Humanism is a belief in the value, freedom, and independence of human beings. For a humanist, all human beings are born with moral value, and have a responsibility to help one another live better lives. Humanism emphasizes reason and science over scripture (religious texts) and tradition, and believes that human beings are flawed but capable of improvement. It also tries to discover the truths about the universe and humanity’s place within it. Humanism is usually very individualistic, seeing each person as important in his or her own right, regardless of the needs of the community. Some humanists, however, have a more collectivist outlook that focuses on balancing individual rights against the needs of the community.
In literature, humanism is characterized (shown) by complex characters struggling against each other (or against the cruelties of fate). It is generally optimistic, though it can also show people suffering through very difficult circumstances. In the end, the hero of a humanistic story always wins through a combination of determination, honor, and the help of friends.
II. Types of Humanism
Humanism is often associated with atheism (the belief that God does not exist). You can see why, of course — if you emphasize the value and freedom of human beings, you might also be de-emphasizing the value of God and the divine law. In addition, humanism believes that we should exercise individual powers of reason rather than accepting the truth of scriptures or dogma, and this goes against the teachings of some religions. In today’s world, many humanists are secular humanists (i.e. atheists).
However, not all humanists are atheists. In fact, there’s also a Christian Humanist movement that’s as old as humanism itself. (There’s also Jewish humanism, Islamic humanism, and various other traditions.) In religious humanism, the idea is basically that God exists, but he wants us to act like humanists — to search for truth on our own, to exercise free will, and to strive to make the world a better place. For religious humanism, God is very real, but tends to stay in the background of things rather than interfering or demanding constant praise.
III. Examples of Humanism
“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” (Anne Frank)
Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. She and her family suffered terribly under Nazi rule, and they ultimately died in a concentration camp. Yet Frank’s diary is touchingly optimistic about human nature, despite all the horrors she had witnessed, and this marks it as a deeply humanistic book. Since Frank was Jewish and believed in God, her views would be described as religious humanism.
“It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?” (The Giver)
Lois Lowry’s The Giver is a humanist story set in the far future, when human beings have successfully eliminated choice, color, and emotion from their lives. As a result, there is no more war or conflict. But there is also no freedom — every choice is made by society, not by the individual. In the book, the main character gradually comes to the decision that this is wrong. That it’s better to live with freedom and emotion rather than in the bland safety of the black-and-white world he grew up in. In this quote, he is starting to believe that it’s better to make your own choices even if this opens up the possibility that you’ll choose wrong.
IV. The Importance of Humanism
Humanism has a deep influence on modern culture. For example, we often object to something by saying it’s “a violation of human rights.” The idea of human rights is a humanistic because it emphasizes the worth that is within each individual person. The non-humanist approach would be to say that the behavior was wrong because it was “against God’s law” or “contrary to tradition.” These types of arguments still exist in the modern world, but they’re much less common than they used to be because humanism is so popular.
Some religious people criticize secular humanism because they see it as taking the place of God. From this point of view, only God has natural value, and morality can only come from loving God and obeying the scriptures. Of course, religious humanists would object to this! They would say that loving God and obeying the scriptures is the same as respecting human rights and valuing individual lives.
V. How to Use Humanism
Note: these are steps for using humanism in creative writing. Humanism can also be used in essays (see next section), but there are no special steps or rules for this, other than the steps for writing any other essay.
- Decide which type of humanism you want to use. Is your story going to be religious humanist? Or secular humanist? This decision will make a big difference for how you present humanism
Create a challenge/conflict. This, of course, is a crucial step in writing any story! If you’re drawing on humanism, though, you have to make sure that it’s a challenge which human beings can overcome through their inborn (perhaps God-given) abilities.
- Show the hero overcoming the challenge. The hero should draw on inner strength, courage, dedication, loyalty, etc., to overcome the challenge. There should be no outside help from God even if it’s a religious humanist story. (In religious humanism, the message is that God has already given us everything we need to live well.) There should be some difficult choices, showing that the hero has free will and isn’t afraid to use it.
VI. When to Use Humanism
Humanism has been the inspiration for countless works of literature and art, so it’s great for creative writing classes. If you’re trying to write a story but don’t know what to write about, consider starting from humanist themes — put a human being in a difficult situation, and think about how inner resources, moral courage, and hope might help the character win out in the end. Make sure that the hopeful ending is the result of human effort and freedom, and that you paint a positive picture of human nature.
Humanism can also make sense in formal essays, especially on ethics or philosophy. If you happen to be a secular humanist, for example, you might consider writing an essay on a topic like “How Morality Can Exist Without God.” If you’re a religious humanist, you might write about “Free Will in the Bible.” This would be a way to explore your humanism in essay form. As an exercise, you might even consider switching your view! Whatever you believe about humanism, write an argument for the opposite position so that you can strengthen your skills of critical thinking and analytic writing.
VIII. Examples of Humanism in Literature
The Little Prince is a secular-humanist story in the way it presents people as inherently good, but flawed. In this story, human beings are born noble, and children keep their innocence and moral virtue, but sometimes adults lose sight of it. The story encourages us to get back in touch with our “inner child” and presents the hopeful possibility that we can all become happier and more ethical if we hang on to our childish innocence.
“A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy and nothing can stop him.” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
Solzhenitsyn was a Christian Humanist from Soviet Russia. After fighting in the Red Army in World War II, he became disillusioned with Communist rule and wrote several novels and essays about Soviet oppression and mistreatment. He was imprisoned for his writings, and suffered greatly at the hands of the government he was criticizing. In his works, however, there is always a grim sense of hope and the possibility of happiness, even in the depths of a Soviet prison.
IX. Examples of Humanism in Popular Culture
Predator is an action-horror film in which an alien comes to Earth to hunt humans as a sport. Over the course of the movie, nearly every character dies, but eventually the last survivor defeats the Predator. How can all this gore and darkness be humanistic? Because it’s supposed to show how resilient and strong we all are deep down. In the movie and its sequels, we learn that the aliens specifically love to hunt humans because this resiliency and tough-mindedness makes us a bigger challenge to kill, even though we are physically weak and lack advanced technology.
“Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace” (John Lennon — Imagine)
This John Lennon song is almost a national anthem of secular humanism. The idea behind the song is simple: if we stripped away all the structures of religion and politics, we’d be left with raw human existence, and the world would be peaceful! This is a very hopeful humanistic view; it does not consider the possibility that raw human nature might be savage, violent, or cruel.
“No redemption from the skies. No response from heaven. No relief will ever come from beyond this realm. Ward off your fears! Break your harness! Forge your own fate!” (Insomnium — The Promethean Song)
Secular humanism isn’t limited to hippies, though. These lyrics are from the heavy metal band Insomnium, and they express a very similar outlook in a completely different musical genre. The singer encourages us to embrace freedom and independence rather than depending on supernatural help which, he says, will never come.