About Positive Humanism

Where the science of positive psychology intersects with humanistic values.

What is positive humanism?

Positive humanism is an applied humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing.

Translation: As an applied philosophy it offers practical solutions to increase well-being.  As a humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical—the philosophy is founded on reason and critical thinking.  The philosophy is science-based, meaning it is void of the unsupported and/or exaggerated claims and the constant confusing of correlation with causality often found in the self-help genre.  The philosophy is grounded in the theories of positive psychology, which is the study of the other side of the mental health spectrum—human thriving.  The philosophy focuses on concrete strategies to help individuals in all areas of personal growth and professional success, primarily through being of prosocial acts and through distributed kindness.

ISBN: 978-1-4566-2355-5 (ebook) / ISBN: 978-1-4566-2462-0 (paperback) / Published by: Archieboy Holdings, LLC. / Published Date: 2014-11-05

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About Bo Bennett, PhD

Bo Bennett, PhD

Bo's personal motto is "Expose an irrational belief, keep a person rational for a day. Expose irrational thinking, keep a person rational for a lifetime."  Much of his charitable work is in the area of education—not teaching people what to think, but how to think.  His projects include his book, The Concept: A Critical and Honest Look at God and Religion, and Logically Fallacious, the most comprehensive collection of logical fallacies.

From March of 2014 until February of 2016, Bo was the producer and host of The Humanist Hour, the official broadcast of the American Humanist Association, where he could be heard weekly discussing a variety of humanistic issues, mostly related to science, psychology, philosophy, and critical thinking. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

