Learning the many faces of humanism

By Mark Vernon
April 22, 2008

School students will soon be able to study humanism as part of a Religious Studies GCSE under new proposals from the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations board (OCR).

A Philosophy and Ethics element will allow the study of topics, like God, and issues, such as abortion, from the perspective of different belief systems. Humanism has been added to this list ‘to reflect the increasing number of people sharing humanist beliefs in the UK’, the OCR said.

Needless to say the British Humanist Association is delighted by the move. Andrew Copston, Director of Education at the BHA, hopes that it will make Religious Studies more engaging for young people, as well as more representative of the diversity of beliefs in contemporary society. Most religious people would presumably concur.

But it will be interesting to see how the course shapes up, not least because it is not always clear what a humanist position on matters the GCSE will cover might be.

Historically, humanism was born in the Renaissance. Then, it was a Christian affair – humanists like Petrarch, Ficino and Erasmus variously responding to medieval theology and providing it with a distinctly anthropocentric turn. During the eighteenth century, that of the Enlightenment, humanist figures were variously atheist, deist and theist – though the bigger hitters, like Voltaire, Hume and Kant, tended to be agnostic if not of fulsome faith.

It was only in the late nineteenth and twentieth century that some humanists began to argue that humanism should be exclusively identified with atheism, and against traditional religions. That spawned a complex, often heated debate, with those behind organized humanism preferring, on the whole, a distinctly atheist approach, not least to provide a sense of clear self-definition.

Whether or not humanism should see itself as an alternative to religion, as opposed to a position that had turned its back on such systems altogether, was a concurrent debate. Auguste Comte, a French philosopher, invented a ‘Religion of Humanity’. He admired the Roman Catholic church, and produced secular versions of creeds and liturgies. For a while, he was said to be as influential as Marx and Darwin. His inheritors today are those humanists who campaign for secular saints days and, say, for humanism to be on the list as a quasi-religious alternative.

But not all humanists agree. E.M. Forster, who considered himself to be a humanist, thought the word itself encouraged ‘bored withdrawal’. It wasn’t substantial enough to campaign for as a distinctive ‘ism’. Today, humanists like Tim Crane, professor of philosophy at UCL, argue that humanism cannot add up to being a moral system, as reported on these pages (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6412).

Part of the issue here is that it is arguably more correct to say that there is no such thing as humanism but rather humanisms. Philosophies as different as Marxism, existentialism, pragmatism and Christianity itself have all claimed to be a humanism.

This points to something else: just how distinctive humanism is from liberal Christianity – not least when it comes to ethical issues like abortion. For example, it's quite routine in progressive Christian ethics to argue that moral matters can and should be debated apart from reference to God, on the grounds that our reason is itself God-given, as is our human responsibility. Indeed, such an approach sees itself as steering a path between a straightforward reliance on the Bible, on the one hand, and on the other, a reliance on the tradition. That makes it Christian and humanist.

So, humanism is undoubtedly a rich and fascinating subject. I’ve just spent some while writing ‘Teach Yourself Humanism’, due out this summer, so I can testify to that. My concern about the GCSE, then, is not that humanism should be included in Religious Studies. Far from it. Rather, it is that humanism might be presented simply in opposition to other systems of belief. I fear that focusing on specific issues will close down humanism’s history and diversity.

Maybe that is inevitable to a degree when presenting the subject for the purposes of examination like GCSEs. But the interest in, and flourishing of, humanism is closely tied to its historic and present diversity. Both will be eroded if its relationship with religion is presented as a zero-sum game.


(c) Mark Vernon. Mark's latest book is 42: Deep Thought on Life, the Universe, and Everything (Oneworld). Teach Yourself Humanism (Hodder Education) is out in July 2008. See also: www.markvernon.com

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