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On Labelling Myself a Humanist

September 8th, 2007 · Posted by Who Knows? · 17 Comments

I do hate labels, but they are necessary. Labels serve to classify things, and convey a lot of information in a word or two. As misleading as labels can be, they are necessary for good communication in a limited amount of time and space (for example, a tagline for a blog).

Other than announcing I am now embracing the “secular humanist” label, my previous post said remarkably little. That is my way of dealing with things that feel very large to me, my approach of taking little steps, one bit at a time. The post did not announce a change in my perspectives, my perspectives have been stable for quite some time. Also, I did not go looking at secular humanism and think “Ooh, this sounds great! I’m going to become this!” Instead, I followed the path in front of me, I was on my search for truth. Amongst other things, I spent too much time reading up on theology (while I should have been finishing my Master’s in Engineering). This search for truth, this search for “God” if you will, led me to where I am now. With the previous post, I’m just acknowledging to the world and to myself, that the “secular humanist” label is possibly the one that most accurately describes my views. My other alternative is to drop the “secular” and capitalise “Humanist”.

So, what is Humanism? Francis Mortyn left the following comment on my previous post, and I like the way it describes Humanism:

The word “Humanist” implies definition by reference to humanity. The word makes no reference at all to any Gods, whether to affirm or deny them. In this, it differs clearly from terms like “atheist” which are about Gods or God.

Humanism is not about metaphysics, the existence of things, whether to assert or deny them. Humanism is about ethics, asserting that right and wrong do exist and do matter, and they are a human rather than a divine concern.

As Humanist Albert Einstein put it, “I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding, and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem – the most important of all human problems.”

Where is the measure of what is right and what is wrong? Humanists say it rests firmly in human experience. As Humanist Karl Popper points out, if an act results in a reduction of needless suffering, it is a good act.

Human experience is known by observable evidence interpreted by reason. This is solid ground on which to build. It provides a dependable ethical foundation better than the speculative claims of alleged supernatural revelation.

Great stuff…

Categories: Religion and Science
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17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve // Sep 9, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Just to throw a spanner in the works. I get the impression humanism will lead to spiritual considerations if practiced in accordance with an “internal moral compass”.

    An example of what I’m talking about:
    “As Humanist Karl Popper points out, if an act results in a reduction of needless suffering, it is a good act.”… so let’s go cull the poor and suffering in Africa? If not, why not?

  • 2 Hugo // Sep 9, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Of course, many point out that spirituality is not limited to religion. I’m still figuring out what “spirituality” is, then…

    So what is the best way to determine whether or not it is good to cull people? Not literalistic interpretations of your favourite excerpt of your favourite “revealed text”, whereby you can justify all sorts of things, like stoning people, burning witches, and flying into buildings. ;)

  • 3 scribbles // Sep 9, 2007 at 11:58 pm


    This humanism-thing seems *VERY* interesting as they (Humanists) seems to be proponents of skepticism, critical thinking, but also drawing on philosophy in the form of e.g ethics to live a better life. And what can be wrong with that? :-D

    The following snippet from Wikipedia was also interesting: (as my first thought when I started reading your recent posts was how Humanism differs from nontheism – and does help to indicate the difference between It and other more religious or anti-religious (constrained) philosophies)

    “Agnosticism or atheism on their own do not necessarily entail Humanism; many different and sometimes incompatible philosophies happen to be atheistic in nature. There is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere, and not all are humanistic.[4][5]

    As Humanism encompasses intellectual currents running through a wide variety of philosophical and religious thought, several strains of Humanism allow it to fulfill, supplement or supplant the role of religions, and in particular, to be embraced as a complete life stance.”

    About Steve’s comment. Is it really able to have a discussion on things like that? Because the consequences of certain actions can just not be calculated. So in a sense we are working with incomplete information. How can one do good in a system where one works with incomplete information about the system? Because the information about the system being incomplete…the long-term effect of anything can’t really be determined.

    Maybe its better to just focus on our own intentions. I mean if we differentiate between inner and outer states, where outer states refer to reality and inner states refer to our own thoughts…then the only thing we can be assured of in the end (and can control) is the inner states. And hopefully if our inner states is congruent with good ethics and “spirituality”…then hopefully the long-term effects on the outer states would be the best we can hope for…

    But not necessarily… >:-D

  • 4 Steve // Sep 11, 2007 at 8:12 am

    Serdyn: you’re effectively jumping to a point I was hoping to make: one can’t measure “goodness” in terms of “suffering” unless one has some yardstick of suffering. And when pressed, most people drag in concepts of human rights, and the value/dignity of human life into their calculations with little to no sensible motivation.

