Philosophy and Secular Humanism

By | July 23, 2011

Question: Does the study of philosophy result in a secular humanistic outlook?

Sometimes it does, as a good number of humanists came from a formal study of philosophy. But sometimes it does not; many other students of philosophy do not adopt “humanism” as their philosophy of life. Let us consider a summary of the relationship between philosophy (specific areas) and humanism.

I. A view of Philosophy (vis-a-vis Humanism)

First, consider three areas of philosophy, which many students encounter early in their philosophical training:

• History and survey of different philosophical traditions;

• Ethics (moral philosophy);

• Critical, analytical philosophy.

When we study the history of philosophy and survey different philosophical traditions, we learn that there are (and have been) many views about our world and human’s place in that world. So we are less inclined to accept unquestioningly any single philosophical, political, or religious view as the absolute truth. Many of us develop a healthy skepticism regarding all claims about universal, absolute truth.

When we study ethics we learn that people can have an adequate moral philosophy that is independent of all religious doctrines and belief in a deity. We learn that authoritarian, Biblical-based morality is only one alternative among different ethical orientations, and that from a rational perspective this alternative is very problematic, although it may be emotionally reassuring for some believers.

In the area of analytical, critical philosophy, we try to clarify our terms and concepts. We practice close analysis and logical evaluation of our presuppositions and beliefs. We distinguish between opinion and knowledge and, as much as is practical, we try to base our beliefs on observation, experience, scientific fact and rational inference from established truths. In this context, traditional, venerable religious claims about the world and human existence do not enjoy a privileged status and are likely to be rejected as lacking any scientific or rational grounds.

II. A Brief Statement of Humanism

Some of us who call ourselves “humanists” accept the following as characterizing important aspects of humanism.

Humanists focus on existence within a natural and social realm, and reject all doctrines and speculations about supernatural realms and entities. Hence, many humanists reject the theism of the major religions (belief in a deity who plays an active role in human life) and are generally skeptical about supernatural claims. Some general points of this view of humanism include the following:

• Humans are on their own; i.e., they build their world for better or worse, without any help or hindrance from deities or demons; and

• We gain knowledge of our world and our existence by our experience, reliance on reason, and use of scientific methods;

• Such knowledge informs us that there is no basis for the reality of a “supernatural realm”, including all gods, angels, or demons of much traditional religious culture.

Historically, precursors of modern humanism turned attention to human reality and away from theologians’ speculative, doctrinal focus on God and the supernatural.

• Early humanistic writers, artists and philosophers, of the Italian Renaissance, turned their attention more to human achievement, the sciences, the arts, human society and secular values.

• The Enlightenment and scientific revolution of the seventeenth century further helped to degrade the dominance of religion and theology in favor of scientific approaches and free thought.

• In Western tradition, two early “modern” philosophical trends set the stage for what would come to be a naturalistic, humanistic style of thinking. Rationalism emphasized that the human mind alone, without divine assistance, can discover truth. Empiricism stressed that careful observation and study of nature are the ways of learning about our world.

• In general, “humanistic” thinkers and writers turned attention away from theological doctrine and metaphysical speculation to focus on this earthly life.

Given my brief statement of three areas of philosophy and my emphasis of humanism as a secular philosophy, the connection between philosophy and humanism seems obvious.

However, there are those who disagree.

III. Reason for hesitation.

Other considerations cast doubt on the view that philosophy clearly leads to secular humanism:

• Traditionally and historically, philosophy encompasses more than the critical, secular brand of philosophy that I favor. Philosophy has been long associated with theological and religious training. Many philosophers are religious people (priests, theologians, Christian scholars) and many religious people have philosophical backgrounds. In short, significant areas of philosophy are compatible with theistic religion.

• Many who work in the area of philosophy regard it as a strictly academic, scholarly activity that does not translate into a way of life or personal outlook on things. Many of these people do not regard a secular outlook as being emotionally fulfilling or supportive in times of crises.

• Some use the “tools of philosophy” to defend and bolster the political or religious views that they held prior to studying philosophy. Such philosophers do not focus attention on the many questionable doctrines of Christianity, but instead use arguments in formal logic to show that the secular thesis has not been proven or shown to be totally, rationally compelling. (E.g. Alvin Plantinga and William L. Craig).

• The study and work in the field of philosophy does not always lend itself to effective organizational work and advocacy of a cause, so valued by an organization like the American Humanist Association. Some “philosophical” types are more interested in study and analysis than in working to improve the organization and attract new members to the group. We could imagine “philosopher” still pondering, reflecting and re-assessing the issue, while the secular warriors are preparing their defenses against the latest onslaught from the forces of dogmatic, supernatural religion.

Thus, training in philosophy does not always result in advocacy of secular humanism. Although philosophy has given us great humanists like John Dewey and great secular thinkers like Bertrand Russell, others from the field of philosophy have not been advocates or even friends of humanism, e.g. a former professor of philosophy, William Bennett, a leading conservative spokesman and advocate for traditional, religious values.

IV. Affirm the connection.

Nevertheless, the better part of philosophy, viz. critical philosophy, tends to point us in the direction of secular humanism. Critical philosophy requires that we seek scientific, rational, and naturalistic explanations for everything, including religious and mystical experiences. As such, then, critical philosophy is a strong antidote to the supernaturalism, superstitious folly and false assumptions taught by established religions. The study of critical philosophy and appreciation for scientific methods, along with the habit of rational skepticism and an empirical attitude, help the student resist the enchantment of priests and ministers. I find that this is very much in keeping with important principles of secular humanism, as I understand them.

To this extent, then, the study and practice of critical philosophy can bring the student directly to the entrance of secular humanism. Should she then take the extra step and join the society of secular humanists? The answer is “Yes,” if our “philosopher” sees that secular humanism emphasizes the importance of enlightened, progressive thought. However, if she finds that secular humanism is just another form of partisan ideology, the “philosopher” might not be comfortable among secular humanists.

Corliss Lamont suggests that humanism is a natural fit for persons who practice philosophical thought and analysis. His tenth principle of Humanism reads as follows:

Belief in the unending questioning of basic assumptions and convictions, including those held by Humanists. The corollary belief that Humanism is not a new dogma, but is a developing philosophy ever open to experimental testing, newly discovered facts, and more rigorous reasoning.

(The Philosophy of Humansim, Corliss Lamont, 1972, Ungar Publishing, New York, NY, page 14,)

This suggests a brand of humanism that should be very inviting to the student of critical philosophy, and gives us more evidence for claiming a close relationship between secular humanism and at least one area of philosophy, viz., critical, analytical philosophy.

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