Humanism: Beliefs and Teachings

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Human Divinity: The God of Humanism

For any of us, our ‘God’ is that which we believe in, the belief that every other is centred on. The source of truth and goodness, and the will at the centre of our theology; the narrative that we use to make sense of the world around us. The vast majority of humanists would reject the conventional idea of a God or gods which can be found at the centre of the other great theological traditions of the world. Instead they highlight the role of humanity itself. We should note that all other theological traditions give ‘us’, humanity, a role of central significance in their theological traditions. Humanism takes this to its extreme. Belief in, and worship of, Humanity becomes the defining characteristic of the Humanist tradition.

This belief in humanity is best characterised by a rejection of any other power above humanity mixed with the belief that humanity can, by its own effort and will, improve its own nature. What your left with is the core of the theological tradition: that Humanity is its own God.

Human Nature

Humanists do not have any notions of being chosen as a species, or being imbued with some special, essential character by a Creator that separates us from nature. Humanists do not recognise any evidence for anything outside or above nature; nor have they found any evidence to support that there is a greater purpose or destiny to our existence. A key belief of Humanism is that if there was a creator, it does not, or can not intervene. It does not communicate with us and it is not outside or above the rules of nature, and nor does it control our ‘destiny’ or determine our morality.

This leads humanists to believe humanity is not ontologically different from what we see around us. We are animals, we are part of the natural world. As mentioned, this most often is reinforced by a rejection of anything ‘supernatural’. The natural world exists according to natural rules discovered via scientific endeavour; not by the whim of a will greater than those found at work within the natural order. 

What makes us different from nature, then is not any kind of link to something above nature but simply our own intelligence that allows us to construct our own identities. We are able to learn and adapt and change what it means to be human. We are a part of nature, but the only part, that we know, that has control over who we are. Perhaps the one thing that distinguishes humanity from nature therefore is that humans have the ability to learn from their experience and create their own morality, based on what our reason, empathy, and evidence suggests is morally right: humanity is in this way its own ‘creator’ and moral adjudicator.

The idea of improving and indeed celebrating human nature to a humanist is therefore based on a morality that is derived from humanity itself; primarily human experience, exploration and endeavour. There is an expectation that humanity constructs its own meaning and purpose based on what seems best to it. 

Monotheist and Polytheist Humanisms

One of the main questions that causes division between different groups of Humanists within the tradition is the question of Monotheism and Polytheism, or the number of divine wills. 

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To a Monotheist, there is only one Divine Will. Reality and the proper interpretation of it, Truth, is therefore singular because it reflects the singular Will that creates it and gives it meaning. A Polytheist, conversely, recognises multiple wills at work in the creation of reality, and therefore multiple truths at play in the shaping of the world around us. There is a spectrum that can be drawn between the extremes of both these theological principles, and the Humanist tradition can and has occupied every place along that spectrum. This sub-section will briefly describe the different ways that Humanism has adopted different positions on this spectrum.

Monotheistic Humanism

The reason is the complexities in denoting a single Human Will. A Humanist who is a Monotheist would argue for and emphasize the things that unite humanity; our shared biology and history, the grand narrative of life that we play a singular part in. But there are ways that this becomes complicated.

Even amongst those who agree in a singular defining trait of humanity, there can be a violent rejection of those who are seen as not sharing this trait, and thus are seen as ‘less-than’ human. This is something we see in other theological traditions, just because there is a singular source of divinity, does not mean that everybody is able to share in it equally. De-humanisation, along the lines of race, or genetics, or culture, is a persistent strand in Monotheistic Humanism which creates hierarchies within humanity based on a central conception of some key defining trait: liberty, rationality, etc. Those who are argued to not have this trait, or have it but to a lesser degree, are denied their full humanity. Sometimes these differences are essentialised as with racial differences, sometimes they are not, as with cultural differences. When they are not essentialised you often see attempts to educate those thought to be ‘less-than’ human in order to ‘help’ them achieve what is considered full humanity in the eyes of the broader theological system.

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A key, but slow development in Humanism over its history has been the gradual rejection of strands of thought like the one detailed in the previous paragraph. This has only happened in some places where people have been allowed to fully express themselves and their humanity; it is hard to deny the humanity of a person in these situations. However, this version of Monotheistic Humanism is deeply ingrained in the tradition. The tradition itself can be said to have its roots in the Eurocentrism and European superiority of the Enlightenment, and can be seen as struggling with its own history of racism and colonialism ever since. This is a key ongoing debate and struggle in the tradition.

