What I Mean By “Humanist”

There are many labels which are fitting to me: Canadian, female, university student, heterosexual, adult, ex-Christian, skeptic, lover of aspartame, etc. Although all these labels and numerous others are correct, which, if any, is the label that I primarily associate myself with? Which is the one that “defines me,” that makes me who I am? The label which I have chosen as my primary one is “human.”

The reason I choose “human” as my primary definition is not because I think humans are just a swell bunch and I like to associate myself with them. I choose “human” because I feel compelled to, because I feel that “human” captures the essence of who/what I am more than any other term. There are many other perfectly legitimate labels a person could use as their primary one. The primary label a person chooses is based on the essential characteristics/actions required to have the label, and whether those essential characteristics/actions are essential to what that person considers themselves to be. For example, for a person to fit under the label of “university student” the essential characteristic/actions required  are: to be accepted into a university, to have handed over the thousands of dollars required for tuition and to have enrolled in courses. But are the essential characteristics/actions required to be a “university student” also essential to a person’s particular being? I don’t believe that anyone would use “university student” as their primary label because choosing not to be a university student doesn’t change the essence of who a person is.

Other primary label options could include “sentient being,” which is more broad than “human.” A person with this as their primary label would likely be very in tune with nature and would feel more affinity for [non-human] animals than other people might. Someone could use the primary label “female” if they were a staunch feminist, or they could use the label “atheist” if they believed that their lack of belief in a god really defined who they were. There really are countless options here (including not choosing a primary label), but the one I choose is “human.”

I choose “human” because I believe that, first and foremost, that is what I am. My humanity defines me, makes me what I am. The fact that I am human is not dependent on where I was born or how old I am. It doesn’t change because of what I’ve experienced or what I believe. As long as I am, I am human. This is why, to me, my humanness is most basic to my being and is the title which I believe is most fitting to me.

By making my primary label “human,” I have now placed myself within a category, that is, humanity. The same things that are primary and basic to my being are also primary and basic to nearly 7 billion other beings. So, in a primary and basic way, there are nearly 7 billion “other myselves” out there. Because of these shared essential characteristics, I am bound to the rest of humanity. I am bound because I see myself in them and I cannot escape from them any more than I can escape from myself. I see myself in them and feelings of love, hate, empathy and disgust are aroused. I see myself in them and know that they also see me, and understand me in some basic way. Their gaze causes me to feel pride, and shame. I see myself in them and I critique and judge them. I see myself in them and desire to be loved by them, to be around them, to gain approval from them. I see myself in them and I am hurt by them, and encouraged by them. I see myself in them and I understand their pain, and their pleasure. I see myself in them and I begin to understand myself better. I see myself in them and understand that the struggles we both face trace back to the same roots.

No other being affects me more than the human being, because that is my own being. Primarily and essentially, I am human. Primarily and essentially, I am bound to humanity.

This is what I mean when I say that I am a “humanist.” It’s not what I value or even what I believe. It’s simply what I define myself as.

[Note: In order to keep a respectful dialogue, comments will be moderated before appearing on the site. Those who are interested in proselytizing can do so on their own blog.]

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10 thoughts on “What I Mean By “Humanist”

  1. Donna,
    I’m disappointed that your postings on religious topics has spurred argumentation rather than civil discourse. I, for one, have benefited from your thoughts on the subject. Although I’ll miss reading them I know I will enjoy following your writings on other topics as well. This one, for instance, strikes a chord with me. It got me thinking about what I believe being human really means to me.

    Am I just a being whose species has evolved to the top of the food chain, or is the core of being human more than being the dominant life form on planet Earth? And what does it mean to “share” my humanity with other humans? I agree with the notion of learning about ourselves by paying attention to others. It’s easy to become so consumed with your own life that you fail to see the experience of others. You’re right that observing others is like looking into a mirror, the reflection of which illuminates our understanding of ourselves.

    Keep posting, this human is learning from you.

  2. Wonderful reflection on being human. I especially liked: “in a primary and basic way, there are nearly 7 billion “other myselves” out there…” and everything that followed that. Really, everything was great.

    So, I guess my burning question is, who out there is “simply human”? I totally agree that, at base, perhaps even as a primary category, one should be compelled to see themselves and others as sharing humanity (although as you note, not everyone will, or be forced by others to, choose this). The advantage of a perspective of shared humanity would be that everyone’s starting point for discourse around complicated issues like ethics, religion, politics, etc., would be that of shared humanity instead of any category that may or may not be appropriately called “tribalist”. Furthermore, the advantage of this perspective would be that it would open up further dialogue surrounding our immense interconnection with other forms of life on this planet. In a way, it would help us see ourselves as, at base, fellow life forms (or to use the greek, “zoon”) on this big, diverse, planet. It would make us much more humble.

    However, no one ever comes to a conversation, a relationship, or a community, as “simply human” and I suspect that ethical, religious, and political discourse can never be wholly navigated under the category “human” (as we are not only zoon, but zoon politikon). So, I guess what I am trying to ask is, in what way might being a humanist help you determine who to vote for (or help you determine not to vote?)? Or, in what way might being a humanist help you decide what makes for a “good life” when faced with questions of euthanasia and the like? Or, in what way might being a humanist help you decide when treatment of animals is unfair? I don’t want to skirt the main thrust of your post; like I said, I think it was wonderful and really, these questions are just as difficult to answer from a Christian perspective as, I suspect, they are from a humanist perspective. I am just trying to understand how your reflections on being a humanist might begin to inform a human’s political (and I use this term in the broadest sense possible) life. Perhaps I am pushing you beyond where you want to go with your definition of humanism, but it seems to me that at some point, you have to agree that life is never simply “life” but always “form of life” and that, consequently, we are compelled to make judgments as to what “forms of life” are truly “human” and what forms of life are an injustice or a perversion of “shared humanity”. Thoughts?

