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Chapter 5: How Humanism Serves The Needs Of Individuals

How Humanism Meets the Needs of Individuals

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Three Basic Needs

Philosophy and religion serve people in various ways. For some individuals these meet many of their psychological needs, for others very few. But it can be agreed that in almost all instances philosophy and religion offer at least to some extent a means of comfort, a source of ethical standards, and a wellspring of inspiration, and that by so doing they fulfill fundamental needs.

Most people would concede that the older religions offer these satisfactions. How do the ideas which are at the core of this alternative to faith give comfort, provide ethical standards, give inspiration, and provide motivation for living?

Mental and Emotional Security

Religions and philosophies have traditionally given humans a very comfortable position in the universe. We had the reassurance of knowing that we were in contact with a power beyond nature that gives the human race love and protection. Like those who sponsor an appeal for funds after any national disaster by saying, “Remember, God spared you,” we knew that the Almighty had us constantly in mind.

Today we still need some kind of basic reassurance about our relationship to the world in order to know that we have a place, that we are accepted. Most of the time our friends, family, or work give us some sense of belonging. However, for many there are times when these are not enough, when we have to turn elsewhere for security. Then, perhaps feeling lonely or unwanted, many draw renewed courage and comfort from a reassuring picture of themselves in relation to God, or to a larger whole—the universe, the world, or humankind.

How can humanism give this kind of picture? How can a philosophy which questions whether there is any unique concern for the human race, either in nature or beyond it, give the equivalence of religious and philosophical reassurance?

Humanism teaches first that there is an intrinsic, inalienable value in all human beings. This is not a value that has been given us by a deity or that we hold only because we have earned it. It is our birthright. We can have a mystical and poignant depth of feeling about this, for at the very heart of our philosophy is a warmly genuine sense of the value in every human, whatever their ability, however they are circumstanced.

This can be the foundation for an invulnerable sense of self-respect. The feeling of security that comes to one who has this kind of self-respect enables one to withstand the incidence of misfortune and of disgrace. It even stands firm against those savage attacks that we sometimes level at ourselves. This kind of feeling about oneself is still appropriate even if one has become entangled in some shameful mess.

Secondly, humanism encourages us to feel that, no matter who we are, we have untapped abilities, unknown potentialities, and more strength, inventiveness, and capacity for survival and progress than we know. We are to look for strength not outside ourselves but within. Erich Fromm, in his book Psychoanalysis and Religion, speaks of the value of having a faith in the power within ourselves to meet life with courage. Some philosophies and religions stress how weak, how evil, and how foolish we are by nature. Although they offer a way of escaping from this lack of strength, virtue, and wisdom, they first impress on us our deficiencies. How much better it is to emphasize hope and self-confidence. How much better to know that we must and can take care of ourselves.

Thirdly, it teaches us to look for courage and for comfort to one another, to our fellow humans, of whom there are more than six billion. We all have experienced the pleasantness of a sense of closeness with a group of strangers when we suffered some minor mishap together, for instance the breakdown of a subway train between stops. Why can not this satisfying sense of solidarity be called up in all of us by the realization that humankind can expect no special dispensation from the universe? Is it not stimulating and comforting to acknowledge our dependence on one another in our unique situation within nature?

Finally, for many humanists the deepest sense of security comes from feeling themselves an integral part of nature. A. Eustace Haydon expresses this beautifully:

The humanist has a feeling of perfect at-homeness in the universe. He is conscious of himself as an earth child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of his long ancestry still ring in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, he has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages and a growing creative center of cosmic life.

This sense of belonging can come to those who realize that we are in every respect a part of nature—a nature far larger, far older, than ourselves.

All through history people have been eager to have a close relationship with the nonhuman world about them. Humanism makes this relationship obvious and logical. We can feel a myriad of ties with other living creatures. We can feel an enriching expansion of sympathy and interest. Living things are fellow experiencers of life, knowing fears of rejection and injury and the satisfactions of acceptance, warm sun, food. We do not claim special privileges and are ready to face, with other living creatures, the full force of the joys and tragedies of life and death.

In years past many of nature’s processes were considered entirely unpredictable and strange. The gods served as special protection against a nature often cruelly hostile. Now that we are learning through the sciences the chains of cause and effect underlying many of these events, they tend to seem less mysterious, less frightening. The idea that there is a kind of basic coherence behind occurrences gives a measure of security. The as-yet-unknown furthers new perceptions. There is a strong, deep certainty in nature’s laws.

In these several ways humanism can make possible a sense of security. Certain privileges have been given up but in their place we have gained self-reliance and a closer bond with all of our fellow humans and with the universe.

Ethical Standards

A second need felt by humans is for a standard of behavior, for ethics. Behind many of the moral codes of the past has been the pressure, the force, of eternal laws, eternal rewards, and punishments. How does humanism build its ethics and standards of behavior, how does it enforce them?

Ethics in the humanist view is largely the responsibility we have for the well-being of others. There are no inflexible rules in personal ethics, for what will be ethical in one situation will not necessarily be so in another. The question of right and wrong is a very practical one. How will behavior affect the well-being of others at a particular time and place?

Our precious social virtues cannot be pressed into the character of individuals by precepts or by authority. We should act honestly, justly, considerately because we feel that this is the natural, the necessary way to behave.

A sturdy basis for ethical behavior is self-respect. The humanist knows that if one is of value, so are others; if one has a right to happiness, self-fulfillment, so have others. And self-respect develops when an individual achieves personal maturity, when one understands strengths and limitations, and recognizes the position of men and women in the scheme of things.

Rudolf Dreikurs, a psychiatrist, expresses this thought in two of his “Ten Premises for a Humanist Philosophy of Life.” He says:

Humanity’s greatest obstacle to full social participation and cooperation is an underestimation of their own strength and value... The greatest evil is fear. Courage and belief in their own ability are the basis for all their virtues. Through realization of their own value they can feel belonging to others, and be interested in others.

There are ideas deep in this philosophy which encourage one to feel thus connected with, and interested in, other people.

Humanists gain a bond with others when they recognize that they must and can help one another in common problems, against common obstacles.

Humanism also provides the strongest possible motive for kindliness and consideration, for justice and honesty. If we believe there will be no second chance in a future life to make amends to family, friends, and acquaintances for the difficulties and unhappiness which we cause them, and if we believe there is no future of bliss for them but that this life we share is all they will ever know, it becomes paramount that we do what we can to make this existence a happy one.

We are not quick to condemn the simpler, more elementary enjoyments. We do not think of these as unimportant or debased. We do not suggest that the pleasures from line dancing, reading comic strips, playing video games, or even watching wrestling matches are not worth much. Happiness is a great good and we should accept it where and when it is offered to us and harms no one.

Because we do not make the distinction between an admirable soul and a less admirable body, we do not separate ourselves into two parts wherein one part of ourselves is respected while another part is scorned. We refuse to set up fierce battles between impulse and conscience and therefore there is no endless inner struggle between good and evil. The normal sex drive, for instance, is not thought of as evil in itself. Like all basic human needs it is not intrinsically wrong but can cause harm when directed in irresponsible ways.

Accounts given by anthropologists of ethics in regions as varied as Samoa, Morocco, and New England are more than merely entertaining. They show that what is considered right behavior with respect to one’s neighbor or one’s father-in-law is different in various parts of the world. Our standards of behavior have grown up, slowly and painfully, from the particular experiences of the group into which we happen to be born.

Aubrey Menen pointed out that early in this century any married woman in Malabar, India, who wore clothes above her waist was considered to be aiming at adultery. It was unthinkable for a cultured adult to sit eating with another, for this would require putting food into the mouth, chewing, and swallowing in public. As for sitting in one’s own dirty bath water—never!

