World Humanist Day is indeed an international holiday. Various groups celebrated a Humanist Day at different times until the International Humanist and Ethical Union (to which many established groups such as the American Humanist Association belong) settled it on June 21. Most years, this is the summer solstice; in 2012 the solstice arrives late on June 20,thanks to the leap year correction.
The IHEU notes the solstice connection, but doesn’t say why the date was chosen. Their website suggests a picnic on that day, which suggests that the organization has a northern hemisphere bias: people in Australia or South Africa might find that suggestion inappropriate due to weather and the early dark.
The idea “humanism” has been around at least since Auguste Comte (1798-1857) wrote about a “religion of humanity”, but in America, at least, the term was not in wide use until the 20th Century. Before that most people could not imagine ethics apart from a creed or commandments to support it. Arguments over doctrine were intense; hence the term “freethinker” was in wide use. Freethinkers, however, had a range of ethical stances.
The IHEU defines humanism in this way:
Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.
Until well into the 20th Century popular ideas of ethics were drawn largely from the Bible and were focused on the individual. Some things were agreed upon (e.g. killing is wrong, you should help your neighbor) while others (slavery and women’s rights) were matters of great debate.
Robert Ingersoll was one of many we would now call humanists. He gave a lecture entitled “Liberty of Man, Woman and Child,” which expresses his view on personhood. And his “creed,” as he said in slightly different language on several occasions, was:
Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here, the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.
With a view of the bay from my window, I think I’ll skip the picnic. I will enjoy the long day, relish the early morning return of the light, and get on with the business of seeking to make the world a happier place through writing.
[Robert Ingersoll plays an important role in the life of John Emerson Roberts. See Books page.]