By Harvey Lebrun
The indiscriminate use of the term “humanist” for anyone considered to be working for the good of humanity once led Paul Kurtz to ask in The Humanist magazine: “Has ‘humanism,’ like ‘motherhood,’ peace,’ ‘brotherhood,’ and ‘democracy,’ become so honorific a term that it is avowed even by those who do not believe in it? And, in being co-opted, will it then be undermined?”
One way to avoid the possible degeneration of the term Humanist into meaninglessness is to insist upon the distinction between Humanism (capital H), as developed by the organized Humanist movement, and humanism (small h), as professed by individuals and organizations outside of that movement, which include (in Paul Kurtz’s words) “even those who officially downgrade the importance of the welfare of individuals in their earthly existence.” (For example, Pope Paul VI referred to himself as a “humanist.”)
The distinction has practical implications: Who is the sort of Humanist, or potential Humanist, sought by the organized Humanist movement to help promote its philosophy, ethics, social concerns, and way of life?
Of definitions of Humanism, there is no lack. They vary from the overly simplistic, such as “Humanism is the belief that, together, humans have what it takes to build a satisfying life on earth,” to the overly detailed definitions in the Humanist Manifestos.
A good place to look for what constitutes a valid criterion by which to measure different definitions of Humanism is the Statement of Purpose preamble to the Bylaws of the American Humanist Association, which declares the philosophy of Humanism to be:
a nontheistic world view that rejects all forms of supernaturalism and is in accord with the spirit and discoveries of science. In promoting confidence in the ability of humans to solve their problems through the use of free inquiry, reason, and imagination, the association provides its members with opportunities to advance human welfare through fellowship, study, and service. Activities of the association are undertaken with respect for, and a desire to secure the survival of, all forms of life which inhabit planet Earth. The operation of the association is democratic, nonpartisan, and free of all authoritarian doctrines.
Implicit here are four basic principles, the raison d’etre of the American Humanist Association:
- A positive, secular, scientific, evolutionary, naturalistic philosophy and concept of humanity and the universe.
- The negative aspect of that philosophy and concept: No belief in, reliance upon, or subservience to supposedly supernatural powers or their effluvia, such as a god or gods, a soul separate from the body, immortality, sin, answered prayer, or divine revelation.
- Commitment to individual and social ethics that are based on changing human experience, compassion for other human beings, and concern for the related world of humankind and Earth – rather than on supposedly divine injunctions, church pronouncements, divine rewards and punishments in this or a future life, and so forth.
- The solution of individual and social problems by the methods of science, democracy, reason, and freedom, rather than by dependence on visions (divinely inspired or drug-induced), pseudoscience, or political, religious, or economic power- dictates.
A feature of modern Humanism that differentiates it sharply from authoritarian religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church or Protestant bodies holding the Bible inviolate, is that Humanism supports unending questioning of assumptions in every field of thought and action – including those of Humanism itself. Humanism affirms free inquiry, in the light of evidence and reason, into all aspects of the human condition and the cosmos, without any external limitations imposed by religious, political, economic, or other authorities. And this includes the freedom to apply the principles of Humanism according to one’s own lights.
These four principles may be expressed in more concise form as a two-sided statement with which few, if any, Humanists (capital H) would disagree –
- A naturalistic, scientific, secular philosophy or concept of humanity and the universe that precludes any belief in or reliance upon supposedly supernatural powers.
- An ethics or way of life based on human experience and imbued with compassion for other human beings that calls for commitment to betterment of humanity through the methods of science, democracy, and reason, without any limitations by political, ecclesiastical, or other dictates.
Individuals and organizations that subscribe to one but not the other of these two basic principles, or to a part but not all of either one, may be said to be humanistically inclined – but they are not advocates of Humanism in the modern sense of the term. Those called Humanists (with a capital H) proclaim both items as intrinsic elements in their philosophy, way of life, religion, or whatever they choose to call their deepest affirmations.
This is an updated text of the late Harvey Lebrun’s essay, “Humanism With A Capital H,” which first appeared as a longer paper in the August 1973 issue of Progressive World, and then, in 1977, was published in this shorter form as a brochure of the American Humanist Association. Mr. Lebrun was the founder of the Chapter Assembly of the American Humanist Association and the Fund for Chapter Expansion. He also chaired the AHA’s Committee on Democratization, revising the association’s bylaws.
© Copyright 1994 and 1977 by the American Humanist Association © Copyright 1973 by Harvey Lebrun
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