Like naturalism and materialism, humanism is one of the more common expressions of contemporary atheism. We should therefore try to understand what “humanism” actually means.
As a philosophy it can be traced back to the “Golden Age” of Greek philosophy, and to Protagoras, Epicurus and Aristotle. Protagoras is not a person that many will have heard of but he was incredibly influential in the development of humanism. He own slogan was “homo mensural” which means “man, the measure.” Thus, for Protagoras man was the focal point around which everything was centered; a philosophy that would then make influential steps into fields of politics, mathematics, literature, art and drama. Any issues that went beyond the physical were relegated into the background and mostly treated and viewed as irrelevant. This would mean that man was free to question and explore anything he wishes to, and often this would mean to drive away any limitations that religion and/or society would impose on people.
Soon scholars would begin to focus on the need to achieve the best life possible while existing within the present world; something which was allegedly possible through personal effort. As this philosophy evolved it progressively removed the authority of the church and instead relied more and more on reason. Christian writer Os Guinness explains that “The Renaissance was an intoxicating phase of humanism, an explosive confidence of the human mind, the celebration of art, morals, thought and life on an eminently human scale” (1).
Over time, as the movement grew, it would influence science and, as a result, there would be clashes with the traditional teaching of the church. Further, the 18th century Enlightenment period would also have great influence on humanism, especially through five key developments (2).
Firstly, rationalism would say that human reason could produce clear and certain knowledge about reality. Secondly, empiricism would say that knowledge is drawn not from reason but from sense perception. The third was another surge in science, which was increasingly claiming to provide an explanation of the origin and development of the universe without any need for a divine creator and sustainer. The fourth was romanticism, which emphasized man’s creative ability to produce beauty in art and life. The fifth was utilitarianism, which said that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of human conduct.
All these five developments are human-centered. For instance, knowledge was found in man’s reason or sense perception, man was capable of creating a society of beauty and progress, and man could create and sustain his own happiness. When this philosophy was fully developed it would have little place for God’s involvement.
The 19th century would have a number of secular humanist societies, for instance, 1896 saw the establishment of the Ethical Union that would draw together many secular humanist societies of the time. 1899 would see the Rationalist Press being founded and sometime later, in 1963, two humanist groups united and formed the British Humanist Association. In America the American Humanist Association was also founded in 1941, and in 1952 the International Humanist and Ethical Union was formed in response to the post-war period. Contemporary humanism claims to have some 100 organizations in over 30 countries and with some five million members. And within those five million members some support comes from an array of scientists, philosophers, politicians as well as other leaders in society – all possessing a dogmatic agenda.
We must also remember that modern humanism is not the same as humanitarianism (which focuses on the well-being of human beings, especially people in that of material need), in fact, many humanitarians in history have been opposed to any kind of secular humanism. Humanitarians may be atheists, militant atheists, theists, or anything in between.
There are also different types of humanists (3). The uncommitted humanist, for instance, is not chiefly concerned about God’s existence or non-existence. If a person’s belief in a god assists one in setting and maintaining admirable standards for her own life and which produces concern (for things like integrity, freedom, justice) for others then that is good. This is because of primary importance to the uncommitted humanist is a person’s well-being.
Secondly, there is the secular humanist. Contemporary use of the word “secular” refers to the non-existence of any supernatural reality or dimension. This view on secularism has its roots in the 18th century rationalist George Holyoake who crusaded for the improvement of human life without any reference to religion or theology. Thus, the secular humanist makes the deliberate exclusion of God from his philosophy. This humanist focuses only on the here and now, as John Gerstner explains: “Secularism in simpler language is merely worldliness; or “this-worldliness” in contrast to “other-worldliness”. This one-world-at-a-time philosophy sees the future as an irrelevance, if not an impertinence. It supposes that one world in the hand is worth two in the bush” (4). Theologian Dan Beeby says that “Secularism is when the creature declares the Creator redundant” (5).
This is most notably evident in the humanist’s 1933 creation of the Humanist Manifesto. This manifesto has been accepted as a creed for secular humanism and its beliefs. Essentially it lists some 15 major beliefs of humanism, for example, beliefs that the universe is self-existing and not created, that man is the product of an ongoing natural process, that there is no supernatural reality and that man’s goal is the development of his own personality that ceases to exist when he dies. Paul Kurtz, widely known as the “father of secular humanism” (6), was involved in creating the manifesto, he writes:
“Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set intelligence and will to the task” (7).
However, history hasn’t been too kind to the secular humanist. For example, World War 2 and the Cold War that rocked Europe for 40 years caused humanists to see that their confidence in human goodness was exaggerated. Thus, they admitted that the 1933 manifesto had been “far too optimistic,” and as a result the Humanist Manifesto II was published in 1973. The 17 statements found in the Humanist Manifesto II covers religion, philosophy, humanity, society, government, and science.
The 1st article in the manifesto doesn’t beat around the bush, so to speak. We read that the secular humanist finds “insufficient evidence for the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of the survival and fulfilment of the human race.” As Paul Kurtz articulates:
“As in 1933, humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith” (8). Likewise, in 1997, well-known humanist Ludovic Kennedy penned a book that attempted to “definitively to disprove the existence of God.” To Kennedy he believed that “[God] exists only in the mind and is otherwise completely redundant” (9).
Humanism, however, relies on old arguments from anthropology, sociology and psychology to explain religion. For example, it focuses rather heavily on idea that man invented religion and God in order to counter feelings of inadequacy and fear, as Julian Huxley’s explains: “Man invented the gods to protect himself from loneliness, uncertainty and fear” (10). Similarly Feuerbach would say that “Man has created God in his own image, rather than the reverse” (11).
Furthermore, the manifesto also says that “There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body. We continue to exist in our progeny and in the way that our lives have influenced others in our culture.”
Essentially, if man has no creator and if he is really no more than an accidental product of nature and a random collection of atoms then death almost certainly marks the end for him. This is, however, not a new position as, over some 2000 years ago, a Greek philosopher by the name of Epicurus would write: “Death, the most dreaded of evils, is… of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist.” This would be reiterated by the 20th century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell: “No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave… all the labour of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction.” Corliss Lamont, a contemporary spokesman for humanism, cheerfully chimes in with, ‘While we’re here, let’s live in clover; for when we’re dead we’re dead all over” (11).
1. Guinness, O. 1994. The Dust of Death: The Sixties Counterculture and how it Changed America. p. 5.
2. Blanchard, J. 2002. Does God Believe in Atheists? p. 231 (Scribd Ebook Format)
3. Blanchard, J. ibid. p. 235 (Scribd Ebook Format)
4. Gerstner, J. 1960. Reasons for Faith. p. 12.
5. Beeby, D. Treasure in the Field: Archbishops’ Companion for the Decade of Evangelism.
6. Zepps, J. & Beyerstein, L. 2007. Paul Kurtz – The New Atheism and Secular Humanism. Available.
7. Kurtz, P. Human Manifesto I and I. p.10.
8. Kurtz, P. Ibid. p. 13.
9. Daily Telegraph, 20 June 1997. Kennedy’s book, All in the Mind, was published in 1999.
10. Ludovic Kennedy quoted by Smith in Building a Christian World View. p. 168.
11. Ludwig Feuerbach quoted by Terrence Cook in The Great Alternatives of Social Thought: Aristocrat, Saint, Capitalist. p. 221.
12. Russell, B. 1957. Why I am not a Christian. p. 107.