Humanism is often presented as a reaction against religion. But it is best understood as an answer to a question, the question being: what is the meaning of life?
I have recently had some experiences facilitating humanist-oriented discussion groups. One issue that has often come up is the difficulty of producing a short explanation of Humanism that highlights it as a coherent and systematic viewpoint from which to approach issues, rather than an ad hoc set of policy positions.
This has been an issue as many of the policies supported by organised Humanism, such as respect for human dignity and freedom, secularism, and human rights, are policies that many people already agree with, even if they have never heard of Humanism. This sometimes leads to people viewing Humanism as a collection of policies without a clear generating or organising principle and/or to questions along the lines of why bother to think about or commit ourselves to Humanism since we already support those ideas. Of course answering these questions has led to some wonderful discussions.
But these conversations have made me practise introducing Humanism in a way which focusses on it as a coherent approach to life which is capable of generating answers to various questions at both individual and policy level. I have experimented with identifying what I call the ‘Four Pillars’ of Humanism which I present as underlying its approach, and then move on to show how the Four Pillars can justify particular ideals and policies such as respect for human dignity and human rights. I have been asked a few times to provide a written explanation of the Four Pillars, and this essay is an attempt to set out the Four Pillars in a systematic way. I note I am not claiming the Four Pillars
are new or original concepts; I am exploring using them as a framework for presenting contemporary Humanism as a systematic and coherent approach to life.
The Four Pillars are:
1. Nature: Human beings are part of nature, and have a naturally occurring capacity to ask questions about meaning and purpose in life:
2. Human capacity: Human beings have a natural capacity to develop meaning and purpose for themselves without needing an external or supernatural source to sanction that meaning;
3. Evidence and reason: Evidence and reason are used by humanists to assess ideas, including the strength of possible paths to meaning and purpose developed under Pillar Two;
4: Open to revision: The ideas and answers humanists develop are not treated dogmatically, but are open to revision and correction.
Pillar 1. Nature
We are naturally occurring beings. We were not created by some being or entity outside of nature, nor are we governed by such a supernatural being. Instead we are part of, and limited by, the processes of nature such as evolution by natural selection, processes which are often described in the form of scientific laws.
We also have a naturally occurring capacity for self-awareness and reflection. But this creates a significant existential dilemma for us: it gives us the ability to ask questions about our existence, questions such as ‘What is the meaning of life? How do I justify my/his/her actions morally? What causes happiness?’ To such questions nature does not appear to provide a direct answer.
The lack of clear answers can create great stress and angst. It can lead some people to see life as meaningless and worthless. Others respond by claiming that, since nature does not offer a direct answer, only ‘faith’ in a super-natural force such as God can provide answers. In other words, they seek to go outside humanity and nature to find a transcendent answer to these questions.
Humanism rejects both these approaches to existential questions.
Pillar 2. Human capacity
The second pillar of Humanism is that humans have an intrinsic capacity to create and discover meaning. The answers to existential questions come from human beings themselves, not from an external source. Humanists support
exploring our capacity to find and make meaning as a path to answering questions posed by our self-reflective capacity. In this sense Humanism is the embrace of a human path to meaning.
As an alternative to transcendent paths to meaning Humanism offers an immanent path; meaning is immanent within us as human beings.
How can we create meaning? One path is through our social tendencies such as empathy, sympathy, compassion and love. Sympathy and love can help us to build close and fulfilling relations with others. For many people such relationships provide the key path to meaning and fulfilment in life. We do not need a God to find love; we only need to accept our human capacity for love and nurture it.
In the words of Bette Chambers:
Humanism is the light of my life and the fire in my soul. It is the deep felt conviction, in every fibre of my being, that human love is a power far transcending the relentless, onward rush of our largely deterministic cosmos. All human life must seek a reason for existence within the bounds of an uncaring physical world, and it is love coupled with empathy, democracy, and a commitment to selfless service which undergirds the faith of a humanist.1
By opening the door to our own best capacities Humanism opens a path to a meaningful and fulfilling approach to life – a path based on the facts of our human potential rather than an imaginary faith.
Our social capacities can also provide foundations for ethics and morality as people seek to justify sympathetic and supportive behaviour towards others.
Other human capacities such as intellectual curiosity, appreciation of beauty, wonder, and so on can provide a path to a life of joy and fulfilment for individuals as they explore a particular capacity within themselves and realise their own best potential. Realising as much as we can of our best potential and exploring the paths to meaning we are born with can provide a meaningful and satisfying answer to questions about meaning and purpose in life. It is not that our capacities are already fully realised, rather it is by exploring and developing the best of our social and individual capacities we can find a path to meaning and fulfilment. Human fulfilment is at the core of humanist answers to existential questions.