    1. It’s tricky to spell out the ethical implications of humanism as I described it. In a sense, I would say that my being a humanist doesn’t say anything at all about my ethical standpoint on any issue or even imply a method of coming to any ethical standpoint. It merely states: “I am a human, and there are other humans. Our shared humanness causes us to be concerned with the behaviour of the others (i.e., we are political animals).”

      Questions about the specific things which humans concern themselves with cannot be addressed by someone who is “simply human,” because as soon as the discourse begins each specific human reveals their specific bias. Even though every human is at base “simply human,” the human that each of them is is composed of an intricate many other things based on their particular experiences. It’s impossible to be “strictly human,” which is why I regard my “humanness” as a starting point, not the totality of my being. As soon as I start talking about certain ethical beliefs I might have, I am not talking as a “humanist” but as the specific human that I am, and basing those beliefs on the specific biases that I have, based on my particular experience.

      Did that answer your questions?

  3. I believe it may have begun to answer my question, although, I wonder how it is possible for you to talk as a humanist when it suits your particular, dare I say, political and biased understanding of what makes for a good way to view humanity, and then when it doesn’t suit you (ie. when you actually need to make a decision about the specific affairs of humanity) you can then claim to “not talk as a humanist” but as a biased individual. It seems a little too convenient, does it not? Or am I misunderstanding in what way you wish your humanism to inform your life because, am I not right to think that in fact you want your humanism to inform your practical life?

    1. It’s similar to classifying a particular animal as its particular species. Calling a horse a horse doesn’t change anything about how a horse behaves or how it “should” behave. It merely puts it in a category based on things that are already true about it. By putting myself in the category “human” I am not stating anything about what “should” be the case about a human but rather what “is” the case about a human. I don’t believe, like Plato (from whom most Christian theology was derived), that there is some “ideal form of the horse” or an “ideal form of the human.” [Platonic] ideals have to do with the “should.” I am more concerned with the “is.”

  4. So the “is” is something we can describe without value judgments? Is it not incorrect to say we can accurately describe the “is” without some kind of value judgment (which may, admittedly, be rooted in observation). For example, it is perfectly appropriate and common to look at a Giraffe eating leaves off a tree and say, “The giraffe WANTS to eat the leaves on the tree.” (a simple example, to be sure but one that tends to happen often in science since the nature of human language itself always includes some kind of “purpose” language — it cannot really be avoided when doing any kind of rigorous description).

    Now, of course we can say similar things about humans. The human wants to eat because eating helps the human survive and thrive, etc. But what about when we say things like, “The human wants to be loved.” Is there any purpose to asking why the desire for love exists, or what this “love” is, or why death and the separation between loved ones it brings, seems so considerably “alien” to the human being? Are these questions simply irrelevant to a humanist? Because certainly the desire to be loved is an “is” in our existence. How might a humanist be concerned about this “is”?

    Do we take the path of the mechanist/reductionist and say, “actually, man just has a physical reaction that occurs in his biology that makes him talk about a concept called love, but really it is nothing more than neurons firing and biological processes occuring…there is no purpose involved…”?

    Conversely, do we take the path of some crude evolutionary theory and say, “man’s need for love is really just the need for protection of the tribe against threat and danger…nothing else…”

    Or, do we say as Christians are prone to, “humans desire to be loved because they were created with the sole purpose to love and be loved [what you associate, both rightly and wrongly, with the platonic ideal form. I say rightly because, on the one hand there are many dualist platonic streams of christian thought. But I say wrongly because there are other ways of interpreting Plato and building on his thought that lend themselves to understandings of “ideal” that do not denote something homogeneous and static but rather analogical and dynamic — “ideal” as infinitely and freely diverse].”

    Surely your post on humanism (and your title: “Humanism: My Religion”) isn’t summed up by saying: “I have a body, I need to eat, I need to sleep, I need shelter.” Because then you may as well call this “animalism” or to reduce it even further down, surely your humanism isn’t summed up by, “I have a physical existence, I require nutrients such as oxygen, because then you could classify your religion under numerous other life-form-isms, could you not? Is there not a uniqueness to human-being that goes beyond what can be physically described from observation? And are not these uniqueness’s grounded in the human desire to make value judgments? Said differently, could the existence of human rational thought itself be observable evidence that value judgments are appropriate to our species being and actually have a real, existent reference point? I’ve blabbered long enough…thanks for making me think, hopefully I can return the favor…

  5. Hi Donna, After reading your post, i think “Is it possible to have two conciding main labels?” What does a person do if the essentials of their being may seem contradicting to other but fits them as well a taliored suit? For example, I am a Christain as I have a relationship with God, namely Jesus Christ. As you described that defintes my being. On the same note I am also a human. I am every one’s sister. I am a citizen of the world and I am reflected through the state of my fellow humans.

    Both these labels shape my life. I may not fit the status quo of either category, but after considering my personal philsophy of life I find that at the core of my being I am both of these things.

    that is just my two cents on that….

  6. I think that labels are more than you choose though, they are reflections of your philisophy, your core, and how your act on them. For example, I am a white girl living in Belize. However, I do not ascribe to whiteness. I do not act like other white people in Belize (who are either expats with money, missionaries, or a certain ethnic group that in my view is a contradiction). If you were to ask anyone who knows me, they would not label me as white (in this instance colonialism has shaped a certain image around that race). Race is not always a label, and I think it should never be a primary label, but in this case white people in Belize generally hold a certain standard. I can’t label myself as a Christian, a human, a white person…. other do. They look at my life and say “Eh… that Beth… she is a crazy Kruffy gyal and only understanding….” etc…

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