Humanist thinking

Long before the term ‘humanist’ was commonly used, there have been many people who have believed that this life is the only one we have, the world around us can be explained naturally, and we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and empathy.

Today, people with these views are called humanists, and the associated beliefs are known as Humanism.

Am I a humanist, then?

Humanism isn’t a word like ‘Christian’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘Sikh’, which all describe followers of a religious faith. You don’t sign up to become a humanist and then find out what you believe by consulting a holy book on what you should think. Instead, think of ‘humanist’ as a word which describes the sorts of views you may have, and the approach you take to life.

Many people with humanist beliefs may not be aware that there is even a word to describe them. However, if they…

  • Trust science rather than the supernatural as a means of understanding how the universe works
  • Make ethical decisions based on empathy and concern for human beings and animals
  • Believe that human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same

…then they are very likely to be humanists.

How do humanists approach the ‘big questions’?

As humanists believe there is no one book or set of rules that can tell us how to act, we have to discover how to give our lives meaning, help other people, look after our planet, and build a world that is more enjoyable for us to live in.

To do this, we use reason. Reason is often understood in a scientific sense, but it doesn’t necessarily mean this. We use reason every time we try to answer questions of right and wrong, or when we try to predict what will happen based on past experience. Humanists use reason when being considerate towards human beings and our shared planet, and when deciding if an action is good or bad.

What do humanists think about…

One aspect of being a humanist is recognising that there are many moral and ethical questions that do not have easy answers. Humanists come from all over the world and can have different perspectives on difficult questions, but what they agree on is that by using reason and empathy, and respecting our fellow human beings, we will be better placed to answer them.

As with people, you might be able to argue that some views on different issues are ‘more’ or ‘less’ humanist, depending on how they arrived at those views. A humanist will think about an issue by looking closely at the available evidence, considering the possible consequences, and selecting the action which they judge to be the most ethical, for example, whichever approach will do the least harm and promote the most well-being.

On many issues, humanists will find they come to similar conclusions. For example, most humanists will support a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. They also tend to oppose racism; support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people; and support people’s right to speak and write freely about their opinions. Humanists are generally in favour of promoting autonomy, which means having control of one’s own life and body, and equal rights for all people.

There is still plenty of room to disagree and to argue about issues, but that can be a good thing, because arguing about an issue usually means having to think about it very carefully. Humanists will entertain the possibility that they could be wrong about an issue. A humanist is usually willing to change their opinion if confronted with new evidence or a better way of looking at things.

Living in reality

This way of thinking about ethics brings with a lot of advantages. While religious texts contain advice about how to live which were based on how people saw the world a long time ago, a humanist approach is based on life in the here and now, and so can be sensitive to special features of a situation.

By contrast, ancient religious advice might contain misguided ideas about certain types of people or generally not be equipped to respond to the kinds of problems we face nowadays that people didn’t have in those days, particularly when our understanding of these issues is shaped by modern science. Religious texts will also reflect the attitudes and values of the people who helped write them and the societies they came from.

A humanist approach, by contrast, is based on an honest assessment of reality. This is a very good starting point for dealing with challenging questions.