What is a humanist? Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.” I think that sums it up nicely!
Embracing humanism does not require the completion of any prayers, rituals, or payment of fees. There are no punishments, real or imagined, for choosing not to identify as a humanist. Instead, becoming a humanist is a thoughtful decision that mirrors one’s values and preferred way of engaging with the world.
In this article, the second in my series An Introduction to Humanism, I’ll do my best to describe what living a humanistic life looks like in practice.
What are Humanists like in Real Life?
There is no “humanist mold”, so I can only write in generalities. Humanists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and temperaments. Other humanists I’ve met tend to be people who enjoy learning, being informed about the world, and engaging with the here and now. Freethinkers, skeptical, non-conformist, and idealistic are usually fair descriptors.
I’ve found the other humanists I’ve met to be kind, compassionate, and welcoming. However, I also found that some humanists can come off as cold at first. This confused me when I first joined a local humanist community. Eventually I realized this was because people in these communties put a lot of effort into training themselves to think and act rationally instead of emotionally.
As a result, they’re less likely to bounce between emotional extremes during conversation or agree with others just for the sake of it. This can seem like coldness, combativeness, or apathy to people who are not used to it, but I rarely found that to be the case. In my experience, these types of humanists just want to understand something before jumping to conclusions or having an emotional response. I’ve since come to appreciate this approach as thoughtful and authentic.
What do Humanists Do?
Perhaps the best way to describe what a humanist is is to describe what they do and how they live. After all, those who identify as humanists are likely to live a humanistic lifestyle. In my experience, here’s what that looks like.
1. We Live for this Life
Humanism takes the stance that this life is all we get. Humanists value health, happiness, peace, and justice now. We find meaning through art and culture, our relationships, personal growth, and a desire to contribute positively to society. By recognizing that this life is our one opportunity, we’re motivated to make it meaningful and worthwhile.
2. We Learn for its own Sake
Humanists promote learning for its own sake because we believe in the inherent value of knowledge. We view education as a tool for personal growth, ethical understanding, and societal progress. We believe that by embracing lifelong learning, individuals can continually adapt, innovate, and contribute positively to their communities. For us, acquiring knowledge isn’t just a means to an end but a fulfilling and enriching endeavor in its own right.
3. We Appreciate and Participate in Culture
Humanists believe in the importance of art and culture. We see these endeavors as essential to the human experience and insightful when coming to terms with the human condition. We view art as a powerful way to relate to ourselves and others. Culture, in turn, as the way in which we go about that process collectively (and over time). By engaging with art and culture we attempt to broaden our perspectives, challenge our assumptions, and enrich our experience of life.
4. We Advocate for Social Justice
Humanists advocate for social justice because we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of all individuals. We see social justice as a fundamental aspect of human rights and a necessary condition for a fair and equitable society. Humanists argue that by challenging discrimination, inequality, and injustice, we can create more inclusive and compassionate communities. We contend that everyone should have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, regardless of their background or circumstances, and that it’s our collective responsibility to make this possible.
5. We Connect with Each Other
Humanists value community because we recognize that humans are (literally) social creatures. We’re hard-wired for relationships. We believe healthy relationships and supportive community make people happy, brings meaning and purpose into our lives, and provides an environment where we can flourish.
Up Next: How to Find and Join a Local Humanist Community
In this post I’ve described my experience with other humanists and done my best to describe a general humanist lifestyle. After reading this post and my comprehensive guide to humanism, you may be saying to yourself, “Huh. I think I’m a humanist.” If that’s true and you’d like to meet and build relationships with other like-minded people, finding and joining a local humanist community is a logical next step. In my next post in this series I’ll explain how. If you’d like to follow along, please subscribe to my humanism newsletter.