“What is humanism?” As the founder of a humanist group I am frequently asked this question. The answer is complicated because there are many internal debates within the philosophy of humanism itself – a chief characteristic that makes humanism so robust. Undaunted by this pitfall, here is my current best attempt at a short description.
Simply put, humanism is a philosophy of hope, derived from eternal human striving to make our lives richer and the world a better place. But humanists insist on real hope, not the fantasy or self-delusion of religion and mysticism. This hope flows out of a sober and rational examination of the world and our place in it, including a realistic understanding of human frailty and weakness in conjunction with the inherent inclemency of the wider universe in which we have carved a tenuous toe-hold.
Knowledge is a slippery and difficult thing to attain, and human brains are profoundly prone towards error. Rigorous skepticism as a means of finding truth through the progressive “weeding out” of viable alternatives is the only reliable method by which humans can approximate a truthful representation of the world. This process has a well known name: science. Humanists embrace this rational path to knowledge as a universal acid to dissolve away bad ideas in literally all aspects of life – politics, philosophy, art, social relationships, architecture, medicine, and morality.
If humanists have anything that can be called faith, it is the conviction that human potential is unbounded, limited only by our imagination and creative genius. The hope for a better future for ourselves and the world at large can only be achieved through the dedicated and diligent investigation of the world around us, free from dogma, authoritarianism and infused with a healthy self-criticism. However this is not the blind, self-delusional faith of religion and dogma. It is based upon the demonstrated success of the human species to progressively improve the collective prospects of life through the application of human reason and scientific principles.
In the final analysis humans are responsible to ourselves and each other for the lives we live and the world we create. Ultimately, and in a very real sense, the world is what we make it. We suffer the consequences of ignorance or inaction, and we reap the rewards of flourishing genius and wise forethought.
Belief systems that are demonstrably false or rationally dubious – such as religion, the supernatural, or “alternative” therapies – have consequences that are either directly harmful (ie. Jihad; restricting abortion; the supposed sinfulness of condom use) or they displace better ideas and are thus indirectly harmful through lost opportunities to do better (ie. limiting stem cell research on the ridiculously mindless belief that a blastocyst has a soul).
Our continued survival and prosperity powerfully depends upon our own ability to understand, predict and control the world around us. The future hinges on the necessity to reject bad ideas and amass an ever improving repertoire of reliable knowledge. There are no guarantees that what has worked in the past can be relied on in the future, and like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, the only safeguard we have against destruction is proactive eternal vigilance and self-betterment.
Humanism, then, is a comprehensive world-view that embraces the scientific path to knowledge in all areas and derives hope for a better tomorrow from the application of ever-growing human capacities for self-fulfillment on an individual, societal and global level.