Humanism does not view life as meaningless, nor does it try to make life meaningless. It offers and supports the human path to meaning, the only path we have.
Pillar 3: Evidence and Reason
The third pillar of Humanism is that statements about the world are more persuasive to the extent that they are supported by evidence and reason. There will not always be a large amount of empirical evidence available to answer any question, so this should be understood as utilising available evidence to inform decisions rather than an insistence there is only one correct evidence-based answer. New evidence or new interpretations of evidence may lead to changed decisions.
What evidence is available clearly supports Pillar One, that humans are a part of nature. Likewise the available evidence supports the basic ideas of Pillar Two, that we at least have the potential within us to develop the capacities, such as love and empathy, which give meaning to life. By way of contrast, there is no persuasive evidence of super-natural paths to meaning.
But how do Pillar Two tendencies, both social and individual, inform the development of policies? Reason and evidence are required to justify general policy claims.
If we are confining our analysis to an individual, then much is up to the individual. For instance, a tendency to enjoy music, in an individual, can be tended and cultivated to become a mature love of music which may provide that individual with a strong sense of happiness and fulfilment. The same music may appear as an execrable noise to another individual.
By opening the door to our ownbest capacities Humanism opens a path to a meaningful and fulfilling approach to life – a path based on the facts of our human potential rather than an imaginary faith.
Once we try to develop general policy ideas that might apply to more than just one person, reason and evidence are needed to help justify them.
For instance, our shared need for human fulfilment, both at the level of social interaction and at the level of more individual interests, combined with our potential for empathy and compassion for others, make it possible to reason to the conclusion that all people should be equally entitled to the same basic degree of freedom and security necessary to pursue fulfilment.
Evidence of our capacity to find fulfilment and happiness through social and other activities should also be considered, including evidence of our potential to feel love and compassion for others, and evidence that relationships based on trust and positive relations lead to a more lasting form of happiness than relationships based on deceit and exploitation. Reason may then be applied to conclude that, since all people share at least some need and capacity for fulfilment, they should have the same opportunity for fulfil-ment, and that we will be fulfilling more of our potential for empathy etc. if we support such an approach.
Therefore it may be concluded, based on reason and evidence, that the maximum possible human fulfilment for all should be a prime ideal and goal.
This is clearly not a fully developed and conclusive argument. It is a brief illustrative example of how reason
and evidence can be used to develop a position. Other arguments can be developed from Pillar Two foundations as well, and other terms, such as human flourishing, human dignity, or freedom may be advocated. The purpose here is not to demonstrate that one possible argument, or one possible term is ‘the best and only’ option, but to show how the combination of Pillars Two and Three can support developing the case for a general goal. Such as, in this case, human fulfilment.
Once an overarching goal like human fulfilment or human flourishing is established, reason and evidence can be used to develop the best path forward to realising it.
Reason may indicate that the best path is to have a set of basic guarantees for all people: human rights, some ability for all to consult re their needs, democracy and in general to try to construct policies that ensure that each individual has both as much freedom as is compatible with the same free-dom for others, and is as empowered as much as is compatible with the same empowerment of others as is possible in contemporary society. Again this is not meant to be a comprehensive argument, but illustrative of one. Humanism uses reason and evidence to develop and justify policies, and builds on a human base in doing so.
Pillar 4. Open to revision
Once a position has been supported with evidence and reason, and even if it has been widely accepted, that is not the end of the matter. The fourth pillar of Humanism is that Humanism’s policies are open to revision. All the evidence
may, for example, support a particular interpretation at a point in time. But new evidence may change that. Likewise the application of reason may justify new interpretations of existing evidence.
Humanism is based on strong grounds for belief, not on absolute certainty regardless of evidence. If a set of justified beliefs, which can change as knowledge and understanding increases, rather than risk turning into unchallengeable and unjustifiable dogma.
Yet some humanist principles, such as respect for human dignity and human fulfilment, are unchallengeable from within Humanism; an anti-human Humanism would not be Humanism. But the interpretation of the best way to realise these principles in practice, such as what should constitute the content of human rights, what economic and environmental policies to follow, and so forth, should always be open to fresh evidence and analysis.
Over history we have seen expansions in rights and respect for different races, ethnic groups, genders and other marginalised groups. A humanist might argue this expansion has been driven by increasing empathy and understanding of the dignity, needs and similarities of others (Pillars One and Two), supported by reason and evidence (Pillar Three) leading to changes in policies (Pillar Four).
