Secular Humanism Is Defining

Gary Wood

Secular defines my narrative as based on my own reasoning, experience, and knowledge of science rather than someone else’s faith. Humanism defines the basis for my own beliefs. My narrative goes like this:

Earth formed about four and a half billion years ago. Life began about a half billion years later, apparently as soon as Earth was cool enough to support it. The first simple cells formed as a result of activity that produced a variety of organic chemicals from cooling minerals in the high-temperature and high-pressure environment of deep-ocean hydrothermal vents. These pre-life chemical reactions were powered by the natural ion gradient of the alkaline deep-sea vents and the slightly acidic early oceans around them. The conditions allowed a complex stew of organic chemicals to accumulate and interact for millions of years in the deep vents of the primitive oceans.

Eventually, membrane-forming reactions isolated some of these chemicals into their own simple units. After the right combinations of self-replicating organic chemicals were isolated, they had all the requirements for life. Being isolated protected them from the surrounding environment as it also created their identity. Their purpose became to survive by avoiding destruction and gaining more matter so they could continue to self-replicate. The final step in becoming successful life-forms was when these isolated simple cells learned new knowledge in the form of improved reactions.

For the next three and a half billion years, cells multiplied, diversified, grew more complex, and learned to exploit new energy sources. Eventually, life’s own activities transformed Earth’s atmosphere into an oxygen-rich environment that allowed multicellular organisms to proliferate.

Now, a half-billion years after multicellular life began and four billion years after the first simple cells, our species has evolved. We have the same purposes as any other life-form: we must survive, acquire matter, reproduce, and gain knowledge. However, we have developed more ways of gaining knowledge than any other species. We have genetic knowledge like all species and learn from our experiences like other higher animals. But our reasoning abilities are much better than any other animal’s, and we have learned to record and share cultural knowledge through the use of abstract symbols and language.

Beyond our superior reasoning and our sharing of knowledge, we are successful because we are social animals that cooperate with each other. However, we are not like social insects whose genes mandate actions for the benefit of the colony. Our basic human nature is that of individuals who have a unique set of genes and ideas who compete with each other for power and mates. But at the same time, we know we are part of larger groups whose mutual survival and success depends on working together.

It is our common humanism that defines our morality. Our obligations start with ourselves. We have to value our own existence before we can see the value in other lives. Our next duty is to our mates, friends, and family. We share life with those closest to us and depend on each other for support. Beyond our friends and family, we owe allegiance to our tribe or community. Beyond that, we have duties to broader units such as state and country. Ultimately, our duties and identities culminate with our common humanity.

These social duties do not come merely as a result of the accident of birth for us as they do with other social animals. With our superior reasoning and knowledge, each human being has the free will to disassociate with groups and attach his or her allegiance to others. Our birth or physical location does not dictate our identity. It comes from our thoughts. So we are free to choose any belief system we prefer, regardless of what we might have been taught.

The United States was founded on principles that work well with human purposes and the social duty structure that I have outlined. By guaranteeing individual and state rights and limiting federal power, the Constitution created a form of government that ensures freedom.

Just as a species benefits from a wide variety of genes in its gene pool, human societies do well when freedom allows a wide variety of ideas to be openly expressed and debated. As well, the federal system, with different levels of government, allows various methods of governing to be experimented with in order to find what works best. Democracy and capitalism both put the decision-making power in the hands of the people who vote and buy goods and services. The diversity and flexibility of the free market ensures the best chance of beneficial new ideas surviving and thriving.

Unfortunately, some modern thinkers fail to recognize the full benefits of freedom, democracy, and the free market. They think that there is only one way to govern successfully-with their single view of the way things should be. They like big government-the bigger the better. They feel a single world government would be best as long as that one government has the correct human values, which need to be the way they see them. These thinkers generally also believe in the redistribution of wealth, so that all humans are equal.

The truth is, humans are still evolving. Competition between genes and ideas is part of the natural struggle that improves our species. To keep it fair and to produce the best results, we all must have equal rights and opportunities. Good ideas and hard work need to be rewarded. Taking the wealth one human works for and giving it to another kills the initiative to work hard, as the failures of socialist governments have shown. As well, large governments run by the ideas of a few elites always end in the corruption of the powerful and limits to the rights and freedoms of the many.

To me, secular humanism defines the point that we need to have equal opportunity, not that we need to be equal. Secular humanism is defining.

Gary Wood

Gary Wood was educated as a biologist. He recently retired from a successful career as a small-town businessman and politician. For eighteen years, he was editor of the Mountain Monthly newspaper, which still runs his Everyday Philosophy column.


Secular defines my narrative as based on my own reasoning, experience, and knowledge of science rather than someone else’s faith. Humanism defines the basis for my own beliefs. My narrative goes like this: Earth formed about four and a half billion years ago. Life began about a half billion years later, apparently as soon as …

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