“The Light in my Life and the Fire in my Soul” – Bette Chambers

[Editor's note: the title of this post by Michael Werner is a quote from Bette Chambers, who is a past president of the American Humanist Association.]

For all the talk about reason and science, humanism is really about a passionate love affair. It is a love affair with life, not a mythical hereafter. Humanism is a love affair with a progressive vision of civilization where each of us can add to our growing library of wisdom, our evolving knowledge of what there is, and what is truly important. None of the great achievements in history would have been possible without a love of the adventure of learning and of creating a better life. We have great cultural achievements in science, art, music, literature, philosophy, history, psychology, and political thought that all inform each other that have been borne of that long humanist tradition.

Both the seculars and the religious today have retreated from grander ideas to mere personal inward meanings and purposes. The Enlightenment project, modernism, and a commitment to progress have been challenged by the horrors of the Holocaust and instances where reason turned against itself as a tool for power and control. We fear “Grand Narratives”, labels, and larger stories of how life is and could be. We live in a cynical narcissistic age without vision and our retreat from community and larger commitments has sapped our passions.

For centuries, humanists overcame huge barriers that presented themselves thus making a real difference. They never would have succeeded except for their passion for truth, for justice, for mercy, and for making the world in some way a little bit better. 

Humanism is merely that ongoing evolving life-stance that challenges us beyond atheism, beyond our own self-centeredness, and beyond our own fear of larger commitments to embrace the best of what we and society can be. We have a statement of our vison in the Humanist Manifesto lll, which is not a rigid doctrinal statement, but more an evolving consensus. Its purpose is to help people understand what one can believe if you don’t believe in God. It is merely a jumping-off point for the real ongoing quest. 

Some have neglected to use the full breadth of humanism’s resources. Some would see science answering everything we need to know, but that ignores the many tools the humanities have given us. Democracy and the concepts of human rights are gifts of history and civilization. Philosophy gives us tools for critical thinking and a conceptual framework. Literature and art heighten our awareness about what values are important. As Curtis Reese, one if the founders of modern-day humanism said, we must relate to others in a purposeful fashion to “weave the best personal values into a noble social order.”

All human beings seek a whole, integrated story for our lives, something that gives us power and meaning, hope, joy, and purpose. This deep identification of shared values of all people is what humanism offers beyond atheism. Most of us privately long for something worthy of our noblest devotion. Paul Kurtz wrote his book, “The Transcendental Temptation” as a warning about the temptation of irrational, other worldly visions, but yet his whole life reflected a Promethean urge toward a transcendent humanist vision of how we might structure our lives in a profoundly meaningful way.

In our troubled anti-foundational times, I think it’s time to look beyond society’s failings, the universe’s inherent meaninglessness, our own needs, and our avoidance of grand purposes. Instead, we should once again look toward commitments of the heart to the best of who we and society can be. Being a humanist takes passion, courage, and commitment. It requires a love of life that can help us rise above our age’s vacuous, cynical malaise and empower us with a vision of what a humanistic society would look like.    

Humanism is that grander vision of life. It is a devotion to humanity and the biosphere that humanity is part of. It is our passionate commitment to the best ideals that are supported by what experience, science, and civilization have taught us. That vision tells us humanism is larger than any of us. I believe we have a duty to continue humanism’s evolving tradition which has inspired countless individuals to make the world better. At the same time it motivates us to fill our lives with transcendent purpose for a meaningful, exuberant life that makes life worth living.

Michael Werner's picture

Michael Werner is a cofounder of SMART Recovery, past president of the American Humanist Association, and currently a member of the AHA chapter Humanists and Freethinkers of Cape Fear.


Comprehensive, articulate --Bette at her best!