Definitions

“It would be great if all “isms” became “wasms” overnight…”

More: Premise, Inference, Conjecture, Critical Thinking, Knowing, Certainty, Scientific Certainty, Science, Scientism, Nihilism, Subjectivism, Relativism, Objectivism, Empirical Evidence, Deduction, Induction, Pseudoscience, Reason, The Senses, Reality, Faith, Belief, Authority, Testimonials, Intuition, Hypothesis, Theory, Law

Atheism

Defined: Most people who consider themselves atheists probably mean that they do not believe in the existence of the local god. For example, most people who call themselves atheists in a culture where the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (JCIG) dominates would mean, at the very least, that they deny that there is an Omnipotent and Omniscient Providential Personal Creator of the universe. On the other hand, people who believe in the JCIG would consider such denial tantamount to atheism. Yet, rejecting the JCIG is not to reject all gods. Nor is rejecting the JCIG the same as rejecting belief in an ultimate ground or principle of being and goodness, a being that explains both why there is something rather than nothing and why everything is as it is. Nor is rejection of the JCIG the same as rejecting belief in a realm of beings such as devas or spirits that are not limited by mortality and other human or animal frailties.

Some atheists may know of many gods and reject belief in the existence of all of them. Such a person might be called a polyatheist. (types of atheism)

Atheisms: Atheists do not deny that people have ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ experiences, where one feels God’s presence or a sense of the oneness and significance of everything in the universe. Nor do atheists deny that many people experience God’s presence in their everyday lives. Atheists deny that the brain states that result in such feelings and experiences have supernatural causes.

Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the “weak atheist” position; whereas believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as “strong atheism”.

Regarding people who have never been exposed to the concept of ‘god’: Whether they are ‘atheists’ or not is a matter of debate. Since you’re unlikely to meet anyone who has never encountered religion, it’s not a very important debate…

It is important, however, to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. “Weak atheism” is simple skepticism; disbelief in the existence of God. “Strong atheism” is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are “strong atheists”. There is a qualitative difference in the “strong” and “weak” positions; it’s not just a matter of degree.

Some atheists believe in the non-existence of all Gods; others limit their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.

“But isn’t disbelieving in God the same thing as believing he doesn’t exist?”

Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not.

Agnosticism

Agnosticism is the position of believing that knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God is impossible. It is often put forth as a middle ground between theism and atheism. Understood this way, agnosticism is skepticism regarding all things theological. The agnostic holds that human knowledge is limited to the natural world, that the mind is incapable of knowledge of the supernatural. Understood this way, an agnostic could also be a theist or an atheist. The former is called a fideist, one who believes in God purely on faith. The latter is sometimes accused by theists of having faith in the non-existence of God, but the accusation is absurd and the expression meaningless. The agnostic atheist simply finds no compelling reason to believe in God.

The term “agnosticism” was coined by Professor T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an agnostic as someone who disclaimed both (“strong”) atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether God exists. Some agnostics believe that we can never know.

In recent years, however, the term agnostic has also been used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against God is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue.

To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it is recommended that usage based on a belief that we cannot know whether God exists be qualified as “strict agnosticism” and usage based on the belief that we merely do not know yet be qualified as “empirical agnosticism”.

Words are slippery things, and language is inexact. Beware of assuming that you can work out someone’s philosophical point of view simply from the fact that she calls herself an atheist or an agnostic. For example, many people use agnosticism to mean what is referred to here as “weak atheism”, and use the word “atheism” only when referring to “strong atheism”.

Beware also that because the word “atheist” has so many shades of meaning, it is very difficult to generalize about atheists. About all you can say for sure is that atheists don’t believe in God. For example, it certainly isn’t the case that all atheists believe that science is the best way to find out about the universe.

“But isn’t it impossible to prove the non-existence of something?”

There are many counter-examples to such a statement. For example, it is quite simple to prove that there does not exist a prime number larger than all other prime numbers. Of course, this deals with well-defined objects obeying well-defined rules. Whether Gods or universes are similarly well-defined is a matter for debate.