About Positive Humanism

No. Positive humanism is just anti-anti-humanism! There are many aspects of many religions that are anti-humanism, such as denying gays' rights to marry, the belief that humanity is sinful and worthy of eternal punishment, the denial of science on religious grounds, and several others. However, it would be fallacious and unreasonable to be against an entire religion because of its anti-humanistic elements without considering it pro-humanistic elements, as well. There are many atheistic philosophies that take a hard approach by attacking religion and calling attention to its harmful elements. This approach has its purpose, but this is simply not what positive humanism is about. Positive humanism's focus is almost entirely on promoting positive humanism and defending it when necessary—but avoiding "attacking" religion (i.e., avoiding making aggressive arguments against religion; see image). Abstaining from all arguments against all aspects of religious belief is not always possible—especially when such arguments are necessary to understand arguments for positive humanism. As a positive humanist, when such arguments are made, I am committed to representing the religious argument as accurately as possible, and avoid ridicule or other rhetorical devices that might otherwise might reasonably offend.
In the simplest terms, there are parts of PP (ha... that sounds funny) that overlap with Humanism. However, there are also parts of PP that are not only not part of Humanism, but also quite contrary to Humanistic values. For example, Seligman, considered the founder of PP stresses the importance of personal agency and responsibility. While this is certainly important, this focus greatly underestimates and undervalues the biological and social factors that influence behavior. Critics of PP (of whom I am one) argue that this focus on personal agency leads to a "blame the victim" mentality. Essentially, it is the issue of free will—perhaps the most complex philosophical issue of the last couple millennia. PP also fails to "secularize" the well-being benefits that arise from religious and spiritual practices, and keeps them in a religious or spiritual context. This is understandable considering PP is an American initiative, and an estimated 90% of Americans work within these contexts. PH translates these to the secular.
No. Having been a believer for the first 38 years of my life, and a non-believer going on ten years now, I can say from personal experience that my overall well-being has increased significantly in that time. There are countless others with similar experiences that have celebrated their new life of reason. However, from a sociological and psychological perspective, it is clear that not everyone can benefit as I, and others like me, did from such a life change. For example, people from very religious families or communities can be ostracized by intolerant family members and friends, lowering well-being significantly (there are support groups who help people through this, such as Recovering From Religion). My goal is to provide an evidence-based secular philosophy of well-being for the rapidly growing number of people leaving religion and embracing reason, who want a higher quality of life than they had under their religious world view.
PH is different from Humanism; however, unlike with Positive Psychology, there is nothing fundamentally at odds with Humanism within PH. PH takes the subset of Humanism where the focus is on living a great life within a secular context. PH does not focus on what is wrong with religions, the supernatural, government, and society (although comments may slip in here and there)—it focuses on what is right with PH. Let me be clear in saying that these more "negative" aspects of Humanism are in no way unimportant or destructive—they are necessary to provide the foundation for PH just like war is necessary to ensure the continued freedom of a (free) country.
Morality for most people, especially the religious, is believed to be "grounded in God." As people begin to leave religion and no longer believe in God, they lose their moral compass. For some, this "compass" only served as a narrative—an attempt to rationally explain why one should act morally. For others, this compass was prescriptive—it provided specific moral rules and detailed guidelines (e.g., don't eat meat on Friday). It is important for people who recently left their religion to understand that human empathy is the affective or biological foundation for morality, and that Positive Humanism adds human well-being as the rational foundation. With this understanding, nothing is lost, rather, much more is gained.
Aristotle wrote extensively on the idea of Eudaimonia, which translated to today’s terminology is human flourishing. Aristotle understood that the things we want are only means to an end—the end being human flourishing. Much more recently, Martin P. Seligman, the “Godfather” of positive psychology, devised well-being theory (PERMA). Very often we seek things that we think can bring us increased well-being, but we are often wrong. Or in the case of religion, attainment of well-being comes with quite a bit of unnecessary baggage (i.e., supernatural beliefs, magical thinking, the adoption of destructive ideas proposed by primitive cultures). Religion is linked to increased well-being; there is no denying that. But a closer look at the research shows that religion means greater church attendance, which means more socialization, which means greater relationships, which leads to greater well-being. By understanding these factors of well-being, one can choose activities that contribute to well-being directly, or at least realize that there are other paths to well-being that don’t have the same baggage.
Humanism is often further divided into secular humanism, spiritual humanism, and religious humanism—so there are followers of organized religion that also refer to themselves as "Humanists." Positive Humanism is the same where the common thread is that the philosophy focuses on the well-being of humanity from a secular point of view. Think of it like any other endeavor that does not involve religion—driving a car, learning a foreign language, or building a bridge. While some of us are atheists, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Hindi, or Buddhist, all of us are human. This is the common thread we share and this is why Positive Humanism is inclusive, unifying, and welcoming to people of all religions. There will be ideas with which followers of organized religion do not agree. These can be ignored—or better yet—honestly considered although not necessarily acted upon. The well-being improvement ideas in Positive Humanism are science-based, and science does not discriminate and works whether one believes in it or not.

