What Is Humanism?
Isaac Asimov was an icon of the Golden Age of science fiction. A prolific writer, he is best known for the novels I, Robot – in which he introduced his seminal “Three Laws of Robotics” – and The Foundation Trilogy. However, he also wrote numerous other novels and short stories, as well as nonfiction books on an astonishing variety of subjects. In all he authored more than five hundred books. A voracious bibliophile – he taught himself to read at the age of five – he was also a college professor, a member and national leader of the MENSA organization … and a self-avowed atheist.
“I have never in all my life, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind,” he wrote in his memoir, I, Asimov (1). “The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural.” He went on to discuss a philosophical movement that fulfilled his desire to explore ethics and morality with like minded people, while avoiding the make-believe and authoritarianism of faith-based religion. He became a humanist. In fact, he was for a number of years the president of the American Humanist Association (AHA). He signed the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II and was the AHA’s “Humanist of the Year” in 1984. Other well known individuals associated with humanism are anthropologist Richard Leakey, educator John Dewey, mathematician Bertrand Russell, physicist Andrei Sakharov, feminist Gloria Steinem, physician Jonas Salk, and writers Thomas Mann and Kurt Vonnegut.
What is humanism? According to the AHA website, it’s “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” (2) The historical roots of humanism extend back to the Ionian Greek philosophers or “free thinkers”, such as Thales of Miletus, originator of the maxim, “Know thyself!”, Pericles, and Democritus. During the Renaissance humanist thinking found expression in the writings of Erasmus, Thomas More, and Francois Rabelais. But the first explicitly humanist organization was the Humanist Religious Association founded in 1853 in London. Others have followed.
It’s important to understand in this regard that humanism is not a monolithic movement; there have been (and are) numerous different groups that fall under the rubric of humanism. Some, like the 1853 English original, even identify themselves as “religious”, although they don’t subscribe to the supernatural fantasies of conventional faiths. Religious or otherwise, humanists adhere in general to ideals of self determination, rationality, empiricism, rejection of the supernatural, and the search for universal human goals and values. These ideals have been enunciated in a series of consensus statements beginning with the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933 and culminating (so far) in the third Manifesto, which was adopted in 2003. To get an idea of the common thread running through humanist thought, as well as the (relatively minor) differences, it’s worth reading the texts of these statements:
- 1933 - Humanist Manifesto I - http://www.americanhumanist.org/about/manifesto1.html
- 1973 - Humanist Manifesto II - http://www.americanhumanist.org/about/manifesto2.html
- 1980 - Secular Humanist Declaration - http://www.njhn.org/humanism_info/declaration.html
- 2002 - Amsterdam Declaration - http://www.iheu.org/amsterdamdeclaration
- 2003 - Humanist Manifesto III - http://www.americanhumanist.org/3/HumandItsAspirations.php
In a pragmatic sense humanists subscribe to the notion that both the problems and the promise of our species are our responsibility alone and that we cannot look to other sources than ourselves in order to define our future. For those interested in learning more about this philosophy, two of the best known contemporary organizations are the American Humanist Association, founded in 1941, which publishes The Humanist magazine (2), and the Council for Secular Humanism founded in 1980, which publishes Free Inquiry (3).
(1) I. Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov (New York, Doubleday, 1994) – p 13.
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