Essentials of Humanism

Essentials of Humanism

What we are willing to say about the universe and our lives is based exclusively on our own shared experience and reason.

Kendyl R Gibbons
Leonardo Da Vinci anatomy art close-up

©Janaka Maharage Dharmasena/iStock

©Janaka Maharage Dharmasena/iStock


While the terms atheist and Humanist are often used interchangeably, they are not, in fact, synonymous. A person can be an atheist without embracing any of the commitments of Humanism, and a person could maintain a position of indifference about the possible existence of supernatural beings and still live with integrity as a Humanist. As a religious position and a spiritual path, Humanism looks beyond the idea that a self-conscious, personal god doesn’t exist. Rather, Humanism is founded on the more radical claim that the existence or nonexistence of such a god, or goddess, or gods, does not matter much. As its name implies, Humanism is concerned with the world of human existence as it is known through human experience.

What we are willing to say about the universe and our lives is based exclusively on our own shared experience and reason. “Because the Bible tells me so”—or the Qur’an, or Jesus, or Jehovah, or the Buddha, or any other religious authority—carries no weight. We trust that which can be proven, either by evidence, science, and careful study or by the cumulative moral insight and experience of the human race. Humanism is quite the opposite of a religion or philosophy that teaches, as some would say, that we can believe anything we want. In fact, as the third Humanist Manifesto asserts, Humanism encourages us to “distinguish things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be.”

Humanism begins with the understanding that no human being can be fully happy at the expense of another, or even in the knowledge of another’s misery.

Humanism begins with the premise that our bodies and minds are the tools with which we must engage this world and our existence. As Humanist philosopher and hymnist Ken Patton put it: “Without any say in the matter, we are born, and without vote or rebuttal, we die.” These two facts are the givens of human experience. The question is, then, how will we respond to this situation?

We can consider thoughtfully what might constitute a good life, a life worth living even in the face of certain death, and then try such an approach, always leaving room for the fruits of both reason and experience to correct our course. All religious experience, traditions, and institutions are necessarily human experience, traditions, and institutions. From this perspective, all religions have their origins in the question of what it means to live a good life.

Some religions answer that question by supposing that our lives are simply preparation for other, future states of existence, so that what constitutes living well now is whatever will pay off in the greatest happiness in the hereafter. Again, Humanism is concerned not with whether there is another world, but with how much time and energy we invest in preparing for it. Many of us suppose that our state of consciousness after the body’s death will be just what it was before the body’s conception: nonexistent. Others suppose that we cannot know the answer to this mystery, since no evidence seems sufficient either way. A few of us have had uncanny personal experiences that incline us to think there may be something more beyond this life. But if we primarily focus on what makes a good life here and now, we are called on to do our best to do what is right in this world.

Humanism very intentionally accepts the reality of death as part of what makes the task of learning to be human urgent and compelling. Knowing that we are mortal and that our time is limited suggests that, to figure out how to live well, we must start now. In this respect, Humanism is a demanding spiritual path. It teaches that we are accountable, individually and collectively, for what we make of ourselves and our world.

The sternness of Humanism lies in its teaching that we must not wait to be rescued or excused. We are called to spiritual maturity, which means to submit as gracefully as we can to reality, to both the logic and the arbitrariness of the universe as it happens to exist. We may, of course, strive to change those realities through the application of intelligence, effort, and the principles by which the universe itself operates. Much of human progress has occurred from the determination to understand why the world is the way it is and, after learning how it might be changed, changing it.

The good news of Humanism is that the well-being of this planet, and of our most widely conceived community, is the good we are driven to seek. We are not fundamentally deceived; there is no arbitrary obedience required of us against our own common sense. We have, of course, made both individual and collective mistakes. As we learn to understand ourselves and our world better, the knowledge that we could make yet more mistakes should help us cultivate a certain humility in our assertions about what we know.

Humanism as a spiritual path invites us to aspire to pleasures that are deeper and more lasting than those of a juvenile hedonism. It begins with the understanding that no human being can be fully happy at the expense of another, or even in the knowledge of another’s misery. Until all people have the opportunity to participate in creating for themselves good lives, as they would define them, none of us is as happy as we might be. The suffering of others always diminishes our own pleasures, for we are social creatures, designed by evolution to reflect one another’s experiences in our own perceptions. A thoughtless grasping for selfish indulgences cannot make a satisfying life in the long run.

Another principle that Humanism invites us to grasp is the recognition that the deepest and most enduring pleasures require cultivation. By investing patience, practice, and self-discipline, we can learn skills that make life more rewarding, whether we become better athletes, more expressive artists, better parents, more appreciative readers, more precise scientists . . . the list is endless. The point is that we may choose to sacrifice immediate gratification in the service of a greater fulfillment later on, and the good life is one in which immediate pleasures are thoughtfully balanced with the cultivation of lasting happiness. The more you take time to know and understand human nature and the nature of the world, the more likely you are to be effective in making your life what you most truly want it to be. The good life is also one in which our vision of what constitutes the good life itself matures and expands and grows deeper over time. To engage in the kind of self-examination and reflection that is required for such intellectual, emotional, and moral development is part of what it means to practice Humanism.

But for all its celebration of our intellectual capacity to understand the world and ourselves, Humanism is not just a function of the mind. The life well lived has emotional, aesthetic, and moral fulfillment as well as mental and physical satisfaction, and these we ignore at our peril. Love for those closest to us and compassion for all creatures, the capacity to be touched by beauty and repulsed by ugliness, and the longing for justice in the world and honor in oneself are as essential to spiritual maturity and lasting happiness as is intellectual reason or physical health. Each of these dimensions has its own perspective on truth and is not subsumed by the others. Reasoning will not make right what is wrong, nor make what is hideous lovely. Nor will it make us love the person our heart shrinks from. We can learn to see more clearly the moral subtleties of a situation, to appreciate harmonies of color and form in unlikely places, and to hold in esteem people we weren’t initially attracted to, just as we can condition our bodies and educate our minds. But this is a process of cultivation, not contradiction. Humanism asks us to attend to all of our faculties and to recognize that a life can only be truly well lived when it has developed satisfaction in all of these aspects.

Humanism invites us into compassionate connection with others, so that we may build the common good and, in that enterprise, make our own days glad. It offers us no assurances of divine love or a life to come, but rather the assurance that this life matters, that we create our meaning here and now, in this very world. It teaches us to find our satisfactions in work and service, rest and love, and to accept our fears and failures for what we may learn from them.

And, by no means least of all, Humanism summons us to gratitude, because that is how we become most fully human. To live well is to live with intelligence and integrity, with justice and compassion, with wholeness and beauty, and, finally, inevitably, with thanks and praise, for all that is our fragile, tragic, precious life.

Adapted with permission from Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, ed. by Kendyl L. R. Gibbons and William R. Murry (Skinner House, 2016).

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