What is secular humanism?
The best approach to understanding secular humanism is to allow secular humanists to present their own explanation. I will utilize two primary sources of secular humanism information that clearly defines what humanists believe and how they attempt to appeal to others.
The first source is the Free Inquiry Magazine website published by the Center for Inquiry. The following linked pages provide the needed information:
"What is Secular Humanism?"
"Secular Humanism Defined"
"A Secular Humanist Declaration"
The founder and primary website and magazine editor is Thomas W. Flynn who, unfortunately, passed away in August 2021. Flynn is described on Wikipedia as “an American author, journalist, novelist, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and editor of its journal Free Inquiry.” Those who knew Flynn describe him as holding “numerous leadership roles during his more than thirty years with the Center for Inquiry, most recently as editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum and the Freethought Trail, and former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism” (taken from https://centerforinquiry.org/news/tom-flynn-giant-of-american-freethought-has-died-at-age-66/).
The second source of reference for understanding secular humanism is found in what is titled the “Humanist Manifesto II”. The Humanist Manifesto contains a concise declaration, albeit brief, of secular humanist beliefs. When referencing this source I will simply cite Humanist Manifest II.
The third source is the American Humanist Association. This organization works to advance secularist views and lifestyles across the globe. When referencing this source I will simply cite American Humanist.
From these three sources of information we can narrow down a list of six major arguments secular humanists make to support their position. There are more but for our purposes I will list six.
So what do secular humanists believe and advocate? Let’s take a look.
1. Priority is given to removing God from human influence and thinkingThe first and most prominent issue advocated in secular humanist beliefs is the removal of the influence of God from human life and affairs. When explaining the fundamentals of humanism the first matter on the table always relates to belief in God. This matter is displayed throughout secularist writing. For example: “Unlike religious humanism, secular humanism eschews transcendentalism in any and all forms...However defined, transcendentalism is rejected by secular humanists in favor of a rigorous philosophical naturalism” (Secular Humanism Defined).
The Humanist Manifesto II also makes its position clear and gives the same priority, saying, “False ‘theologies of hope’ and messianic ideologies, substituting new dogmas for old, cannot cope with existing world realities” (Humanist Manifest II). Always, always, the priority is given to a stance against a transcendent being who created the world. And why do they advocate such views? The matter is explicitly stated (italics added): “We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race. As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity” (Secular Humanism Defined).
Secular humanists also claim that all aspects of their position is equal in importance, saying, “Secular humanism’s cognitive thrust lies in its naturalistic worldview; its emotional or affective thrust lies in its positive ethical outlook. Each element is equally essential to secular humanism; neither stands alone” (Secular Humanism Defined). Yet their writings paint a differing picture. Consider the first and second points of a total of seventeen put forward in the Humanist Manifesto II document: “FIRST: As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.” “SECOND: Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful.” The chief point and primary focus of secular humanism is the removal of the idea of God from their thinking and life, first and foremost.
2. Human reason is elevated as the basis for all knowledge
Tom Flynn explains that secular humanism is the inevitable product of the conglomeration of numerous philosophical views culminating in the present secular humanist position (emphasis added).
Secular humanism is best understood as a synthesis of atheism and freethought, from which it derives its cognitive component, and religious humanism, from which it derives its emotional/affective component. Atheism and freethought trace their roots to ancient Greek philosophy, with its emphasis on rational inquiry and curiosity about the workings of nature. Other sources included early Chinese Confucianism, ancient Indian materialists, and Roman Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. Submerged during the Dark Ages, freethought re-emerged in the Renaissance. With the Enlightenment, rationalist and empiricist thinkers laid foundations for the modern scientific outlook. Utilitarians emancipated morality from religion, foreshadowing consequentialism. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ushered in a golden age for freethought. With the turn of the twentieth century, this flame flickered, but an abiding tradition remained that decades later would emerge as secular humanism (Secular Humanism Defined).
Secular humanism postulates that human reason alone is the primal instrument for understanding reality. The Humanist Manifesto II states unequivocally that “Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses. There is no substitute: neither faith nor passion suffices in itself.”
Coupled with dependence on human reason and intelligence is the idea of "freethinker". This aspect of secular humanism advocates freedom from all external influence that essentially unshackles the individual from intellectual bondage and subsequent oppression: “As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life” (What is Secular Humanism?).
3. An unwavering commitment to a naturalistic worldview
Secular humanism holds steadfastly to a naturalistic worldview and credits natural phenomenon for the existence of the universe regardless of the complexity and the obvious appearance of design in nearly all of the material world—animate and inanimate.
