The history of humanism as an organised philosophical system goes back to basic ideas contained in the classical Greek philosophers such as the Stoics and Epicureans and the Chinese Confucians.
During the Renaissance, the years when the arts burgeoned in the 14th to the 18th centuries, many philosophers and thinkers in Christendom began to question the repressive superstitious dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, and with the rapid development of science during the Enlightenment in the 18th century a loosely connected movement formed calling themselves “Freethinkers”. They emphasised the importance of man and accepted deism, a belief in a distant uninterested god. It was a logical progression to naturalism from that point, which leaves God completely out. South Place Ethical Society was one congregation which was formed in London in 1793 among many others at the time. SPES became atheistic in 1888, and it is the only one of it’s kind still in existence today. Through the 19th century and into the 20th there was considerable development in the Freethought movement in the USA and western Europe.
In 1933 a respected American philosopher called Paul Kurtz organised the drafting of the first Humanist Manifesto which was the product of the thinking of 34 liberal humanists of that time. The words which best describe this post first world war manifesto are optimistic, anti-supernatural and self-centred. The thrust of the movement at that time was tolerant and socialist, it was prepared to allow what it considered to be basically good humankind to evolve, with some help, into a better state. Kurtz’ conclusion to this first manifesto encapsulates it’s spirit.
“Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its Achievement. He must set intelligence and will to the task” (Kurtz, Manifesto I, p 10).
In 1973 Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson drafted a new manifesto, the Humanist Manifesto II. This showed a marked difference in emphasis. A more militant tone is notable in this document, and a more specific involvement in public and political affairs. German National Socialism and the second world war had shown the depth of depravity to which humanity can sink. This made the optimism of the first manifesto completely inappropriate, and the movement began about this time to call itself secular humanism.
In 2000 Paul Kurtz once again produced an updated Manifesto and although the organisation Paul Kurtz heads is not considered definitive by organisations in Europe, the Manifesto 2000 seems to have been well received universally. There are some periodicals in the UK which disseminate Secular Humanism among them are The New Humanist, published by the Rationalist Press Association, and an online bulletin by the National Secular Society.
Anyone who needs to understand thoroughly the system of belief of this movement must carefully read the three manifestos, and remember that there are quite considerable individual variation in the thinking of individual members. It must be understood that the three manifestos are not in any sense a creed, there are in fact, some marked differences between them. They represent a progression of thought. Paul Kurtz emphasises that the manifesto, particularly Manifesto 2000, is a vision and ideal from which to work. This manifesto is much more of a political document and urges Secular Humanists to get involved in reforms to eradicate the effects of religion in government and establish more humanist policies. In England, Humanists are trying to achieve separation of Church and State and abolish the Church of England as the national church, with all that that entails. They want religious morning assemblies abolished.
Briefly the tenets of Secular Humanism are:-
1. Scientific Naturalism. This is the term the movement has coined, and it means an explanation of nature and existence based entirely on logic, reason and scientific discovery.
“Most world views accepted today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in character. They have their origins in ancient pre-urban, nomadic, and agricultural societies of the past, not in the modern industrial or postindustrial global information culture that is emerging. Scientific naturalism enables human beings to construct a coherent world view disentangled from metaphysics or theology and based on the sciences.” (Kurtz – Manifesto 2000)
2. Technology. Secular Humanists emphasise the importance of technology for the advancement of human wellbeing.
“Humanists …have emphasized the increased power over nature that scientific knowledge affords and how it can contribute immeasurably to human advancement and happiness.” (Kurtz Manifesto – 2000)
3. Ethics and Reason. It is the mind of man which judges whether something is ethical or not, and they deny the value of any religious moral code.
Secular humanists do not rely upon gods or other supernatural forces to solve their problems or provide guidance for their conduct. They rely instead upon the application of reason, the lessons of history, and personal experience to form an ethical/moral foundation (Secular Humanist Website “What is Secular Humanism” )
4. Commitment to Humanity as a Whole. Secular Humanists use words like ‘universal’, ‘global’ and ‘planetary’ to define their responsibility for human rights.
Is it a religion?