Yet societies have traditionally felt the need not only for codes of behavior but for some kind of superhuman, eternal justification for them. There has been widespread belief that what is right and what is wrong must be eternally right and wrong, and right and wrong for all. It has often been thought that unless people believe this they will think too lightly of codes and standards.

However, the realization that ethics are built up by humans for their use in relations with others is in no respect dangerous. Isn’t there something appealingly practical in the notion that good behavior is that which leads to human welfare? This point of view seems the best kind of justification of and encouragement to honesty and unselfishness.

When a code of behavior is thought to be handed down from a greater power, one obeys from reverence or from fear. There is often the added incentive of punishment or reward. Humanists do not have these forms of persuasion. They like the ones they have—the expectation that people will want to follow those standards which have proved best for individual and general good, and the recognition that an individual who is mature in body, mind, heart, and spirit is eager to work for the common welfare.

And many humanists see beneath all differences in customs and codes a common denominator. They see the principle of mutual aid as a law of survival.

This, then, is part of humanist ethics.


We need more than ethics, more than comfort, from a philosophy or religion or alternative to faith. We need inspiration. We need to express the upreaching and inspiring impulse in human life.

Inspired by an idea or by a symphony of sensory impressions, we feel alive. Our senses dance, our spirits soar. The crusts of routine and monotony are cracked. The concerns of everyday life are seen in a new perspective, seen in terms of what is supremely worthwhile. Life takes on a new meaning. A thoroughly inspirational idea also leads to some kind of purposeful behavior. One is not only inspired but inspired to act in an unaccustomed direction or to be a different kind of person.

There is a deeply inspirational quality in humanism. Many are drawn to it because it has power to inspire them as nothing else does.

This may seem to be a paradox. How, one could ask, can a point of view inspire if it questions whether there is any absolute and preordained meaning to human existence? How can a philosophy inspire if it doubts that humans have a role to play in a moral drama transcending life and death?

Yet it is these very ideas which seem deeply, obviously inspirational to humanists.

Many years ago John Dietrich put this idea into other words for his Minneapolis Unitarian congregation:

Although the universe cares not about our ideals and our morality, we must care for them. All the virtues and all the values, all there is of goodness and justice, kindliness and courtesy is of our own creation and we must sustain them, or otherwise they will go out of existence.

And further,

Against the terrifying background of an uncaring universe, we may each set a triumphant ‘soul’ that has faced facts without dismay, and knowing good and evil, chosen good.

Many humanists would maintain that, here, too sharp a line has been drawn between humans and the rest of nature. They would remind us that our aspirations and our ideals are related to those larger laws that govern all natural things. They might point out that any meaning to life which a person may discover satisfies just because it is in harmony with the laws of nature. But this is a matter of emphasis, of difference in response. For some of us it is the idea of our human isolation and independence which seems particularly meaningful; for others, it is the idea of our interdependence with the nonhuman world. What unites humanists is the conviction that it is to ourselves we must look if we wish to find a master plan by which to shape and give direction to our lives. There is no realm, no force, no personality beyond nature which is the source of meaning and value or which leads us and directs us. Nor is there a special group of religious or philosophical leaders in control of the keys to human virtue and human happiness. We must find them for ourselves.

The reason, of course, why this conviction inspires rather than discourages is confidence that we can do this. We see a worthwhile job to be done and believe that it can be done. Little wonder the humanist feels inspired. A challenge has been given.

For further inspiration the humanist turns to those fundamental ideas which have given comfort, security, and self-respect.

The sense of unity with all humankind has at times a mystical quality. It can also be exhilarating. The well-loved phrase, “All humans are brothers and sisters,” has a particular force, a special ring. The humanist is keenly aware of the plight of Homo sapiens, a species which although a part of nature has risen through age-long evolution to a position different from and set apart from other species. A. Eustace Haydon describes humankind as “the only thinking things in all the vastness of time and space. Alone here for a moment between birth and death, a spectacle so pitiful, so tragic and so grand.” It is against this stark picture of our isolated place in the world, of our sensitivities, our powers, that the humanist sees all members of our human race wherever they may be—in Port Moresby, in Paris, or in Houston. The humanist identifies with all people and sees their problems as human problems. There is complete and irrevocable commitment to the human adventure.

