Because Humanism is a philosophy that encourages free thought and questioning, it is practiced and defined in many different ways. For example, some of the Ethical Society of St. Louis members consider Humanism to be their religion, while others consider themselves non-religious.
The founder of Ethical Humanism Felix Adler said it is “religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.”
While there are certain beliefs all Humanists share, like the affirmation of dignity and worth of all people, pinning down one concrete definition of Humanism is nearly impossible, since members are encouraged to embrace the philosophy on their own terms.
One way we can better understand the goals and core values of Humanism is to learn from those who have lived and are living its principles. The following four famous Humanists have contributed to our history and rich ethical culture.
Author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) shared the human experience with humor and wisdom in all 14 of his novels. By showing us the complexities within each of his flawed yet relatable characters, he taught us how to embrace forgiveness and hope.
During WWII, he was captured as a prisoner of war and survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany, on Feb. 13, 1945. He wrote of the British and American airplanes that dropped almost 4,000 tons of explosives on the city, “Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed… possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.”
In 1992, Vonnegut was named Humanist of the Year, and he became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president from May 1992 until his death on April 11, 2007. We encourage you to listen to his Humanist of the Year Award Speech, “Why My Dog is Not a Humanist,” which is full of wit and insight. The words shed light on Humanism in a way only Vonnegut can.
Zora Neale Hurston
Novelist, Activist and Folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was best known for her portrayals of racial struggles in the American South. Her strong spirit of questioning and informed empathy for others was imbued with the essence of Humanism.
Born to a Baptist preacher, she was skeptical of religion even as a child. However, she did not wish to deny anyone else the rights to their own beliefs. “I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation [religion] affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.”
After earning her Bachelors of Art in Anthropology, Hurston traveled through the South and the Caribbean gathering stories and dialects she would later include in her writings. Her original recordings are housed at the Library of Congress. Today, she is celebrated for her contributions to the academic understanding of African American folklore and for her accurate depictions of language and oral tradition in her work.
R. Buckminster Fuller
Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller (1895-1983) was an inventor, architect, philosopher, designer and author. He developed numerous inventions, including the well-known geodesic dome. He referred to himself as property of the universe and his work as the property of humanity. He hoped for the “education and sustenance of all.”
By age 32, Fuller was bankrupt, jobless and living in public housing in Chicago. In 1922, when his young daughter Alexandra died from complications of polio, he felt like a failure, and during this time of deep depression, he began to contemplate suicide. Instead, he chose to embark on what he called “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”
Fuller was a champion of renewable energy sources. He popularized the phrase “Spaceship Earth,” and many claim he is one of the founders of the environmental movement. He sought to discover an approach to living that would “make the world work” or, in other words, provide adequate food, energy and shelter for 100% of humanity. In 1969, he was named Humanist of the Year for his lifetime of work.
Co-founder and host of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman has dedicated her life to investigative journalism. She began writing for her high school and college newspapers and remains dedicated to holding those in power accountable. Her passionate pursuit of truth coupled with her dedication to providing a rational humanist perspective makes her a champion of all people.
Goodman thinks the media can be the “greatest force for peace on earth.” She told The Humanist in an interview, “I think that information is power and also hope. It’s people knowing where they stand. I think someone’s political bent doesn’t matter. People want to have honest information and then they can make their own decisions. And it’s fine to disagree. But what’s critical is to have accurate information.”
The American Humanist Association honored Goodman with the Feminist Humanist Award in 2005 because of her significant contributions to social justice. In 2016, she was arrested on trespassing and rioting charges in North Dakota while covering Native American-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The charges were dropped. But, her arrest helped spread awareness of the water protectors, and two months later President Barrack Obama halted construction of the pipeline.
The above Humanists have stood up for the inherent worth of every person while striving to improve the quality of life for others. They serve as a testament to the fact that ethics are derived from our human experiences. The world is a better place because of their efforts and insights.