Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2001

What is Humanism?

by Brett Humphreys

What is humanism? For such a Frequently Asked Question, the obvious place to turn for an answer on the Internet would seem to be a Humanist FAQ. Surprisingly though, among the thousands of Usenet FAQs, some of them on quite esoteric topics, there don’t appear to be any specifically on humanism.

A Google search on “Humanist FAQ” – if you’re feeling lucky – brings up a webpage that is indeed headed “Humanist FAQ but (at least as I write) is otherwise empty apart from a sidebar of navigation links – more like a Zen FAQ! It turns out to be part of the rather pretentiously-named Humanism World Site, one of a set of websites being set up by the Institute for Humanist Studies based in Albany, New York. Its companions include the Humanists Net Project and Secular Portal. The Humanism World Site shows signs of having been born prematurely, so let’s hope its FAQ will develop some text in due course. Meanwhile, try Arthur Chappell’s Humanist FAQ. This, by contrast, makes up in content for what it lacks in presentation.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the umbrella group of humanist organisations founded in Amsterdam in 1952, returns to the Netherlands to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with a World Congress to be held at Noordwijkerhout next July. IHEU’s website includes a good selection of items from International Humanist News ranging from the first issue in April 1993 up to December 1999. Overall, the site is of variable quality – much of it is well worth looking at but some pages are shoddy, evidently because the material has been scanned from printed documents and slapped onto the Web without any checking. For example, Jane Wynne-Willson’s otherwise interesting talk on “The Positive Reach of Humanism”, in which she argues in favour of using the word “Humanism” with a capital H and no adjectives, degenerates part-way through into nonsense like “lgnazanoe about what H~ 18” (for “Ignorance about what Humanism is”) which is likely to persuade nobody.

The perennial debate over the unqualified use of the H-word pops up in many places on the Web, partly reflecting a difference in usage between North America, where the term “religious humanism” is often used, and the UK, where humanism in the modern sense is generally understood as being implicitly non-religious. Examples on one side include Harvey Lebrun’s “Humanism With A Capital H”, IHEU President Levi Fragell’s “A Global Humanist Identity” and Robert Ashby’s “Humanism without adjectives”, a talk given to members of the Sea of Faith Network. On the other side we have “What is Humanism?” from Frederick Edwords, editor of the American Humanist Association’s journal The Humanist, “The meaning of the word ‘humanism’ ” from Peter Derkx at the University for Humanist Studies, Utrecht, and the page on Humanism by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

IHEU’s own formally-adopted concise definition is: “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

No-one has a monopoly on words. Unfortunately for big-H Humanists, another “Humanism” has emerged over recent years and now seems to be thriving on the Web. Do a search on the phrase “humanist movement” and you could be forgiven for concluding that modern humanism was invented in the late 1960s by an Argentinian known as Silo, pseudonym of Mario Luis Rodríguez Cobos. Siloism is known in various guises as New Humanism, the Humanist Movement, and, where it engages directly in politics, the Humanist Party.

Some humanists (in the conventional sense) suspect Siloism of being a cult: see, for example, “The Other Humanists” by Beth Lamont of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and the article of the same title by Arthur Chappell of the Greater Manchester Humanist Group, who has personal experience of the way cults operate. Certainly there are some of the hallmarks of a cult: a requirement to attend weekly meetings, a levy of substantial payments twice a year, an emphasis on recruiting new members, a focus on the views of a single charismatic leader, and so on. As for the substance of those views, visit the Humanist Movement Online website and judge for yourself. The site includes a number of Silo’s writings, among them being his Letters to My Friends, written during the period 1991 to 1993, which New Humanists view as their manifesto.

For those wanting a more substantial introduction to humanism, many people still regard Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism, first published in 1949, as the best book on its subject. This is no heavy academic tome as the title might suggest, but a very readable account of the modern humanist outlook and its historical foundations. Lamont died in 1995 (see obituary, G&LH Summer 1995) but, thanks to the perspicacity of his successors, the 420-page eighth edition of The Philosophy of Humanism, published posthumously in 1997, is freely available for download from the Corliss Lamont Website in the form of a 1.4-Mbyte PDF file. The text is essentially unchanged from the previous edition except for one significant improvement – the removal of sexist language, which Lamont himself was apparently unwilling to do.

What a pity Nicolas Walter’s much-praised booklet Humanism: What’s in the Word. isn’t available online!

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2001-09-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :