Are You A Humanist?
The definition of “humanism”, like many “isms”, is hard to pin down. Every self-described humanist has their own idea of what constitutes humanism, and even stronger opinions about what humanism “is not”. What is striking though is that the definitions of humanism seem to stem from whatever the describer’s own interests are.
For instance, many humanists also identify as atheists, agnostics or secularists. It does not follow instantly that an atheist is a humanist, or that a humanist is agnostic, or that a secularist holds humanism as important. There are atheists out there that couldn’t care less about humanist ideals, and there are also Christian humanists. Some humanists, myself included, identify strongly with certain aspects of feminism, specifically the aspects which speak of equality. Other humanists think that feminism is an entity unto itself, and should be a separate set of interests outside of humanism. Environmentalism, sexual equality issues, human rights issues, all can feature as a part of a humanist’s makeup, but none are exclusively intertwined.
So how can we determine whether a person is a humanist or not? What are the defining characteristics within a person which makes them humanist or otherwise?
Let’s start with my own definition of humanism; Humanism is doing, promoting or saying whatever is necessary to help facilitate the continued survival and flourishing of the human species, either here on earth or elsewhere (yes this includes in the unlikely even we ever create a futuristic “space colony”). There are also aspects of my humanism which abhors needless violence (actually I hate violence in all forms, but can see that violence is sometimes necessary), and the taking advantage of others for personal gain. My humanism is not about promoting humans above all else, because there is much more to this picture than stripping the earth of its resources, and this is the realm of the Dominionists, who see the earth as nothing but a larder for humanity to plunder until the end times. (One could equally say that the capitalist model is focused on the production of “more” and the consequences be damned.)
In my personal understanding of humanism, the promotion of well-being and the flourishing of humankind, there are many aspects deemed by many to be outside the realm of humanism. For instance, if a practice or belief system is actively harmful to humans, or if that practice or belief system does things at the expense of the well-being of others, then this practice is in opposition to humanism. Any cultural practice which does more harm to its people than good is, in my eyes, at odds with humanism. For example, the Shi’a practice of self-flagellation with knife blades on chains on Ashura day may be helpful in the binding of people in a community, but is surely not a psychologically sound way to do so. In some western cities, the chained knives have been replaced with blood-drives, where the donation of blood is seen as a figurative replacement for the literal shedding of blood, and the community benefits directly as a result. What this does not do is create physical and psychological harm to the participants, and their group bonding is completed in a virtual bloodletting. The forward moving ideals of the Shi’a who donate blood instead of whipping themselves in to a blood-soaked frenzy can be seen as an example where the good of the people has overshadowed the apparent need for appeasing a cultural tradition.
As I alluded to earlier, humanism is “whatever is necessary for the continued survival and flourishing of the human species”, but this is only part of the picture. While there should be an economic and cultural focus on the betterment of cultures and societies worldwide, one aspect of human existence is often overlooked; The natural world is key to our survival, which makes sense since all we use to sustain ourselves comes from this planet. To overly simplify this statement, the environment of the planet, the climate, the weather and the atmosphere, combine to contribute to the life-sustaining planet we live on, and to forgo this aspect of human survival is to overlook the major challenge we have as a species. Human caused degradation to the planet’s resources is the number one threat to not only the myriad species we share this planet with, but ultimately the human species itself. A huge part of this aspect of humanism is the development and promotion of sustainable and renewable energy, in favour of the known destructiveness of burning coal, fracking or tar-sands extraction. It may seem removed from humanist issues, but from the perspective of continued degradation of the natural world, the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries have done more damage to the planet than any other, and must be held accountable for most anthropogenic induced climate change.The predictions are dire, but this doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Other aspects of humanism that are often excluded from the conversation are those surrounding sexual equality. This includes the many faces of feminist and LGBTI inclusion and equality, and is in no way exclusive of any group or individual. Why is this a crucial part of humanism? Because women make up more than 50% of the world’s population, and have been, and continue to be, seen as second class when compared to men for centuries. LGBTI equality and well-being must be included in order that the entire human experience is represented, and likewise, those in the LGBTI community have been downtrodden for various religious and cultural prejudices. If we are to uphold the rights of one sexuality or gender, then it follows in the inclusive spirit of humanism that none must be excluded, and any violence or prejudice against that group or individual must be addressed. It seems the fear of change and fear of past wrongs are responsible for any resistance against sexual equality, the fear that not only will people’s attitudes have to change, but that the realisation of historical wrongdoings may be too painful to deal with.
It does seem like a momentous undertaking; Equality for all of humanity, protection and sustaining the environment, and human rights across the board, but it’s not as fractured as you might think. The one thing to do is ask yourself: “Is my attitude, the way I interact, the social or cultural practice I’m undertaking harm humanity or individuals in any way?” If the answer is “yes” then the act is not humanist, it’s exclusivism, and only stands to make the person doing the exclusion feel better.
So, according to my definition of what constitutes humanism, where do you stand? And does it really matter? I’d say yes it does matter. A wider scope of vision is necessary to make change in the world, and while it may seem like “It’s all too big”, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. I’m not asking you to join a club, movement or clique, I am only writing this to make it clear that if you uphold one aspect of humanism, it only stands to reason that you should probably take into account the many other related aspects, and not just focus on humanity, even if the preservation and flourishing of humanity is the ultimate goal. Small changes made by a large group of people can influence change, and larger changes made by whole populations can create polar shifts in the way we live. One need only look at the problem of CFCs in the atmosphere, and how we tackled that as a global nation. If the world were to join together and agree that: a) we have created a world hostile to our own well-being, and b) that we have the power to right this wrong, then there would be no stopping us.