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3 Types of Humanism - Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga

3 Types of Humanism

3 Types of Humanism

presented on Zoom March 14th, 2021 Rev. Ben Robins

Here we are. Human Beings. We’re born, we live, we die. This is the human predicament. This is where we find ourselves. How, then, do we live our lives?

This is the big question of humanism. Humanism says that there are no stone tablets that contain all the answers. There is no oracle to go to, to receive ultimate truth. We need to figure things out for ourselves. What a responsibility. Humanism is about taking on that responsibility.

Today, we’re going to discuss 3 types of humanism, 3 ways that we might reasonably live our lives. But first, let’s look at what they have in common.

First of all, humanism says that we should live ethically. We shouldn’t let custom or received morality dictate our behaviour. We need to consider, what is right behaviour. We won’t always know how to live ethically, but we ought to try.

And how do we figure it out? We use our minds. This is a 2nd attribute of humanism: reason. Not cold logic, but reason tempered by human values. We listen to our conscience and intuition, we consider our feelings and beliefs, we test our beliefs with experience and experiments, we dialogue with each other. We engage in discernment.

A 3rd attribute of humanism is about how we govern ourselves. Humanism says that we should govern ourselves democratically. Not simply by majority rule, though, because majorities can make mistakes just like individuals can. So we make decisions democratically, while protecting individuals by valuing human rights.

A 4th attribute of humanism is that it combines freedom and responsibility. We all ought to be free, and we should use whatever freedom we have to help all be free, to help sustain and expand our freedom.

That’s the framework of humanism: Live ethically, thoughtfully, and democratically, valuing both freedom and responsibility.

This brings us to the ultimate goal of humanism. The ultimate goal of humanism is to maximize fulfillment. Humanist Canada points out that fulfillment comes not just from living ethically and thoughtfully, but also from the arts, from creative living, from addressing the challenges of our time.

That leaves a lot of room for variety, and brings us to our topic for today: 3 types of humanism. 3 different ways of finding fulfillment. I got these types of humanism from the author Yuval Harari, but the descriptions are my own (Harari has an unusual definition of humanism which I disagree with).

Our first type of humanism is liberal humanism. The emphasis here is on freedom. Freedom for you, freedom for your neighbour, freedom for the stranger, freedom for the oppressed. This is the traditional type of humanism that came to dominate early Unitarian culture. A focus on developing as individuals. Perhaps you picture Henry David Thoreau, living alone beside Walden Pond. You can do what you want, where you want. Your first minister, Rev Don Stout, back in the 1950s, had a vision “To be free in the sunlight with none to call him in or hush his song.” If I understand correctly, that quote is on a plaque outside UCM, beside a maple tree. “To be free in the sunlight with none to call him in or hush his song.” That’s liberal humanism.

There is a part of us that needs to leave home and explore, that needs to blow in the wind and rise in the sea, that needs to turn up every rock and look beyond every horizon. In the phrase “Roots hold me close, wings set me free”, liberal humanism puts the focus on wings setting each of us free. We have enormous capacity to be free spirits.

This can be fulfilling for awhile, perhaps breathing life into some adventurous living in your 20s, but we can also get homesick. Our second type of humanism is social humanism. The emphasis here is on relationship and commitment. We give up some of our freedom in order to share life, because this is where we find meaning. We know our neighbours. We go to birthday parties. We have songs that we all know and love.

Wendell Berry said, “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.” Our commitments limit us, but in doing so they open up new opportunities for connection and meaningful living.

In the phrase “Roots hold me close, wings set me free”, the emphasis in social humanism is on roots holding me close. We put down roots. As humanists, we should be free to choose; and social humanists choose to give up some freedom for relationship.

So those are our first 2 types of humanism: Liberal humanism and social humanism. Roots and wings. Our 3rd type of humanism is evolutionary humanism (again, I got the term from Yuval Harari, but disagree with his definition). Evolutionary humanism points out that, in the grand scheme of things, humans have only existed for a blip of time. Even roots and wings have only existed for so long. Some evolutionary humanists look backwards, at the roots of humanity, but today I will focus on those who look forward, who ask, after humans, what might come next? Once you open yourself up to imagining the future of the evolutionary process, once you imagine what species might transcend humanity, it can mesmerize you, and shift your attention towards creating that future. You become much more future-oriented, because there is so much of it, and the upcoming stages of evolution have so much potential. The present is mostly only important insofar as it contains the seeds of tomorrow.