Secular humanists advocate that science and human reason are the key components to understanding the world in which we live: “We believe the scientific method, though imperfect, is still the most reliable way of understanding the world. Hence, we look to the natural, biological, social, and behavioral sciences for knowledge of the universe and man’s place within it” (A Secular Humanist Declaration). “FOURTH: Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses. There is no substitute: neither faith nor passion suffices in itself. The controlled use of scientific methods, which have transformed the natural and social sciences since the Renaissance, must be extended further in the solution of human problems” (Humanist Manifesto II).
Secular humanism also actively works to suppress classroom instruction which teach views about the origins of the universe that does not align itself with naturalistic and evolutionary theories: “Accordingly, we deplore the efforts by fundamentalists (especially in the United States) to invade the science classrooms, requiring that creationist theory be taught to students and requiring that it be included in biology textbooks. This is a serious threat both to academic freedom and to the integrity of the educational process” (A Secular Humanist Declaration).
4. A strong commitment to positive social and environmental endeavors
Secular humanism rallies to preserve what they consider the most vital aspects of existence: humanity and the environment. The Humanist Manifest II states numerous commendable goals of humanists regarding the “freedom and dignity” of individuals including freedom of speech, religious liberty, significance of human rights and freedoms, an open and democratic society, effective economic systems, right to political activity, and many more inherently good and necessary aspects of a free and prosperous society.
Humanists are also advocates for environmental advocacy:
The world community must engage in cooperative planning concerning the use of rapidly depleting resources. The planet earth must be considered a single ecosystem. Ecological damage, resource depletion, and excessive population growth must be checked by international concord [to be discussed later]. The cultivation and conservation of nature is a moral value; we should perceive ourselves as integral to the sources of our being in nature. We must free our world from needless pollution and waste, responsibly guarding and creating wealth, both natural and human. Exploitation of natural resources, uncurbed by social conscience, must end” (Humanist Manifesto II).
5. A whole life position as an answer for meaning and purpose
Secular humanists see themselves as purveyors for forming a whole life perspective rather than simple atheism. Accordingly, secular humanists believe they provide people with a greater foundation for living a full and happy existence: “Unlike simple atheism, secular humanism affirms an ethical system that is: rooted in the world of experience; objective; and equally accessible to every human who cares to inquire into value issues” (Humanism Defined). As such, secular humanists claim their perspective of human existence is capable of defining and guiding human morality and good decision making not based upon an external source but on individual choice and the consensus of human society. The following statements make the matter clear (italics added).
Atheism lends a valuable critique of outmoded, regressive religious systems. We welcome its vision of a universe upon which meaning was never imposed from above. But secular humanism goes further, calling on humans to develop within the universe values of their own—as it were, from below (Secular Humanism Defined). Unlike simple atheism, secular humanism affirms an ethical system that is: rooted in the world of experience; objective; and equally accessible to every human who cares to inquire into value issues...Secular humanism is unique among these life stances in that it contains within itself all the raw materials needed to construct inspiring value systems that are both realistic and humane (Secular Humanism Defined).
We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now (Humanist Manifesto II).
6. The elimination of national boundaries and installation of world-wide governance
Secular humanism also makes a strong public call for the unification of all nations into a world-wide community led by a unified government with a singular education, news, and media system. The Humanist Manifesto II states it in the following manner (italics added):
TWELFTH: We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward the building of a world community in which all sectors of the human family can participate. Thus we look to the development of a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government. SEVENTEENTH: The world must be open to diverse political, ideological, and moral viewpoints and evolve a worldwide system of television and radio for information and education (Humanist Manifesto II).
Why would secularists advocate for the reduced or eliminated sovereignty of nations including that of the United States? In short, it is because secularists seek a world order where all peoples can live what comprises a good and successful and fulfilled life, as envisioned by secular humanists. Furthermore, secularists believe humanity can face its dire future challenges more robustly if the world’s resources are combined and employed under the auspices of a single government endowed with authority to enforce global policy and direction.
As we end this portion of our discussion, the question arises pertaining to who secular humanism is seeking to appeal to. The answer is provided by Tom Flynn who writes, “Who are the secular humanists? Perhaps everyone who believes in the principles of free inquiry, ethics based upon reason, and a commitment to science, democracy, and freedom. Perhaps even you” (What is Secular Humanism?).
Flynn goes on to state the most basic and crucial philosophical position of secular humanism: “Secular humanists see themselves as undesigned, unintended beings who arose through evolution, possessing unique attributes of self-awareness and moral agency.”
Join me as we consider why we should discuss secular humanism.Go to next section Homepage