    Euthanasia is a similar example where the lines must be pretty blurred as a humanist.

    Effectively, then, without an objective measure, we’re reduced to doing what “feels right” (which links to what you call “our own intentions”). But then what does ‘ good ethics and “spirituality” ‘ mean? Isn’t that implicitly saying there’s some sort of gold standard of goodness for which we should be aiming?
    And if so, where does it come from?

  • 5 Steve // Sep 11, 2007 at 8:13 am

    Oh yeah, to Hugo:

    ‘So what is the best way to determine whether or not it is good to cull people? Not literalistic interpretations of your favourite … “revealed text”…’

    Does that mean it’s better to motivate it because the internal moral compass said it would reduce suffering? And if so, why?

  • 6 Hugo // Sep 11, 2007 at 9:03 am

    I’m saying it’s most important to use our reasoning capabilities. What else? A revealed holy text? Which one? What verse? To borrow from a piece of an Obama speech I read this morning:

    “Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is O.K. and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount — a passage so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?…”

    I must say, I like the way Obama thinks. Maybe I should be paying more attention to my own country’s politics than US politics, though?

  • 7 Steve // Sep 11, 2007 at 5:24 pm


    What if your reasoning and my reasoning on culling people differs? Does that just mean it’s wrong for you and it’s right for me? Suppose our conclusions disagree only because I made a logical error which I would correct if I knew about it. Is it still wrong for you and right for me?

    I suggest that religious people employ their reasoning when they make inferences from their religious texts (whether by literal acceptance, or by exercising interpretation and taking context into account). Their reasoning may start with for some reason accepting their religious text as revealed, but that is either an axiom or a conclusion of their world view.

    So if it’s a wrong-for-you-right-for-me situation, their revealed-text solutions are perfectly valid (unless there’s some logical error in accepting the revealed text you’d have to convince them of). And if it’s a “there’s-an-absolute-right” situation, who says they should trust someone else’s reasoning over their revealed text?

  • 8 Hugo // Sep 11, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Nope, I disagree that it is a case of “wrong-for-me-and-right-for-you”.

    We strive with imperfect knowledge, often end up with an imperfect solution… but we try. Making use of religious texts could be useful, you’d be drawing inspiration from other people from long ago. Critical thinking and use of reason remains important then, though. I don’t find the “alleged revealed nature” to be valid. If you stone your child, I’d call it wrong.

    I’d hope Christians would typically be “guided by the spirit”, rather than by the literal words from the Bible? I’d hope that effectively means employing reason…?

    Reason and compassion. (Compare Christian values: Be compassionate, as God is compassionate…)

  • 9 Steve // Sep 11, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    You seem to be saying that you think there is some absolute standard for right and wrong actions (and as I understand it, that is your viewpoint). But for some reason, your feelings on what is important/valuable are more correct than other’s feelings on the trustworthiness of a book/their religious experiences.

    Don’t answer that, I’m just doing the echo thing of what I hear when I’m reading what you write.

    So, back to the question: culling. Yes or no? And why?

  • 10 Hugo // Sep 11, 2007 at 11:24 pm

    I have to answer, as I disagree slightly? We can strive to improve our actions (in terms of right and wrong), by that you deduce I believe in an absolute standard? That feels so strongly worded, but ok… I suppose there must be some ideal which we might have achieved had we been omniscient.

    I would like to disagree that my feelings are more correct than another’s feelings though. My feelings are not correct… except, of course, that you probably mean my “feelings” that “reason” is the best method to determine right and wrong… (oh, and add to that “compassion”, I believe in compassion…) So true, I guess I didn’t need to answer that, oops. ;)

    Culling: typically, no. Because I consider that “suffering”, wasted life, wasted potential. But yes, it is quite tricky. Euthanasia is tricky. Suicide is tricky… I happen to have a quote about ethics and suicide in my quotes collection:

    “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
    — Albert Camus

    Hmm, and now this comes to mind:

    “The ability to quote is a servicable substitute for wit.”
    — W. Somerset Maugham

    Oh, and culling is typically one group deciding what’s best for another, that would be “wrong” from my perspective. They have the right to life. If they beg for euthanasia though, what then? (And there, I don’t know…)

  • 11 scribbles // Sep 13, 2007 at 9:23 am

    Another point: I guess most people also have an internal feeling if they do “wrong”. And maybe there is some physiological reason for this feeling, but people that don’t have this feeling or indicator would have no problem with culling people or applying euthanasia. I think a lot of these things also depend on the cultural context in which we find ourselves. (But the conclusions unfortunately still remain subjective.)