Liberal, social and evolutionary humanism. Freedom, relationship, and unleashing potential. Three ways to be human. Three ways to love and nurture the interdependent web. Three ways to be you. All have a place in this community (all also have a shadow side).

For our meditation, I invite you to go inwards. We’re going to go inward and tune into our inner humanists. Close your eyes if that feels comfortable. Feel your feet on the floor. And just breathe. And then go deeper. Listen to that part of you that wants to blow in the wind and rise in the sea. Listen for that part of you that yearns to be free and deserves to be free. And breathe. And go deeper. And listen for that part of you that wants to connect, that wants to go where everybody knows your name, that part of you that wants to sing songs that have been sung for a thousand years. And breathe. And go deeper. And listen for that part of you that goes back to our evolutionary ancestors, and listen for that part of you that knows that the evolution continues.

And just breathe, and notice what flavours of humanism are within you.

These 3 types of humanism feel like family to me. I love them all. They’re all within me.

Sometimes they get along great. The social humanist is helping everyone to co-create deep community. Life is rich and meaningful. So much humanity. As I said: neighbours, birthday parties, singing songs that everyone knows.

The liberal humanist is keeping things fresh by challenging stale ideas and researching better ways.

The liberal humanist is working so that everyone is free. By learning best governance practices and ensuring that rules are fairly enforced, they aim for a free society. The social humanist has the depth of relationship to find out what each of us actually needs to feel free. The liberal humanist ensures that there is food for all. The social humanist knows your food sensitivities. Our humanists benefit from working together.

The liberal humanist encourages everyone to leave home and explore the world, to learn new recipes, new songs, new ways of being. The social humanist provides a home to come back to, and an ongoing choir that loves to learn new songs.

If liberal humanism comes to dominate, we have a problem: Everyone is going off into the world to explore, and there is no home to come back to. And what do these free spirits do out in the world? They discover the need for relationship.

I wonder how many people here joined hippy communes in their younger days, in order to live as free spirits. That over-the-top freedom didn’t last long, as you discovered that a common culture is needed to work out things like, who is doing the dishes, and when are quiet hours. And the over-the-top freedom of hippy communes didn’t lead to democracy, it led to being taken over by charismatic leaders. The 1960s and 1970s had a lot of experiments in how to navigate both freedom and community.

If social humanism comes to dominate, there is a different problem: When social ties bind too tightly, relationship is no longer a choice made freely; it is a requirement. If everyone is on Facebook, you need to be there, or you’ll miss out. And community doesn’t naturally blossom like a beautifully-choreographed contra dance; it’s often more like trying to run a group 3-legged race, with people tied to each other but running off in all directions. People in the community need to be willing to shape themselves into the community. Social humanism depends on people having the liberty to leave, so that the people who stay are glad to be here and are in the mood to cooperate.

And what about evolutionary humanism? Evolutionary humanism encourages outside-the-box thinking, like the NASA space program that resulted in many new inventions of immediate benefit. Evolutionary humanism provides new plot lines for futuristic Netflix series. The TV show Star Trek was ostensibly about encountering other life forms in outer space, but it was really a humanist story, by a humanist named Gene Roddenberry.

Thinking about the future in Star Trek can provide the detachment and perspective we need to see ourselves more clearly today. When we get beyond our own place and time, we get a broader view of what it means to be free and what it means to be in relationship, what it means to find meaning. Also, evolutionary humanism encourages us to be humble, because it locates us within a much larger story. Evolutionary humanism is a big help.

But if evolutionary humanism comes to dominate, it will mean that people care more about tomorrow than today. Many people working on artificial intelligence believe that the changes it will bring will completely overwhelm any current events, and so they might be less likely to tend to today’s injustices.

Our 3 types of humanism need each other. When one goes too far, the others can swoop in to renew, or swoop around and circumvent. I asked you last month, what are your 3 things, or 5 things, that ground you and shape your life. Humanism also has 3 things, or 5 things. We need multiplicity. We need multiple centres, multiple perspectives, multiple strategies. Sometimes they’ll complement each other, and we’ll feel like a movement living in harmony. Sometimes our different outlooks will challenge each other, and call for change. There is room for your gifts and your inner humanists. In difficult times, when my soul is weary and I don’t see a way forward, what gives me hope is that humanity is resilient. There are many ways to be, and love will find a way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and will put my email address in the chat.


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