Few can have missed the irony when the former Archbishop of Canterbury, arguably the most recognisable figurehead of religious England, recently urged the government to reconsider their plans to leave a coverage of humanism out of the new GCSE RS syllabus.
As a ‘liberal philosophy’, humanism is most assertively and unequivocally a non-religion, positioning many of its key tenets and beliefs in opposition to the typical hallmarks of religious doctrine. It advocates self-moralising and looks to science as a means of understanding the world, championing reason as the means to an ethical society. Rowan Williams, and the 27 other religious leaders who petitioned, argued that including humanism on the syllabus “would allow young people to study a more representative sample of major world views that are common in Britain today”. The relationship between humanism and religion is a sticky one. Gary McLelland, of Humanist Society Scotland, asserted that, “humanism is not anti-religious, it’s just non-religious. Some of our members (me being one of them) enjoy debate and discussion with religious people … others do not. Most humanists probably share a view that religious organisations have had too privileged a place in society, and therefore most humanists are also secularists.”
Adding another ‘ist’ to the equation probably doesn’t help forward the case of a philosophy which, for a lot of people, will draw a blank when related to a life practice. The word itself is suggestive of the philosophy’s affirmation of the notion of a human emphasis on social justice and equality.
This isn’t a far cry from atheism, and indeed, humanism as a philosophy is unusual in that its views can be held unwittingly, its boundaries uncertain. As the British Humanist Association website cheerfully asserts, “you might be a humanist without knowing it!” and it helpfully provides a multiple-choice quiz. Those who have recently discovered their humanist inclinations may then wonder how to implicate this philosophy into their day-to-day-life. However, aside from a renewed commitment to social equality and human rights, being a humanist is largely a method of definition rather than one of implementation: “Most people don’t realise that this approach to life links them with millions of others who share a similar approach”, McLelland remarks, “they simply think of themselves as ‘atheist’ or ‘non-religious’ … I think it’s important for people to have a positive understanding of their identity, and not to define themselves by what they aren’t.”
Humanism may seem a product of an increasingly sceptical society, but the history of the word stretches back to 1765 where it was used to refer to ‘a general love of humanity’ in a pamphlet. It took another couple of hundred years, however, for the philosophy to be inscribed as a declaration, in 1952.
According to McLelland, one of the key differences between humanism and religion is the former’s flexibility, as modernity charges forth into a spiritually and ethically unstable world: “I wouldn’t say humanism as a philosophy has changed”, he mused, “just how it expresses itself … Unlike many religious belief systems we have no sacred texts, therefore everything can be edited, scrapped or rewritten.”
McLelland isn’t speaking metaphorically; triennial gatherings subject the original humanist declaration – the Amsterdam Declaration of 1952 – to a red pen. The most recent was held in Oxford in 2014, and it updated the declaration to have a strong emphasis on freedom of thought and expression. This included a stipulation that, “there is no right not to be offended”, and that “freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not”.
In the light of increasing terrorist threats and anxieties over religious extremism, the declaration’s real-world antennae are clear.