Why Secular Humanism?
Unfortunately secular humanism tends to be an obscure term. I imagine that if you went up to people randomly all day long at the mall and asked them what secular humanism means you would get ignorance and wrong answers all day long.
In the general media world, excluding specialized blogs and podcasts, the only person I have ever seen use the word "secular humanism" on a regular basis is Bill O'Reilly. He uses the term as a way to demonize atheists, often claiming that "secular humanists" comprise a conspiratorial "war on Christmas." It is simultaneously laughable and depressing.
I believe that secular humanism should be the standard value system of civilization. Hence; I think its pretty important.
In essence secular humanism is an ethical philosophy that excludes religion from its calculus, but still values empathy, and shared human experience as its foundation. Essentially it is a system for forwarding and treasuring humanity without religion.
In the U.S. today there is a dominant assumption that we get our values and morals from religion. I think this assumption is worse than wrong. I believe that it actually constipates our moral progress.
The secular humanist argument is dauntingly simple: truth matters and people matter.
There is an erroneous belief in our society that all ideas that are religious and cultural in nature have unquestionable value. That claims like Jesus governs the universe as one facet of a triune God, or that Muhammad ascended to paradise on a flying horse are truths beyond fact which deserve the reverence of everyone.
Of course Muslims and Christians routinely do not practice this tolerance with one another, but that is besides the point.
We know that certain things are far more likely to be true than others. We have well placed systems for determining this. We use them in courts of law when someone is accused of a crime. We use them to determine natural laws in science. These systems are skeptical and evidence based. Secular humanists believe that our ethical and moral understandings should abide within the confines of these ways of determining truth.
Secular humanists believe that ethics comes from shared and individual human experience. Not dictates attributed to supernatural beings.
Though most people used skeptical evidence based systems of assessing truth in their day to day lives (people check their bank balances to know how much money they have, rather than have faith), we see no problem with abandoning this standard when deciding the governing morals of our civilization. Our society allows fantastical religions to have a major say in our laws and governance. One good example of the failure of this approach is the fact that laws against the civil rights of gays have been rampantly passed across the U.S. as recently as 2008. Another example is the routine blocking of funding for embryonic stem cell research within the government. There are no good secular reasons to oppose gay rights or embryonic stem cell research. These stirrings of progress are blocked by the political assertions of those who insist on living by the ancient fantasies.
I believe that the appeal of religion for most people is that religion is a common introduction to crucial values like empathy, charity, self-discipline, community, and ethical contemplation. Unfortunately it seems most people see the baby as somehow attached to the bath water.
Secular humanism is not without reverence. Only that reverence is for humanity, fellow humans on this world. Not reverence for hidden supernatural beings who may or may not exist. Common to all secular humanist is a simple understanding that whatever goodness to be found is found in human experience and in our relationships with one another. There is nothing else, and there need not be to know vast fulfillment.
I personally subscribe to the secular humanism of philosopher Paul Kurtz. In this approach humanity is valued for its own sake, and fulfillment is found by practicing compassion for our fellow humans, the courage to live life to its fullest, and a personal and civic dedication to free inquiry. There are many secular humanist philosophers, Kurtz is the one I am most familiar with.
What is so great about secular humanism is that these values are not exclusive in any way. All people, including religious people, can agree that humanity should be valued, that empathy and compassion are the root of good behavior, and that we should make our society as successful as possible. It is merely that religion introduces extra nonsense to this basic understanding, and seems to routinely feel the need to interfere with people as they pursue happiness without harm to others. If we made secular humanism the standard guide for the ethics of civilization, the religious would have common experience along with the rest of us as the guide. They would just have to keep their ecclesiastical sanctions to themselves.
My own experiences with secular humanism have deeply enriched my life. I find that because I am deriving my values from a skeptical understanding of reality I avoid self-deception. Self deception in the pursuit of happiness is a positive feedback loop of error. It causes to waste precious lifetime. When one is free of self-deception more is gained from relationships, decisions, and experiences. The roses smell sweeter when you realize there is no celestial rose garden awaiting you after death. Friendships are deeper when you realize that they must end.
It is not just rejection of belief in the afterlife that has improved my life, but better understanding of human nature, including my own. Deeper understanding of how the world works and its limitations makes my decisions more precise. I strive to not deceive myself, and as a result I find that get more out of life.