Polytheistic Humanism

Another, younger strand of thought within the Humanist theological tradition is the recognition of multiple wills within the broader umbrella of humanity. In many ways Polytheism developed in the Humanist tradition in direct response to the Colonialism that brought the tradition to global dominance. The basic idea is that instead of emphasising the things which unify humanity, we should be happy highlighting those things which differentiate us. This creates separate groups of people who identify together but not with an overarching will; which they see as merely another group’s Will. By emphasizing the specificities and localised nature of humanity; language, history, geography; there is also an implicit rejection of the relevance of any universal humanity. This theological development, like most theological developments, arose alongside the possibilities that new technologies and practices brought. The result was nations.

“Hall of Nations Vertical” by eric.eberhard is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nations are at once a very old and a very new concept. We have always categorised people based on language, race, and history. But it wasn’t before the development of modern capitalism and rapid industrial-scale printing in vernacular languages that they developed as distinct theological bases for their own power and legitimacy. Nations themselves do not uniquely belong to the Humanist tradition. They refer to a specific type of socio-theological organisation based upon a particular language and history. It is not just possible to conceive of an Islamic, Christian, or a Hindu Nation, but these things, and those who advocate for them, exist. Having said that the logic of Nationalism lends itself most easily to Humanist Theology; specifically Polytheistic Humanism.

The idea is simple, and arguably the dominant socio-theological system on the planet at the moment. National identities are essentialised. It is abnormal to not have a nation that you belong to, and thought natural to have one. These nation-states hold a monopoly of violence within a specific territory, and are expected to respect the claims that each other have. Like the gods of ancient polytheistic systems, these nations are often personified, are seen to variously make peace and war with each other, and demand the lethal loyalties of their adherents. They are the imagined corporate that the individual belongs to. Crucially, and this is the difference between this and Monotheistic theologies, these nations exist based upon a system of mutual recognition. When a nation is not recognised by the rest of the pantheon, it ceases to exist.

This version of Polytheistic Humanism is certainly dominant. But, as with all spectrums, it is not an extreme version of Polytheism. Monotheistic Humanism in the form of Globalism provides a counter-weight in contemporary global political theology. In many ways the debate between Monotheism and Polytheism is the defining debate within current Humanist theology.

Evil and Salvation in Humanism: Key Concepts

Humanists would argue that as far as we can tell there is no other life that we are waiting or working for. That’s not to say that heaven and hell don’t exist in Humanist theology, eschatological projections of salvation and damnation are present in all theologies. They emerge in Humanist theology as visions for the future: utopias and dystopias. As we are both saviour and saved in humanist theology, the task of ensuring a bright future rests solely on our shoulders. 

Humanism argues that the changes that are needed, so far as any changes are needed, come from us, our own striving and our own reason. It is our responsibility, in humanist theology, to make progress. To identify key ideals and goals for humanity to strive toward. As well as identifying ideas that are holding humanity back that need to be removed from humanity. The qualities and virtues that humanists often hold up as the most important for us to pursue are; freedom, equality, and rationality. The rest of this section will be dedicated to analysing these concepts and the issues that have arisen around different interpretations within Humanism.

Liberty and Secularism

Humanism places an emphasis on human agency and rationality, envisioning societies that progress through free expression, human endeavour, and exploration. This means that humanists emphasise evidence-based policy decisions, free thought and speech. This makes sense according to the theological tenet that humanity itself is divine: divine freedom is of central importance. Humanity can never achieve salvation through progression if it is restricted and shackled.

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One of the key ways Humanism has characterised itself has been in direct opposition to the theological traditions that have come before it. In this narrative Humanism becomes a liberator, freeing humanity from the irrational and backwards beliefs that have been holding humanity back from its full potential. This comes hand in hand with the reimagining of the term ‘religion’. Humanism, for the most part, does not see itself as a theological tradition, because it places itself in a different category to the other theological traditions, which it describes as ‘religions’. The difference is that Humanism refuses to recognise its own theological foundations, arguing instead that unlike all other theological traditions that are built on faith, Humanism is built on reason. The legitimacy of this claim, not just that Humanism is purely rational, but that rationality and belief are separable, or that ‘religion’ is a coherent concept; are heavily debated and challenged. This is no doubt clear from our treatment of Humanism as a coherent theological tradition here at Understanding Theology. But this debate is important to note as we dive into a key concept developed within the Humanist tradition: Secularism.

Secularism was born at the same time and it is closely related to Humanism, although it can be separated out. The driving logic behind the concept is the same Humanist desire for freedom. It is the Humanist foundation for tolerance; the idea being that as we move away from the other theological traditions, and the irrationality that defines them, we will be able to build Humanist societies that are perfectly tolerant of differences of belief and opinion. This logically has two parts: removing the other theological traditions from positions of political power and after ensuring secular-humanist control over political power, then ensuring the freedoms of all people to speak, think, and believe as they choose. This stems from a belief that by allowing everybody a voice and an opportunity (which humanists would believe to be good in itself) then we could become the best possible version of  ourselves, improving ourselves and our societies. This ties back to the Humanist conception of Salvation.

