Humanism Unmodified

By Doerr, Edd | The Humanist, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Humanism Unmodified


Doerr, Edd, The Humanist


Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. It is a complete approach to life, a living philosophy of moral development and action, of achievement and well-being, that goes beyond the academic study of the humanities, beyond philosophical abstractions, and beyond the humane sentiments of humanitarianism.

In familiar usage, the word humanism can mean different things to different people in different contexts. Dictionaries define it variously as the quality of being human, human nature, the study of the humanities, and learning in the liberal arts. The American Humanist Association distinguishes the lifestance of Humanism from other usages by uppercasing the word.

Throughout history the ideas of Humanism have made themselves felt in what they support as well as in what they oppose. We owe much to the thinkers of ancient traditions, the scientific and social reformers from the Renaissance forward, and those of progressive thought who, in the early twentieth century, shaped Humanism and founded the American Humanist Association. Heir to the whole of this legacy, the AHA advances a broad and inclusive lifestance that combines the emotional and the intellectual, the social and the individual, the affirmative and the critical into an empowering whole.

Various modifiers are often placed in front of a term in an attempt to distinguish and clarify. But this practice can convey the opposite by obfuscating and confusing. For example, the "naturalistic humanism" or "scientific humanism" in encyclopedias, or the "secular-humanism" demonized by the religious right, are redundant and unnecessary because the lifestance is by definition naturalistic, scientific, and secular. Using modifiers in front of the term can also suggest the absurd--that an opposite of scientific humanism exists in "unscientific humanism." They can also be misleading. All too often secular humanism is reduced to a sterile outlook consisting of little more than secularism slightly broadened by academic ethics. This kind of "hyphenated humanism" easily becomes more about the adjective than its referent.

Because of this, the American Humanist Association, the oldest and largest Humanist organization in North America, leaves Humanism unmodified, offering it in its fullness without qualification. The lifestance of Humanism is broader than can be expressed through its various modified forms. However, it isn't without boundaries. Humanism is a broad field of thought and action bordered on one side by the transcendental views of traditional religions and mythologies and on the other by atheism and secularism. …

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