The Nature of Humanist Thought1

Notes for discussion led by Pat Duffy Hutcheon at a Forum at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver in 1991

KEY TERMS: naturalism -- human distinctiveness -- intuitive truth claims -- objectivity -- creative imagination -- unity of science -- morality


Humanism is based on the philosophy of naturalism, as opposed to the transcendental idealism of mysticism and the spirit/matter dualism of supernatural religions such as Christianity. This naturalistic premise assumes a commonality and continuity among all inorganic and organic forms of existence. It implies that humans are an integral part of the "stuff" of the universe (however that "stuff" comes to be defined by physics) and no less natural than any other part. It means that there is no mysterious spiritual component interjected at any point in our emergence, and no mysterious access to a consciousness beyond that created by the experience of nature undergone by our species since its origin. And it means that our actions and relationships are as subject to causality as are those of any other existing entities. There are no mysterious and arbitrary messages from "out there" telling birds how to build their nests or telling people what will happen in the future.

Our second defining premise has to do with the distinctiveness of the human species, given the groundedness within nature which we share with other forms of existence. We are the only species thus far to have evolved a self-consciousness and culture. This has allowed us to develop as spiritual beings, in a perfectly natural sense involving no interjection at any stage from any unknowable "realm of the spirit". We believe in the natural origin of human sense perception, imagination, reason, language, knowledge, ideals, aesthetic norms and values. And we believe that a thorough understanding of these will suffice to explain the most complex of human strivings and behavior.


Humanists recognize the dominant motivating role of instinct, emotions or feelings and imagination, as well as of irrational and intuitive urges from within the unconscious. However, we do not believe that these are reliable sources of truth. We prefer to put our faith in the senses as the windows on experience, and in reason and cognition as the instruments for ordering and deriving meaning from what comes in those windows. We are aware that the evidence of history and the lessons of personal experience teach that emotion and intuition -- no less than traditional interpretations of revelation -- are often delusionary, wish-fulfilling and self-serving. Because of this, humanists have little confidence in subjective or intuitive truth claims, or in those supposedly revealed by a Supreme Being. We insist on striving for objectivity where knowledge is concerned. This means that events, if we are to "know" them, must be carefully observed by a number of people, with the results unambiguously communicated and subjected to some kind of public verification process. Anything less than that -- however appealing it is to egoistic humanity -- opens the door to "cloud cuckoo land".


For humanists the scientific approach to knowing is appropriate and fruitful in all fields of endeavor and all aspects of reality -- the psychological, social, and moral as well as the so-called "physical" -- although these vary in terms of ease of access and rate of change in the objects studied, and therefore in the procedures to be used. All through history, people who were mystically inclined attempted to draw boundaries around science, to prevent its infringement upon their self-defined territory; but always it broke these culturally imposed bonds and shed new light on hitherto unknown and supposedly "unknowable" subjects. We believe this will continue to be the case; for science, with its internal self-corrective process, is inherently cumulative, expansive, and increasingly useful to humanity. It provides the only form of knowledge that allows us to affect the course of future events.


The humanist tradition ever since the Renaissance has emphasized the importance of products of the imagination, technical skill and manual dexterity, such as art, music, architecture, literature and drama. However, because we recognize the profoundly human sources of the arts, we do not deify, idolize, or worship what artists have wrought. We emphasize, instead, the ways in which we can ensure an environment ever more conducive to human creativity and aesthetic values.


More than most philosophies and theologies, humanism focuses on morality and social activism in the process of problem solving. Our world view forces us to face up to our joint responsibility, as humans, for all of our choices. This means that the content of tomorrow's world culture is ours to shape and the future direction of cultural evolution ours to determine. We are aware that it was ever thus, but the prevalence of world views based on beliefs in a cosmic moral order has, for far too long, prevented human beings from accepting the inevitability of their own moral impact on the universe.


  1. Notes  for discussion led by Pat Duffy Hutcheon at a Forum at the Unitarian Church of  Vanouver in 1991.