values of humility, introspection, and passivity, or "meekness" that had dominated European thought in the previous centuries, was to become eloquent in rhetoric. Beauty, a popular topic, was held to represent a deep inner virtue and value, and an essential element in the path towards God. The humanist movement developed from the rediscovery by European scholars of many Latin and Greek texts.
The humanists were in opposition to the philosophers of the day, the "schoolmen", or scholastics, of the Italian universities and later Oxford and Paris, whose methodology was derived from Thomas Aquinas, which revived a classical debate which referred back to Plato and the Platonic dialogues.
History of Renaissance Humanism
In the 1480s, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola wrote a preface to the nine hundred theses that he submitted for public debate entitled An Oration on the Dignity of Man. The debate never took place, but the work became a seminal text in the development of humanism. In it, he talked about how God created man and that man's greatness comes from God. He said that man was like a chameleon and could become whatever he wanted to be.
Humanists placed a heavy emphasis on the study of primary sources rather than the study of the interpretations of others. This is reflected in their motto of ad fontes, or "to the sources" which informed the search for texts in the monastery libraries of Europe. Humanist education, called the studia humanista or studia humanitatis (study of humanity), concentrated on the study of the liberal arts: Latin and Greek grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy or ethics, and history.
Early 15th-century humanists were interested in classical Latin and not in medieval Latin, which was a different and more developed language with many neologisms. Petrarch, sometimes called the father of Renaissance humanism in Italy, called the Latin of the Middle Ages "barbarous,"; when he collected his "Familiar Letters" his model was Cicero and his model for Latin was that used by Virgil, who was emerging from the persona as a magus that had accrued in the Middle Ages. This new interest in the classical literature led to the scouring of monastic libraries across Europe for lost texts. One such hunt by Poggio Bracciolini, who was credited with the discovery of the complete works of fifteen different authors, turned up Vitruvius' work on art and architecture, allowing for the completion of the Duomo of Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi.
The central feature of humanism in this period was the commitment to the idea that the ancient world (defined effectively as ancient Greece and Rome, which included the entire Mediterranean basin) was the pinnacle of human achievement, especially intellectual achievement, and should be taken as a model by contemporary Europeans. According to this view of history, the fall of Rome to Germanic invaders, in the fifth century, had led to the dissolution and decline of this remarkable culture; the intellectual heritage of the ancient world had been lost—many of its most important books had been destroyed and dispersed—and a thousand years later, Europeans were still living in the ruins. The only way in which Europeans could expect to pull themselves out of this intellectual catastrophe was to attempt to recover, edit, and make available these lost texts, which included, among others, almost all the works of Plato. (In the process, Greek texts had to be translated into Latin, the language of intellectuals and the learned.) This enterprise, launched through the reintroduction of Greek to Italy by Manuel Chrysoloras, generated enormous enthusiasm, and the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were devoted to this project.
Humanism offered the necessary intellectual and philological tools for the first dispassionate analysis of texts. An early triumph of textual criticism by Lorenzo Valla revealed the Donation of Constantine to be an early medieval forgery produced in the Curia. This textual criticism began to create real political controversy when Erasmus began to apply it to biblical texts, in his Novum Instrumentum.
The crisis of Renaissance humanism came with the trial of Galileo which was centered on the choice between basing the authority of one's beliefs on one's observations, or upon religious teaching. The trial made the contradictions between humanism and traditional religion visibly apparent to all, and humanism was branded a "dangerous doctrine."
Social or civic humanism
Social or civic humanism rose out of the republican ideology of Florence at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It sought to create citizens capable of participating in the civic life of their community by placing central emphasis on human autonomy. Leonardo Bruni's Panegyric is one expression of this philosophy. The emancipated and literate upper bourgeoisie of the independent Italian communes adapted 14th-century Burgundian aristocratic culture and manners to an intensely patriotic civic life centered on extended families. Humanism was a pervasive cultural mode, not merely the product of a handful of geniuses, like Giotto or Leon Battista Alberti.
