Message from a Former President, Edd Doerr
Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. It is a complete approach to life, a living philosophy of moral development and action, of achievement and well-being, that goes beyond the academic study of the humanities, beyond philosophical abstractions, and beyond the humane sentiments of humanitarianism.
In familiar usage, the word humanism can mean different things to different people in different contexts. Dictionaries define it variously as the quality of being human, human nature, the study of the humanities, and learning in the liberal arts. The American Humanist Association distinguishes the lifestance of Humanism from other usages by uppercasing the word.
Throughout history the ideas of Humanism have made themselves felt in what they support as well as in what they oppose. We owe much to the thinkers of ancient traditions, the scientific and social reformers from the Renaissance forward, and those of progressive thought who, in the early twentieth century, shaped Humanism and founded the American Humanist Association. Heir to the whole of this legacy, the AHA advances a broad and inclusive lifestance that combines the emotional and the intellectual, the social and the individual, the affirmative and the critical into an empowering whole.
Various modifiers are often placed in front of a term in an attempt to distinguish and clarify. But this practice can convey the opposite by obfuscating and confusing. For example, the “naturalistic humanism” or “scientific humanism” in encyclopedias, or the “secular-humanism” demonized by the religious right, are redundant and unnecessary because the lifestance is by definition naturalistic, scientific, and secular. Using modifiers in front of the term can also suggest the absurd-that an opposite of scientific humanism exists in “unscientific humanism.” They can also be misleading. All too often secular humanism is reduced to a sterile outlook consisting of little more than secularism slightly broadened by academic ethics. This kind of “hyphenated humanism” easily becomes more about the adjective than its referent.
Because of this, the American Humanist Association, the oldest and largest Humanist organization in North America, leaves Humanism unmodified, offering it in its fullness without qualification. The lifestance of Humanism is broader than can be expressed through its various modified forms. However, it isn’t without boundaries. Humanism is a broad field of thought and action bordered on one side by the transcendental views of traditional religions and mythologies and on the other by atheism and secularism. It includes those who are agnostic about claims of ultimate realities and absolute truths, and who adhere to an enlivened ethics that informs our lives and guides our relationships-an ethics that we actually live by.
Humanism recognizes that life is more than cognitive and appreciates the full range of human emotion, from the varied reactions to life’s tragedies to the wonder and awe at our natural self and surroundings. We couldn’t disagree more with those who claim life is only about the cognitive and who would thus diminish the human capacity for esthetic creativity and appreciation. Just because science has led us to understand emotions as natural phenomena doesn’t lessen the experience of them!
Favoring a more aesthetic approach, some Humanists-including a number of AHA members-have gathered congregationally and offered activities and celebrations similar to those generally associated with normative religions. But this doesn’t render Humanism a religion or make the AHA religious in any supernatural sense. Indeed, those calling themselves “religious humanists” remain agnostic about claims of ultimate reality and absolute truth.
In furtherance of the full range and application of Humanism, and working to put its ideas to work in ways that go beyond the boundaries of organizations, the AHA recognizes and appreciates those who stress specific Humanist perspectives: Those who bond together in vibrant community to celebrate life and support each other through its various stages; those who stress the importance of interpersonal relationships and strive to improve them; those who emphasize naturalism and cognition; and even those who hold to a stance outside the conceptual boundaries of Humanism but with whom we find common cause.
Thus dedicated to the entire spectrum of a naturalistic philosophy that relies upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion, the AHA takes the informed position that the lifestance of Humanism stands alone without need of modification. Humanism has a broad and rich heritage that shouldn’t be constricted to comply with narrow views. We proudly acknowledge the heritage of its many formative and founding traditions while embracing the Humanist tradition of moving beyond them.
The American Humanist Association therefore stands for Humanism without modification and without reservation.
Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 – 2002. This essay first appeared in the November/December 2002 Humanist