However, assuming for the moment that the existence of a God is not provably impossible, there are still subtle reasons for assuming the non-existence of God. If we assume that something does not exist, it is always possible to show that this assumption is invalid by finding a single counter-example.

If on the other hand we assume that something does exist, and if the thing in question is not provably impossible, showing that the assumption is invalid may require an exhaustive search of all possible places where such a thing might be found, to show that it isn’t there. Such an exhaustive search is often impractical or impossible. There is no such problem with largest primes, because we can prove that they don’t exist.

Therefore it is generally accepted that we must assume things do not exist unless we have evidence that they do. Even theists follow this rule most of the time; they don’t believe in unicorns, even though they can’t conclusively prove that no unicorns exist anywhere.

To assume that God exists is to make an assumption which probably cannot be tested. We cannot make an exhaustive search of everywhere God might be to prove that he doesn’t exist anywhere. So the skeptical atheist assumes by default that God does not exist, since that is an assumption we can test.

Those who profess strong atheism usually do not claim that no sort of God exists; instead, they generally restrict their claims so as to cover varieties of God described by followers of various religions. So whilst it may be impossible to prove conclusively that no God exists, it may be possible to prove that (say) a God as described by a particular religious book does not exist. It may even be possible to prove that no God described by any present-day religion exists.

In practice, believing that no God described by any religion exists is very close to believing that no God exists. However, it is sufficiently different that counter-arguments based on the impossibility of disproving every kind of God are not really applicable.

“But what if God is essentially non-detectable?”

If God interacts with our universe in any way, the effects of his interaction must have some physical manifestation. Hence his interaction with our universe must be in principle detectable.

If God is essentially non-detectable, it must therefore be the case that he does not interact with our universe in any way. Many atheists would argue that if God does not interact with our universe at all, it is of no importance whether he exists or not. A thing which cannot even be detected in principle does not logically exist.

Of course, it could be that God is detectable in principle, and that we merely cannot detect him in practice. However, if the Bible is to be believed, God was easily detectable by the Israelites. Surely he should still be detectable today? Why has the situation changed?

Note that I am not demanding that God interact in a scientifically verifiable, physical way. I might potentially receive some revelation, some direct experience of God. An experience like that would be incommunicable, and not subject to scientific verification — but it would nevertheless be as compelling as any evidence can be.

But whether by direct revelation or by observation, it must surely be possible to perceive some effect caused by God’s presence; otherwise, how can I distinguish him from all the other things that don’t exist?

Freethinker

A person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists.

No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth.

Deism

Deism is a rejection of revealed religion or religion by the testimony of others, the foundation of Christianity. Theology can be divided into two classes: natural, which seeks knowledge of God through reason, and revealed, which requires faith in revelation (this is according to the Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, some theologians do not believe in the natural class).  Deists reject belief in anyone else’s accounts of ‘talking to god’ or being revealed visions or revelations of any sort from a god or gods. In Deism, knowledge is held more important than belief, reason more important than faith, revelations are ignored, and nothing is sacred enough to escape the light of inquiry and doubt. Meaning critiques of the Bible, Jesus, god theories, miracles and revelation are fair game and a tenet of Deism. The Deistic god is a god of nature that is not at all involved in this world or human affairs. Impersonal.

see deism.com, and the Church/State page

Buddhism

Buddhists and God

What’s the Deal with the Dalai Lama? by Mikey Z source

Here’s the scene: I’m in my local health food store when my eyes are drawn to the cover of the latest issue of New York Yoga magazine. Smiling at me is none other than the Dalai Lama. Inside, “His Holiness” spouts boilerplate platitudes like, “If we do love our enemies, we shall cease to have enemies, and wouldn’t the world be a much happier place if we could all be friends?” Let’s be honest here, the same exact line, if spoken by a ten-year-old child, might elicit a patronizing smile.