It is important to note that the definition of Secularism has slowly shifted over time. The earliest proponents of this model, figures like John Locke and Jean-Jac Rousseau, argued quite plainly that private beliefs should be tolerated by the state so long as there was no public challenge to state authority. For Locke this was directed towards Catholics, whose loyalty to the foreign Pope was seen as intolerable, and Atheists, whose lack of loyalty made them too intolerable.

Here we see similarities with the conceptions of tolerance and freedom allowed in other theological traditions and systems. Those in power allow (because they cannot stop it) their subjects to have freedom of conscience, to hold different beliefs from those held by the leadership. Secularism was initially a tool for categorising beliefs not held by the government as ‘religious’ and therefore only allowed in private. The level of toleration directly reflects the level of insecurity felt by those in positions of power. As secular societies have become more secure in themselves, greater room has been allowed for open opposition to the beliefs of the leadership. In that way it can be said that traditionally secularism has been a tool for state neutrality, ensuring the Humanist state the position of referee or judge; but it is only so because secularism is the tool of a king. It decides on the power level of others because it holds the power, not because it is devoid of power.

The definition of secularism as ‘neutrality’ is essentially the development of a Humanist doctrine of tolerance. More recently there have been many more Humanists recognising the need for such a re-definition. The desire for freedom and tolerance of difference is an admirable and achievable one. But the foundations remain elusive. These debates are at the forefront of political theology as Humanism has become more open to engaging with the other great theological traditions of the world.

Property and Utility

The importance of Property is seen all the way through Humanist theology. The beginning of the Humanist theological tradition’s dominance can be seen in arguments over property; especially in Britain with debates about both Colonialism and Enclosures.

John Locke is pivotal here again. He argued that ownership was earned through human development; work. This may seem reasonable to us, but we often forget what a monumental theological shift it was at the time. The underlying assumption here is that the human who can get the most use out of the land should be its owner. Before this time, the land was seen to belong ultimately to God, held in commons for open use to everyone, seeing as no one could claim to own it exclusively. The work of John Locke changed that. Exclusive ownership, private property, is central to the development of Liberal thought.

The connection between liberty and property is obvious: those who own more have more freedom because more options are open to them. All theological traditions place both freedom and ultimate ownership in the hands of the divine. For Humanism, the divine is humanity so an emphasis for Human freedom and the legitimation for private human property become paramount. Important to note that here too lies a reinterpretation of the Christian idea of humanity being Stewards of Nature, to us having Dominion, dominance over nature. Nature in Humanist theology became a tool for humanity to reach its full potential. Humanity being divine, and nature being mundane.

This fed directly into the logic of colonialism. Native Americans were assumed to not be using the land, at least not to its full potential, so English Colonists were justified in taking the land for themselves. This same narrative fed directly into the previous Monotheistic Humanism that is discussed above.

Ever since its conception the debate over property, who has the right to what land or resources, has dominated Humanist Theology. It has shaped the world from these initial justifications of colonialism, to justifications for decolonisation, communism and capitalism. 

As with other traditions, different schools have emerged within humanist theology. Capitalism places a higher value on individuality and freedom. Communism places a higher value on equality. All are Humanist values, and Humanists agree that there is no other legitimate ‘owner’ of the planet other than us. But, how to conceive of that ownership; collective or individual, exploitative or conservative; has always been and remains an unsettled debate in the tradition.

Conclusion

Ultimately Humanism is a belief in humanity: both in what we are, and what we can be. We see this in the various visions of humanity and its future that are produced from the tradition. This also shows us the huge amount of diversity which is contained within this tradition. It is the youngest of the great theological traditions, and it rose to dominance by defining itself in opposition to them. The time since then, also called ‘modernity’, has been defined by massive growth, innovation, destruction, prosperity, and conflict. 

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It is difficult to talk of Humanism as a single tradition, it is an explosion of change born from a single radical theological idea: that humanity itself is divine. It combines a belief in the power of human effort, ingenuity, rationality, and exploration with a desire to alway improve and encourage all that is best in us. It will continue to be the dominant theological tradition on the planet. But the problems facing the world have forced enough humility that many in the Humanist tradition are engaging more with those from the other great theological traditions of the world. We are likely to see this have an impact on some of the most intractable issues that Humanist theology faces. 

Humanism is a diverse tradition built around an unshakable core. The next page builds on the Beliefs and Teachings we have explored in this page and looks at how they translate into Sources of Wisdom and Authority.

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