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The Story of Secular Humanism

As more and more people are turning away from religion in their lives, recent years have seen a surge in interest in secular humanism. This article gives an overview of what is secularism humanism, from its origins to what it does today.

Humanism is an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity. In many ways it can be seen as replacing many of the roles traditionally filled by religion - a positive, moral lifestyle that does not need any supernatural belief. Humanists recognise that moral values are founded on human nature and experience. Our decisions are based on the available evidence and our assessment of the outcomes of our actions, not on any dogma, superstition or sacred text. It requires us to think and be open-minded. There is no divine book of rules, no set way of doing things, no complicated ritual to observe. Humanism encompasses atheism and agnosticism but is an active and ethical philosophy far greater than either of these viewpoints.

Humanists believe in individual rights and freedoms, but believe that individual responsibility, social cooperation and mutual respect are just as important. Humanists believe that people can and will continue to find solutions to the world's problems so that quality of life can be improved for everyone. Humanists are positive, gaining inspiration from our lives, art and culture, and a rich natural world. Humanists believe that we have only one life; it is our responsibility to make it a good life, and to live it to the full.

In the beginning...

Protagoras

Protagoras

The origins of modern humanism can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance, although writings exhibiting the core principles of humanism can be found in early Roman and Greek philosophy, as well as Chinese, Indian and other cultures. This ubiquity is due to the fact that humanism is derived from our common human qualities and experiences.

Protagoras, a Greek philosopher and teacher who lived around the 5th century BCE, is best known for his statement that “Man is the measure of all things” as regards morality. Another thing that he was notorious for is his skepticism about the traditional gods and beliefs of Athens - for which he was exiled. Democritus, who coined the term “atom”, believed the universe to be totally physical, made of these small elemental particles, while Epicurus expanded on this to say that there are no gods to please and appease, and that we must strive to lead a happy, good life in this life since there was no other. In Rome, the poet Lucretius not only discarded the old gods but held them, and their religions, to be the source of much unhappiness, saying that “We, peopling the void air, make gods to whom we impute the ills we ought to bear.” Seneca famously said that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

Of course, many of these were voices in the wilderness, if I may sneakily borrow a phrase. However, Rome - more so than Greece - were very secular and practical in their attitude towards religion. If a religion or even a god offered something they could adopt and utilise they did. Throughout their empire there were lots of different religions that the Romans did nothing to suppress, at least until the Christian era.

The Dark Ages

f200burn1Christianity in Europe started small but grew rapidly, especially when emperor Constantine adopted it as his own faith. His successor however went one step further - he made it mandatory. This heralded a period when religious freedom was almost entirely wiped out from Europe. Christianity was spread by word or sword, until Europe was practically entirely Christian - at least nobody dared to openly say they were not. The inquisitions were originally created to root out any Jews who were only pretending to be Christians, but went on to oppress anyone who was deemed “heretical”, meaning anyone who was having and propounding thoughts that went against church teachings. Humanism did not have much opportunity to flourish openly in this period, which lasted all the way up to the renaissance. What education existed was in the hands of the church, which was mainly concerned with matters that dealt with religion.

The Renaissance

Renaissance Humanism is a period of history between the 14th and 16th centuries, when many ancient Greek and Roman writings were rediscovered and spread. The people of Europe were resisting the inquisition, though it would remain a force to be reckoned with for a long time yet. Starting from the various Italian city-states, where rich individuals patronised artists, philosophers, librarians and others, and set up an intellectual opposition to the church’s erstwhile monopoly on these subjects, there followed a massive effort to study and translate the early Roman and Greek works, where each new discovery would lead to a literary celebration of new-found intellectual wealth. Almost all classical literature today was unearthed in this period. Moreover, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, many philosophers and thinkers fled to Italy, where they further encouraged academic endeavour, especially in areas that had previously been neglected by Christian scholars.

Petrarch

Petrarch

In this period, people like Petrarch and Dante set the humanist wave in motion, applying these earlier humanist principles and concepts to the Christian beliefs of the day.

It should be pointed out that, in this era, most humanists were Christians, including several bishops, cardinals and even two popes (Nicholas V and Pius II). Of course it was still dangerous to be anything else for most of this period, but the humanists were primarily opposing what they considered to be the stuffiness, inflexibility and repression of the church, especially against intellectual freedom. By contrast, humanism offered a refreshing openness.

The Reformation

Although there was little in common between the Protestant reformers and Humanists, one important idea that they shared is that information should be widely available, to all people. The Protestants wanted the Bible in a language that is accessible to the common people, whereas the Catholic church kept it in Latin, which to a significant extent allowed them to expound the church’s interpretation of it to whoever wanted the educational level to read it. The arrival of the printing press made this wide availability of knowledge even more viable. However there the similarities ended. The Protestant reformers wanted this as a means of making the Bible accessible, any other materials were not important to them. One of the most important Humanist writers of this time, Erasmus, was critical of both Christian movements. Over time, this Protestant movement went into two very different directions, giving rise both to the ultra-fundamentalist churches and the more liberal ones.

Deism and the Enlightenment

Deism is often related to Humanism since the two were seen as complementing each other. The Deists believed in a creator god who set the ball rolling, so to speak, but took no further part in the development of the universe, the world, life or humanity. On the other hand, Humanism provided a philosophy where humans have to rely on themselves for the betterment of humanity, and not on any divinity or other supernatural entity. The combination of Deism and Humanism was very popular in the era of the Enlightenment, and was espoused by many of the American founding fathers and critical thinkers such as Thomas Paine.

Modern times

Certain modern humanist organisations have been around for quite a while. The British Humanist Association was founded in 1896, and the (British) National Secular Society in 1866. The International Humanist and Ethical Union was founded in 1952. The Malta Humanist Association is one of the younger associations, having been created in 2010. Formal Humanist organisations like this provide a variety of services to their members as well as promote a secular society, work against religious discrimination, and promote education, science, equal rights, and so on. Humanist ceremonies, such as baby namings, weddings and funerals are very popular since they are not constrained by the rigid structure of a church function, and can be tailored to suit the family or couple’s wishes. Humanist schools and universities are seen as encouraging independent critical thought.

In some countries, such as Norway, the Humanist organisation has over 83,000 members (2012), whereas Malta has a more modest 850. Since its founding in 2010, the Malta Humanist Association actively lobbied for the introduction of divorce, has campaigned for equal rights for LGBT persons, is working with the Education Ministry to introduce the teaching of universal Ethics as an alternative to Catholicism and is calling for a revision of a number of laws that are the cause of injustices in Malta. We are in contact with BHA trainers to train celebrants to perform Humanist ceremonies in Malta, as well as with the Ministry responsible  for Civil Rights to ensure equal access to related facilities and for state recognition of Humanist celebrants. We have organised a number of public talks, including on scientific subjects such as particle physics and the Higgs Boson, cosmology and evolution and human nature, as well as topics such as bioethics and the nature of morality. At the same time we have been trying to raise awareness of the growing number of people in Malta who adhere to no religion, and reminding authorities that they cannot operate on the assumption that everyone shares the same religious views. In fact, the divorce referendum has made it very clear that a large section of Maltese society take their own counsel on what is right and wrong, even when they remain nominally Catholic.