Humanism is a view of life and a way of life. It is for those people who base their interpretation of existence on the evidence of the natural world and its evolution, and not on belief in a supernatural power. As such, Humanism is older and more universal than Christianity. But when and where did it begin?
Of course, there have always been those who doubted the existence of Gods. But we can only look to the written evidence, and it is Protagoras, a teacher and philosopher of the 5th century BC, who is usually regarded as 'the first Humanist'. He formulated the dictum that man is the measure of all things, by which he probably meant that there is no objective standard or ultimate truth outside human values derived from human experience.
He also taught that justice is a matter of agreed rules, not divine commands. He wrote a book On the Gods, which began: "With regard to the gods, 1 cannot feel sure either that they are or they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder our knowledge the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life".
There is a tradition that for this and similar thoughts the Athenian authorities accused Protagoras of blasphemy, banished him from the city and burned his books in the market place, after sending round a herald to collect them from all who had copies in their possession.
Yet even before Protagoras, there were at least three other prominent figures in the East who could claim to be 'the first Humartisr. Lao Tzu, possibly born about 600 BC, is said to have rejected the idea of a personal god, which he regarded as an imaginative emanation of the life force. His ethic rejected violence and stressed compassion and humility. He said: "Recompense to none evil for evil; repay evil with good"; and "Do good, expecting no return". Many similar maxims are attributed to Lao, whose pacifist code is more consistent even than that of Jesus Christ.
Confucius, who is said to have met Lao Tzu, is another claimant. Born in 551 BC, he spent about fourteen years of his life travelling through China as a teacher. His teachings can be summed up in one word, 'jen', which means love, humanity, or goodness. Central to his ethic was the so-called 'golden rule', which he expressed as: "Do not do to others what you would not like yourself". "Virtue", he also said, "is to love men, and wisdom is to understand men". As to the gods, he suggested keeping them far off. As to serving them, "How, if you know not how to serve men, can you serve their ghosts?"
Then there was Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha or 'enlightened one'. He was born in Nepal about 563 BC, the son of the local rajah. At about the age of thirty he left the luxuries of the court, his wife and all earthly ambitions for the life of an ascetic. After six years of self-torturing he saw what he believed was the perfect way to self-enlightenment.
Partly it lay neither in asceticism nor in excess but in the 'middle way', or via media. He also taught forgiveness of enemies and non-violence. Again, he believed that there was no such thing as a soul and that the universe had no beginning and no end. Clearly, therefore, Buddhism cannot be a religion in the sense of reverential worship of the supernatural but is instead largely a system of social ethics.
Yet, consider the fate of the ideas of these three wise men, Confucius, Lao Tzu and the Buddha. Taoism developed as a superstitious and idolatrous religion in which its founder was worshipped as a deity. Lao Tzu would thus hardly recognise his own philosophy if he could return and see it (but of course the same applies to Christianity; as Nietzsche remarked, the last Christian died on the cross). Nor was it any intention of Confucius to found a religion in the traditional sense though, to be fair, Confucianism , despite its rituals, has no Bible, church, clergy or creed as such.
As for the Buddha, he certainly was not interested in religious rituals and sacrifices and would be horrified to discover that he has been elevated to divine status and is worshipped by millions in the East. So although Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism have been distorted into religions, their founders were Humanists and possibly atheists.
Why do such perversions occur? Two reasons at once spring to mind. One has to do with power. As Shaw said, religions are founded by laymen but are administered by priests. Each new faith represents initially a breakaway from an older creed. Its founders first appear in the eyes of their converts as innovators, even heretics or iconoclasts. But as soon as it becomes a going concern the priests, who are the official 'custodians' of the faith, step in and hereafter take charge. Under their leadership the philosophy then sheds its original, radical and heretical character and becomes a new orthodoxy. The radical layman has given way to the conservative priest, who interprets the creed in ways that strengthen his hold over the faithful. Strong doses of myth, mysticism and mumbo jumbo all add to priestly power and authority.
The second reason for the perversions relates to the general longing for heroes and saviours. Recall the scene at the shuttered window in Life of Brian. The eponymous anti-hero, mistakenly thought to be a messiah, appears above the assembled multitude and tells them: "You don't need to follow me, you don't need to follow anybody, you've gotta think for yourselves, you're all individuals". The adoring crowd responds by repeating his every word and pleading to be told more.
It need no longer be thus. As liberal, secular democracy spreads throughout the world, educated and free citizens do not need to be told what to think by power mad priests and politicians. And soon we shall all come to accept Lao Tzu, Confucius and the Buddha for what they really were: early exponents of the Humanism that will eventually replace all religions as the guiding light of the human race.