What does 'humanism' mean? Some writers are intent on seeing similarities between all the things that have ever been labelled 'humanist'...but just because the same word is used, it doesn't follow that they have anything else in common, or are on a continuum. Does so-called religious humanism have anything significant in common with the kind of humanism that non-religious humanists endorse?
Nigel: There is some confusion about what 'Humanism' means. What do you understand by the term?
Andrew: I think the Oxford Companion to the Mind has it right when it calls Humanism 'a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.' This contemporary and widely-shared meaning, which the word has had now for over half a century, takes it to denote a non-religious worldview entailing a belief in reason and evidence as the ways of understanding reality, in human welfare and fulfillment as the aim of morality, and in the capacity of humanity to make meaning and purpose for itself in the absence of any 'ultimate' meaning or purpose to the universe. This is the meaning of the word understood by the British Humanist Association and all the other national Humanist organisations in the world, and the meaning that is commonly understood in education in UK schools today. It is the Humanism described in books like Richard Norman's On Humanism (Routledge) or Jim Herrick's Humanism: An Introduction (RPA) and great books from the 1960s such as Hector Hawton's Humanist Revolution. Any confusion that there still is over the term, I think, is down to the word having had different uses at different points in the past, before it came to mean what it mainly means today, and this sometimes gives rise to misleading uses of the word.
Nigel: Could you give an example of what you take to be a misleading use of 'Humanism'?
Andrew: Sometimes the confusion is comparatively innocuous, arising because we are translating out of another language, for example, French or Italian where the word may be used to mean just a general spirit of humanitarianism. Sometimes there is confusion, however, because people attempt to project old meanings of the word into the contemporary context; so, for example, people may try to relate the 'humanism' of the Renaissance to the contemporary non-religious worldview and this does muddy the water as the two usages are not identical. More confusion has been created recently, with some religious people and groups trying to use the term to refer to themselves as well as to the non-religious. While in the United States evangelical Christians (and creationist organisations in particular) still routinely use 'Humanism' as a secular bogeyman in their sermons and public statements, in the UK we have seen some religious people trying to co-opt the term for their own use and construct what they call 'Christian humanism', for example. I don't know why this is, but it can have the negative effect of seeming to deny non-religious worldviews their own integrity and seems to be related quite often to religious apologism. In a sense it is a sort of victory for the positive Humanism of the last half century that more and more people wish to apply the word to themselves, but I think it is more coherent to call Christians, for example, 'Christians' rather than 'Christian humanists' and Humanists 'Humanists' rather than 'secular humanists'. If we try to call any and every philosophy that in some way has something to do with people 'humanist' then we make the concept itself vacuous. There is a recent book in the Teach Yourself series by the agnostic Mark Vernon which runs into this sort of difficulty. Thankfully, this is not a very prominent debate within Humanism and I think the common usage of 'Humanism' is still that of a non-religious philosophy.
Nigel: How does Humanism feature in Religious Education syllabuses? Does that mean it is a quasi-religion?
Andrew: Humanism in the sense I am using the term is on the school curriculum alongside religions in a number of European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Belgium and in the UK it has been a feature of Religious Education (RE) syllabuses in one way or another for decades. This certainly does not mean that Humanism is some sort of quasi-religion - the reason more and more RE syllabuses include teaching about Humanism is specifically because it is a good example, in the words of the UK government's National Framework for RE, of a 'secular worldview' and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales has said that it is essential for RE to include Humanism so that all children learn that there are many people for whom the answers to life's big questions are Humanist not religious ones. If this were not the case, the subject of RE would give a false impression of the reality of beliefs in the modern world. Teaching about Humanism in RE is a good way of introducing pupils to the beliefs and values of the non-religious in a way that makes them coherent and also allows comparison of religious views with Humanist ones.
Nigel: Thank you very much.