How Does the Secular Humanist View the Idea of Soul or Mind?

by Aaron Thorpe
Humanist morality comes from reason and free thought, not faith or scripture.

Humanist morality comes from reason and free thought, not faith or scripture.

Popular misunderstandings of what Secular Humanism is and what Secular Humanists believe are widespread. Many people outside the Humanist community view it as little more than organized atheism, however, this does them a great disservice in that it oversimplifies the Humanist position to the detriment of what they consider much more important aspects of their belief system, such as the intellectual exploration of the world around us, ethical behavior and compassion for others. For Secular Humanists, nontheism is not a motivating force but rather a logical extension of their reverence for science, reason and critical thought.

The Soul

Civil rights activist and former president of the American Humanist Association, Corliss Lamont, described Humanism as a philosophical system "that considers all forms of the supernatural as myth." As such, the concept of the soul as an immortal spirit that somehow transcends our physical form and will live on after our physical death is one that Secular Humanism rejects. Humanists tend to view the idea -- particularly as it's promoted by traditional, theistic religions with their attendant notions of divine punishment or reward -- as ultimately detrimental to human development and potential insofar as it interferes with our desires to fully explore our world and diverts responsibility from us and our own actions onto a deity or other divine power.

The Mind as an Encapsulation of the Self

Because of Secular Humanism's rejection of faith in favor of reason and science, and its high valuation of curiosity and critical thought, it follows that their ideas of the mind, consciousness and identity are similarly inspired. While there is no established position among Humanists about precisely what that entails, many have explored the subject in depth and turn to both science and philosophy in search of answers. Generally speaking, Humanists reject the idea that there is a "self" that is separable from our physical being. They hold that humanity is part of the natural world and, therefore, subject to the same evolutionary processes that govern other life-forms. Our identities are the cumulative results of biological, social and cultural forces and individual experiences.

The Mind as an Intellectual Instrument

Humanists believe science is our best tool for solving the world's problems.

Humanists in general believe that intellectual faculties such as observation, experimentation and critical thinking are the only effective means for understanding our world and our place within it. Secular Humanists also hold skepticism in very high regard. All assumptions and assertions, old or new, are subject to challenge and the rigors of critical analysis. To this end, the mind is of paramount importance. It is through the careful application of intellect that human society effectively addresses its various challenges and thereby grows and progresses.

Part of a Greater Whole

Although nontheism and a reverence for humankind's intellectual capacity are important aspects of Secular Humanist belief, it must be noted that they are not the sum-total. Rather, they are individual parts of a much broader philosophy that emphasizes ethical behavior and the responsibility of every individual to work towards a more just and compassionate world. To take Secular Humanists simply as atheists is to mistake them entirely, for theirs is not a tradition of mere disbelief but one of tolerance, openness and a quest for greater understanding.

About the Author

Aaron Thorpe has been writing on social and cultural issues for more than 20 years. He studied history and English at Portland State University. In addition to his work here, Thorpe also writes short fiction and essays which he publishes on his own blog, The Bitter Optimist.

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