Also in this article, the Tibetan leader was asked how he was able to “deal with the Chinese who had taken so much from his people.” His response was pure Dalai: “We may be different on the outside; but on the inside, we are all the same. We all seek happiness and an end to suffering.”

Here’s what I’m wondering: Who, exactly, designated the Dalai Lama as a conduit of wisdom… and why? And while we’re at it, let’s put to rest the myth that the Dalai Lama is an innocent bystander and his fellow Tibetans are all pacifists.

We can start by going way back to a Jan. 25, 1997, piece in the Chicago Tribune entitled “The CIA’s secret war in Tibet.” This uncommon bit of corporate media candor declared that, “Little about the CIA’s skullduggery in the Himalayas is a real secret anymore except maybe to the U.S. taxpayers who bankrolled it.” Make that: U.S. taxpayers and the entertainment world’s financial elite who are suckered in by the Dalai Lama’s little boy grin, esoteric lectures, and pacific persona.

(Side note: We can also put to the rest the myth that the public would wake up if the corporate media published the truth. It’s been nearly a decade since the Tribune article and Mr. Lama is more popular than ever.)

Obscured by the predominantly superficial media coverage is the reality that, before the Chinese invasion, “His Holiness” ruled over a harsh feudal serfdom with the proverbial iron fist. As reported by Gary Wilson in Workers World, “While most of the population lived in extreme poverty, the Dalai Lama lived richly in the 1,000-room, 14-story Potala Palace.” Even the omnipresent holy man himself admits to owning slaves during his reign.

In 1959, when the Dalai Lama packed up his riches and escaped into neighboring India, the CIA set up and trained an army of Tibetan contras. Potential recruits were asked only one, rather un-Zen-like question by Air Force pilots working with the Agency: “Do you want to kill Chinese?” The guerrillas were actually trained on U.S. soil and then air-dropped into Tibet by what the Tribune calls, “American pilots who would later carry out operations in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.”

Yeah, those guys.

So, how did His Holiness and His Posse manage such paradoxical behavior? Lend an ear to what Jamyang Norbu, a prominent Tibetan intellectual, informed the Tribune: “For years, the only way Tibetans could get a hearing in the world’s capitals was to emphasize our spirituality and helplessness. Tibetans who pick up rifles don’t fit into the romantic image we’ve built up in the Westerner’s heads.”

And it works. If you don’t believe me, ask R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe. He believes the Tibetans have “done it peacefully, without raising swords. No matter what hardship these people were under, they would not raise a hand against the enemy.”

Wilson’s characterization in Workers World presents a slightly different perspective: “The prevalence of anti-communism as a near religion in the United States has made it easy to sell slave masters as humanitarians. The Dalai Lama is not much different from the former slave owners of the Confederate South.”

While the Chicago Tribune claimed that the U. S. government’s support for Tibet’s spiritual contras ended in the 1970s, former CIA agent Ralph McGehee told Workers World that the Agency was “a prime mover behind the … 1990s campaign promoting the cause of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence.” McGehee cites the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, a businessman named Gyalo Thondup, as the key player in this operation.

“Violence is unpredictable,” the Dalai Lama announced last year, before adding: “In the case of Afghanistan, perhaps there’s something positive. In Iraq, it’s too early to tell.” He confessed to having conflicted feelings over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, before declaring, “history would decide.”

Uh… hello Dalai, but most of us have already decided.

Skepticism

The Greek word skeptikoi means seekers or inquirers. Socrates, who claimed that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, frequently said “Skepteon,” meaning we must investigate this. The Pyrrhonists sought the truth, even if most of the time that meant that they sought contrary arguments to dogmatic positions held by other philosophers, such as the Stoics or Epicureans. On those issues where argument and counterargument equaled one another, the Pyrrhonists held that we should suspend judgment. They apparently found that such a stance fit well with their desired goal of peace of mind (ataraxia). For, it is the dogmatist who gets agitated when he doesn’t possess the good or truth he knows he should have, or when others refuse to accept what he knows is the truth.