Beliefs in Renaissance Humanism
Renaissance humanists believed that the liberal arts (art, music, grammar, rhetoric, oratory, history, poetry, using classical texts, and the studies of all of the above) should be practiced by all levels of "richness". They also approved of self, human worth and individual dignity.
This worth is found in the humanist belief that everything in life has a determinate nature, but man's privilege is to be able to choose his own nature. Pico della Mirandola wrote the following concerning the creation of the universe and man's place in it:
“ But when the work was finished, the Craftsman kept wishing that there were someone to ponder the plan of so great a work, to love its beauty, and to wonder at its vastness. Therefore, when everything was done... He finally took thought concerning the creation of man... He therefore took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus: "Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgement thou mayest have and posses what abode, what form and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world's center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe what is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul's judgement, to be born into the higher forms, which are divine."
Humanists believe that such possibilities lead to the diverse ways of human development. Value is given to this uniqueness and encourages individualism.
Relationship to Christianity
As Neo-Platonism replaced the Aristotelianism of Saint Thomas Aquinas, attempts were made to join the great works of Antiquity with Christian values in a syncretic Christian humanism, such as those by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Ethics was taught independently of theology, and the authority of the Church was tacitly transferred to the reasoning logic of the educated individual. Thus humanists constantly skirted the dangers of being branded as heretics.
One example of such pagan philosophy and Christian doctrine melding is found in The Epicurean, by Erasmus, the "prince of humanists:"
If people who live agreeably are Epicureans, none are more truly Epicurean than the righteous and godly. And if it's names that bother us, no one better deserves the name of Epicurean than the revered founder and head of the Christian philosophy [Christ], for in Greek epikouros means "helper." He alone, when the law of Nature was all but blotted out by sins, when the law of Moses incited to lists rather than cured them, when Satan ruled in the world unchallenged, brought timely aid to perishing humanity. Completely mistaken, therefore, are those who talk in their foolish fashion about Christ's having been sad and gloomy in character and calling upon us to follow a dismal mode of life. On the contrary, he alone shows the most enjoyable life of all and the one most full of true pleasure.
This quote exemplifies the way in which the humanists saw pagan classical works such as the philosophy of Epicurus as being fundamentally in harmony with Christianity, rather than as a nemesis to be pitted against Christianity. Although Renaissance humanists were more accepting of pagan philosophy than their Scholastic contemporaries, they did not necessarily object to the idea that Christian understanding should be dominant over other modes of thought. Some humanists were even churchmen, most notably Pope Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini Pius II.
One of the earliest forerunners of contemporary chartered humanist organizations was the Humanistic Religious Association formed in 1853 in London. This early group was democratically organized, with male and female members participating in the election of the leadership and promoted knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.
Active in the early 1920s, F.C.S. Schiller considered his work to be tied to the humanist movement. Schiller himself was influenced by the pragmatism of William James. In 1929 Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York whose advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Potter was a minister from the Unitarian tradition and in 1930 he and his wife, Clara Cook Potter, published . Throughout the 1930s Potter was a well-known advocate of women’s rights, access to birth control, "civil divorce laws", and an end to capital punishment.
Raymond B. Bragg, the associate editor of The New Humanist, sought to consolidate the input of L. M. Birkhead, Charles Francis Potter, and several members of the Western Unitarian Conference. Bragg asked Roy Wood Sellars to draft a document based on this information which resulted in the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. The Manifesto and Potter's book became the cornerstones of modern humanism. Both of these sources envision humanism as a religion.
In 1941 the American Humanist Association was organized. Noted members of The AHA include Isaac Asimov, who was the president before his death, and writer Kurt Vonnegut, who followed as honorary president until his death in 2007.
