My Take on “Humanism 101”

A few high school students from a local Christian Academy reached out to me recently, asking if I could answer some questions for them about Humanism for an apologetics class where their assignment was to interview people from different faith (or non-faith) backgrounds.

Here was my response, and basically my personal take on a “Humanism 101”.

As it’s geared more towards someone who may have had no prior exposure to Humanism it’s probably a bit basic for most readers of this blog, but hopefully a good primer/refresher on some of the basic principles of Humanism and secular morality.

1. What is the origin of the universe and man?

While there are still many unanswered questions about the origin of our universe, our current state of scientific understanding is that the universe began as a single point of nearly infinite energy about 13.8 billion years ago, which expanded rapidly in an incredibly short period of time and formed the early universe, which over time has become the universe as we know it today. While this process is now known as “the Big Bang“, that name is somewhat misleading since it was not actually an explosion, but rather an incredibly rapid expansion of space itself (and the energy within that space), kind of like blowing up a balloon. We also now know that the universe is continuing to expand, and will continue to expand indefinitely until–many billions of years from now–all of the energy within the universe has been expended.

Here is a good video of a talk by Physicist/Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss about what we know about the origins of the universe, and how it is possible that our universe could have come “from nothing”:

As for the origin of man, all of the evidence in the biological sciences (biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, biochemistry, genetics, paleontology, etc) indicate that all humans today are descendants of a common ancestor which existed approximately six million years ago. This ancestor was a primate species which is now extinct, but from which we inherited many of the attributes that modern humans share today.

2. What is the purpose of mankind?

Humanists believe that a person’s purpose in life is what he or she chooses to make of it. Without a divine being to make that decision for us, we believe that we are free to pursue the things we find meaningful, and free to determine what gives each of us the greatest sense of purpose.

Here is a good (and short) video by humanist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on how he finds meaning in life.

3. What is satisfaction and how do I obtain it?

Much like #2, satisfaction is up to the individual to determine what provides the most satisfaction in their own life, based on their own personal desires and circumstances. However, I would also add that studies have consistently shown that almost all humans share in common certain things which provide us with the most satisfaction. These include:

-Being a part of a social and active community.
-Having meaningful relationships with others.
-Showing compassion for others and helping others in need.

All of the above are key parts of Humanism, much as they are for other religious communities such as churches. In those aspects, Humanist organizations are similar to religious churches, with key differences being that we do not have any rituals, holy texts, dogmas, or belief in the supernatural. Instead, we believe in an entirely reality-based worldview in which our actions are not driven by supernatural reward/punishment, but the desire to do good for the sake of making the world a better place.

4. What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there evil in the world and why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a common belief that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and that things are worse now than they were in the past. Yet the opposite is true in pretty much every way imaginable. Crime levels have plummeted dramatically, both in the U.S. and worldwide, over the past 50 years. The number of people dying in wars (as a percentage of the population) has dropped to their lowest levels in recorded history (and probably all of history). Economic equality, poverty reduction, education, and civil rights have seen (and are continuing to see) enormous strides. And despite the popular notion that our society is getting “dumber”, average IQ levels have increased dramatically throughout the 20th century all over the world, and are continuing to increase. And, of course, the number of deaths due to natural causes (particularly infectious diseases and famine) have dropped enormously even while the total world population has skyrocketed.

Of course, most people seem to be under the impression that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and wish we could return to how things “used to be”. One reason for this misconception is that we are now so much more connected to the outside world than ever before, with constant exposure to news media. And for a variety of reasons, news media tend to focus on negative news such as crimes, disasters, and tragedies, even when those things are actually relatively rare.

And, of course, the popularity of apocalyptic end-times theology, particularly in Christianity, plays a big role in this misconception as well.

To be clear, there are many things in this world which are extremely tragic, and many horrible things that we should be doing everything in our power to prevent. We certainly still have a lot of room to improve as a civilization. But the reality is that with rare exceptions (most significantly, environmental issues) the world is now better than it has been in just about every way, and continuing to get better all the time.

As for the question of why bad things happen to good people, the simplest answer is that we live in a world where people have the capability to commit evil acts, and according to Humanism there is no supernatural overseer (such as God) or supernatural entities (such as angels) to prevent them from doing so. Which is why it is especially crucial that we do whatever we can to help each other and try to make the world better, because if we (i.e. humanity) don’t, then nobody else will.

5. What is right and wrong? Is moral truth absolute or relative?

Simply put, the Humanist view of “right and wrong” is that it is wrong for someone to cause undue harm towards others (whether through action or inaction, or though the prevention of progress), and that we should strive to reduce the overall level of suffering in the world while increasing the overall level of happiness and prosperity. While this may seem rather obvious, Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews in that we do not believe in moral restrictions against behaviors and practices which do not actually cause any harm in the real world (for example, homosexuality and same-sex marriage), or practices which may actually prevent harm (for example, birth control technologies).

Also, the Humanist view of morality is that our understanding of the world is constantly improving as we continue to learn new things about science, about society, about ourselves, and about ethics overall. As a result, the Humanist understanding of “right and wrong” is also something which improves over time, as our knowledge and understanding improve. In that sense we do not necessarily view moral truth as “absolute”, because we do not see morality as “fixed in place” and never-changing; instead, we look at morality as something which is ever-improving.

At the same time, that is not to say that humanists believe in cultural or moral relativism. So for example, we would not say that all perspectives and moral systems are equally valid, or that certain behaviors are unethical in certain cultures while ethical in others. Rather, Humanism sees morality is a human principle, and because all of us are human it applies to all of humanity equally.

And finally, another way Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews is in the motivating factors which drive Humanist morality. We do not believe in being good because we’ve been commanded to, or in order to please a divine creator, or in order to obtain supernatural reward (or avoid supernatural punishment). Humanism is the belief in being good for the sake of being good (and for whatever intrinsic rewards may come about as a result), and the desire to live in the best society that we possibly can.

6. Is there a universal moral law? Does everyone know the difference between right and wrong?

With very rare exceptions (basically people who have neurological disorders of the brain), all of us naturally have a sense of right and wrong, and an innate sense of empathy that enables us to feel for others and desire to be good towards others. Studies of human babies, for example, have shown that these tendencies start being displayed at an extremely young age, before being taught right from wrong. And even several animal species show these behaviors as well. And all of this makes perfect sense in light of evolutionary theory: Humans managed to survive throughout the centuries and become the most dominant species on Earth not only because of our intelligence, but because of our innate desire to work together with others and establish cooperative societies, and that increases the odds of everyone surviving and passing on those qualities to the next generation.

7. What happens at death? (Where are we going when we die- How do we know and what does it look like, and if it is heaven- then how do we get there)

The Humanist view of death was probably best summarized by Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

While most humanists would love for there to be some way for us to continue existing after we die, we realize that there is no credible evidence that the afterlife exists. Most likely, being dead is simply going back to the same state as before you were born.

And because humanists believe that one life is all we get, we believe that every moment of life is precious and we should do everything we can to make a positive impact during the limited time that we have. And if there is any kind of “immortality”, it exists in the continuing influence of the things we did while we were alive and by our ideas (hopefully) continuing to positively affect those in future generations.

Further Reading:

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein

Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker