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A Humanist Perspective on Freedom

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Freedom is highly valued by humanists and the prime 'freedom' that is envisaged as an aim is the freedom to pursue one's own ideal of the good life, in so far as it does not compromise the freedom and happiness of others.


Freedom as the essence of human prosperity


Freedom was especially important to early humanists in Europe where they faced persecution and death for their beliefs under Christendom, as many still do in other parts of the world. So freedom has come to be seen by humanists as essential for human prosperity.

In the heart of every man is indelibly imprinted the love of liberty. The more generous his temper, and the more noble his nature, the more securely does this love exist within it...


William Godwin (1756-1836)




Free thought has been an especially important part of the humanist tradition – many early humanists, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, were described as 'freethinkers'. They believed – as humanists today believe – that freedom of thought, belief and enquiry are sound ways to encourage human prosperity and social and intellectual progress.

Freedom of thought does not mean that a man's thought and speech can be free without bringing him any ill-will, unkindness, alienation of what is necessary to his or her happiness. It means that every honest thinker shall be encouraged.


Moncure Conway (1832-1907)


To advance knowledge and to correct errors, unrestricted freedom of discussion is required. History shows that knowledge grew when speculation was perfectly free in Greece, and that in modern times, since restrictions on inquiry have been entirely removed, it has advanced with a velocity that would seem diabolical to the slaves of the medieval church… If the history of civilisation has anything to teach us it is this: there is one supreme condition of mental and moral progress which it is completely in the power of man himself to secure, and that is perfect liberty of thought and discussion.


John Bury (1861-1927)


Questioning authority


There are no authorities to which humanists automatically defer – indeed humanists count it a virtue always to question authority of every sort.


Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.


Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)


I disbelieve in spiritual authority, however sincerely exercised and however nobly garbed. It is right to be respectful to other individuals and indeed to certain individuals, and to listen to what they have to say: one knows little enough and must seize every opportunity. But to believe anything because someone has said it, or because some institution has promulgated it seems dead wrong.


E M Forster (1879-1970)




But just because humanists like to think for themselves doesn't mean there are not other people whose words they trust and whom they view as authorities on some issues. For example, one might view a scientist who has made detailed studies of outer space as an authority in her field. One could never repeat all the experiments that this scientist has done to gain the authority we believe she has, and so it might appear that we accept her authority merely on faith. But the reason that humanists would view her as an authority is that they know that she has, though with greater knowledge, relied on the same method of coming to her conclusions that other humanists would follow if they had been in her place. It perhaps makes more sense to call this faith in authority trust – there are authorities in their fields in whom humanists would place their trust.


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