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Essay on Philosophy: Reason and Common Humanity: Humanism

Updated on December 12, 2015


"Many are the wonders of the world, and none so wonderful as man." These words are part of the Sophocle's play Antigone, written during a time when humanism permeated much of Greek culture. With origins reaching far back into the depths of ancient civilization, humanism has and continues to transform critical expressions of human thought through the deliverance of clarity and meaning, and the utmost respect for basic human values. Because humanism has greatly expanded and taken on many 'new' forms over the years, its necessary for the sake of lucidity to explore its broadest, modern form-- Humanism with a capital 'H'. So, what exactly is Humanism? Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion (Humanism, Definitions). Humanism is a complex and dynamic life stance that is best understood by addressing its basic principles, tenets, and the accounts of important Humanists that have impacted its movement.

Humanism: Structure

Since Humanism is a many-faceted philosophy, it is important to recognize the basic elements of its position. This can be done by organizing their belief system into 10 basic principles and propositions (Because this declaration specifically accounts for secular humanism, not all Humanists agree with all its specific provisions, but they support its general purposes and direction). The first principle is its commitment to free inquiry. The importance of this principle is based on the premise that truth is more likely to be discovered when you are free to challenge and exchange opinions with others, applying the importance of interchange to science, everyday life, politics, economics, morality, and religion. It opposes dominance and control over the mind of man: attempts by ecclesiastical, political, ideological, or social institutions to restrict free thought. It recognizes civil liberties as a necessary component of free inquiry and supports free press, freedom of communication, the right to organize opposition parties and to join voluntary associations, and freedom to cultivate and publish the fruits of scientific, philosophical, artistic, literary, moral and religious freedom (Humanist Declaration). It also necessitates the tolerance for diversity of opinion and respect for the rights of individuals to express their beliefs without social and legal mandates or fear of punishment.

James Madison noted in a letter to Edward Livingston on July 10, 1822, "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together." When one religion or ideology becomes the dominant value of the state, it puts the minority in jeopardy. History confirms this statement. This is why Humanists reinforce the separation of church and state. This principle supports a pluralistic, open democratic society where all points of view can be heard. Efforts made by clerical authorities to impose closed values on an entire society-- whether moral, philosophical, political, educational, or social-- should not be permitted. This principle also applies that church properties should not partake in tax exemption; nor should tax revenues be used for the promotion or support of sectarian religious institutions. They also believe that prayer should not play an active part in public institutions, as it is a violation of this principle.

Humanists also believe in the ideal of freedom principle, defending freedom of conscience, freedom from religious subjugation, genuine political liberty, ethical democratical decision making, and respect for minority rights (Humanist Declaration). They also defend the three basic human rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They hold as their highest goal the sublunary happiness, freedom, and progress of all humankind, irrespective of nation, race, or religion. As Montesquieu wisely and tersely said, "Political liberty does not consist in an unlimited freedom. In government, that is, in societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will. Liberty is the right of doing whatever the laws permit, and if a citizen could do what they forbid he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow citizens would have the same power."

Humanists recognize the central role of morality in human life; ethics based on critical intelligence. Long before religionists seized morality and labeled its usage exclusively for themselves, ethics developed as an annex of human knowledge absent from it-- confirming that ethical judgements can be made outside of religion, and that human beings have the ability to develop and use practical reason and wisdom. Based on this principle, Humanists believe that ethical conduct should be judged by critical reason. Their goal is to strengthen independence and responsibility in all individuals based upon an understanding and appreciation for human behavior.

Humanists believe in the importance of moral education-- that it is the duty of the public to instruct children in the understanding of these values, rather than through the teachings of a particular sect. They also believe that the values of these particular sects should not be imposed upon children and young adults, as they have not yet developed the capacity for free thought and rational understanding. Efforts to impose exclusive values should be viewed as exploitation and indoctrination if an individual is not mature enough to evaluate these merits for themselves.

The principle of religious skepticism is founded upon the disbelief in supernatural claims. Humanists acknowledge the importance of religious experience and its aim to provide meaning for life, but do not believe it accounts for any supernatural evidence, and the traditional views of God and divinity. They reject reports of earthly miracles as well as the idea that God directly influences and establishes the outcome of individual lives, society (throughout the world), and the universe. Instead, Humanists affirm that we are a part and product of natural forces, capable of understanding these logical components by drawing upon the laws and facts of science. Knowing this, human beings, while conditioned by the past, possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are, within certain objective limits, the shapers of their own destiny (Corliss Lamont 14).

Humanists believe that humans have the potential to solve problems through the use of reason and science. With rational methods of inquiry, logic, and evidence we can develop knowledge and test claims to truth. Thomas Jefferson spoke wisely on this subject: "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Since human beings are subject to error, Humanists also believe that it is important to keep principles in check, affording corrections when needed-- science, and the application of it, is not unerring. Though reason may be limited and imperfect, Humanists contend that they can make a major contribution to human knowledge and can be of benefit to humankind (Humanist Declaration).

With that being said, Humanists also stand behind the principle of science and technology, asserting that the scientific method is the most reliable way to understand the world, and can bring great benefits to humankind. They attend to the natural, biological, social, and behavioral sciences as means of acquiring knowledge for this purpose. And, because the modern sciences have greatly expanded our knowledge of the universe, Humanists are opposed to censoring or limited scientific research without rational justification. They also understand that, although science is of great importance, there is also a need for cultural explorations in art, music, and literature-- and wish to achieve a balance between them.

Humanists substantiate the principle of evolution through the research and overwhelming findings of many sciences. The weight of evidence is hard to overlook and difficult to reject. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “Creationist critics often charge that evolution cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be viewed as a properly scientific subject at all. This claim is rhetorical nonsense.” Humanists also believe that creationist theories should not be taught in science classrooms, as it is hazardous both to academic freedom and to the integrity of the educational process; that it is a sham to mask an article of religious faith as a scientific truth and to inflict that doctrine on the scientific curriculum (Humanist Declaration).

Lastly, we have the Humanist's principle of education. They believe that education is crucial for building humane, free, and democratic societies; it should attempt to foster an intellectual capacity for critical thought in both individuals and communities. Realizing that the mass media has replaced schools as the primary disseminator of information and education, they contend that the mass media should increase their standards for the sake and preservation of society. "Without supporting the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, our options become dangerously limited." (Carl Sagan)


Humanism has emerged as one of the major systematic philosophies in the history of civilization. Through the need to test beliefs, commitment to the use of critical reason, concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity, constant search for objective truth, concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful, search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, and promotion of reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, the Humanist philosophy is about progress, and building a better world for ourselves and our children.


Magee, Bryan. The Story Of Philosophy. A Dorling Kindersley Book, 2001.

Antigone. Sophocles. 442 B.C.E.

Madison, James. Letter to Edward Livingston. July 10, 1822.

Gould, Steven Jay. 1995. Dinosaur in a Haystack.

Sagan, Carl. "Quotes on Humanism." Illinois Loop. 27 Jul. 2006 .

Lamont, Corliss. "The Philosophy of Humanism." Humanist Press. 1997: 14. Half-Moon Foundation, Inc. .

Definitions of Humanism. 2006. American Humanist Association. 27 Jul. 2006 .

A Secular Humanist Declaration. 1980. Council for Secular Humanism. 27 Jul. 2006


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