Humanism: Practices and Expressions

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Just as the Priesthoods of Humanism are varied, diffuse, and often contradictory to each other, so are the Practices and Expressions that they encourage to perpetuate and define their communities. On this page we will look at just some of the different Rituals, Symbols, and Sacred Spaces that have emerged within the Humanist tradition. The purpose of this page is to identify any significant Practices and Expressions that seem to emerge from the key tenet of Humanist Theology, and can thus be seen as symbolic of adherence to Humanist principles, however widely they are interpreted.

Rituals

It is possible to draw a link between the unstructured nature of many Humanist rituals and the emphasis in the tradition on Freedom and Liberty. However, while this definitely contributes, it is more likely a reflection of the diffuse and varied interpretations of the theology and the different attempts at responding to that.

Perhaps a unifying theme, in keeping with Humanist theology, is the celebration of Human achievement and potential. The various rituals that can be identified will be discussed in the context of particular strands of thought that make up separate but interlinked practices, much like the separate but interlinked priesthood that encourage them. In the rest of this subsection we will look at some strands that can perhaps be identified within Humanist societies.

Consumerist rituals can be said to focus on human freedom and power. Those with the means are encouraged to spend time, money, and effort to push boundaries, but pushing boundaries here is secondary to the pure enjoyment that is expected. This comes in the form of partying and conspicuous consumption. Adherents are encouraged to find release from the pressures of day to day life by taking the time to indulge the self. This is done either in the context of selfish indulgence but can also take the form of playful self-forgetfulness. Pushing or simply forgetting boundaries is a key element to these practices. Key examples can be seen in the cultures that develop around music festivals, clubs, and other similar events and places. Music festivals and holidays are themselves often presented as pilgrimages and represent spiritual journeys for many people who participate.

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Linked to, and sometimes overlapping with, these rituals are socio-academic rituals; especially when it comes to artistic expression. These take the desire to push boundaries and have a sincere focus on human achievement. The overarching way to consider these would include sport, debate, and art. The emphasis on innovation and competition. Pushing boundaries just like consumerism, but with the added dimension of overcoming a challenge or obstacle. There is little enjoyment apart from the satisfaction of completing a task, but, there is also an element of sacrifice in these rituals that is lacking in the sometimes self-indulgent ritualistic practices connected to consumerism. The idea here is that practitioners are reporting back from the edge of human experience and consciousness. This is not unusual or unique to Humanism, the idea of exploring divinity is always a common central theme in art. The difference here is due to the divinisation of humanity the artist or performer is much freer in their exploration of the divinity, and often seen as actively shaping the divinity though the practice; by pushing the boundaries they are contributing to the very nature of the divine.

Humanist Festivals are numerous and localised. Those that aren’t localised are usually created from the top down and sparsely attended. This is usually because there is little uniformity in how to celebrate them. The most commonly attended are often tied to strong national or regional identities and connect the adherents to their history. It is rare for festivals to be adopted globally; the closest to this are probably New Years Celebrations, which are celebrated around the world in capitals with parties and fireworks. Outside of this rather thin globally shared festival, there is little that ties Humanism together.

Rituals in the Humanist theological tradition are much more open to evolution and experimentation. This is a real strength as it is not damaging to the tradition as a whole when particular rituals lose their sacrality and are replaced by others. Ritual attendance is rarely enforced. In Humanism Rituals are also expected, with some exceptions, to be fun rather than an expression of service, it is an expression of humanity. Enjoyment is necessary because the people themselves are the god: a ritual that doesn’t please them fails.

This creates problems for the next category that can perhaps be identified: Political rituals. These continue the same competitive ideals that can be found in academia, sport, and sometimes art. However, rather than the undercurrent of pushing boundaries the focus is often on competence and pragmatism. Problem solving not in the slaying dragons kind of mentality, but in the day to day, technocratic way of keeping the lights on. The point of enjoyment is a minor theme here.

This creates problems. Because some rituals, especially political ones like voting in elections, serve a practical function as well as a symbolic one, so low attendance is an issue. We can see this in things like Taxation. Taxation is a practice that is often ritualised by a theological tradition because it is a necessary part of living in a society. But in the Humanist tradition it is a highly contested practice. Some Humanists argue that taxation is akin to theft and an assault on freedom, others argue that it is not only necessary but good. Humanism is unique as a theological tradition that does not have a single opinion on necessary aspects of socio-political systems like this.

It is essential to remember that for Humanism humanity is its own God. Just as other ritual practices are done in order to please the God, the same is true for Humanism. The problem that this creates is the assumption that rituals must therefore be pleasurable and entertaining. Otherwise they are not pleasing the God, which is also the participants, thus making them pointless. 

This in turn leads to systems of power that are not representative, as it becomes difficult for Humanists to encourage participation and thus have accurate representation of the community at large. Unlike rituals in other traditions, responsibility in terms of public participation in the wider society is not often highly valued or encouraged in Humanist theology. This is because of the diverse nature of the tradition itself, and the freedom that is afforded the members of a society to create their own meaning. The result is a society that is simultaneously adaptive, always ready to reinvent itself, but also unrepresentative because there is rarely a single shared space where the whole society can feel heard. This issue is not unique to Humanism, but it is in this tradition that it is felt most acutely. We will see this issue repeat as we continue to look at Humanist Symbols and Spaces.

