In the Western World Humanism began in Greece in the 5th century before Christ. It was the Sophists, and in particular Protagoras, who, as Cicero later put it, 'called philosophy down from heaven to earth'. Instead of speculating purely about the cosmos and gods, they introduced political and moral questions. Protagoras, however, was not alone in questioning superstitious belief. Anaxagoras (500 - 428 BC) asserted that the sun was a mass of red hot metal, not a god, an observation which led to a charge of impiety against him.
Then there was Democritus (450-370BC). He was also a materialist, who put forward the theory that the physical world was made up of atoms. Matter, in his view, comprised changeable combinations of atoms which had always existed, the world being formed out of a primeval whirling motion. He also believed that our minds are furnished with ideas based on the experience of things we see and touch and smell and feel and taste - by our experience of the material world. The view of ethics and behaviour he advocated was based on the natural world and not a supernatural one. This view also lies at the heart of modern humanism.
Epicurus (341-270BC) developed the atomism of Democritus and the view that the natural world has no purpose imposed on it. He believed that the universe is eternal and infinitely extended. Life for him is a complex of particularly fine atoms which form both body and mind in a single natural entity whose death is irrevocable dispersal of the person.
The view of life of Epicurus became widely accepted throughout the six hundred years of Creek and Roman civilisation. Since human life had come about by natural processes, people should live according to nature. This would be easy if people were content with what was enough. He wrote: "Death is nothing to us: for after our bodies have been dissolved by death they are without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us. And therefore a right understanding of death makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality".
Epicurus influenced Romans like Lucretius (100 - 55BC). He was a famous poet, who wrote De Rerum Natura ('On the Nature of Things'). It tells of an immense period of time during which the sun, moon and stars appeared, then animals and then human beings - and all this came about without design. The highlight of the poem is an extended argument that human beings are purely material things and so they cannot survive the physical destruction of their bodies. Religion, which teaches otherwise, is therefore a damaging superstition.
Cicero (1 06-43BC), a contemporary of Julius Caesar, was the most brilliant of Roman orators. His lasting influence was on education, where he adopted the Creek model for the school curriculum, known as humanitas, which means humane conduct based on human needs, not supernatural commands.
Stage 2: The Renaissance
Humanism as an influential philosophy was destroyed by the Roman conversion to Christianity. The Dark Ages were so called because the medieval church placed a ball and chain around the human mind. Humanism did not resurface until the Renaissance, which began in 14th century Italy and reached its peak in the ages of Leonardo, Bacon and the works attributed to Shakespeare.
'Renaissance', of course, means rebirth. What was reborn was not only an interest in classical learning and culture but also the rebirth of humanity itself In contrast to the medieval vision of man as a depraved, helpless creature, the Renaissance viewed man as a being of immense possibilities. God still remained as creator and supreme authority because Renaissance Humanists were certainly not atheists, but his activity was seen as less immediate, more as general control than as day-to-day interference.
Leonardo (1452 - 1519) and Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) represented the archetypal renaissance man, with their all embracing curiosity to discover new knowledge and insights and their amazing versatility in both arts and sciences. "I have taken all knowledge to be my province", declared Bacon, and both he and Leonardo believed that the way forward was to reject established authority and go straight to nature itself. Man was again the measure of all things and, as the painter Masaccio put it, he was also free to shape the world as he might choose. The essence of the Renaissance was therefore self-emancipation.
The result, as in ancient Greece, was a further effusion of intellectual, scientific and cultural vitality. Art, literature, astronomy flourished. In literature it reached its peak in the plays and poems ascribed to William Shakespeare. Like Bacon, the mastermind behind the works wished to 'insinuate into men's minds the love of virtue and equity and peace'. The whole Shakespearean drama is indeed intended as a monumental effort to lead man towards a more desirable reality by confronting him with the stark nature of his errors and failings thus far. The playwright seeks to fulfil the role of Orpheus as outlined by Bacon in The Advancement of Learning. It is an educational enterprise, and therefore essentially Humanist. This didactic function in Shakespeare has been recognised by almost every subsequent great artist though frequently denied by literary critics.
