A Brief History
Humanism started as an intellectual movement that formed the inspiration and basis of Renaissance culture (beginning in Europe in the 1500s and spreading to America in the 1700s). Humanist scholars based their program upon the rediscovery and study of classical Greek and Roman authors (popularized by the invention of the printing press), which had been initiated in Italy by such men as Petrarch and Boccaccio. They turned away from the exclusively theological bias of their medieval forerunners and concentrated instead upon human achievement in the arts and sciences. Erasmus (1466-1536) was the greatest Northern European humanist. (He opposed dogmatism after having written the first English translation of the New Testament.) For him and the other Renaissance thinkers humanism by no means implied rejection of Christianity. However, the 20th century humanist philosophical viewpoint is based on a policy of atheism, holding religion to be an outmoded superstition unworthy of serious consideration. – New Webster’s Universal Encyclopedia, 1987
Perspectives on Humanism
Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication. We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful. We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.
Most important of all, perhaps, we infidels do not need any machinery of reinforcement. We are those who Blaise Pascal took into account when he wrote to the one who says, “I am so made that I cannot believe.” – Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007)
Humanists believe in the beauty of love and the love of beauty. All the many-sided possibilities for good in human living the Humanist would weave into a sustained pattern of happiness under the guidance of reason. Exuberance is the watchword of the Humanist ethic. – Corliss Lamont
I believe in a wall between church and state so high that no one can climb over it. When religion controls government, political liberty dies; and when government controls religion, religious liberty perishes.
Every American has the constitutional right not to be taxed or have his tax money expended for the establishment of religion. For too long the issue of government aid to church related organizations has been a divisive force in our society and in the Congress. It has erected communication barriers among our religions and fostered intolerance. – Sam Ervin, Quotations from Chairman Sam: The Wit and Wisdom of Senator Sam Ervin (1973)
[Humanism encompasses] systems of thought stressing rational enquiry and human experience over abstract theorizing or orthodox religion. More broadly, humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. – The Oxford English Reference Dictionary, © Oxford University Press 1996