    The law also puts a bit of a damper on these arguments because even if we wanted to cull people (or whatever) then the law will not be on our side. Which sure isn’t an argument that it is wrong. The law is about what is “good” if everybody follows the law, and obviously doesn’t directly apply to individual situations. Also breaking the law will hamper a person’s individual freedom – so although we maybe can’t make an argument about the moral authority of the law, most people wouldn’t want to have their personal freedom hampered.

    Still…talking about human society in its whole…the world is already overpopulated. And sure there is a statistical decrease in births as societies get wealthier, but I mean even today in certain cultures its okay to have quite a lot of children. Jung actually mentioned towards the end of his life that the greatest threat to the human species isn’t war, poverty, or any of the things we usually worry about…but overpopulation…

    So in this sense people are indicated as a problem. And this is probably something that will only be solved by limiting people’s freedom to have a lot of children. But “freedom” and the concept that limiting someone’s freedom is actually moral\immoral is probably a whole different discussion. :-D

  • 12 Hugo // Sep 13, 2007 at 9:40 am

    I suggest leaving law out of the picture. Ideally law is built on morality and ethics, we’re discussing those foundations. Discussing law here can cause circular reasoning. (There I possibly pulled a can of worms nearer, for someone to open…)

    People who have no internal compass, have no problem killing other people, are typically labelled psychopaths. They are considered deviating from what is typically considered “human”.

    I think limited reproductive rights would be a good thing. (It saved China… hehe.) See how often it is addressed in sci-fi novels… Though, I wonder, maybe the opposite will eventually be necessary. Everyone is required to have at least one child… considering how developed, wealthy countries rather have somewhat of a problem maintaining their population.

    Anyway, I digress. Shall we try keeping the comments on-topic? (Or maybe better, let the conversation die? Euthanasia! ;) )

  • 13 Tim Mills // Sep 16, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Steve’s line of thought started with a quote from Popper: “If an act results in a reduction of needless suffering, it is a good act.” This can be read as Steve implies, that the reduction of suffering is the *only* good – which I think very few people would agree with.

    But one could reasonably expand Popper’s line without (necessarily) distorting the meaning: “If an act results in a reduction of needless suffering, all else being equal, it is a good act.”

    Clearly, we have many values. We value the absence of suffering, which is why the death of a man with a terminal and excruciatingly painful disease is, at least partly, a relief to the survivors who loved him. But we also value people’s active well-being, their capacity to thrive and enjoy life, and of course their ability to direct own lives without undue coercion from others.

    Killing people just because they are suffering may eliminate the “evil” of their suffering, but it also cuts short any possibility of their thriving in the future, and it denies their capacity to choose for themselves.

    It is true that balancing these values is a difficult task. Humanism (or any appropriately thoughtful ethical stance) asks us to face these difficulties rather than hiding behind other people’s directives (be they religious, legal, or whatever).

    I also think that people who, like Steve, play the relativism card, are overstating the issue. The values that humanists (and most other ethical people) assert are not arbitrary. They are products of our human nature. Whether you ascribe that nature to mindless evolutionary forces, an abstract moral order to the universe, or to a personal creator god, the (observable, measurable) fact is that most people share these values.

    Those elements of our moral values that virtually everyone agrees on have come to be part of the language of universal human rights. The various legal systems around the world have developed (in part) to arbitrate those instances where individuals honestly differ on the appropriate ethical stance on a particular issue.

    Hugo, as for the definition of humanist/Humanist – in our student society we briefly debated between calling it the Edinburgh University Humanist Society and the Edinburgh University Secular Humanist Society. In the end, we went with the simpler option. It’s more straightforward, and there are relatively few humanists who are not also secular, so it’s unlikely to be misleading. Also, many humanist organizations use “humanist” to indicate “secular humanist”, so I think the distinction isn’t that clear in the language anyway. See, for example, IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union), HSS (Humanist Society of Scotland), BHA (British Humanist Association), IHS (Institute for Humanist Studies).

  • 14 Hugo // Sep 16, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks Tim! Your contribution to my journey thus far has been significant, even if only brief. I look forward to further journeying with you by following your blog.

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