Philosophical Skepticism is a critical attitude which systematically questions the notion that absolute knowledge and certainty are possible, either in general or in particular fields. Philosophical Skepticism is opposed to philosophical dogmatism, which maintains that a certain set of positive statements are authoritative, absolutely certain and true.

Philosophical Skepticism should be distinguished from ordinary skepticism, where doubts are raised against certain beliefs or types of beliefs because the evidence for the particular belief or type of belief is weak or lacking. Ordinary skeptics are not credulous or gullible. They don’t take things on trust, but must see the evidence before believing. Ordinary skeptics doubt the miraculous claims of religions, the claims of alien abductions, the claims of psychoanalysis, etc. But they do not necessarily doubt that certainty or knowledge is possible. Nor do they doubt these things because of systematic arguments that undermine all knowledge claims.

Throughout the history of philosophy, sensory Skeptics have argued that we perceive only things as they appear to us and cannot know what, if anything, causes those appearances. Thus, if there is sense knowledge, it is always personal, immediate and mutable. Any inferences from appearances are subject to error and we are without a method to know whether the inferences or judgments we make are correct. However, these arguments did not prevent many Skeptics from putting forth a defense of probabilism with regard to empirical knowledge. Nor has sensory Skepticism hindered dogmatists from seeking absolute truth elsewhere, namely in Reason or Logic.

Perhaps the broadest criticism of the possibility of absolute truth is to be found in the Skeptic’s argument  regarding the criterion of truth. Any criterion used to judge the truth of a claim can be challenged because a further criterion is needed by which to judge the present criterion, and so on ad infinitum. This argument did not deter philosophers such as Plato and Descartes from claiming to have found an absolutely impeccable criterion of truth. While most Skeptics would reject the notion that such criteria are what their advocates claim them to be, most would probably accept the arguments of St. Augustine and others that there are absolutely certain claims, but that these are matters of Logic or definition and have nothing to do with establishing the certainty of any claim that goes beyond immediate perception.

Many Skeptics would agree that Logic is an area where dogmatism is justified. The principle of contradiction, that a statement is either true or false but not both, is accepted by many Skeptics as true but empty. That is, such a truth reveals nothing about the world of experience. In addition to formal truths, such as the principle of contradiction or the principle of identity, most Skeptics would probably accept that there are semantic truths, i.e., some statements that are true by definition. “A bachelor is an unmarried male,” is true and does provide information about the world of experience, namely, how a certain word is used in a certain language. But the statement is a matter of convention, not discovery.

Philosophical Skepticism was never put forth as a literal guide for practical living. The earliest Skeptics did not allow vicious dogs to bite them on the ground that their senses might be deceiving them. Even if it cannot be proved with absolute certainty that any phenomenal object is real, experience is a good guide as to the probability of what will happen if one allows a vicious dog to tear into one’s leg. Skeptics don’t deny the reality of sense perception. Dog bites hurt and honey tastes sweet. What the Skeptics deny is that beyond the appearances of the biting dog there is a “dog essence” or that the experience of sweetness when tasting honey justifies inferring that “sweetness” is part of the essence of honey. Skeptics don’t deny appearances and subjective knowledge. They don’t deny that one bitten by a dog feels real pain and knows he or she is in pain. Skeptics deny that it is justifiable to infer from subjective experience to indubitable propositions about a reality beyond those appearances. Any inference to “objective reality,” a reality that transcends immediate experience, should be couched in probabilisitc language at best.

Metaphysical Naturalism

Metaphysical Naturalism, a term coined by philosophers for any worldview that holds that nature is all there is. Philosophers call this a “closed” system because nothing more is needed to explain why it exists or why it is the way it is: it just is. All explanations for any phenomenon or event ultimately end up at the same place: the nature of the universe. So there is no need to appeal to gods or higher powers or supernatural realms or forces, and we don’t believe there are any such things. The evidence points to that and nothing else.

Naturalism

Belief that all objects, events, and and values can be wholly explained in terms of factual and/or causal claims about the world, without reference to supernatural powers or authority. Prominent naturalists include Clifford and Dewey. Quine proposed a naturalistic epistemology, understood as empirical study of the origins and uses of sensory information.

Recommended Reading: Philosophical Naturalism, ed. by Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, and Howard K. Wettstein (Notre Dame, 1995); Naturalism, A Critical Analysis, ed. by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Routledge, 2000); Naturalism and Ethics, ed. by Dagfinn Follesdal (Garland, 2000); Robert F. Almeder, Harmless Naturalism: The Limits of Science and the Nature of Philosophy (Open Court, 1998); Michael Rea, World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism (Oxford, 2002); Penelope Maddy, Naturalism in Mathematics (Oxford, 2000); , ed. by James Beilby (Cornell, 2002); David Ray Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (SUNY, 2000); and Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Routledge, 2000).

Also see SEP, ISM, DPM, Steven Darwall, and EB. ColE, Wesley Elsberry, Timothy Shanahan, Alvin Plantinga, and noesis.

Methodological Naturalism

A philosophical tenet that, within scientific inquiry, one can only use naturalistic explanation – i.e. one’s explanations must not presuppose the existence of supernatural forces and entities. Note that methodological naturalism does not hold that such entities or forces do not exist, but merely that one cannot use them in scientific explanation. Methodological naturalism is often considered to be an implied working rule of all scientific research and logically entails neither philosophical naturalism nor atheism, though some would argue that it implies such a connection.

Naturalism

tenets

Materialism

Philosophical materialism (physicalism) is the metaphysical view that there is only one substance in the universe and that substance is physical, empirical or material. Materialists believe that spiritual substance does not exist. Paranormal, supernatural or occult phenomena are either delusions or reducible to physical forces.

Materialists are not necessarily atheists, nor do they deny the reality of such things as love or justice, beauty or goodness.

Materialism, not the love of material things, holds that nothing exists but natural or worldly phenomena. Nature is viewed as primary and thought as a function of nature—a realist view. Idealism holds that nature or reality is mental and not material—a relativist view (of which there are many strains).

Rationalism

Rationalism is a general term applied to a system of opinions deduced from reason as distinct from supernatural revelation, and is so wide in its meaning as to embrace various schools of thought, such as Agnosticism, Freethinking, Secularism, Ethicalism, etc. The word “agnostic” (derived from the Greek agnostos, unknown, or not knowing) was coined by the late Professor T.H. Huxley, as being descriptive of his own feelings and opinions upon the religious questions of the day, in contradistinction to the “Gnosticism” of theologians, who pretend to a certain knowledge of that which is unknown to, and unknowable by, human faculties. He said: “There are many topics about which I know nothing, and which … are out of the reach of my faculties;” he therefore called himself an Agnostic. Again: “Agnosticism is not a creed, but a method, having a single principle of great antiquity. It simply means that a man shall not say that he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe … Agnosticism says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.”

As every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, which, as Huxley says, “is a fundamental axiom of modern science, as well as a maxim of great antiquity,” some form of words, expressing concisely what man may have sufficient grounds for saying that he knows (as distinctive from a creed or belief), is necessary for the education of the young, and for inquiring adults; a form of words demonstrating those universal truths, discoveries of science, which may be held and taught as being in accordance with reason, and capable of demonstration; the mind being still free, open to conviction, and to further developments of science. As the Agnostic method or principle would limit us, if strictly adhered to, to absolute knowledge, the term Rationalism is preferred as being broader, and as admitting relative and deductive knowledge, and some freedom of belief; for there are many things which, although we may not be able to say that we know, yet that we might have good grounds for saying that we believed, and so convincing as to be accepted as deducible facts. These “will vary,” said Huxley, “according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science, for that which is unproven to-day may be proven to-morrow.” Agnosticism may be said to be the method or principle upon which Rationalism works.

