When primates began to look at the stars in wonder, humanism was born. Far from the cliche of superstitious creatures huddled in caves, Homo Sapiens have from the beginning been engineers and artists, philosophers and scientists discovering how to adapt to our environment and make the most of our brief time on the planet.
Humanists then and now ask a question: What are we to do with the life that we have? The Humanist difference is that we do not accept ready-made answers. The ideas and ideals of humanism have sprouted in many times and places.
Among animals, human beings are unique in that we have developed methods to conceptualize time and ways to preserve and communicate knowledge and culture across generations. Humanity evolved complex social relationships and unique solutions to complex challenges, yet we are also prone to superstitions and hatreds—aspects of ourselves that must be transcended.
Humanist ideas are universal in scope and continuous through time, anywhere an inquiring mind has met an intractable problem or mystery. Rather than accepting the easy answers, Humanists never stop asking “why?” and “how?” Humanists are the empiricists, the questioners, the artists who push knowledge to the edge, then press on.
Chinese Daoism, probably the oldest continuously practiced human religion, teaches observation and acceptance of the nature of reality as the highest good.
The Charvaka movement developed in India in the 600s BCE) and appears to have been the earliest philosophy to embrace skepticism and reason in matters of belief. The Charvakas dismissed the supernatural and embraced a materialist, observational stance. These lines summarize their humanist stance which rejected the supernatural and an afterlife:
While life is yours live joyously;
No one can avoid Death's searching eye:
When this body of ours is burnt,
How can it ever return again?
Like many humanists, both the Indian philosopher Gautama Buddha (c. 563-480 BCE) and the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE) did not deny the existence of the gods of their cultures, but they did dismiss theological questions as irrelevant to living a meaningful life.
Though its origins are lost, Jainism is non-theistic and teaches liberation though human effort.
The Greek philosopher Protagorus (490-420 BCE) said, “Man is the measure of all things.” Like many since, Plato worked very hard to disprove this by asserting an intelligence beyond the material world. Protagorus insisted: “As touching the gods, I do not know whether they exist or not, nor how they look; for there is much to prevent our knowing—the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.”
The Chinese philosopher Mozi (470 BCE-391 BCE) asked:
What is the purpose of houses? It is to protect us from the wind and cold of winter, the heat and rain of summer, and to keep out robbers and thieves. Once these ends have been secured, that is all. Whatever does not contribute to these ends should be eliminated.
This “going back to basics” has long been a humanist ideal. Mozi also said,
Universal love is really the way of the sage-kings. It is what gives peace to the rulers and sustenance to the people.
Like most Humanists today, Mozi condemned both war and the death penalty:
The murder of one person is called unrighteous and incurs one death penalty. Following this argument, the murder of ten persons will be ten times as unrighteous and there should be ten death penalties; the murder of a hundred persons will be a hundred times as unrighteous and there should be a hundred death penalties. All the gentlemen of the world know that they should condemn these things, calling them unrighteous. But when it comes to the great unrighteousness of attacking states, they do not know that they should condemn it. On the contrary, they applaud it, calling it righteous.
No one knows for sure how long the humanist tradition of Ubuntu has existed in Africa. “Ubuntu” means “I am well if you are well.”
Desmond Tutu says of Ubuntu,
You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality—Ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World.
This impulse has led Humanists to embrace the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The book called Ecclesiastes, among the scriptures of both Judaism and Christianity and written sometime around 300 BCE, reflects rationality and skepticism. The text assumes there is no afterlife and that living well in the face of endless cycles of time—“there is nothing new under the sun”—is the only viable choice for humanity.
The philosopher Epicurus (341- 270 BCE) wrote, “Rejecting the popular myths does not make one impious; preaching them is what demonstrates impiety.” Epicurus was a rejector of myths and a seeker after truth. He may not have written the following lines— that is debatable—but the idea is Epicurean:
Is god willing to prevent evil but not able?
Then he is not all-powerful.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then where does evil come from?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him god?
The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of the Greek and Roman Empires were proponents of reason and observers of nature. Epicurus said, “Our deepest fears remain until we understand the nature of the universe rather than trusting one myth or another. Peace of mind requires the study of reality.”
As with the Charvaka, who reached their conclusions based on Hindu thought, the Mutazilites were a rational group that arose in Islam beginning in the Eighth Century CE.
“Sumak kawsay,” or “the good life,” is a contemporary popularization of the ancient wisdom of indigenous South American peoples. The focus of the movement is saving our biosphere from rampant development.
The Western literary and artistic tradition, later studied in the university curriculum as the humanities, also encouraged humanist thinking.
The Nineteenth Century French philosopher August Comte was apparently the first to realize that church could be done without reference to religion. He worked at creating what he called the “religion of humanity.” Comte’s motto was vivre pour autrui, “live for others,” from which we derive the term “altruism.” Altruism remains an ideal of Humanism.
Comte was the direct inspiration for Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Society, and John Dietrich, founder of the Unitarian Humanist tradition.
Philosopher Alain de Botton founded an “atheist church” in London in the early 21st Century, soon to be followed by Sunday Assemblies, with franchises in several cities around the world.
There is no patent on the concept of humanism, nor is there any lack of creativity among those seeking community outside of traditional religious concepts and institutions.
The essential is to take a hard look at form and function. Traditional religions take many forms in their congregational gatherings. What, however, is the function? Do assumptions about the supernatural in any way change that function?
Humanist thought stretches across time and space. Humanists live in the observable world. Twentieth Century Unitarian Curtis Reese once said of the idea of God: "philosophically possible, scientifically unproved, and religiously unnecessary.” That is the Humanist life stance.
You will know Humanists because we do not worship, nor do we pray, nor do we bow before the ideas, idols, or ideologies of our fellow Homo Sapiens. We live as global citizens in the cosmos. In awe, gratitude, and hope, Humanists know that we are one with all. We dedicate our lives to healing the planet and freeing humanity.