Introduction to Week 1
What is Humanism?
The question ‘What is humanism?’ is not an easy question to answer. Different people will define humanism in different ways. There will be agreement on some of its features, but disagreement on others.
Rather than attempt to define humanism here at the beginning of the course, we will, over the next six weeks, lead you through some of the beliefs and values associated with humanists, and explore examples of a humanist approach to life. By the end of the course, through the search for the centre of the overlapping circles of this Venn diagram, you will be able to decide whether you feel there are any necessary or sufficient conditions by which we can say someone is a humanist. Are there any specific beliefs a humanist must hold? Or is there any particular combination of beliefs that, when held somebody, enables us to define them as a humanist?
A related question is ‘What sort of a thing is humanism?’. Again, we will not start here. If one wished to understand computers, the best thing to do would be to explore how they work and what they do, rather than begin by trying to work out what kind of a thing a computer is. That is the approach we will adopt in this course to support your understanding of humanism.
We will, however, return to the question of whether it is possible to define humanism, and explore more about what kind of thing it might be, in the final week of the course. Hopefully, by then, you will have been able to reach some of your own conclusions.
For now it will suffice to describe humanism as an attempt to answer the question ‘How should I live?’. Humanism tries to tackle many of the other debates that spring from that question: ‘What sort of thing am I?’, ‘What is my place in this world?’, ‘How can I know what is true?’, ‘How can I live a meaningful life?’, ‘How should I treat others?’, ‘What kind of world do I want?’. These are the same questions that many of the world’s many diverse religious and non-religious worldviews have attempted to provide answers to. In this course, we will explore the humanist approach to such questions.
In this first week, we will begin by introducing you to some of the humanist beliefs, values, and practices that we will go on to explore in greater depth in later weeks. We will then pose some of the questions that are raised by a humanist approach to life, questions that will lie behind much of the content of the rest of the course.
In the remainder of the week, we will ask ‘What kind of thing is a human being?’. An appreciation of the humanist notion of what we are will help to ground many of the humanist responses to the questions explored throughout the rest of the course. Deciding how we should live requires an understanding of ourselves and what we are capable of.