A straightforward example of Pillar Four in action today is the increasing realisation that existing farming practices may actually be seen as a form of cruelty and persecution to non-human animals, and the concomitant growing movement to prevent cruelty to non-human animals. Our sense of empathy (Pillar Two) is aroused by the suffering of non-human animals. Evidence is developed that animals do indeed feel pain and can suffer and Pillar Four tells us that any situation should be open to review.
This process has led to a wide range of calls for change. I won’t try to argue for any particular position on the treatment of non-human animals here, but note that reviewing our knowledge and ideas in a way that may increase our level of sympathy and understanding of the plight of others, whether human or not, is a part of Humanism.
From a Humanist point of view any system of government or society is perpetually open to review as we increase our knowledge and understanding of how to relate to people.
Using the Four Pillars to introduce Humanism can help illustrate it as a coherent and systematic viewpoint from which to approach issues and develop changes in policies over time.
When using the Four Pillars to introduce Humanism I would at this point make a longer explanation of a particular policy or two, to illustrate their use. But there is no space for that here. What is worth noting is that the Four Pillars can be used as a general introduction when talking to a group with a particular interest, and then can be used to show how a humanist policy position in relation to that group’s interest can be developed from the Four Pillars.
Humanism is sometimes criticised for exalting humans or relying on some form of human exceptionalism. The Four Pillars rely on human capacity to develop meaning and purpose in life. This is not the same as saying humans are superior. Rather these capacities are what we as humans are capable of accessing to discover meaning, so we use them.
A further caveat arises in relation to some thinkers from the past (and some today?) who accept, or don’t deny, the existence of a God or Gods; but believe the Gods are indifferent to morals and/or humans and/or play a limited role in human life. Such thinkers may develop a philosophy of life that is based on Pillar Two; looking to human sources for meaning and happiness in life rather than supernatural ones. In the case of thinkers who take that path to Pillar Two it seems not unreasonable to view them as humanistic or part of a broader humanist tradition. It may be better in a longer discussion to expand Pillar One to include such an approach. Nonetheless it seems most humanists today strongly agree with the non-supernatural aspect of Pillar One as is (as do I) and so I usually leave it as is for the purpose of providing a brief introductory framework to contemporary Humanism.
A third caveat comes from this article focussing on positive human potentials such as compassion and love. All the capacities that occur under Pillar Two (and they are too many to be listed here) are better understood as potentials rather than fully realised characteristics of all humans. We are not born loving everyone, but we do have a potential for love. Likewise this article has focussed on positive
potentials, but human beings are capable of many forms of cruelty and exploitation. Humanism does not say human beings only have a positive potential – we don’t. Humanism however focuses on acknowledging and developing our positive potential, while being aware of and ready to try to address our less impressive potentials.
Humanism is a coherent and systematic viewpoint from which to approach issues. It builds on the resources immanent with human beings to address existential questions. The Four Pillars can provide a platform to generate and build policies such as human rights and democracy and provide support for them. They can also
provide a rationale for changing and updating policies as new understandings emerge.
In this article I am not trying to argue that any one set of policies or ideals is the ‘correct’ one for Humanism, but that the Four Pillars can illustrate humanist paths to answers to questions in life, including policy questions.
The goal in this context is to explore ways of encouraging people to think through humanist positions rather than try to demonstrate one correct or official humanist position. Nonetheless three key things stand out:
Firstly, Humanism offers a path to answering existential questions. It is a philosophy of immanence that sees humans as the source of answers to questions about purpose and meaning in life. Humanism does not just inherit the values of earlier religious cultures and modify them. It challenges them, in part, by offering an immanent rather than transcendent source of meaning.
Secondly, Humanism is not a static set of rules or policies. It is an approach which can adjust to new know-ledge and understandings.
Thirdly, the Four Pillars help introduce Humanism a source of hope. They offer a path to address the biggest questions in life and find meaningful and fulfilling answers. We are only just beginning to understand that the path to love and joy, knowledge and understanding, is one we can all explore because we are all human.
1. Quote sourced from a page on the American Humanist Association website accessed, on 01/04/2016, at: http://americanhumanist.org/humanism/definitions_of_humanism
Lyndon Storey has a long-standing interest in philosophy and history. He has a PhD from Sydney University with a thesis on the Chinese philosopher Mencius and international relations theory. He is interested in exploring Humanism as a philosophy of life and has become involved in the Australian Humanist movement in recent years. He is the Humanist Chaplain at Canberra Hospital, and was also deeply involved in the creation of the ACT Humanist Society, becoming its inaugural Convenor.