An Introduction to Secular Humanist “Isms”

A lot of confusing “isms” —secular humanism, posthumanism, etc.— get thrown around on Civitas Humana. This page is meant to provide readers with short, working definitions of and brief introductions to various terms and concepts as they are used in the context of this site. This page will be updated as needed, and, as part of this updating process, readers are encouraged to suggest new entries or note mistakes they see. All resources consulted for these definitions will either be cited through imbedded links in the definitions or in the neighboring ‘Recommended Resources‘ tab.

Here follow the definitions:

The Human Condition is, not surprisingly, the condition of being human. When one references the human condition, one is referencing a general collective of emotions, situations, and states that are decidedly and definitively human (and not shared by other animal species or intelligent machines). The human condition encompasses things like human curiosity and desire, the “meaning of life” and our quests to find it, the pervasive isolation of sentience, the experience of the sublime, and, of course, the oblivion that arches shadow-like over each life, and our realization of the inevitability of our shared fate. The human condition is just as much “life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth,” as it is the realization that, as humans, we are merely “a community of idiots doing a series of things until the world explodes and we all die.” 

Many fields of research—like philosophy, sociology, and literary criticism—have attempted to study or explain the human condition: this is in part why we call these and similar fields “the humanities.” Some fields, like medicine, political science, and theology, currently and historically have tried to fix the human condition by somehow alleviating our situation. Medical doctors stave off untimely deaths with innumerable tinctures, political scientists fight to understand, develop, and implement systems that facilitate equality in our pursuits of curiosities or desires, and theologians chase away the shadows of death by illuminating for the downtrodden undying universes beyond their own which they may someday join. However, unlike medicine or political science, both of which have been empirically proven to be effective, the field of theology provides only a false, “quick fix” to the problems of the human condition.

It is crucial to remember the centrality of the human condition to religion when discussing the possibility of a post-religious future. Consider the following quote from apologist William Lane Craig:

“If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality life leads only to the grave… And the universe faces death too… The entire universe is plunging towards its inevitable extinction— death is written throughout its structure. There is no escape. There is no hope” (As quoted in Michael Martin’s Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, pg. 13-14).

In expressing his concerns about a universe without God, Craig is drawing from that most prominent feature of the human condition: the realization of the inevitability of demise. In this quote, however, he also reveals clearly what it is about religion that seems to “fix” for its followers that inevitability. If, in a universe without God, there is “no escape” or “no hope,” then a universe with God offers for the religious an “escape” from death’s inevitability and a “hope” of good things after. In discussing the possibility of a post-religious world or in suggesting systems to fill the role of religion in the future, we must remember and address these ways in which religion appears to fix the human condition.

Humanism is a philosophy that promotes the well-being of human beings and the careful curation of human societies above all else. According to philosopher Stephen Law, ‘humanism’ most broadly refers to “little more than a system of thought in which human values, interests, and dignity are considered particularly important” (Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 28). This sort of humanism is widely employed by thinkers from a variety of backgrounds and in a variety of time periods, and has historically been espoused by theologians and secular thinkers alike. Only recently has humanism become more closely associated with secularism than theology, leading to the coinage of the term “secular humanism” to describe this specifically non-religious development.

Secular Humanism specifically is a term coined “to emphasize that [humanist] beliefs are divorced from any religious belief.” Thus, unlike mere humanism, which seeks primarily the betterment of humanity, secular humanism is concerned with the betterment of humanity via the removal of its more damaging practices, like dogma and blind faith [1]. Many of the concerns of secular humanism are more institutional than individual: a main interest of secular humanists, for example, is the development of a secular state. Such a state would remain neutral, neither religious or anti-religious, despite the religiosity (or lack thereof) of its constituents.

The secular humanist, then, is one who advocates for systemic secularism that protects and promotes the most central tenets of humanism. It is specifically humanism in light of secular, empirically-verified naturalism. The most important element of secular humanism is that it is a positive, active philosophy. Philosophies like atheism or agnosticism, per their alpha privatives, are negative in scope; that is, they are defined only in the absence of certain positive concepts (if “theism” projects a positive item, than atheism is the negative item that develops opposite it). Secular humanism is unique because it itself has a positive scope and is not defined by its negation of any one thing. To more accurately paraphrase Madalyn Murray O’Hair, then:

A [secular humanist] believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. A [secular humanist] believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said. A [secular humanist] strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. [S/He] wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.

Transhumanism is a growing concept and movement that posits that the human condition may be fixed or at least profoundly altered through the implementation of augmentation technologies. Or, in the words of leading transhumanist organization Humanity Plus, “transhumanism promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for elevating the human condition and the human organism, opened up by the advancement of technology.” The end goal of most of transhumanist thought is to achieve a widely-accessible “posthuman” state in which every element of the human condition is controlled.

Transhumanists are humanists that, much like theists, attempt to fix the human condition by predicting an eventual posthuman future where the concerns of the human condition will be largely mitigated; however, unlike theists, these predictions are (usually) rooted in a naturalist metaphysical system, thus making their eventual occurrence much more likely. Be aware that a decent amount of transhumanism is or closely resembles kookery, and that some of it tenets are based on a sometimes disturbing futurism or technoutopianism.  However, as transhumanist thought becomes more standardized,  it will likely pave the way for the development of much of future philosophy.

Posthumanism is difficult to define cohesively. It suffices to say that, in the words of Francesca Ferrando, posthumanism “has become a key term to cope with an urgency for the integral redefinition of the notion of the human, following the onto-epistemological as well as scientific and bio-technological developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” That is, in many ways, posthumanism is the yet-undefined way modern people refer to the world of the future and its inhabitants. Posthumanism takes into account the fact that technology has been a major driving force of change in the past, and posits that it will remain such an influential source of change in the future. Posthumanism also frequently imagines a world very much unlike our own, a world in which astounding, more ubiquitous technologies have forever altered the landscape of the human.

Though posthumanism has many variant definitions and levels of intensity, it can essentially be understood as the conception of an era in which human beings (and the human condition they exist in), because of technological or other advances, are fundamentally different from their ancestors (and from the condition of those ancestors).

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[1] Note that the term “secular humanism” is more common in the US to distinguish atheistic or agnostic humanism from potentially more religious forms of humanism. In the UK, the full term is rarely used, though ‘H’umanism is frequently capitalized when used in a specifically non-religious sense.

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