By Aaron the Humanist
Can we sum humanism up in ten words and, more importantly, ten words that people would understand? Driven by a strong Star Trek ethos, Aaron was a humanist before he knew it. In this article he incorporates those Star Trek values, along with others, to arrive at what hopefully will stir all of you to create your own ten word definitions of humanism.
The ten-word answer: the golden nugget in marketing and communication. Get your message across in a clear, crisp, refined statement that is short, snappy, and memorable. It doesn’t need to be exactly ten words, but a strong, concise sentence that’s easy to remember.
Quite often, when communicating a message, the delivery can be lost due to enthusiasm, urgency, or an overload of information flowing too quickly, causing the message to be entirely lost. I’ve seen this happen even with the most experienced communicators. Nobody is immune to delivery failure. But why does it matter?
Humanism isn’t clear-cut. It often needs explaining. It needed explaining to me when I first encountered it. I spent a weekend before my first meeting trying to grasp what I was missing. "So, humanism is atheism, and I’m an atheist, so I am a humanist?" What was I missing?
In the flow of explanation, a thesaurus of other words that I had never once encountered was thrown into the mix, such as "agnostic" and "secular". Inside the humanist camp, these are words we use all the time, second nature and fully explained to the nth degree in all the talks, lectures, and presentations we have sat through. But they may be unfamiliar to the person approaching your desk in the town square for the first time. We need to explain our worldview without using words that require further explanation.
Additionally, stemming from that very first confusion when I first encountered humanism, we don’t want to emphasize god or the absence of god as the lead element. Just to be against something is negative and it lacks positive definition. A response like this: "So you're just an atheist then?" is often encountered. As I delved deeper into humanism, becoming an "expert" by default, I started to follow the values-led route. Is it really that simple? Humanists have values, and atheists don’t?
Clearly, all humans have values, even the "bad guys". Humanists, atheists, Muslims, Catholics, and even Nazis – all of us have values, and these are deemed valid, defined by us, shaped by us, and important to us. We need to add to this the ingredient of how we arrived at these values, which then becomes an integral part of the puzzle. Humanist values aren’t extracted from a book, aren’t handed down by dead people, and aren’t enforced on us by the threat of hell or exclusion from the group. Our values are arrived at through scientific discovery, logical reasoning, rational thinking, and emotional responses. For centuries, humanists have developed their values. They may be true, great, and valid, but they are not set in stone. As we evolve and develop new insights, we evaluate these inherited values to make sure we still truly believe in them.
Values are not simply inherited as a gift. They can be taught, but they are not just information to take in. Values are something that we adopt, and we don’t do so lightly. Maybe this is why most humanists are older, and often over the halfway point in life. To arrive at a distinctive worldview, sometimes outside of the mainstream, requires us to have lived life. That we have some younger humanists among us is remarkable, as it almost goes against the very concept of needing to live a life in order to arrive at a mature life stance.
In summary, humanism is...
• A worldview – as opposed to a belief • Something we don’t simply receive but discover, after a lifelong journey • Based on tangible, solid evidence, proof, science, and discovery • Based on thought, questioning, and understanding • Continuously re-evaluated to ensure we stay up to date with facts and modern thinking
Some of the key values that come to my mind when meeting people are Equality, Fairness, Compassion, and Understanding. Do these values help to define ourselves as more than just atheists? Do atheists support equality? Possibly. There's a strong chance that the average atheist wants religion gone, will tell those with faith they are wrong, blind, and ignorant, or generally deliver a very strong message to people of faith that "You are stupid". Anyone taking this line will not see a person of faith as an equal, but rather as someone beneath them, to whom they are superior. This also fails the fairness test. Atheists can be unkind. I’ve said some brutally blunt things in the past myself. Any actions along these lines also violate our compassion and understanding values too.
Humanists are not perfect individuals, but we can strive to treat people in a kind and considerate manner – even if we disagree with them. This, of course, doesn’t just apply to faith. It also extends to people in other countries, like Russia perhaps. We may not like or approve of what Russia is doing in Ukraine, but we can understand that it's not everyone's decision, that many ordinary people are misinformed, and that even those who are fighting for whatever reason, can still be considered with humanity. This further applies to politics. Often, I see horrible comments made by people, mainly on X (formerly Twitter). Of course, it's okay to criticise policies, whether they add up, how they are shaped and implemented. But to attack the people proposing them crosses a line.
All this values stuff – isn’t this just virtue signalling?
When explaining what humanism is, values are simply an essential part of that. They determine how we shape our lives, how we live, who we are, and how we progress from day to day. Our every action will be derived from what kind of a person we are. Some say they don’t like labels, don’t want to call themselves this or that, and that is fine. But surely stating "This is how I see life; these are the pillars on which my views are formulated, and these are the different elements to it" is plain and simple enough not to upset anybody?
So have I nailed it?
No, not yet. There have been many attempts over the years, with some variations on T-shirts, postcards, leaflets, and banners. As one of the key marketing people in Dorset Humanists, when I help train members so that they are prepared to face the public at stands, I stress the importance of nailing down the key points as succinctly as possible. You have at best 15 seconds to capture that passer-by and inform them of the humanism worldview. How are you going to do it?
I’m going to go with this as my opener – and see if you, the readers, can improve upon it:
“Humanism is a values-led worldview, built on the foundations of science, logic, critical thinking, and reasoned discussion, upholding equality, fairness, compassion, and understanding at its core.”
It's more than ten words, granted. But it has worked for me when I've got just 13 seconds to get the message across. What works for you?
Editor's note: We asked ChatGPT to encapsulate humanism in ten words and it came up with these suggestions (mostly seven words!):
Elevating reason, ethics, and compassion above dogma.
Empowering individuals through critical thinking and empathy.
Living ethically without relying on religious doctrines.
Celebrating life, fostering progress, valuing reason.
Choose compassion over superstition; be a humanist.
Putting humans at the heart of ethics.
Advancing society through reason, not dogma.
A worldview that emphasizes human dignity.
Embrace ethics, reason, and justice for all.
Rational minds building a compassionate world.