Why Humanism?

Humanism - An Introduction
(abridged from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy)

Humanism can be defined as the tendency to emphasize human beings and their status, importance, powers, achievements, interests, or authority. Humanism has many different connotations, which depend largely on what it is being contrasted with. As well as denoting particular claims about humanity it can also denote the tendency to study humanity at all. Early Greek thought began by studying the cosmos as a whole and particular phenomena in it, such as the weather, earthquakes, etc., and then turned to questions of logic and metaphysics, but the so-called humanist movement arose in the fifth century BC when the Sophists and Socrates 'called philosophy down from heaven to earth', as Cicero later put it, by introducing social, political, and moral questions.

Humanism is also associated with the Renaissance, when it denoted a move away from God to man as the centre of interest. God still remained as creator and supreme authority - the Renaissance humanists were far from being atheists - but his activity was seen as less immediate, more as general control than as day-to-day interference, and this enabled a scientific outlook to arise which saw the universe as governed by general laws, albeit these were laid down by God. (A rather similar development had occurred earlier when the Stoics relied on the notion of an impersonal fate to provide the stability needed for a coherent description of the world.) One feature which made this specifically a humanist development was the emphasis it both presupposed and encouraged on the ability of people to find out about the universe by their own efforts, and more and more to control it.

It was when the conflict between science and religion arose in the nineteenth century, largely because of Darwinism's inconsistency with a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, that humanism acquired its modern association with atheism or agnosticism. Humanism, often called scientific humanism, then becomes associated with rationalism, not in its main philosophical senses but in that of an appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and the nature and destiny of man, and also as giving a grounding for morality; the term 'ethical humanism' is sometimes used in this last context, though the outlook can also be called scientific humanism in so far as it claims that science can provide a basis for morality. However, this appeal to reason in ethics should be distinguished from that common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and not without echoes in the twentieth, where reason is opposed not to religious authority but to feelings or emotions.

Some humanists in fact demur at the title 'rationalist' or 'scientific humanist' because, though they are quite willing to follow reason rather than authority or revelation (and for that reason are willing to call themselves humanists at all), they do not accept that reason can provide the basis for morality, but may appeal to feelings or emotions instead. Humanists may also reject the implication in the title 'scientific humanist' that science can at least ultimately answer all questions. (Naturalism; positivism.) Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.