What is Secular Humanism?
First, a few definitions are helpful:
Atheist: a person who does not believe in the existence of God or gods.(Oxford)
Agnostic: a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.(Merriam Webster)
Skeptic: a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions. A person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist.(Oxford)
Freethinker: one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially : one who doubts (agnostic) or denies (atheist) religious dogma (Merriam Webster)
Secular: not connected with religious or spiritual matters (Oxford)
Humanism: a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason. (Merriam Webster)
Based on these definitions, Skeptics and Freethinkers are either Atheists, Agnostics or moving in that direction. So, having defined their approach to forming opinions and answered the question of god, how then are Freethinkers, Skeptics, Atheists and Agnostics to form a positive worldview without falling into the despair of nihilism (the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless). Secular Humanism naturally flows from the positions above, forming a consistent, positive, and ethical worldview.
“… the moral consequences of believing the universe not to be guided by a personal god to whom petitionary prayer can be addressed are huge. That is why it is so inadequate to call oneself solely an atheist; one needs some sort of description for what motivates one’s behavior afterwards.”
— Bill Cooke
Secular humanist author and activist
Secular Humanism defined:
Secular Humanism is a philosophy that upholds reason, ethics, and justice, and specifically rejects the supernatural and the spiritual as guides to moral reflection and decision-making. – Council For Secular Humanism. (“Secular” is added in order to clearly distinguish it from Religious Humanism).
“[Secular] 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“. - Humanist Manifesto III, American Humanist Association 2003. (again, “Secular” has been added to the beginning of the Humanist Manifesto III statement above without losing any of its meaning and to clearly distinguishing itself from any type of “religious” humanism)
Quotes from famous Humanists:
“Humanism is a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity, of application of new ideas of scientific progress for the benefit of all“. • LINUS PAULING – scientist, Humanist of the Year in 1961, Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954, Nobel Peace Prize in 1962.
“Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests“. • ISAAC ASIMOV – scientist, author, and past president of the American Humanist Association.
What Is Secular Humanism?
Secular humanism begins with atheism (absence of belief in a deity) and agnosticism or skepticism (epistemological caution that rejects the transcendent as such due to a lack of evidence). Because no transcendent power will save us, secular humanists maintain that humans must take responsibility for themselves. While atheism is a necessary condition for secular humanism, it is not a sufficient one. Far from living in a moral vacuum, secular humanists “wish to encourage wherever possible the growth of moral awareness and the capacity for free choice and an understanding of the consequences thereof.”1
Secular humanism emerges, then, as a comprehensive nonreligious life stance that incorporates a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system. That is the definition I offer.
1) “A Secular Humanist Declaration,” Free Inquiry, Winter 1980/81, p. 5.
How Do Secular Humanists View Religious and Supernatural Claims?
Secular humanists accept a world view or philosophy called naturalism, in which the physical laws of the universe are not superseded by non-material or supernatural entities such as demons, gods, or other “spiritual” beings outside the realm of the natural universe. Supernatural events such as miracles (in which physical laws are defied) and psi phenomena, such as ESP, telekinesis, etc., are not dismissed out of hand, but are viewed with a high degree of skepticism.
Are Secular Humanists Atheists?
Atheism is simply a stance on the the question of the existence of god – that there is no god or gods. The term does not imply anything else. Secular Humanism is a positive worldview that flows naturally from atheism.
Therefore, secular humanists are generally nontheists. They typically describe themselves as nonreligious. They hail from widely divergent philosophical and religious backgrounds.
Secular humanists do not rely upon gods or other supernatural forces to solve their problems or provide guidance for their conduct. They rely instead upon the application of reason, the lessons of history, and personal experience to form an ethical/moral foundation and to create meaning in life. Secular humanists look to the methodology of science as the most reliable source of information about what is factual or true about the universe we all share, acknowledging that new discoveries will always alter and expand our understanding of it and perhaps change our approach to ethical issues as well. In any case their cosmic outlook draws primarily from human experiences and scientific knowledge.
On Being Good Without a belief in God – What Are Secular Humanist Ethics?
Far from living in a moral vacuum, secular humanists “wish to encourage wherever possible the growth of moral awareness.” (The quote comes from “A Secular Humanist Declaration,” the Council for Secular Humanism’s founding document, authored by Paul Kurtz.)
Secular humanists believe human values should express a commitment to improve human welfare in this world. (Of course, human welfare is understood in the context of our interdependence upon the environment and other living things.) Ethical principles should be evaluated by their consequences for people, not by how well they conform to preconceived ideas of right and wrong.
Secular humanism denies that meaning, values, and ethics are imposed from above. In that it echoes simple atheism. But secular humanism goes further, challenging humans to develop their own values. Secular humanism maintains that through a process of value inquiry, reflective men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, and craft ethical systems that deliver desirable results under most circumstances.
Indeed, say secular humanists, the basic components of effective morality are universally recognized. Paul Kurtz has written of the “common moral decencies”—qualities including integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence, and fairness. These qualities are celebrated by almost every human religion, not because God ordained them, but because human beings cannot thrive in communities where these values are ignored.
Secular humanism offers a nonreligious template that may one day guide much of humanity in pursuing fulfilling and humane lives—lives that are rich intellectually, ethically, and emotionally, without reliance on religious faith.
Secular humanism propounds a rational ethics based on human experience. It is consequentialist: ethical choices are judged by their results. Secular humanist ethics appeals to science, reason, and experience to justify its ethical principles. Observers can evaluate the real-world consequences of moral decisions and intersubjectively affirm their conclusions. Kurtz and other secular humanists argue that all human societies, even deeply religious ones, invariably construct consensus moralities on consequentialist principles. Millennia of human experience have given rise to a core of “common moral decencies” shared by almost all.1
Human happiness and social justice are the larger goals of secular humanist ethics. For Owen Flanagan, “[e]thics … is systematic inquiry into the conditions (of the world, of individual persons, and of groups of persons) that permit humans to flourish.”2
These conditions include freedom from want and fear, freedom of conscience, freedom to inquire, freedom to self-govern, and so on. Undergirding all of these is a keen commitment to individualism. Secular humanism takes upon itself the Enlightenment project of emancipating individuals from illicit controls of every type: the political control of repressive regimes; the ecclesiastical control of organized religion; even the social controls of societal and family expectations, conventional morality, and the tyranny of the village. This does not mean that anything goes but rather that social and political limits on human freedom must be justified by the individual and social benefits they confer.
Secular humanism affirms the values of both creative and individual self-realization and cosmopolitanism. Therefore, secular humanists sometimes defy ideals of the Left as well as the Right. Free Inquiry has opposed political and religious correctness, defending the right to criticize any teaching, even teachings revered by religious or ethnic communities. We support social and cultural fluidity, for example, championing intermarriage and assimilation when liberal opinion has sought to preserve static ethnic and religious identities.
1) Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988).
2) Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 261.