Symbols

Symbols are similarly diverse in Humanism. There are perhaps no symbols that are universally recognised and shared across the tradition in the same way. Instead, multiple symbols are recognised as being parochially significant. Having said this, some Humanist symbols exist. One in particular, the ‘Happy Human’ is often held up as the symbol of Humanism, much like the Cross is the symbol of Christianity.

The Happy Human symbol was the winning design for a competition held by Humanists UK in 1965. Various versions of it have since appeared and been used by Humanist groups all over the world. While this is probably the most widely used Humanist symbol it is only of partial relevance for our discussion of the entire theological tradition. The Humanist groups that identify and use this symbol explicitly define themselves as being ‘without religion’ and being secular. The work we are doing here as part of Understanding Theology is operating with a different framework. Our discussion of Humanism is therefore broader than the groups who identify with this symbol. In fact these groups may disagree with the work that we are doing here and how Humanism has been discussed in these pages; primarily they would disagree with the basic premise of Humanism being best understood as a theological tradition. It is important to note that and bear it in mind; we are operating with different definitions, and the way we present these groups therefore differs. This ties in with our earlier discussion of Liberty and Secularism in the page dedicated to Humanist Beliefs and Teachings.

Outside of these groups, which are numerous and spread across the globe mainly in Western countries, there are other symbols that owe much to Humanist theology. Most National and international symbols developed alongside Humanism’s rise to dominance. Flags have become the default way of symbolising and representing a community of any size. They are probably the most common and widely recognised symbols loosely in the Humanist tradition. Though whether they are part of the Humanist tradition is very much open for debate. What is typical, however, is the sheer diversity and limited relevance of these symbols. This, as we have seen throughout this section, is typical of Humanist expressions and practices. The emphasis on freedom translates into a lack of unified, cohesive symbols, that everyone can get behind. Which makes writing about it difficult; not because none exist, but because so many exist on such a small scale that it would be impossible to track and present even a limited selection of them. Everything from famous photographs of historical events, to street signs, to signature images linked to certain people, to famous objects and vehicles carry extra significance in such a diffused and contested way that is unique to the Humanist tradition. We will see the same diffusion when looking at all Humanist Expressions and Practice. However it is still possible to highlight specificities based on function, as we will see when turning to look at sacred spaces in our next section.

Spaces

Specific places have long been seen to hold a sense of the sacred; of divine presence. This does not necessarily mean that these spaces are held up as august and peaceful spaces. The activities that give the space life depend entirely on the god that the space is being used to worship.

The full range of activities can be seen on show in the sacred spaces of Humanism. The sacrality of these spaces is born through them giving an opportunity for people to take part in the metanarrative that they see themselves as part of. This is the one unifying theme for not just the spaces we will discuss in this subsection, but all sacred spaces. They are places where people can step into the narrative flow of history. For Humanism, some spaces can be seen as sacred intermittently and only by some people at some times. Whereas others are sacred in a more traditional sense of being a meeting point between the human and the divine. The complexity is born from exactly this concept: a space for the human and the divine to meet. What does this mean if you consider the human to be divine? 

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Often these places are for the community to come together, for individuals to become reconnected with the wider society, to feel part of something bigger. This is a common way to answer this question. The Humanist uses these spaces to reconnect with the rest of humanity. This can be in a more mundane way in terms of Shopping Centres, Parks, Stadiums, Concert Venues, etc. But it can also be one step removed in symbolism. Centres of government also represent this horizontal connection that Humanists value. The reverence that is afforded to Houses of Parliament, Senate Buildings, and Presidential Palaces around the world is often born from the idea that these places are somehow representative of the society as a whole. These are spaces made sacred because of how they house and represent the entirety of the community under one roof. 

These buildings also often draw the person back in time connecting them to the history of the society they belong to. This presents another way to look at these spaces. Not as places where people are able to gather, but as places where people are able to celebrate their best and remember their worst. Places where they can celebrate their achievements and remember their histories. This opens up another family of sacred spaces in the Humanist tradition: Museums, Galleries, and Libraries. All the spaces mentioned come into prominence in the same period that Humanism as a theological tradition rises to dominance.

Conclusion

When considering how Theological traditions are practices and expressed, we are often blinded to the more everyday ways that we perform rituals, recognise and use symbols, and visit sacred spaces. Being aware of the theology that underpins these things allows us to see them more clearly. These things connect us to the various socio-theological traditions that we may belong to, and we often belong to multiple traditions at the same time. Humanism especially has few fixed symbolic actions, expressions; it is a tradition that is constantly open to reinterpretation and evolution. But there are still specific spaces and actions that can be recognised as integral to the tradition despite its short and tumultuous history. In our next and final section we will look briefly at this history; analyzing the origins, evolution, current state and potential future of the Humanist tradition.

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