Humanism in the Twenty-First Century

By Gogineni, Babu | The Humanist, November 2000 | Go to article overview
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Humanism in the Twenty-First Century

Gogineni, Babu, The Humanist

I believe when we refer to humanism we are thinking of that modern lifestance which is rooted in rational thinking and provides a way of understanding our universe and our place in it in naturalistic rather than supernatural or theistic terms. By humanism we mean a philosophy of life that offers all of us--both as individuals and as members of society--a secular ethic grounded in human values.

Our humanism is a living philosophy of freedom and democracy and, as humanists, we are deeply conscious of our common humanity. We are impelled by a sense of the moral worth of all human beings and are guided in our actions by compassionate reason and the realization of humankind's common destiny. As humanists we reject absolute authority and revealed wisdom; we promote free inquiry, which is the basis of the scientific spirit; and we defend intellectual integrity, refusing to let custom replace conscience. Responsible freedom of thought and action, as well as civilized law, are of paramount importance to us.

Usually this broad understanding lets me get on with my life. In social living the understanding of human dignity causes opposition to any trend that makes the human being an instrument to serve a "higher" purpose: God, nation, community, class, or creed. Reason and reasonableness serve as guides to tackling human problems--hence our attachment to them. Our skepticism (we are skeptics but not cynics) helps us look critically at our world and try to improve it for ourselves and others. As advocates of secularism we want secular societies--not merely the separation of religion and state but the more complex weaning away of people from religion, so that humanity can come into its own. Committed to ever expanding the frontiers of human freedom, we are vigilant that this enterprise doesn't encounter any hindrance. There's enough work for each of us for several generations.

But a few of us, as Marie Alena Castle of the Atheist Alliance has said, are victims of "paralysis by analysis." We go about discussing whether humanism is religious, secular, ethical, spiritual, transcendental, and so on. Other humanists come up with objections, saying that humanism is too anthropocentric--that we don't pay enough attention to other forms of life. There is also the claim that humanism, with its emphasis on reason and science, doesn't value the arts and has no appreciation of beauty. Still others object to humanism as being too harshly critical and unaccommodating of other lifestances and insensitive to alternative viewpoints. And some others exhort us to concentrate on the positive aspects of our work rather than fight religion.

Of course, as the philosophy of the human being, humanism tries to help us answer, as best we can, the great questions of life: Who are we? What are we? How did the universe come about? What is the good life? And so on. But are these questions religious? Are we religious when we try to answer them? Is humanism a religion because it tries to answer these questions?

There is no doubt that we are trying to answer some of the same questions that religion traditionally has attempted to answer, but philosophy is not theology and humanism is not religion. We should be clear in our mind about the essential difference: while we might be engaged by those same questions that religion was and is busy with, our interest is not in religion's eternal answers; for us what is permanent are these questions. It is the pursuit of truth that is most important to us, not its possession. Humanism is nothing if it is not a continuous interrogation about our universe and our place in it. It is true that we try to find out what this world is about, what we are doing here, and how best to lead a life that is both personally satisfying and socially useful. It is also true that we try to give meaning to our own lives because we see no set purpose other than that which we give to it.

Not long ago while dining with Parveen Darabi, an ex-Muslim and a humanist colleague from Iran, I choked when she told me that in Islam the reparation for the murder of a man is that the culprit pays the victim's family a compensation of either 100 camels or 200 cows; if a woman were killed, then the victim's family would receive either fifty camels or 100 cows.

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