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A Humanist perspective on Social Action

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‘Happiness is the only good, and the way to be happy is to make others so.' These words of Robert Ingersoll, a nineteenth-century American humanist, have been criticised by some for being naïve, but they demonstrate the driving principle that lies behind many humanists' commitment to social action. As another nineteenth-century humanist, George Eliot, put it: ‘God, Immortality, Duty ... how inconceivable the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.'


The inspiration of compassion and justice

Because of their belief that this world is the only one we have and that human problems can only be solved by humans, humanists have often been very active social reformers. Compassion and a sense of justice inspired by the conviction that all human beings are of equal dignity have been the guiding principles for much of this work. Most humanists believe in democracy, open government and human rights, and support action on world poverty and the environment. Some were and are pacifists, and many are active in charities and politics. Early humanists campaigned for wider access to contraception and for the legal acceptance of non-religious oaths. Before the state took over much social and charitable work from the churches, humanists helped non-religious people who needed these services by setting up housing and education projects for young workers (1890s), an adoption agency (1950s), a housing association (1960s), a humanist counselling service (1960s) and directly funded overseas aid projects (1960s).


In the twentieth century, between the wars, humanists were active in the League of Nations. After the Second World War, humanists helped to start up the United Nations, to help to keep the peace between people of all nations, religions and cultures. The UN recognises the interdependence of humankind. It works to resolve conflicts between nations peacefully, and to bring about social and economic progress through improvements in agriculture, health care and education. As one of its first tasks, it formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on 10 December 1948 (now Human Rights Day) and sets a standard of entitlement to rights and freedoms for everyone. In 1989 the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by over 190 countries.


Humanists were the first directors of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

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