Humanism is the philosophical idea that emphasizes the dignity and worth of the individual. The term humanism is most often used to describe a literary and cultural movement that spread through Florence, Venice, Pisa, Milan, Rome and other Italian cities in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It involved a revival of the study of the ancient Latin and Greek authors and trying to see what they actually meant. The time in which humanism grew was called the Renaissance, which means rebirth. Humanism expressed confidence in humanity’s ability to exert control over nature or to shape society according to its needs and desires. There are many different forms of humanism and it exists in different parts of the world.
The collection and translation of classical manuscripts became widespread, especially among the nobility and higher clergy. The invention of printing with movable type “gave a further impetus to humanism through the dissemination of editions of the classics” (Encarta 1). Although in Italy humanism developed principally in the fields of literature and art, the movement extended into the fields of theology and education and was a major underlying cause of the Reformation. Neither religion nor God was rejected by humanists.
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Their goal was to remove religion as a “prime dominating and obstructive force in their lives and to establish it as one of several institutions in society” (Compton’s 2). Religion was seen to have a logical civil function because it no longer pointed only toward heaven as mankind’s main goal; it opened the possibility of happiness and prosperity on Earth. This attitude toward religion helped create tolerance among humanists.
Because they believed in the unity of all truth, “they regarded diverse religious points of view as expressions of that one truth” (Compton’s 2). It took several centuries of conflict and effort before the idea of general religious tolerance became widely accepted. By the late fourteenth century, the term studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) had come to mean a well-defined cycle of education, including the study of rhetoric, poetry, grammar, moral philosophy, and history.
One of the most influential scholars in the development of humanism in France was the Dutch cleric Desiderius Erasmus. He also played an important part in introducing the humanism movement into England (Encarta 1). From the universities in England, humanism also spread throughout “English society and paved the way for the great flourishing of Elizabethan literature and culture” (Encarta 1). In central Europe, the idea of humanism was introduced by German scholars Johann Reuchlin and Melanchthon.
The humanism movement began in Italy with contributions from Italian writers, Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Francesco Petrarch. Italian Pico Della Mirandola expressed his humanist views in his Oration on the dignity of man. More thoughts came from Byzantine scholars who came to Italy after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, and also by the establishment of the Platonic Academy in Florence. Socrates is the most famous skeptical Humanist (Edwords 4). He stands as a symbol, both of Greek rationalism and the Humanist tradition that grew out of it.
Humanism was not confined to only Italy. By the fifteenth century, it had spread north of the Alps (Compton’s 2). If one wanted to study humanism, they would have “to travel to the universities of Italy, but near the end of the fifteenth century such cities as Antwerp, London, Paris, and Augsburg were becoming humanist centers” (Compton’s 2). Humanism north of Italy was not specifically of a Christian type.
There was a great emphasis on the study of Biblical texts and the message of the New Testament (Compton’s 2). However, the tools with which to study the biblical texts in Greek and Hebrew were not available earlier than the late fifteenth century. When the Bible texts were more fully understood, they were used to “urge reform in the church and a new commitment to Christian living throughout Europe” (Compton’s 2).
The revival of interest in the Bible soon merged with a number of complex political and social issues to beginning the Reformation.
The word humanism has many different meanings and each meaning constitutes a different variety of humanism. Renaissance Humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood (Edwords 1). Literary Humanism is a devotion to the humanities or literary culture. Cultural Humanism is the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome. It then moved throughout European history, and now is a basic part of the Western approach to science, ethics, political theory, and law. Philosophical Humanism is any “outlook or way of life centred on human need and interest” (Edwords 1). Christian and Modern Humanism are sub-categories of this type. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines Christian Humanism as “a philosophy advocating the self-fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles” (Edwords 1). This more human-oriented faith is a large product of the Renaissance. Modern Humanism can also be referred to as Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism.
One of its leading believers, Corliss Lamont defines Modern Humanism as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democrat and human compassion” (Edwords 1). Secular and Religious Humanism are sub-categories of Modern Humanism. Secular Humanism comes from the eighteenth-century enlightenment rationalism and nineteenth-century freethought. Many secular groups, such as the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism and the American Rationalist Federation, and many otherwise unaffiliated academic philosophers and scientists, advocate this philosophy. Religious Humanism emerged from Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, and Universalism. People who see Modern Humanism as philosophy are the Secular Humanists and those who see it as a religion are Religious Humanists.
Renaissance Humanism is the most well-known form of humanism. Renaissance Humanists were often devout Christians, but they promoted secular values. Petrarch founded Renaissance Humanism (Johnson 1). Through the fourteenth century, humanists relied on Latin; however, in the early fifteenth century, classical Greek became a major study. The Roman Catholic Jacques Maritain tried to create a new Christian Humanism, which he based on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Christian Humanists believe that individuals and their culture have value in the Christian life (2). They thought that the “pursuit of a secular life was not only proper but even meritorious” (Johnson 3).
Many Christians reacted against the more secular approach of humanism, including Savonarola and Ulrich Zwingli. Christian Humanists acknowledge the contributions of other forms of humanism, such as the “classical variety that discovered the value of human liberty, and the Marxists, who realize that man has been estranged from the good life because he is dispossessed of property and subordinated to material and economic forces” (Johnson 3). They value culture, but “confess that man is fully developed only as he comes into a right relationship with Christ” (Johnson 3). Christian Humanists have declared their opposing opinions to Secular Humanism, and they say that it is an “antireligious ideology…[which] pervades American society” (Johnson 2). Christian Humanism came out of Renaissance Humanism.