The Collins English Dictionary defines religion as “Belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny”
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as “Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal god entitled to obedience”
On these definitions Secular Humanism cannot be classed as a religion because it denies the existence of the supernatural or the divine or superhuman. There are however factors in secular humanism which give the appearance of a religion. They admit the human need for transcendence and for ceremony so there are Secular Humanists who act as clergy and officiate at weddings and funerals and baby naming ceremonies although nothing is included in these celebrations to suggest a god or supernatural power.
Tim LaHaye and David Noebel make the case in their book Mind Siege for including Secular Humanism as religion. Their definition is, I am sure, quite justified in the American political context, but in strict etymology, Secular Humanism should be classed as a quasi-religious secular movement. However, unlike many quasi religious movements and sects of today Secular Humanism has clearly defined and cohesive beliefs.
Why are people involved?
It is an interesting point about this movement, but in Britain there are not many active groups. There appear to be few organised groups who meet together on a regular basis. However, there are many people who seem to subscribe to this belief system. The list of people who have given their assent to the movement in the UK is very illustrious, including such people as Salmon Rushdie, Professor Sir A.J. Ayer, Claire Raynor, Professor Sir H.W. Kroto, Professor Bernard Crick, Lord Ritchie Calder, Baroness Barbara Wootton, among others. It is a belief system which appeals to those who have rejected God and who need to justify that intellectually. It is also important to note that there are many people who would not call themselves Secular Humanists who have accepted the same world view. After all it is logical that if you reject God and accept only human reasoning as the sole basis of truth, you will make man supremely important, and you will have a similar world view to others who have the same atheistic philosophy.
How can we witness to them?
There are some very admirable things which Secular Humanists believe. I personally feel that they have some things to teach us as committed Christians, and it would be a very positive strategy, when dealing with members of this group, to admit them. They have, at least in theory, an almost Christ like belief in the preciousness and dignity of each individual person, which is a very worthy emphasis. They have courage and insistence as a very small minority group, in dealing with what they see as wrong even at the highest level and they are not afraid to be a lone voice.
We need to be clear in our own thinking about certain things when dealing with all intellectual atheists, and here are some questions which we must have settled for ourselves.
1. Why do I believe in God?
This is the first challenge that a secularist will make to anyone discussing their beliefs. The only answer which is sustainable is “because I know Him”. Any attempt at intellectual proofs of the existence of God will take us into the realm of mental gymnastics and certainly strong disagreement. My personal view, which I believe to be the biblical one, is that God cannot be ‘known’ through the mind. We can know things about God with the mind, but God is known through the spirit. In John’s Gospel chapter 3 Jesus’ teaching is clear, only those “born of the Spirit” can see or enter the kingdom of God. Only when we have a personal relationship with Jesus and have a regenerate spirit can we have the assurance of Gods reality.
2. Why do I believe the Bible is authoritative?
Secular Humanism has no time for the Bible. To them it is one of many religious books which have caused confusion and harm over the years. Any quotation from it will be rejected and quite possible with some highly logical objections to its veracity, so it is important that in witnessing to Secular Humanists we know why we accept the Bible as our authority. We must also be very conscious however that the Holy Spirit uses the Scriptures themselves (not necessarily arguments about them) to deal with unregenerate people.
I well remember some years ago in a small village in the Andes in Peru being challenged on the subject of the existence of God by a very bright young atheist. Samuel was a student on vacation from San Marcos in Lima, the oldest University in the world. He was quite keen to take me on on the classical arguments.
I was led to cut short the discussion with a quotation from Hebrews 9:27 ” … it is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgement”.
I will always remember leaving that village at 5.30 the following morning on horseback in the pouring rain. Just as we turned onto the steep mountain track I saw Samuel standing under a tree (which afforded him little shelter) and he eagerly stepped forward as we approached and said “I have not been able to sleep all night as the words you quoted from the Bible have been going round in my head – What must I do to be saved?”
It was a privilege in that cold wet Andean dawn to bring him to the Saviour.
Mind Siege – LaHaye & Noebel
Concise Guide to Today’s Religions – McDowell & Stewart
Modern Humanism, Living Without Religion – Hobson & Jenkins