The Renaissance project was destroyed by religion. True, Erasmus, More, Luther and others did not hesitate to challenge the power and corruption of institutionalised Christianity. Luther's protest to the Diet of Worms - "Here 1 stand, 1 can do no other" ~ could even be taken as the motto of dissenters and freethinkers everywhere. But the Reformation itself and the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church were destructive forces, which resulted in a century of religious wars in Europe. Both Puritanism and Catholicism are essentially anti freethought and anti-humanist.
Stage 3: The 18th Century Enlightenment
The third stage in the historical development of Humanism was the 18th century Enlighteranent. It was the age of anti-clericalism and the age of reason. Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, D'Holbach, Paine and Hume stood foursquare for human liberation from all tyrannies, not least the tyranny of established religion. "What folly", declared Diderot, "to claim that the authority of tradition is higher than that of reason".
The French philosophes opposed intolerance, superstition and mysticism and believed that the world could be made a better and happier place with a more humane philosophy. Both Voltaire (1694 - 1778) and Diderot (1713 - 1784) were deists rather than atheists, but they were relentless in their attack on the organised churches and in their support for freedom of thought. "Scepticism is the first step towards truth", wrote Diderot in his Pensées Philosophiques.
Voltaire, the assumed name of François-Marie Arouet, spent much of his life in flight or exile or under fear of imprisonment for his writings. He believed that the Christian God of fear and punishment was a travesty of the natural God of the universe. In his early poem Epître à Uranie he wrote: "A God has no need of our assiduous attentions; if he can be offended, it is only by injustice; he judges by our virtues, and not by our sacrifices". His later work Dictionnaire Philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary, Penguin Classics, £7.99) was condemned by the government and church as a n ,alphabetical abomination'. The procureur of Geneva described it as a 'deplorable monument of the extent to which intelligence and erudition can be abused'. He objected that Voltaire quoted from the Bible passages which 'taken literally would be unworthy of Divine Majesty'.
The first avowedly atheist writer was probably D’Holbach (1723 - 1789), a close friend of Diderot. It was his mother-in-law's chateau which became an open house for the philosophes. In Christianity Unveiled D'Holbach wrote: "Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages.
But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality".
In this work D'Holbach depicted Christianity as a combination of Judaism and Eastern mythologies which dominated by playing upon the fears and passions of humanity and by blinding reason with a series of fantastic dogmas and rites. This mixture produced conflict within states and wars between nations. He believed that freedom of thought would cause superstition to 'fall away by itself". He wrote: "Tolerance and freedom of thought are the veritable antidotes to religious fanaticism".
In another work, System of Nature, D'Holbach stressed the materialist basis of all life. He presented a monist vision of the oneness of the universe, with man as a part of the entirety of nature. He thought that the idea of a metaphysical component of the universe was mere prejudice and error fostered by the clergy. In an abbreviated version, called Good Sense, he wrote: "Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of religion, that we shall discover truth, reason and morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies and perpetuates them".
"The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion" - Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809) was another freethinker of this period. Although a deist, he strongly attacked the Bible because he thought it was too violent and ridiculous to be the word of God and the Christian story made no sense of the universe. In The Age of Reason he depicted the Bible as a potpourri of muddled history, poetry and violence. He attacked Christianity, especially the Resurrection, and speculated that if there were men in other worlds God would be busy sending his Son all over the universe to die in atonement. "The Bible", he concluded, "is a book of lies, wickedness and blasphemy; for what can be a greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty". Again: "The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race, have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion".
Stage 4: l9th century – present
Since the 19th century, many of the most important thinkers in philosophy, politics and ethics have been essentially Humanists. In England Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 - 73) were key figures. Bentham campaigned for democracy and equality and the utilitarian principle of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. He did not base his ethics on a god-given code but argued that human beings must work out their own morality. In Analysis of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822) he attacked what he called 'Jug' (juggernaut), his private nickname for religion, claiming that it was irrational and so damaging that it created the 'greatest unhappiness for the greatest number'. Even if God did exist, religion would be 'impotent for the purpose of resisting any temptation, and efficient only in the production of needless and unprofitable misery'.