Critics of humanism, notably John N. Gray, believe humanism stems from Christian ideology.The idea that people should behave rationally and ethically has similar puritanical overtones. Most people in their daily lives make rational choices without having to think about it. Behaving ethically, thinking rationally, controlling your temper, being nice to your neighbours, and so on, are things most people would view as common sense. It is confusing and patronising to elevate this to the status of a religious creed as most people already use these virtues that humanists seemingly worship.
Modern humanist philosophies
There are many people who consider themselves humanists, and much variety in the exact type of humanism to which they subscribe. There is some disagreement over terminology and definitions, with some people using narrower or broader interpretations. Not all people who call themselves humanists hold beliefs that are genuinely humanistic, and not all people who do hold humanistic beliefs apply the label of humanism to themselves.
All of this aside, humanism can be divided into secular and religious types.
Secular humanism is a humanist philosophy that upholds reason, ethics, and justice, and specifically rejects the supernatural and the spiritual as warrants of moral reflection and decision-making. Like other types of humanism, secular humanism is a life stance or a praxis focusing on the way human beings can lead good and happy lives (eupraxsophy). The term was coined in the 20th century to make a clear distinction from "religious humanism". A related concept is scientific humanism, which the biologist Edward O. Wilson claimed to be "the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature".
Tenets of Secular humanism
Secular humanism describes a world view with the following elements and principles:
Need to test beliefs - A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
Reason, evidence, scientific method - Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
Fulfillment, growth, creativity - A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
Search for truth - A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
This life - A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
Ethics - A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
Building a better world - A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
A Secular Humanist Declaration was an argument for and statement of belief in Democratic Secular Humanism. The document was issued in 1980 by The Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH), now the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH).
Secular humanism in relation to other concepts
When humanists use the phrase secular humanism it is typically to emphasize differences relative to religion or religious humanism.
There are a number of ways in which secular and religious humanism can differ:
Religious humanists may value rituals and ceremonies as means of affirming their life stance. Secular humanists are typically not interested in using rituals and ceremonies.
Some religious humanists may seek profound "religious" experiences, such as those that others would associate with the presence of God, despite interpreting these experiences differently. Secular humanists would generally not pursue such experiences.
Some varieties of nontheistic religious humanism may conceive of the word divine as more than metaphoric even in the absence of a belief in a traditional God; they may believe in ideals that transcend physical reality; or they may conceive of some experiences as "numinous" or uniquely religious. Secular humanism regards all such terms as, at best, metaphors for truths rooted in the material world.
Some varieties of religious humanism, such as Christian humanism include belief in God, traditionally defined. Secular humanism is skeptical about God and the supernatural and believes that these are not useful concepts for addressing human problems.
While some humanists embrace calling themselves secular humanists, others prefer the term Humanist, capitalized and without any qualifying adjective. The terms secular humanism and Humanism overlap, but have different connotations. The term secular humanism emphasizes a non-religious focus, whereas the term Humanism deemphasizes this and may even encompass some nontheistic varieties of religious humanism. The term Humanism also emphasizes considering one's humanism to be a life stance.
Secular humanism advocates secularism but is a broader concept. Secularism has a number of usages but generally emphasize limits on the role of religious or supernatural considerations in the affairs of society or government. Secular humanism adds to these positions a comprehensive perspective on life, including affirmation of human dignity and the importance of ethics.
Secular humanism is a broad philosophic position and not simply a statement about belief or non-belief in God. Accordingly, it is inaccurate to identify secular humanism as being the same thing as nontheism, atheism, or agnosticism. While secular humanists are generally nontheistic, atheist, or agnostic, the converse may not be true. Many nontheists, atheists, and agnostics adhere to the tenets of secular humanism, but this is not intrinsically the case.
Secular humanism has appeal to atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, empiricists, rationalists, skeptics and materialists, as well as to some Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians.
Christian fundamentalist opponents of humanism typically use the term secular humanism pejoratively to mean atheism or secularism or to lump together all nontheistic varieties of humanism. Humanists object to such usage, finding it misleading or overly broad.
