I had occasion recently to review the Humanist Manifesto. I know it sounds like some sort of subversive political tract, but it is actually a set of fundamental philosophical principles of those who call themselves Humanists (or sometimes Secular Humanists). The Humanist movement was formalized over 70 years ago. Essentially, it is an effort to identify an ethical and moral philosophical position that does not rely on any supernatural authority for its justification. The Manifesto is now in its third iteration.
The Manifesto’s principles can be broken down into two components. One is a list of ethical and moral standards--how Humanists believe we should order and live our lives as members of the human community. The other component can be viewed as the beliefs that underlie and inform those standards.
I thought it might be interesting to conduct a little test. I have done my best to make a list of the ethical standards that are delineated in the manifesto but without including the beliefs that underlie each of those standards. My suggestion is that you read each of these and decide if they are consistent with your own ethical and moral standards.
- We have the ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
- As a fundamental lifestance, we strive to live life well and fully, but we recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.
- We seek to advance knowledge for the solution of problems and the development of beneficial technologies. To do that we rely primarily on observation, experimentation, and rational analysis--in short, the scientific method.
- We accept life as it is, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future and are drawn to and undaunted by those things yet to be known.
- We derive ethical values from our understanding of what is best for human welfare.
- We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
- We believe fulfillment in life emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We strive for our fullest possible development as individuals, and derive a deep sense of purpose from that effort, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death.
- We find meaning in human relationships. We strive for a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively and without resorting to violence. We seek peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
- We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability and support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
- We are committed to diversity and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties. We maintain that it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure and sustainable manner.
Well, how did you do? My guess is, pretty good. If you are a person of faith, you may have thought there were some “tricks.” How could you agree with a secularist credo? Well there were some tip-offs that you may have noticed. For example, item 3 mentions reliance on the scientific method and rational thought in furthering knowledge, and there was no mention of reliance on scripture, or other “revealed authority,” Item 5 refers to deriving ethical standards from our (meaning human) understanding of what is best, again not from religious authority. And in item 7 there is a reference to the “finality of death.” Even so, I suspect that you found the standards fairly attractive overall.
Now here is the full Manifesto, along with my comments on some of the secularist beliefs that underlie the standards:
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Note the Manifesto places no reliance on “supernaturalism.”
The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance. This is a subtle point but it states that our values and ideals will continue to change as knowledge evolves, whereas persons of faith may believe that ethical standards based on revealed truth may be immutable.
This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:
Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence. This one is pretty obvious: Humanists rely on science and rational analysis rather than on divine authority to advance knowledge.
Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known. This paragraph contains a number of problems for persons of faith. First, it makes reference to humans being an integral part of nature. Then there’s the reference to nature as “self-existing,” not existing by God’s grace. Finally, there is the statement that life is “all and enough.” It’s all there is.
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility. Here it states that ethical values are human in origin, not divine.
Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty. Note the reference to the finality of death.
Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature's resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature's integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner. Here the reference to a “secular society” is an affirmation of the need for a separation of church and state.
Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.
So what was my point in all of this? First, to share some of the moral and ethical standards of my fellow atheists. And, second, to point out that those standards are not that different from those of persons of faith, even though they are based on beliefs that are in many ways very different.
© 2013 John M. Phillips