy not only in government but in the workplace and education, an expansion of global consciousness and exchange of products and ideas internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving social problems, an approach that allows for the testing of new alternatives.
  10. Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment.
  11. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.
They say if the shoe fits, wear it.  The above set of descriptors were already aligned with the philosophies that I had come to slowly over my entire life.  Are there other descriptions for other philosophies with which I would also feel aligned? Yes, I'm sure of it. And I would probably not deny any relationship with that philosophy. (I feel perfectly fine referring to myself as an atheist, an agnostic, a Universalist-Unitarian, and other descriptors.)

If one follows a particular code, and aligns oneself with a philosophy that has a Web presence, a Wikipedia entry, and a presence in the public sphere, then isn't that just like any other faith or religion?  That's a perfectly fair question.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines faith as:
Inner attitude, conviction, or trust relating man to a supreme God or ultimate salvation.
If a philosophy of belief system does not concern itself with a god or gods, it isn't a faith.  Humanism does not involve entertaining concepts related to the supernatural.  It is a naturalistic, nonreligious worldview.

Some might say that, regardless, Humanism certainly smells like faith/religion. I wouldn't deny that there are some similarities.  For example, just like religious folks, non-religious folks like to congregate at times with those who share their worldview.  The non-religious might form informal groups, or unite behind a particular cause that is important to their worldview.  They might lobby for (or oppose) particular legislation due to their worldview in the same way that many religious groups might. They might even seem to evangelize, whether by writing a letter to the editor, sporting a bumper sticker, or promoting the separation of church and state.  However, none of these instances are efforts to promote belief in a supernatural being. They are usually efforts to promote critical thinking, to honor the Constitution's Establishment Clause, to stress the need for improved science education, etc.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Religion as follows (definitions 1-4):
  1. Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this.
  2. A particular system of faith and worship.
  3. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.
  4. Devotion to some principle; a strict fidelity or faithfulness; conscientiousness; pious affection or attachment.
Definitions 1-3 are definitions which speak to the supernatural, and therefore do not apply to any form of non-belief.  One could argue that some non-religious folks could be described as having "devotion to some principle," as in definition 4.  If that were the case, we would need to also classify any form of activism and many political movements as religious. But one could not accurately describe Humanism as a religion in the sense that we describe the Abrahamic faiths.

Although I describe myself as a Humanist, I do not attend a church.  I don't belong to any formal Humanist organizations.  I own no t-shirts or bumper stickers that pronounce my alignment with Humanism.  I have no Humanist text. I have no mantra, prayer, or meditation. There are no belief requirements I must meet in order to be part of the Humanist collective. It simply helps to describe who I am and what I do and don't believe. But it also helps to communicate (I hope) that by being godless, I am not without morals, and that I care tremendously about the world in which we live, and the people who inhabit it.  I do have faith in people.  I have seen the great good, and the unspeakable evils, of which they are capable.

Although I sometimes refrain from quoting Sam Harris, for fear of turning off people who already have a poor impression of him, but he has a great quote that demonstrates the type of faith that Humanists embody:

"I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs." 

I believe that societies are capable of making decisions based on evidence (and not based on ancient texts or religious doctrine), and that people are capable of acting with the intention of reducing suffering (without relying on scripture).

If that's faith, I'm guilty as charged.

Ask a Humanist

No comments:

Post a Comment