What is a humanist?

Meaning and purpose in a godless universe

For as long as there have been humans, there have probably been ideas that we would today call humanist.

These ideas have become so widely held, in the UK and the rest of Western Europe at least, that the Oxford Companion to the Mind even goes so far as to say that it is a predominant, though unacknowledged, world view in the Western World today: "a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western World."

People who are humanists certainly do have a view of the world that is completely naturalistic, and so they are atheists or agnostics. This is important for some humanists, for whom the non-existence of supernatural forces makes the value placed on human responsibility all the greater. For other humanists, the non-existence of gods is not so important and we may never think about it, once we’ve satisfied ourselves that it is the case. Either way, far more important to humanists than what they don’t believe in is what they do.

A humanist is someone who believes that morality does not have some supernatural origin but that it derives from our need to live together in communities. This conviction leads naturally to a concern that our actions should contribute to the happiness and welfare of both ourselves and others. When someone who is a humanist comes to consider what is right and what is wrong (not just on a grand scale but in our everyday choices), the benefit or harm that it will bring to those around us, to wider humanity - including future generations - and the world are the only factors which matter. Individual rights and freedoms are important to humanists, but individual responsibility, social cooperation and mutual respect are just as important.

A humanist is also someone who believes that the best way to understand the reality around us is through knowledge gained by experience and reason. For some humanists this is just a truth that we have to acknowledge in order to gain any meaningful understanding of how the world around us works, (though the discoveries we make by employing this method – in medicine, for example – can certainly lead to improvements in the lives of many people). For other humanists, the wonder of discovery and the excitement of invention are ends in themselves for the enjoyment and fulfilment that they bring which give meaning and purpose to life.

Meaning and purpose does seem to be what all human beings desire for their lives, but in a universe which we now know to be devoid of ultimate meaning or purpose (or where, even if there is a purpose, it certainly has little to do with humanity), the question of what meaning there can really be in our lives may seem a difficult one. A humanist, however, responds to this question positively. By adopting our own worthwhile goals, by seeking to be happy and to make it easier for others to be happy, by taking enjoyment in the wonders of nature and of human art, by valuing that inner life that makes us more than other animals, and by working together to overcome our problems and make the bad times better, human beings can give the human world a meaning and purpose of its own. In fact, the conviction that this present life is the only one we have acts as a powerful spur for humanists towards these goals.

In a godless universe, the job of advancing an increase in what makes our life worthwhile falls squarely to humanity, and humanists are generally optimistic that it is a challenge we can rise to meet.

Andrew works for the British Humanist Association on education and public affairs. As well as campaigning for the inclusion of non-religious philosophies such as humanism in the school curriculum, he has published articles criticising worship in schools.
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What Labour's plotters are thinking

The ground may have shifted underneath Jeremy Corbyn's feet, at least as far as the rules on nominations are concerned. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been rocked by seven resignations from his shadow cabinet, as the attempt to remove the Labour leader gathers speed and pace.

I’m told there will be more to come. What’s going on?

As I’ve written before, the big problem for Labour’s Corbynsceptics is that Corbyn won big among party members in September and his support has, if anything increased since then. Although a lot of ink was wasted over fears of “entryism” which at the outside probably contributed about a percentage point to Corbyn’s 40-point landslide, it is “exitism”  - the exodus of anti-Corbynite members and their replacement with his supporters that is shifting the party towards its left flank.

Added to that is the unhelpfully vague wording of Labour’s constitution. It is clear that Corbyn’s challengers would need to collect 50 signatures from Labour MPs and MEPs to trigger a leadership challenge, a hurdle that the plotters are confident of hopping. It is less clear whether Corbyn himself would have to do so.

But what appears to have happened is that Iain McNicol, the party’s general secretary, has received legal advice that he should not put Corbyn on the ballot paper unless the parliamentary Labour party does so – advice that he is willing to put his job on the line to follow. McNicol believes that the NEC – which has a fragile Corbynite majority on some issues but not on all – will back him up on this matter. (Significantly, at time of writing, none of the three frontbenchers who hold NEC posts, which are in the gift of the shadow cabinet not the party’s leader, have resigned.)

McNicol himself is currently at Glastonbury. Also on his way back from that music festival is Tom Watson, the deputy leader, whose political protégés include Gloria DePiero, who resigned earlier today. Stiffening the resolve of Labour MPs that they can pull this off and survive the rage of the membership is a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn passed by Wrexham constituency Labour party. The MP there is Ian Lucas, a respected MP from the party’s right, who is now on the backbenches but resigned from Tony Blair’s government in 2006 after Blair refused to set out his departure date.  That coup, of course, was organised by Tom Watson.

Watson is respected by Labour’s general secretaries, who are publicly supportive of Corbyn but many of whom would privately prefer to see the end of him. Crucially, they are even more opposed to John McDonnell, who has been a reliable ally to their leftwing opponents in internal elections.

As for party members, having called around this morning there is certainly some movement away from Corbyn, partly due to the Vice documentary and also due to the referendum campaign. My impression, however, is that the candidate they are looking for – someone who could have much of Corbyn’s politics but with greater political nous and the ability to bring together more of the PLP – doesn’t exist in the parliamentary party. There are some lower-ranked members of the 2010 and 2015 intakes who might fit the bill, but their time is far from ripe. It's also not clear to me how significant that movement away is in percentage terms - Corbyn won by 40 points and was 19 points clear of needing a second round, so his capacity to survive erosion is strong. 

Significantly, within the parliamentary party's three anti-Corbyn tendencies, “the let him fail and strike once” and the "we're stuck with him, keep quiet and do other things" factions are currently recessional and the “strike and strike until he gives up” faction is ascendant, adding to the pressure on the leadership, at least temporarily. The prospect of what may be a winnable election post-Brexit with a different leader - as one MP said to me, "Angela [Eagle] is not that good but she is good enough [should Brexit trigger a recession] - has Corbynsceptics less inclined to write off the next election. 

At the start of the year, I thought that no attempt to replace Corbyn before the election would work. That's still my “central forecast” – but a bet that looked more reliable than a ISA now looks rather shaky.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.