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A Humanist Perspective on Politics

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Humanists do not believe we have any future life after death, and do not believe that there is any divine or supernatural assistance available to humanity. This view means that human beings, and human beings alone, are responsible for deciding how they should live with one another. That means initiating, changing and enforcing the rules they live by in community with one another. Many humanists believe it is the responsibility of every individual to take as full a role as possible in the politics of their community. As the philosopher Epictetus put it in the first century, ‘No sensible man should opt out of the government of his state because it is both impious to withdraw from being useful to those who need it, and cowardly to give way to the worthless. It is stupid to choose to be governed badly, rather than govern well.’

To the right and to the left
Humanists generally believe in the liberal principle of each person having as much freedom as possible, as far as it does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of other people (though this is often more complicated in practice than it sounds). On some of the most complex political questions humanists, like people of any worldview, often have very diverse opinions. There are however some general things that can be said about why humanists might come down on one side of the political divide or another.

Humanists who lean to the right of the political spectrum are likely to be so because they value human freedom and liberty. They do not like to see these limited by states any more than is necessary for good order in society and to allow meritocracy. Karl Popper, a humanist political scientist of the mid-twentieth century, valued an open society, which he compared with the Athenian society described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides about 2,500 years ago: ‘Our constitution is called a democracy, because power is in the hands of the many not the few. The law treats all men alike in their private disputes: and when public honours and public offices are awarded, it is on the basis of merit alone, not because a man belongs to a particular class or party. If a man has the capacity to serve the state, he is never kept in obscurity because he is poor.’

Humanists who are left-wing are likely to be so because they believe in the equality of people. They believe that it is justified for the community as a whole to step in and empower people who would otherwise be disadvantaged. M N Roy, a famous Indian humanist, said ‘Democracy can be established only by the reassertion of the humanist tradition. Man is the measure of his world. Being inherently rational, he can always learn from experience. He develops his intellectual faculties and moral values in his efforts to secure a better life for himself. That ability is not confined to a few, nor acquired at a particular economic level.’

But a secular state
Almost all humanists support a secular state, by which they mean one in which religious institutions are separate from the institutions of the state, and in which no individual citizen is advantaged or disadvantaged because of their religious or non-religious views.