Modern humanism is based on the evidence of naturalism as contrasted to the supernaturalism of traditional world views. The naturalistic view explains nature as “continuous and all-encompassing” (Humanist.Net 1). Human beings are understood to be important parts of nature. The idea of naturalism is connected to the Renaissance. The Renaissance Humanists who were most fascinated by the ancient science “tended to be the more revolutionary thinkers of the period” (3). Some of the greatest humanists of the time period dealt with both the literary and the scientific aspects of humanism. The belief of the Unitarianism of today is also connected (1).
This naturalistic form of humanism is also the world view that “constituted the very core and reason for being of Unitarianism from its birth and through much of its history” (Humanist.Net 7). The defining feature of modern humanism is its underlying philosophy of evolutionary naturalism.
Secular and Religious Humanists both share the same worldview and the same basic principles. This is seen because both were “among the signers of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933 and Humanist Manifesto II in 1973” (Edwords 2).
The only difference between the two is in the definition and in the practice of the philosophy. Both Religious and Secular Humanists believe that Humanism is a philosophy in which people think for themselves (6). They believe that it is a philosophy that focuses on human means for comprehending reality. Both accept that Humanism is a realistic philosophy of compassion and is “in tune with the science of today and today’s enlightened social thought” (Edwords 6).
Religious and Secular Humanists both believe that human values make sense only in the context of human life, rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death. Both feel that Humanism is a philosophy of imagination because they recognize that “intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience” remain as useful sources of ideas that can lead people to new ways of looking at the world (Edwords 6).
They believe that Humanism is a philosophy for those in love with life because they take responsibility for their own lives.
Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion. They do not feel that one should have to make a choice between “meeting these needs in a traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all” (Edwords 2).
According to Unitarian-Universalist minister, Kenneth Phifer, Religious Humanism is “faith in action” and that humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us, We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us (Edwords 2-3). Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, methods for dealing with life’s harsher realities, an inspiring set of ideals, an overall sense of purpose, and a rationale for living life joyously.
Secular Humanists believe that there is so much in religion that deserves criticism that the name Humanism should not be affiliated with it. Secular Humanists accept a world view or philosophy called naturalism, in which the physical laws of the “universe are not superseded by non-material or supernatural entities such as demons, gods, or other “spiritual” beings outside the realm of the natural universe” (Kurtz 1). Supernatural events are not dismissed out of hand but are viewed with a high degree of skepticism. Secular humanists typically describe themselves as atheists. They come from different philosophical and religious backgrounds, ranging from “Christian fundamentalism to liberal belief systems to lifelong atheism” (Kurtz 1). Secular humanists do not rely upon gods or other supernatural forces to solve their problems or provide for their conduct. They rely instead on the lessons of history, creating the meaning of life, personal experience to form an ethical/moral foundation, and the application of reason.
The Secular Humanist tradition is one of “defiance, a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece” (Edwords 3). During the Dark Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies were suppressed by the political power of the church (Kurtz 2). Those who expressed views contrasting to the accepted religious thoughts were executed, tortured, or banished. During the Enlightenment, philosophers began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as free thought. The common citizen was able to reject blind faith and superstition without the risk of persecution during the nineteenth century Freethought movement of America and Western Europe.
In the twentieth century, scientists, progressive theologians, and philosophers began to organize in an effort to promote the “humanist alternative to traditional faith-based world views” (Kurtz 2). Critics often try to classify Secular Humanism as a religion; however, it lacks the essential characteristics of a religion, including belief in a deity and an accompanying transcendent order. These people identify more closely with the rational heritage symbolized by ancient Athens than with the faith heritage condensed by ancient Jerusalem (Edwords 4). Secular humanism is a philosophy and worldview which centers upon human concerns and employs rational and scientific methods to address the wide range of issues important to us all.
Religious Humanism is different than Literary Humanism. Religious Humanism was scientific in orientation and naturalistic in philosophy (Wilson 1). Literary Humanism was in the 1930s widely known and specifically identified with the opinions of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Edward Scribner Ames and Oscar W. Firkins helped distinguish the differences between Literary and Religious Humanism. They both said that Literary Humanists were against science and that Religious Humanists saw science as an important tool in fulfilling the potential for a better life. Firkins described Literary Humanism in the March/April 1931 issue of The New Humanist as having a “background [that] is scholarly, its basis is introspective and retrospective; it looks into its own soul, and it combats that side of the present which strikes it as inimical to the testimony of the ages and of its own soul” (Wilson 1).
Ames proclaimed his opinions of Religious Humanists in a lecture to the Chicago Literary Club in 1931 and stated that they “are naturalistic, experimental, behavioristic, humanitarian. They accept the evolutionary doctrine…They emphasize the function of scientific knowledge as a means of realizing a better and happier life” (Wilson 2). Literary Humanism was short-lived and did not survive through the 1930s.
Humanism focuses on the importance of the person as an individual and the idea that people are rational beings who possess within themselves the capacity for truth and goodness. With Modern Humanism, one finds a philosophy or religion that is in tune with modern knowledge. It is not only the thinking person’s outlook but also the feelings of that person as well. There are many different meanings of the word humanism, and with each meaning, there is a different type of humanism. The movement first began in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and still has people who believe its philosophies in today’s world.
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Religious Humanism. The Secular Web. 11 Dec.