The aim of Rationalism is knowledge and truth — discarding all supernatural revelation as superstition; morality — as being necessary for the organization of social life, not for the sake of a reward hereafter; and universal happiness and prosperity — not misery, wretchedness, and poverty to please an imaginary deity, the extent of whose pleasure is measured by the depth of misery into which the object of his supposed creation is thrown. Its guiding stars are love and sympathy. The Rationalist, having nothing to fear from the vengeance of a vindictive and jealous deity, can have no desire to be held in the esteem of his fellows as “god-fearing “or” religious,” aspiring only to goodness and truth between man and man; knowing that happiness is the only good, that it is to be obtained now, in this world, and not sought for in an imaginary future, of which he has absolutely no knowledge. The term “religious” is a vague one, and with many is held as being synonymous with goodness. What is considered “religious” by one may be “irreligious” to another; the degree of religiousness being measured by the amount of outward support given to some particular form of theology; so that, to the adherents of a particular creed, one whose opinions would lead him to believe that all theological theories and systems are erroneous and misleading would be considered irreligious.”

What is rationalism: Rationalism is the belief that the world we live in can be understood by the use of reason. The Rationalist Press Association argues for a rational approach to human problems, proposes reasoned alternatives to religious dogmas, aims to advance a secular system of education and wishes to defend freedom of thought and civil liberties.

Reason is a tool for solving problems, creating strategies, debunking nonsense and undermining dogmas. However, feeling, compassion and imagination are also important in driving and enriching our actions and thoughts. The strength of reason is that it is powerful tool of understanding and a means of arriving at rational decisions. Human choices are not always made with complete rationality, but it is preferable to aim for the reasonable than to choose without thought.

The scientific process is powered by the use of reason. Much progress has come through scientific understanding, although the application of science, such as atomic explosions or genetic modification, can sometimes be dangerous. Imagination and empathy enable us to envisage the outcome of the application of science. The arts too can enlarge our concept of being human.

Rationalists have questioned the claims of religious thinkers and religious institutions. They may be agnostics or atheists, but they doubt the claims of the supernatural on the grounds of lack of reasonable evidence. The attitudes and injunctions of religions seem unconvincing when examined in the light of reason.

Rationalists envisage that the use of reason will lead to human progress – even if not in a steady upward course. Rationalists reckon that the sum of human progress may be increased by the careful and consistent use of reason.

Some Principles of Rationalism

by Charles Schisler

We recognize we must master our own destiny, using our unique powers of reason and the scientific method to solve problems, and we vigorously oppose all efforts to denigrate human intelligence.

We encourage discrimination between fact and legend, truth and propaganda. We abhor the extinguishment of natural curiosities of children exploring all aspects of the exciting Universe. We praise growing curiosity-the essence of humanistic atheism.

We celebrate rugged individualism, with character immune from irrational whims of the group, the drug peddler, or the miracle remedy of a con-artist.

We must consider the optimum population of families, communities, nation and planet. Few tragedies are greater than giving birth to more unwanted, destitute children.

We believe it essential to preserve the richly diversified balance of nature’s species and to carefully manage earth’s precious environment.

We reject arbitrary parochial loyalties or hates based on the accidental-nationality, race, creed, class, religion or ethnicity-rather than the essential: each individual’s values.

We realize that pompous nonsense can be annihilated by uncensored laughter and that acid wit can erode foundations of majestic memorials to enshrined error.

Humanism

The word “humanism” has a number of meanings, and because authors and speakers often don’t clarify which meaning they intend, those trying to explain humanism can easily become a source of confusion. Fortunately, each meaning of the word constitutes a different type of humanism — the different types being easily separated and defined by the use of appropriate adjectives. So, let me summarize the different varieties of humanism in this way.

Literary Humanism is a devotion to the humanities or literary culture.

Renaissance Humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.

Cultural Humanism is the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved throughout European history, and now constitutes a basic part of the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics, and law.

Philosophical Humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest. Sub-categories of this type include Christian Humanism and Modern Humanism.

