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What is humanism? Some thoughts from Humanist Society Scotland

December 11, 2023

As Scotland’s national humanist charity, we often find ourselves in discussion with people who don’t know what humanism is. We also find that, within our community, a lot of people repeat the same statement to us: “I was a humanist for years without realising it.” So, here’s a little explainer of how we understand humanism and the role of our organisation.

Humanism is a secular worldview. Many of our members, supporters, and allies would describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious. But the key aspect of humanism for us is secularism. We believe in everyone’s freedom to practice whatever religion or belief system they choose. But we don’t think that any one should dominate the life of a culture or state, enjoying special access or privilege (that includes atheism).

Humanism is broadly based on rationality. We think most of the issues we face as a society (whether at a local, national, or global level) can be solved by empirical observation and study. We don’t look for solutions by locking ourselves away with our thoughts or gods. Instead, we engage with the external world that we share with other human beings and animals. As far as possible, we use collectively understood rules and theories to make sense of that world.

Humanism is self-reflexive. Rationality also means questioning our own rules and theories, updating them when they turn out to be flawed. That might be because of the biases of the people who made them. This is particularly important as our movement is not, historically, a product of all human cultures. Rather, it is rooted in scientific and political traditions mostly forged by white, European males. (Although the wider history of freethought and atheism is very diverse, and this is something we look to celebrate and bring into focus as much as we can.)

Perhaps above all, humanism believes in human fulfilment. We believe that the life we have on Earth is unique and precious. Human beings are naturally compelled towards joy, creativity, and empathy with other people and animals.

Humanism is rooted in empathy and compassion. These are qualities for which there is no agreed “rational” explanation. But we believe all humans have the capacity to be kind and to imagine how other human beings must feel, without recourse to faith. Lots of the causes we campaign for are based on an empathetic engagement with other people’s lived experience. We believe people should be able to live full and free lives even if on terms radically different to our own.

Humanism strives for democracy and equality. At a political level, most of our campaigns attempt to realise full and equal human rights for all. We also want to ensure that the governments and systems that make laws for us and control aspects of our lives are elected through democratic consensus.

Perhaps above all, humanism believes in human fulfilment. We believe that the life we have on Earth is unique and precious. Human beings are naturally compelled towards joy, creativity, and empathy with other people and animals.

This is Humanist Society’s take on humanism. It’s specific to our organisation but based on other sources. You might like to read some of these, too. They include the Declaration of Modern Humanism, the Nordic Humanist Manifesto 2016,and the CEO of Humanists UK Andrew Copson’s writing and speaking on humanism.

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