Secular humanism today
While secular humanist organizations are found in all parts of the world, one of the largest humanist organisations in the world (relative to population) is Norway's Human-Etisk Forbund, which had over 69,000 members out of a population of around 4.6 million in 2004.
In certain areas of the world, secular humanism finds itself in conflict with religious fundamentalism, especially over the issue of the separation of church and state. A faction of secular humanists may judge religions as superstitious, regressive, and/or closed-minded, while the majority of religious fundamentalists see secular humanism as a threat to the values they say are set out in religious texts, such as the Bible and the Qur'an.
Criticism of secular humanism
Some criticize the philosophy of secular humanism because it offers no eternal truths nor a relationship with the divine. They allege that a philosophy bereft of these beliefs leaves humanity adrift in a foggy sea of postmodern cynicism and anomie. Humanists respond that such criticisms reflect a failure to look at the actual content of humanist philosophy, which far from being cynical and postmodern, is rooted in optimistic, idealistic attitudes that trace back to the Enlightenment, or further, back to Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and Chinese Confucianism.
Opponents of humanism tend to define the term secular humanism differently. Some Christians often use the presence of a moral belief structure in secular humanism as evidence of a religion. This is rejected by secular humanists, who claim morality is not limited to religion.
Historical and modern references to Secular humanism
The term secularism was created in 1846 by George Jacob Holyoake in order to describe "a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life."
Historical use of the term humanism (reflected in some current academic usage), is related to the writings of pre-Socratic philosophers. These writings were lost to European societies until Renaissance scholars rediscovered them through Muslim sources and translated them from Arabic into European languages." Thus the term humanist can mean a humanities scholar, as well as refer to The Enlightenment/ Renaissance intellectuals, and those who have agreement with the pre-Socratics, as distinct from secular humanists. See the article on humanism for additional history of this term.
The meaning of the phrase "secular humanism" has evolved over time. This phrase was first known to have been used in the 1950s. It was used, for example, by Leo Pfeffer and by Joseph Blau, later professor of religion at Columbia University. However, as used initially the phrase did not have the connotations it later assumed. In 1958 Pfeffer used the term to mean "Those unaffiliated with organized religion and concerned with human values."
As mentioned previously, "secular humanism" was a term used by Justice Black in 1961 to refer to a non-theistic variety of humanism that its adherents considered to be religious. The phrase was seized upon by religious fundamentalists, with the inclusion of the word "secular" often used to cast humanists as anti-religious.
By the 1970s the term was embraced by some humanists who, although critical of religion in its various guises, were deliberately non-religious, as opposed to anti-religious, which means that their humanism has nothing to do with spiritual, religious, or ecclesiastical doctrines, beliefs, or power structures. This is how "secular humanism" is most commonly understood by humanists today.
In a mockery of an Alabama judge's reference to secular humanism as a religion, musician and free speech advocate Frank Zappa established the "Church of American Secular Humanism." Columnist Art Buchwald wrote a column, "Secular Humanists: Threat or Menace?", which poked fun at alarm about secular humanism.
Religious humanism is the branch of humanism that considers itself religious (based on a functional definition of religion), or embraces some form of theism, deism, or supernaturalism, without necessarily being allied with organized religion; if allied, in the US it is often with Unitarian Universalism, frequently associated with artists, liberal Christians, and scholars in the liberal arts. Also subscribers to a religion who do not hold such a necessary source for their moral values, may be considered religious humanists. The central position of human beings in humanist philosophy goes with a humane morality; the latter alone does not constitute humanism. A humanitarian who derives morality from religious grounds does not make a religious humanist.
A number of religious humanists feel that secular humanism is too coldly logical and rejects the full emotional experience that makes humans human. From this comes the notion that secular humanism is inadequate in meeting the human need for a socially fulfilling philosophy of life. Disagreements over things of this nature have resulted in friction between secular and religious humanists, despite their similarities.
