An introduction to Humanism for kids (and anyone else who’s interested).
How did it all begin? Where did we come from?
Thousands of years ago, there were fewer people than there are today – about a million on the whole planet in 10,000 BC, after the last Ice Age. Today there are over 6.8 billion people – that’s 6,800 times more than there were. Human beings were widely scattered in small groups thousands of years ago, so they rarely came across anyone from outside their own tribe or community. They made up stories to explain how they came to be here because they didn’t know what we know now. These stories were handed down from parents to children, and so on. One story began in the ancient city of Babylon, which was where modern Iraq is now. It became so popular that it formed the first chapter of the Bible story of Genesis, where the world was created in seven days. Even today, when we know much more than the Babylonians did about how the world began, some people still believe it’s true. I think the true story is much more interesting.
Since I started this sentence, the Earth has travelled 100 miles around the Sun, the Sun has moved 1,000 miles in its circuit of the Galaxy, and the Orion Nebula has moved 100,000 miles relative to us. In the last few years, NASA (The American National Aeronautics and Space Administration) took a photograph with the Hubble Space Telescope, leaving the shutter open for 10 days. The 10 inch square photograph is of an area of space which to the naked eye is about the same size as a grain of sand viewed from 6 feet away. To cross it at 10 times the speed of light would take 300,000 years. There are about 1,500 galaxies in the picture, each containing billions of stars. And here we are, whirling round a relatively small star, our sun, on a tiny planet in all the vastness of space.
3½ billion years ago, the Earth was uninhabitable. There was nothing here that you’d recognise – no plants, no animals. If we travelled back in time, you and I wouldn’t be able to survive because the air wasn’t fit to breathe and there was no food. Half a billion years later simple organic compounds were formed – the basis of life. They were just microscopic specks of chemicals. It was a very long time before DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) evolved, which made more complex life forms possible, but they were such small, primitive life forms that you wouldn’t have been able to recognise them. You might have heard people talking about DNA on TV, in crime or medical dramas.
Gradually, over a very long period of time, these small things evolved into creatures that you might have recognised; insects appeared about 300 million years ago. The first dinosaurs didn’t appear until over 250 million years ago. If we represent the history of earth with a diagram of an hour in time – a clock face – human beings have only appeared within the last minute or so.
In the beginning there was just space, stars and planets. No one knows exactly how the universe began, but scientists think it just happened with a big bang, billions and billions of years ago. Scientists know a lot more about how life on Earth began, because they’ve found the evidence for what happened. They’ve been able to work out how old the rocks in the Earth’s crust are, and they’ve looked at the stars and seen how they’re formed, and they’ve studied fossils to work out how animals and human beings have changed over the centuries.
The variety of species is amazing. The natural world is amazing and there is still so much more to learn. Humanists use science and reason to understand the universe and how we came to be here. We are amazing. You are amazing.
We are different from all the other creatures that live on our small planet. As we’ve evolved, our brains have got bigger and cleverer, though we don’t always use them as well as we should. We can think about all sorts of things, find out all sorts of things, and know all sorts of things. We can make things and destroy things. We can use our imaginations to help us to understand about other people and other creatures.
People like me are called Humanists because we think that we human beings have a special responsibility. As we don’t believe in a supernatural being, a sort of superman, that might come and sort out any mistakes we might make, we think it’s up to us to make the world a better place for each other and for future generations. We don’t think that there’s a life after death, but we do think that the effects of our behaviour can be felt after we’re dead. If we are kind and generous towards other people and try to avoid hurting anyone, they are more likely to think well of us and to remember us with affection. We don’t think you need to believe in a God to be good. People should be good to one another because it’s the right thing to do. Most people know this. Many people, not just Humanists, follow the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule has been part of the teachings of many societies and religions, as well as Humanism. There are different versions of it but they all mean the same thing. These are some of them:
- Do as you would be done by.
- Treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself.
- Don’t treat others as you wouldn’t like to be treated.
- You should always ask yourself what would happen if everyone did what you are doing.
Humanism isn’t a religion; it’s a way of understanding life for people who live without religion. Many people are Humanists without realising it, because they don’t know it has a name. They hear about what it means and they’ll say, “That’s how I feel!”. Although only a small number join a Humanist organisation, many more live as Humanists.
There are local groups of Humanists. There’s a British Humanist Association, and there are Humanist organisations in other countries too. There’s an International Humanist & Ethical Union.
The history of Humanism goes back over 2,500 years, to great thinkers of ancient Greece and the Far East. There have been people who think like us for a very long time, but as we’ve learned more, we’ve changed our ideas, mostly because of what we’ve learned about the world from scientists and other great thinkers. That’s essentially what Humanists do; we think a lot, we ask questions, we work things out for ourselves, and we try to live good lives.
The international symbol of Humanism is the Happy Human. What do you think it looks like?
One of the ways some of us try to help other people is by providing rite of passage ceremonies. A rite of passage is an event or ceremony that marks a stage in someone’s life; a birth, a wedding, or a funeral. There’ve been rites of passage for a very long time, since before Christianity and the other main religions began, because people have always wanted to celebrate these special events and show they care. So what do you do if you’re not religious? People used to think that you had to be baptised or married in church, because that’s all most people knew about. They thought you could only have a funeral with a religious minister. Now more and more people who live without religion know that they can choose to have ceremonies without hymns or prayers or Bible readings, so they do.
You can do these things yourself, or you can hire someone to lead a ceremony for you. Humanist Celebrants lead baby-namings, weddings and funerals for people, without religion. Baby-namings are the equivalent of a christening or baptism. Have any of you been to a rite of passage ceremony? What sort? What was it like?
A lot of people like to ask what Humanists do at Christmas, as we don’t believe in God. Most of us do much the same as everyone else, apart from going to church – and a lot of people don’t go to church anyway. We have presents and parties and good food and drink, and we get together with our families. Most of us try not to go mad and not to spend too much money – we just enjoy ourselves. What religious people may not know is that Christmas is celebrated at around the time of the shortest day of the year, the midwinter solstice, which falls on 21st December. Humans have been celebrating the solstice all over Europe, Scandinavia and around the Mediterranean Sea since long before the Christians called the midwinter festival “Christmas”. In fact, for the first four centuries of Christianity the church leaders didn’t approve of all the jollity, and didn’t celebrate anything. So while other people may celebrate the birth of Christ in the middle of winter (which probably isn’t when he was born), we just carry on an ancient tradition because we enjoy it.
Sometimes, people ask us if it isn’t difficult to be a Humanist, because we don’t have a set of rules to obey; we have to work out the answers to our problems ourselves. The trouble with having a set of rules is that the world is changing so fast, they’re not much use if they don’t change too, or they’re soon out of date. We think it’s much better to get into the habit of thinking about what we should or shouldn’t do when we’re young, rather than expecting other people to supply all the answers.
What do you think?