Christian Humanism is defined by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as “a philosophy advocating the self-fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles.” This more human-oriented faith is largely a product of the Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism.

Modern Humanism, also called Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism and Democratic Humanism is defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories.

Secular Humanism is an outgrowth of 18th century enlightenment rationalism and 19th century freethought. Many secular groups, such as the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism and the American Rationalist Federation, and many otherwise unaffiliated academic philosophers and scientists, advocate this philosophy.

Religious Humanism emerged out of Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, and Universalism. Today, many Unitarian- Universalist congregations and all Ethical Culture societies describe themselves as humanist in the modern sense.

The most critical irony in dealing with Modern Humanism is the inability of its advocates to agree on whether or not this worldview is religious. Those who see it as philosophy are the Secular Humanists while those who see it as religion are Religious Humanists. This dispute has been going on since the early years of this century when the secular and religious traditions converged and brought Modern Humanism into existence.

Secular and Religious Humanists both share the same worldview and the same basic principles. This is made evident by the fact that both Secular and Religious Humanists were among the signers of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933 and Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. From the standpoint of philosophy alone, there is no difference between the two. It is only in the definition of religion and in the practice of the philosophy that Religious and Secular Humanists effectively disagree.

The definition of religion used by Religious Humanists is a functional one. Religion is that which serves the personal and social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical world view.

To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life’s harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose.

To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities (such as Ethical Culture societies and many Unitarian-Universalist churches) offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for the moral education of children, special holidays shared with like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth), an opportunity for affirmation of one’s philosophy of life, and a historical context for one’s ideas.

Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion (taken in the functional sense I just detailed). They do not feel that one should have to make a choice between meeting these needs in a traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all. Individuals who cannot feel at home in traditional religion should be able to find a home in non-traditional religion.

I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition of religion didn’t amount to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.

Religious Humanists, in realizing this, make sure that doctrine is never allowed to subvert the higher purpose of meeting human needs in the here and now. This is why Humanist child welcoming ceremonies are geared to the community and Humanist wedding services are tailored to the specialized needs of the wedding couple. This is why Humanist memorial services focus, not on saving the soul of the dear departed, but on serving the survivors by giving them a memorable experience related to how the deceased was in life. This is why Humanists don’t proselytize people on their death beds. They find it better to allow them to die as they have lived, undisturbed by the agendas of others.

Finally, Religious Humanism is “faith in action.” In his essay “The Faith of a Humanist,” UU Minister Kenneth Phifer declares —

Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us.

Now, while Secular Humanists may agree with much of what religious Humanists do, they deny that this activity is properly called “religious.” This isn’t a mere semantic debate. Secular Humanists maintain that there is so much in religion deserving of criticism that the good name of Humanism should not be tainted by connection with it.

Secular Humanists often refer to Unitarian Universalists as “Humanists not yet out of the church habit.” But Unitarian- Universalists sometimes counter that a secular Humanist is simply an “unchurched Unitarian.”

Once we leave the areas of confusion, it is possible to explain, in straightforward terms, exactly what the modern Humanist philosophy is about. It is easy to summarize the basic ideas held in common by both Religious and Secular Humanists. These ideas are as follows:

  • Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who think for themselves. There is no area of thought that a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.
  • Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means for comprehending reality. Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge.
  • Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness.
  • Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world. These ideas, after they have been assessed rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to work, often as alternate approaches for solving problems.
  • Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now. Humanists regard human values as making sense only in the context of human life rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death.
  • Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems–for both the individual and society–and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.
  • Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need for careful consideration of immediate and future consequences in moral decision making.
  • Humanism is in tune with the science of today. Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable “soul,” and that human beings have certain built-in needs that effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value system.
  • Humanism is in tune with today’s enlightened social thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties, human rights, church-state separation, the extension of participatory democracy not only in government but in the workplace and education, an expansion of global consciousness and exchange of products and ideas internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving social problems, an approach that allows for the testing of new alternatives.
  • Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment.
  • Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, Humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.

also see: What Is Secular Humanism

 

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