Like the German philosopher Feuerbach, Karl Marx (1818 83) believed that it was essential to reject God. "The criticism of religion is the foundation of all criticism", he wrote. Like Feuerbach, Marx also regarded it as a projection of man: it is "the self consciousness and self esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again". Marx, however, went further than Feuerbach in claiming that what produces this projection is an unjust ' inhuman society. It is 'the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world', as well as 'the opium of the people'. It was not only the result of inhuman social conditions; it was also powerless against them. As a protest it was totally ineffectual because in diverting attention from the need to change the real world it merely acts as a consolation which serves the interests of those who wield power over others. For Marx, therefore, atheism leads to socialism: "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness"; and again: "The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despised being".
The attack on God in the mid-19th century was not confined to radicals and socialists. The argument from design was effectively destroyed by the theory of evolution by natural selection, espoused by Charles Darwin (1809 ~ 82), in his 1859 landmark work On the Origin of Species. Darwin is central in the development of Humanism because he represents that point in time when the human race first became aware of its place in the evolutionary process. The implication of Darwinism, as Dawkins puts it, is that "slow, gradual, cumulative, natural selection is the ultimate explanation of existence".
Darwin's ideas greatly influenced Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939), who declared a year before he died: "Neither in my private life nor in my writings have I ever made a secret of being an out-and out unbeliever". In Totem and Taboo (1912) and The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud gave an explanation of religion in terms of evolutionary psychology, It was, he wrote, "a universal obsessional neurosis", an infantile illusion in which God is nothing but an exalted, jealous father. Just as the child fears the power of its parents but also trusts them for protection, so adults make gods in their father's image.
The modern history of freethought in Britain probably dates from the 1860s. In 1860 the word 'humanist’ was used in print in the modern sense for the first time. In 1866 the National Secular Society was founded, and in 1869 the South Place Ethical Society, at first a radical unitarian movement, became Humanist after its minister Moncure Conway told the group that he could no longer pray because he no longer believed in God. It was also in 1869 that Thomas Huxley (1826 -95) coined the term 'agnostic'. In his collected essays he explained: "As the chief thing 1 was sure of was that 1 did not know a great many things that the -ists and the -ites about me professed to be familiar with, I called myself an agnostic".
Some Humanists still call themselves agnostic in preference to atheist, though there is not much practical difference between saying that knowledge about any gods is impossible (agnosticism) and saying that we simply do not have such knowledge and will therefore not assume that gods exist (atheism). This was the distinction made by G.W. Foote, the founder of The Freethinker magazine, which first appeared in 1881.
Humanism in both Britain and Europe suffered setbacks between the Two World Wars. In Russia the socialist ideal was perverted into a ruthless totalitarianism, while fascism ruled in many other European countries. Both movements were essentially anti-humanist. But the situation changed again after 1945. Humanism quickly acquired a major status in some European countries, such as Holland and Norway. There are today no fewer than 14 different Dutch Humanist organisations. In 1952 the International Humanist and Ethical Union was founded. It now has a membership of more than 4 million Humanists worldwide. In 1963 the British Humanist Association was founded, followed in 1964 by the Belfast Humanist Group, now the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland, which is rapidly expanding throughout the province.
Bertrand Russell (1871-1970) was one of many famous modern Humanists. In his nineties he informed the American Humanist Association: "My views on religion remain those which I acquired at the age of sixteen. I consider all forms of religion not only false but harmful". The Humanist movement today includes many renowned figures in both the arts and sciences, such as Sir Hermann Bondi, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Michael Foot, Eric Hobsbawm, Ted Honderich, Sir Fred Hoyle, Lord jenkins, Ludovic Kennedy, Richard Leakey, George Melly, Brian Moore, Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien and Arnold Wesker. Humanism is clearly an idea whose time has come.