HUMANISM WITH A CAPITAL H
by Harvey Lebrun
The indiscriminate use of the term "humanist" for anyone
considered to be working for the good of humanity once led Paul
Kurtz to ask in The Humanist magazine: "Has 'humanism,' like
'motherhood,' peace,' 'brotherhood,' and 'democracy,' become so
honorific a term that it is avowed even by those who do not
believe in it? And, in being co-opted, will it then be
One way to avoid the possible degeneration of the term Humanist
into meaninglessness is to insist upon the distinction between
Humanism (capital H), as developed by the organized Humanist
movement, and humanism (small h), as professed by individuals and
organizations outside of that movement, which include (in Paul
Kurtz's words) "even those who officially downgrade the importance
of the welfare of individuals in their earthly existence." (For
example, Pope Paul VI referred to himself as a "humanist.")
The distinction has practical implications: Who is the sort of
Humanist, or potential Humanist, sought by the organized Humanist
movement to help promote its philosophy, ethics, social concerns,
and way of life?
Of definitions of Humanism, there is no lack. They vary from the
overly simplistic, such as "Humanism is the belief that, together,
humans have what it takes to build a satisfying life on earth," to
the overly detailed definitions in the Humanist Manifestos.
A good place to look for what constitutes a valid criterion by
which to measure different definitions of Humanism is the State-
ment of Purpose preamble to the Bylaws of the American Humanist
Association, which declares the philosophy of Humanism to be --
a nontheistic world view that rejects all forms of
supernaturalism and is in accord with the spirit and
discoveries of science. In promoting confidence in the
ability of humans to solve their problems through the
use of free inquiry, reason, and imagination, the asso-
ciation provides its members with opportunities to
advance human welfare through fellowship, study, and
service. Activities of the association are undertaken
with respect for, and a desire to secure the survival
of, all forms of life which inhabit planet Earth. The
operation of the association is democratic, nonpartisan,
and free of all authoritarian doctrines.
Implicit here are four basic principles, the raison d'etre of the
American Humanist Association:
(1) A positive, secular, scientific, evolutionary, naturalistic
philosophy and concept of humanity and the universe.
(2) The negative aspect of that philosophy and concept: No
belief in, reliance upon, or subservience to supposedly
supernatural powers or their effluvia, such as a god or gods,
a soul separate from the body, immortality, sin, answered
prayer, or divine revelation.
(3) Commitment to individual and social ethics that are based on
changing human experience, compassion for other human beings,
and concern for the related world of humankind and Earth --
rather than on supposedly divine injunctions, church
pronouncements, divine rewards and punishments in this or a
future life, and so forth.
(4) The solution of individual and social problems by the methods
of science, democracy, reason, and freedom, rather than by
dependence on visions (divinely inspired or drug-induced),
pseudoscience, or political, religious, or economic power-
A feature of modern Humanism that differentiates it sharply from
authoritarian religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church or
Protestant bodies holding the Bible inviolate, is that Humanism
supports unending questioning of assumptions in every field of
thought and action -- including those of Humanism itself.
Humanism affirms free inquiry, in the light of evidence and
reason, into all aspects of the human condition and the cosmos,
without any external limitations imposed by religious, political,
economic, or other authorities. And this includes the freedom to
apply the principles of Humanism according to one's own lights.
These four principles may be expressed in more concise form as a
two-sided statement with which few, if any, Humanists (capital H)
would disagree --
(1) A naturalistic, scientific, secular philosophy or concept of
humanity and the universe that precludes any belief in or
reliance upon supposedly supernatural powers.
(2) An ethics or way of life based on human experience and imbued
with compassion for other human beings that calls for
commitment to betterment of humanity through the methods of
science, democracy, and reason, without any limitations by
political, ecclesiastical, or other dictates.
Individuals and organizations that subscribe to one but not the
other of these two basic principles, or to a part but not all of
either one, may be said to be humanistically inclined -- but they
are not advocates of Humanism in the modern sense of the term.
Those called Humanists (with a capital H) proclaim both items as
intrinsic elements in their philosophy, way of life, religion, or
whatever they choose to call their deepest affirmations.
This is an updated text of the late Harvey Lebrun's essay,
"Humanism With A Capital H," which first appeared as a longer
paper in the August 1973 issue of Progressive World, and then, in
1977, was published in this shorter form as a brochure of the
American Humanist Association. Mr. Lebrun was the founder of the
Chapter Assembly of the American Humanist Association and the Fund
for Chapter Expansion. He also chaired the AHA's Committee on
Democratization, revising the association's bylaws.
(C) Copyright 1994 and 1977 by the American Humanist Association
(C) Copyright 1973 by Harvey Lebrun
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