Living Humanist Values: The Ten Commitments

Reprinted from the by Kristin Wintermute • 27 August 2019

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF HUMANISM? How does one live as a humanist?

Like many of you, I have read a plethora of articles and longer works defining humanism. Each proclaims a different emphasis highlighting various aspects of what is valued by humanists. Some declare humanism to be a religion, a life stance, or a worldview, while others profess it to be a progressive philosophy, an ethical perspective, or a belief system. Usually, an array of principles is provided as a list of what’s key to humanists—affirming human worth and dignity, reason, compassion, morality, ethics, democracy, scientific inquiry, naturalism, and critical thinking with no adherence or affirmation of a divine creator or other supernatural force. None of the definitions are entirely conclusive, and all are correct in outlining the fundamentals of humanism.

However, this brings little clarity to what humanism is or how one lives as a humanist. Without a definitive set of beliefs, dogma, or scripture, humanism appears nebulous, which is the main reason we at the American Humanist Association Center for Education have developed the Ten Commitments.

Whereas the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible are a set of strict rules dictated by God, the Ten Commitments stand on their own as humanist values to maintain and strive to practice daily. They propose we put our values into action to work towards positively impacting our communities and society. In their simplicity, the Ten Commitments ultimately define what we are about and what we stand for. I also see the Ten Commitments as an avenue for collaboration—a gathering point for all humanists to work together.

Now, having grown up humanist and having worked in a variety of professional capacities in the movement, I’m very aware that within humanist circles, independence of mind is a significant priority—a venerated value for those who feel they narrowly escaped the confines of a religion that was “commanding” and, in some cases, repressive. And so many may initially feel the Ten Commitments smack of a directive authority and should be rejected.

However, I think the Ten Commitments are less about absolutes and serve more as a guide to putting our beliefs into action. They hold us accountable to our values. They ask humanists to be proactive versus reactive. They demonstrate that being humanist involves doing what is inherently right to ensure the well being of everyone and everything in this world. They inspire me to be better as a person and do better as a humanist.

It is my hope that readers find similar value in them. (A simpler version has also been developed for use in educational settings with younger humanists and in various other promotional ways). The AHA Center for Education plans to build a curriculum around the Ten Commitments that would also appeal to others in a variety of secular settings, such that the Ten Commitments become not only widely accepted character education, but a guide within professional settings promoting health and wellness.

Kristin Wintermute is the Education Director of the Center for Education at the American Humanist Association.

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