The humanist is filled with wonder and admiration at the creatures that are human, at their capacity for accomplishment, for sacrifice, at the intricacy and precision of that nervous system which has made it possible for them to stand where they do today in nature’s hierarchy. We are convinced that if we use to an ever greater extent our unique capacities for discovery and for cooperation, the future of our race will be a brilliant and a happy one.

Many humanists are moved by the constant realization that all of us are children of nature in every fiber of our being, in every fleeting thought. Both exaltation and humility spring from knowing that we live out our lives within a great enveloping process far larger, far older, than ourselves. Many people feel this is the very heart of their life philosophy. Ruth T. Abbott said: “Our relatedness to the whole of nature is our strength and our source of ethics and our fire in being.” Certainly if we consider our fascinating relation to the universe, we are both lifted up and humbled, both disciplined and supported.

Where can one find more astonishing and ironic paradox, more poetry, more mystery than in this relationship? Nature tenderly provides us with the most delicate and precise apparatus for our health and survival. It does the same for the mosquito and the tubercle bacillus. Humankind is lifted to ecstasy by sunset color on mountain peaks and may be sickened with disgust by decaying flesh. Our species feels gratitude for warm sun, full moons, and clean water; we despair before tornadoes and burning droughts. Freed from the necessity of thinking that the natural world was created for human satisfaction or edification, we are able to take nature as it comes. Knowing that humans are fools to expect any special consideration, we are spared the shock of disillusionment and are unencumbered by the notion that nature rewards those we call good and punishes those we call evil. We can be freed from bitterness and can feel a single-minded, wholehearted joy and interest in the beautiful, the orderly, and the awesome aspects of the universe.

Yet for all our calm objectivity we happily confess a connectedness with nature so close that it is almost complete identification. Our most dramatic aesthetic and intellectual triumphs are as much the products of natural processes as the dams of beavers or the hives of bees. For some of us the really exciting and fascinating paradox lies in the fact that for all our efforts to be objective, we cannot set ourselves apart, for in a sense we ourselves are nature. Our meaning of the word “nature” is expanded to include all those most delicate, subtle, and noble of our aspirations that hitherto people have been loath to admit as belonging to the natural world. To us—and this is perhaps the most difficult thing for the non-humanist to understand—the effect of putting humans in nature is not their debasement but the addition to nature of an exciting new dimension.

We look upon evolution of living things as one of the elemental processes in this grand integrated whole. We feel that humans can now play a decisive role in this process. Imagination, our extensive use of symbols, our ability to organize yesterday’s experience into tomorrow’s dream, set us above all other levels of life. On account of this we are not only able to adapt ourselves to nature but can fashion or recreate parts of the natural world about us. As early as 1916 Cora L. Williams in Creative Involution gave an inspiring picture of the human race as master of the evolutionary process. We may yet awake to the possibilities of directing evolution by human knowledge, human good will.

Inspired by a sense of solidarity with our fellows, by bright confidence in the future of the human adventure, and by our relation with nature, the humanist can be eager for the practical challenge with which life confronts us.

For most of us this challenge has lain chiefly in the role that we might play in the building of a better community, a finer nation, a happier world.

Increasing numbers are also thinking of what their rich and varied philosophy means in terms of personal living. When all is said and done, it is the individual’s own life and those of others which make changes possible.

Humanism teaches two things which seem at first contradictory but which actually complement and strengthen each other. It teaches us on the one hand how deeply involved we are with nature and with our fellow human beings. On the other hand it encourages us to be independent and self-reliant. We cannot play our part well and responsibly unless we are spiritually weaned. Yet we become more fully developed only through social relationships.

Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Harry A. Overstreet, and others have made clear how important it is for one to be free, to be independent. They show that only as one has self-respect can one have wholesome love for others, can one feel concern for others, can one live adequately with others in our common life.

H. J. Blackham describes the value of active participation in life in Living as a Humanist. A humanist says “yes” to life and should be ready and eager for new responsibilities, new human relationships, new experiences of every kind. Humanists take full part in life and at the same time full responsibility for their own past actions. On occasion it may even be strenuous to say “yes” to life. Blackham writes:

The use and enjoyment of what life in the world offers is not to be had by wanting, nor merely by asking, but only by intelligent, instructed and sustained effort.

An unknown Sanskrit writer expresses the daily challenge of life:

Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn!

Look to this Day!

For it is Life, the very Life of Life.

In its brief course lie all the

Varieties and Realities of your Existence:

  The Bliss of Growth,

  The Glory of Action,

  The Splendour of Beauty;

For Yesterday is but a Dream,

And To-morrow is only a Vision,

  But To-day well lived makes

Every Yesterday a Dream of Happiness,

And every To-morrow a Vision of Hope.

Look well, therefore, to this Day!

Such is the Salutation of the Dawn.

Humanism urges us to recognize in our personal lives the importance of its fundamental method. Human progress as a whole depends on freedom to search for truth. Individual progress also depends, in the same crucial way, on a constant search for truth about oneself. Only as one grows in self-knowledge will one become truly free. Only as one understands one’s self can life offer its deeper meanings and be experienced to the full.

Psychologist Rollo May has pointed out that problems of modern men and women center very often in a basic emptiness and in indifference to themselves.

Humanism has a different effect on each person. A clear example of its value for one particular individual has been given by a marketing consultant, Alfred E. Smith, who has told how humanist insights have brightened his life, enabling him to transcend devastating experiences: World War II front-line combat, sudden loss of a cherished eight-year-old daughter, and six years later the tragic death of his wife, leaving him alone to prepare two preschool-age sons for life. A statement he wrote in 1951 was later cited at Phillips Brooks House at Harvard University and printed in the newsletter of the Humanist Association of Massachusetts:

What Being A Humanist Has Done For Me

(1)  Humanism has ended a great aloneness with which I’ve had to carry my thoughts and hopes through many years. How wonderful to be able to share with others the quest for truth which had always set me apart from those still complacently caught in the web of traditional beliefs. Just to know that there have been many before me, that there are growing numbers all over the world joined in the same quest … this gives me new courage and incentive.

(2)  Humanism has given me direction and purpose. It has dispelled an impatient and often desperate idealism. Humanist discussions and Humanist literature have helped me to know myself better . . . have brought me new perspectives on my life . . . have opened doors to an even wider knowledge of my world and of how I can help to make it better.

(3)  Humanism has given me new values. I have learned that people and problems are seldom what they seem to be … that fighting them is futile … that accepting and understanding them is the only way to change them. Humanism, with its emphasis on the scientific method, has taught me to seek facts and underlying causes rather than theories and opinions . . . to search out all that the social sciences have discovered to help me . . . to ever test my own judgment as well as that of others . . . and to direct my efforts toward that which is possible within the ideal.

(4)  Humanism has brought me the realization that complete intellectual freedom is vital to human progress . . . that our first line of advance must be to neutralize with truth the authoritarian forces that seek to enslave the minds of men with superstition, prejudice, obscuration, and propaganda. How glad I am to be part of a movement with this dedication!

(5)  Humanism has helped me to discover the power of love … for through its insights I have come to know that achieving the ability to love myself and all others is worth far more than all the moral codes and religious dogmas ever devised. For me, the meaning of Humanism is living love and seeking truth. And because love is limitless and truth is ever-changing, ever-expanding, I know that Humanism has given me horizons that I will never reach. For that as much as anything I am thankful.

It is clear that humanism offers comfort, support, guidance, inspiration, and a summons. In urging us to know not only the world but ourselves, it offers a quest that will never end.

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