Well, I’ve managed to post three “personal definitions” so far without tackling the one that is probably most relevant to this blog: what is a humanist?
Partly this is because the term humanism isn’t as misunderstood as the other terms I’ve covered: atheist, Christian, and fundamentalist. It is unfamiliar to many, but at least folks don’t tend to have conflicting ideas of what it means.
But, in the comments to the post about fundamentalism, I was directly asked about a definition of humanism. So, at long last, I thought I’d tackle it.
First I’ll give the usual caveat. I offer the definition here to clarify what I mean by the term humanist. I’m not trying to impose this definition on anyone else, or to declare that all other definitions are “wrong”.
So let me start by identifying the two core features of humanism as I understand it.
One is compassion. A humanist outlook takes human well-being as a central value.
The other is reason. Humanism entails using rational enquiry to decide what is true and what is false.*
Now, I would love to leave it there. If you live a life that demonstrates the values of compassion and reason, then I think you are entitled to call yourself a humanist. But there are some side-effects of this definition that affect who will call themselves a humanist and who will not**.
For example, it omits mentioning the existence (or non-existence) of any god. Most people who believe in a god also value compassion and reason. Are they humanists?
My tentative answer is no, for two reasons: they don’t call themselves humanists, and people who do call themselves humanists don’t call believers humanists.
Believers tend to choose other labels themselves – labels associated with their god-belief: “Christian”, “Hindu”, “Muslim”, “Pagan”. The extra values associated with those groups vary, but generally include obedience to the god(s) they believe in, commitment to certain rituals (Hajj, prayer, Communion, etc), and veneration of particular texts as sources of sacred truth. Religious people give some or all of these values a privileged position above the humanist values of compassion and reason. A related point is that, while atheism and humanism are not synonymous, the association is strong enough that many religious people probably avoid the label humanist simply because it seems to imply atheism†.
Like many self-described humanists, I think religious people, by accepting the existence of a god, are not fully living up to the stated value of reason. I know how arrogant this sounds – remember that it’s just another way of saying that I think I’m right (otherwise I wouldn’t call myself an atheist). I may be wrong, but this is my best guess so far.
So only people who lack god-belief (atheists – but not all atheists) choose take on the label humanist, and nobody – neither believers nor non-believers – applies the term humanist to believers.
I suppose it is also worth pointing out why I and many other people prefer the label humanist to atheist. After all, if there’s so much overlap, why not simply go with the term that most people know?
First, the definition of atheist is not always obvious. That’s why I offered a post on what I and others mean when we call ourselves atheists. Second, the term atheist is so fraught with emotional baggage that in some situations it’s worth avoiding on that basis alone.†† Third and more importantly for me, “atheist” and “humanist” mean different things. Being an atheist is about what you don’t believe. Being a humanist is about what you value.
For me, atheism is a consequence of living as a humanist. I withhold belief in a god because the belief is both irrelevant to my capacity to behave compassionately, and unsupported by rational evaluation of the evidence before me. As I’ve said before, if someone showed me convincing evidence that a god exists, I would no longer be an atheist, but I would continue to value compassion and reason above all else. I would remain a humanist.
To sum up: I take humanism to be an approach to living based on compassion and reason. I think that this approach leads to atheism, but that atheism is not an inherent part of humanism. Religious belief is not in principle contrary to humanism, but seems in fact to be inconsistent with a rigorous application of the twin values of compassion and reason. When I call someone a humanist, I’m asserting that they take reason and compassion as the root of their worldview, that they probably don’t believe in the supernatural, and that they probably self-identify as a humanist.
Let me know if that isn’t perfectly clear.‡
* I confess to borrowing this characterization directly from the Humanist Network News podcast, which introduces humanism as “a worldview based on reason and compassion”.
** Observant readers will notice that I am implicitly taking self-identification as an important test of what it means to be a humanist. This is a common attitude among linguists: words get their meaning through usage, so the meaning of a word like “humanist” (or “Christian” or “banana”) will be largely shaped by the people who take that word as a label for their beliefs.
† I’m not suggesting that all religious people have some bigoted bias against atheism. (Some do, some don’t.) I’m just saying that they don’t want to take on a label that would misleadingly imply they are atheists.
†† But not all circumstances – I’m happy to call myself an atheist if someone asks whether I believe in a god, or simply asks if I’m an atheist. I should also add that some atheists avoid the term “humanist” because they think it’s just a cowardly way of avoiding the controversial but more appropriate term “atheist”. (See for example this discussion at the Rational Response Squad forums.) Let me be clear: I am an atheist. But I am also, and more fundamentally, a humanist.
‡ Sorry about all the footnotes.
Some links to other definitions
(Note that these definitions, as they are based on use, often give religious disbelief more weight than I do.)
Cambridge Dictionary Online.
Oxford English Dictionary (access not free).
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
BBC article on humanism.
Humanist Society of Scotland.
International Humanist and Ethical Union “minimum statement“.
Humanist Academy (Scottish humanist educational charity).
The Happy Human is trademarked by the British Humanist Association and is used worldwide as a symbol of humanism. I use the version from the Wikimedia Commons, which is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. It was created by Denis Barrington for the British Humanist Association, and adapted to the current format by Howard Cheng.