Other forms of humanism
Humanism is also sometimes used to describe "humanities" scholars, (particularly scholars of the Greco-Roman classics). As mentioned above, it is sometimes used to mean humanitarianism. There is also a school of humanistic psychology, and an educational method.
Humanism, as a current in education, began to dominate school systems in the 17th century. It held that the studies that develop human intellect are those that make humans "most truly human". The practical basis for this was faculty psychology, or the belief in distinct intellectual faculties, such as the analytical, the mathematical, the linguistic, etc. Strengthening one faculty was believed to benefit other faculties as well (transfer of training). A key player in the late 19th-century educational humanism was U.S. Commissioner of Education W.T. Harris, whose "Five Windows of the Soul" (mathematics, geography, history, grammar, and literature/art) were believed especially appropriate for "development of the faculties". Educational humanists believe that "the best studies, for the best kids" are "the best studies" for all kids. While humanism as an educational current was largely discredited by the innovations of the early 20th century, it still holds out, in some elite preparatory schools and some high school disciplines (especially, in literature).
In modern western societies social practices, such as politics and economics are shaped by humanist ideas. There are many humanist strands such as scientific and religious thinking, but the most dominant form of humanism is liberal humanism. Liberal humanists state that the individual right needs to be protected and society should provide for the differences between people as long as ones individual actions do not result in harm to another. An example of this is when a country is forced to vote on a political or social matter and the voice of the majority is heard. In the liberalist view, each individual has their single individual nature as well as a shared human nature. The centre and essentially the hero of liberal humanism is man and a commitment to man, whose essence is freedom. When researching liberal humanism, it can be found that the subject is not only free but is unconstrained by history, meaning or action. This in turn guarantees freedom of choice, particularly when studying the political system. The following are some of the many beliefs of liberal humanism:
The world is controllable
“Purpose = humanist enhancement of life”
“Human-ness is in the work, not the author”
Literature is timeless and constant in human nature
Everyone is individual regardless of environmental influences
Form and content are fused
Barry sums up liberal humanism in his text “Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and cultural theory” as:
“Politics is pervasive,
Language is constitutive,
Truth is provisional,
Meaning is contingent,
Human nature is a myth.”
List of humanists
(This is a partial list of famous humanists, including both secular and religious humanists.)
Philip Adams, Steve allen, Saac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, Ronnie Barker, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, John Dewey, Raya Dunayevskaya, Sanal Edamaruku, Albert Einstein, Yunus Emre, Gareth Evans, Frantz Fanon, Raymond Firth, Tim Flannery, E. M. Forster, Betty Friedan, Erich Fromm, John Kenneth Galbraith, Tim Gassin, Murray Gell-Mann, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Jay Gould, Bill Hayden, Aldous Huxley, Julian Huxley, Henrik Ibsen, Steve Irwin, Ron Karenga, Helen Keller, Paul Kurtz, Corliss Lamont, John Lennon, Michael Lerner, Thomas Mann, Abraham H. Maslow, Vashti McCollum, Michel de Montaigne, Farley Mowat, Taslima Nasrin, Philip Nitschke, David L. Norton, George Orwell, Linus Pauling, Steven Pinker, Charles Francis Potter, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, A. Phillip Randolph, Gene Roddenberry, Carl Rogers, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Andrei Sakharov, Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, John Ralston Saul, Brajendra Nath Seal, Michael Shermer, Peter Singer, Linda Smith, Barbara Smoker, Gloria Steinem, Oliver Stone, Christer Sturmark, Albert Schweitzer, Rabindranath Tagore, Osamu Tezuka, Sékou Touré, Ted Turner, Björn Ulvaeus, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Nicolas Walter, Ibn Warraq, Robyn Williams, E. O. Wilson, Edwin H. Wilson, Sherwin T. Wine, Frank Zappa