My kids and I are part of a growing set of people who were born and raised without religion. This trend poses a challenge for those of us who consider ourselves not just atheists, but humanists. Having been born without a religion, only curiosity and pragmatic concern made humanism, as a school of inquiry, relevant to me. It did not come from a rejection of once-held beliefs. It had to offer more, standing on its own.
Humanism, as a philosophical movement has been around for centuries, at first growing out of religions, and then in the 20th century coming into its own as a school of philosophical inquiry quite apart from religions, often typified by the label “secular humanism.” All humanisms share some features, including foremost the placing of human values and needs at the center of our inquiry into the universe. This standpoint allowed Renaissance and Enlightenment thought to shift the focus of inquiry toward the natural world away from matters of interest to the Scholastics, namely ancient religious texts, toward more worldly concerns. The humanistic impulse likewise moderated the Catholic Church in pursuing its worldly affairs, for instance tempering the Conquistadors’ treatment of natives (somewhat) in Spanish colonized America, as well as prompting greater study and application of secular sources of knowledge including ancient Greek, pre-Christian texts.
Humanism flourished with the growth of secularism as a political movement, as states and churches separated their spheres of influence and power, and given the growth of pluralistic communities joined together not through religious hegemony, but rather under the banners of political ideals. It also proved influential and compelling for those who, driven by Enlightenment and scientific ideas, found themselves questioning and abandoning religions. Humanism offered, by the 20th century, a new path to inquiry and knowledge into matters of purely human concern. Questions about the good and of justice, and of philosophically-grounded means of living the good life, were being considered and debated with vigor and intelligence in the growing public sphere of secular humanist thought. Led by luminaries like Lamont, Huxley, Wilson and Kurtz, the 20th century saw secular humanism take its place among the humanist philosophies and schools that helped develop enduring and influential institutions that attracted the newly godless and the skeptical of religion alike. Students and leaders who were avowed secular humanists achieved some place in society, largely in scientific circles, but increasingly in the larger, social sphere.
Movements, schools, associations, and other group efforts to develop some meaning in philosophy seem to grow historically around certain inflection points: events that provoke some sort of significant change. We mark such points in the history of thought with labels such as “The Enlightenment” (spurred by the development and growing success of the scientific method, for instance) but these are merely convenient models of reality. The dawn of the 20th century saw world wars and their aftermaths provoking wide-scale questioning of the foundations of belief, inspired in part by the “problem of evil” raised by such horrors.
While religion, and especially religious fundamentalism, retain a tenacious grip on the world and find themselves at the center of some of the most prominent human events and tragedies, the fact is that the rate of religious belief is dropping rather dramatically. Ahead of us lies a generation that will have grown up without religious belief, or at least without firm affiliation. The rise of the “nones” should portend a new humanist renaissance, with those for whom the existence of a deity is not, at last, taken for granted. Yet at the beginning of the 21st century, humanism appears to be fractured. Internecine disputes, power struggles, and endless debates about the “proper” breadth and scope of humanism and who ought properly to be called a humanist seem to many to have supplanted the philosophical inquiry and public involvement that inspired the ethical culture movement and its humanist offshoots into both public and academic prominence, if not outright acceptance.
As with many apparent crises, we cannot judge the nature of humanism and its future fairly based upon our current impressions, mired as some of us are ourselves in such debates. It seems inevitable that out of the new generation of godless, growing up in the absence of affiliation, but with some fraction of members whose curiosity and intelligence will compel them to study and expound, humanism will carry on, even again flourish. It cannot do so if it is wedded to one movement, one school, one teacher. But it also cannot do so without preserving our history and awareness of its past and present. Humanism is built into many of our current institutions, even apart from the humanist movement, per se. our secular society preserves the environment (as long as we preserve it) for secular thought, including humanist inquiry in every domain of our conduct. Because history is written by “the winners” the past fractured, fractious nature of any evolving movement is often obscure to us now looking back. It is likely that in a hundred years the current state of humanism and its debates and struggles will also be poorly understood and relatively hidden, except perhaps to those who study blog comments.
What will prevent the growing godless generation from becoming interested in humanism, from studying and writing within its tradition, and from incorporating its ideas into their self-concepts is if it fails to be clearly relevant to them and their lives. The 21st century poses problems much greater than gods. While we hope never to see carnage on the scale of the WWI and WWII, looming ruptures in society to be wrought by our rapidly shifting technological and economic climate threaten to upend our long-held conceptions of the “good life” and thrust problems of the life well-lived to the side. A humanistic impulse that tempers our approach to these changes may do well to soften the blow. Focusing as we have in the past, through the humanistic lens that puts our shared humanity and the values that flow from that at the center of our conduct, both individual and societal, can help us preserve the values that emerged from humanism in its various forms, and help make humanism relevant for the younger godless and demonstrate its practical value. The most promising trends in the evolution of modern humanism are achieving this, inserting humanism into a variety of societal debates, public policies, as well as both academic and popular dialogue. The future is humanist, and we can embrace our variety and diversity, encourage both scholarly and popular inquiry into our history and values, and as others see our interest in the world at large and in addressing real issues, the philosophical roots of humanism will remain strong even as humanism itself evolves as it should.