A lot of what you hear about humanism make it sound like a modern concept, and due to the institutionalized structure and activities of so many humanist groups and religions it may even appear that humanism could have been something developed to oppose Christianity and other religions. In reality, the origins of humanism actually predate Christianity and can be found in Ancient Greece. Perhaps one of the first advocates of humanism was Socrates. Rather can claiming to know what truth was, Socrates claimed to know nothing and instead created a method for questioning everything. He questioned the rules, he created the cross-examination method of inquiry, and he died advocating human rights and the rule of law. Rather than saying he knew what the truth was, Socrates provided us with a method for searching and finding it on our own. This questioning methodology is really a key principle behind humanism. So what happened?
By the second and third centuries, Christianity had developed into a strong religious and political force and was focused on stamping out paganism and what they considered to be heresy. The Christian evangelists, who each reiterated in their gospels that, “if you are not with us you are against us,” had set the stage for replacing much of the Greek influences. One of the most prominent Christian activists at that time was Tertullian (155-255 CE), a lawyer in Roman Africa who converted to Christianity around 198 CE. He actively despised the Greek philosophers and referred to them as the “patriarchal forefathers of the heretics.” He is remembered today for his famous statement, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” by which he meant “What has Greek thought and philosophy to do with Christianity and its biblical heritage?” Tertullian proclaimed that the unbroken lineage of the bible was the guarantee that it was the truth, and therefore Christians are not offending anyone by speaking against the pagan gods.
An interesting aside with Tertullian is that, while he disconnected himself from Greek thinking and philosophy, his most remembered contribution to Christianity, the Trinity, was actually taken (I say ‘snitched’) from Plato. Compare Tertullian’s Trinity with Plato’s tripartite soul. This serves as a good example of the fact that denying a connection puts one in a situation in which one is likely to make a connection without realizing it; you can’t easily disconnect yourself from what you have learned in the past, it stays with you.
Why not simply go along one of the many humanistic religions that exist in the world today? Certainly, they embrace the humanist ideals I’ve been talking about. The issue I have with them is that they are institutionalized, hierarchal organizations more focused on the group than the individual participant. If you go online to the American Humanist Association, for example, you’ll see the Humanist Manifesto and the things that they are doing, such as lobbying, to promote humanist causes, and they’re asking for your money to help them promote themselves. I am interested in contributing to humanity from the perspective of the individual, not contributing to humanist organizations who are basically acting the same as any other organized religion. Nothing against them or any other religion, and they are no doubt meeting the needs of many people, but I have no interest in an institutionalized religion.
Existential humanism is back to basics for the individual thinking person.