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Chapter 3: Some Basic Beliefs

Some Basic Beliefs

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The Fundamental Premise

Basic to humanism is a particular approach to the world about us—to the physical and psychological environments. This approach or method is considered more important than any conclusions reached by using it, for knowledge is continually increasing. Conclusions about many things in the world have to change as knowledge grows. It is necessary to remain open minded, to avoid jumping to conclusions, and often to suspend judgment. When we form a conclusion it is important that we do not force it upon other people. Whereas in most religions and in some philosophies certain matters have been laid down, accepted on faith, and held to be true for all time, this is not true in humanism. We hold in high regard the scientific method—the constant search for information and the willingness to change opinions as warranted. Even when speaking of morals and ethical values, the humanist makes few assertions and likes to point out the context.

To clarify further the difference between the method of which we speak and the one used by those who base their belief on faith, pioneer American psychologist Frances R. Dewing, in a letter she wrote to the authors, says:

One of the essential things about scientific method is an open mind, critical only of the quality of the evidence, and a readiness to accept any conclusions. With this goes an eagerness to find the principles that can be used to give us successful dealings with our objective experiences. These principles as long as they work are what we call truth.

Contrasted with this basis for truth which assumes dependence on reasoning power there is truth by authority—personal, organizational or “by the book.”

This cleavage of method is a more fundamental cleavage than cleavage according to items of conclusions, especially as by our method any conclusion is conceivably possible. The only negative allowable is the denial of the right of any other person to assert a statement without showing reasons—especially to assert truth for others dogmatically.

Humanists generally hold views on mind, heaven, immortality, essences, and the ideal that are hard for anti-naturalists to understand. Some of these concepts will be discussed later on, but here we wish to point out that they are not the heart of the naturalist alternative. In fact, sin, heaven, immortality, and deity are considered rather unimportant ideas.

Points of General Agreement

How we believe is more important than what we believe. Because we use the scientific method we recognize that even our most central beliefs may have to change in the light of further evidence.

It would be strange if thoughtful and independent people did not have differences of opinion concerning the most significant ideas in their common philosophy, if there were no real disagreements as to implications and emphases. The naturalist alternative, many-faceted, humane, experimental, has room within it for many varieties of opinion.

On some points, however, there is general agreement. Let us consider certain significant ones:

  1. Humans are, in every respect, a part of nature. They are a natural product of evolutionary processes.
  2. We humans, like all other living things, must rely upon ourselves, upon one another, and upon nature. There is no evidence that we receive support or guidance from any immaterial power with whom we might imagine we commune.
  3. We are able to meet the challenges of life in constantly more satisfying ways provided we are able to make fuller use of our capacities.
  4. The meaning of life is that which we give to it. Happiness and self-fulfillment for oneself and others are richly sufficient life goals.
  5. Moral codes are made by humans. Values and ideals grow out of the experience of various cultures, societies, and individuals.
  6. The supreme value is the individual human being. Each person, of whatever race or condition, merits equal concern and opportunity. Laws, governments, and other institutions exist for the service of men and women, and are justifiable only as they contribute to human well-being.

Believing in the capabilities of humans to solve their problems, having confidence in the scientific method, in experience, in knowledge, and in the natural creative processes of the universe, the humanist feels that humankind can successfully make better todays and build toward a better tomorrow.

Humanists in Action

Bette Chambers, one-time editor of Free Mind, the membership publication of the American Humanist Association, often summarizes phases of humanist endeavor. In 1996 she reminded her readers of significant social-action successes:

In the last half of this century, we’ve seen abortion rights established by law. Many states have recognized—or are in the process of recognizing—individuals’ rights to choose the manner and time of their demise. There has been increased sensitivity to women’s roles in the home and the workplace and decreased tolerance for sexual harassment. We’ve witnessed the legal establishment of civil rights for persons of color and opportunities broadened for all minorities.

These humanistic changes did not come about in a vacuum. Humanists and humanistically inspired individuals, as well as socially conscious organizations like the American Humanist Association, have fought long and hard to achieve them. Our 1957 Humanist of the Year, Margaret Sanger, went to jail to champion birth control. Patricia Maginnis, our 1978 Humanist Pioneer, was also incarcerated for fighting for abortion rights. Dr. Henry Morgentaler, our 1975 Humanist of the Year, pioneered abortion rights in Canada and was arrested, jailed, and acquitted three times. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, our 1994 Humanist Hero, has endured and been vindicated in four trials in the pursuit of ending the suffering of individuals through physician-assisted suicide.

Find an important victory in the humanization of our society in the twentieth century, and you’ll find Humanists—often AHA members—leading the charge. In time, fair-minded people of traditional faiths joined in these causes, but it was Humanists who first laid their lives and fortunes on the line, going to jail or bearing social opprobrium until public dialogue led to these reforms.

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