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According to a 2014 Pew global attitudes survey, 53% of Americans assert that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral—a number far greater than we see with other developed countries. Many reasons have been proposed for these findings, one of which is that this attitude linking belief in God with morality is a reaction to assertive and sometimes aggressive “new atheist” movement, which has been credited for the decrease in religiosity and the increased acceptance of secularism in this country. From these data and data from similar studies, we can conclude that the religious tend to have a very myopic view of secularism, one that is primarily formed by the Dawkins-esque style atheism, since this form of secularism has a much greater shock-value than other much more common forms of secularism. While positive humanism cannot compete in shock value, it can be very effective in changing attitudes through personal interaction by reflecting one’s humanist values through their actions and behaviors. Research continually confirms the idea that negative stereotypes are best mitigated by interaction between the group that holds the prejudices and the stereotyped group. However, there is a big assumption that is rarely mentioned: the stereotyped group must not act in a way that confirms the stereotyped behavior. As the United States becomes more secular we must “lead by example” and show America that our humanistic values lead to admirable behaviors, dismantling these negative and offensive stereotypes.
Of course. But at some point if the criticisms become the main focus a person becomes more of a activist and less of a positive humanist. These aren't black and white categories—one can express positive humanistic ideas but not identify as a positive humanist, just like one can like the Pope but not consider oneself Catholic. 
Gratification is a short-term psychological state most often used when a want or desire is fulfilled. For example, one would experience gratification if they bought a new pair of shoes they wanted, but this gratification would soon be overshadowed by other wants and desires. Well-being is a term used to describe one’s psychological state that is less volatile than gratification, and a state that incorporates the totality of human experiences. For example, relationships, meaning in life, and one’s level of achievement all contribute to one’s well-being. Even with daily fluctuations in how one may feel, well-being remains fairly consistent barring any major life changes.
The issue of free will presents a dilemma for the humanist. On the one hand, if we accept the idea of free will we must appeal to some magical or unprovable force that allows our choices to be uncaused, or redefine free will in such a way that it avoids the real issue and confuses people into submission. On the other hand, if we deny free will, we enter a slippery slope that excuses people from their actions and responsibilities, and allows people to not just play the victim card, but abuse it. My view of free will is based on our current scientific understanding of human behavior, specifically influence and achievement—one that does not attempt to answer the metaphysical question of free will, but offers a humanistic solution that will lead to increased personal and societal well-being. In short, we know that our thoughts, behaviors, and actions are at least greatly influenced by our genetics and environment. We also know that belief is a significant factor in achievement as well as with subjective experience of the world (e.g., think the placebo effect). Believing is part of the causal chain of events, therefore, believing we can achieve increases the odds that we will. In contrast, believing that we are powerless to change something greatly decreases the odds that we can change that thing. We don’t need to pretend that free will exists; we just need to accept the science behind belief and take a functionalist approach to free will if we want to achieve more in life.
I spent three years contributing daily to the negativity on one of these forums. When I started exploring religion, I created the site debategod.org and added a debate forum where theists and atheists can debate any issue related to gods, religion, and faith. My debate style was quite moderate compared to most, but trying to remain positive in a religious debate is like trying to remain on a diet at the Cheesecake Factory. It is not the negativity itself that is a problem; many forms of what might be considered negativity are very effective in persuasion and social justice. The problem is that the negativity often leads to unkind, spiteful, cruel, contemptible, and obnoxious behavior that reflects poorly on the debater’s philosophy. This kind of behavior is not only demonstrably ineffective in persuasion but provides justification for the many negative stereotypes atheists have to endure. While my book does not talk about how to effectively engage Christians in debate while remaining respectful and kind (future book, perhaps), it may inspire readers to think twice about how they are representing not just themselves, but the secular community as a whole.
I am a huge believer in the effectiveness of self-help, but I am equally a huge skeptic. While I fully embrace the notion that most of us live far below our potential, and that living up to our potential is achievable, I am annoyed by the unnecessary focus on religion, spirituality, and the pseudoscience commonly found in this genre. Since age 10, I have been an almost obsessive consumer of self-help material, gradually moving from the feel good nonsense of the infomercial gurus, to the science-based approaches of legitimate researchers in all areas of psychology. While I can only speculate retrospectively, I do feel that this obsession of mine played a significant part in my success, achievements, motivation and overall zest for life. The findings of positive psychology corroborate my speculation—at least in the sense that the philosophies I have adopted are correlated with the kind of well-being I experience. There was no such system that presented the science of well-being in an exclusively secular framework. I felt this is something that is desperately needed.

Social Science

This is a big question with no clear answer. Much of the research does show that there are benefits of holding religious and spiritual beliefs. There are also harms associated with these kind of beliefs. Research can be used to support either position—not that the studies are necessarily flawed, just that different questions are asked in different ways to different populations in different circumstances. Positive Humanism focuses on how beliefs within a naturalistic framework can be just as or more beneficial, while being consistent with scientific understanding, evidence based, and cultivating one's creative and critical thinking.
In the book, I write about well-being theory in the area of positive psychology, the idea in which well-being can be reduced to five key domains or dimensions: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning/purpose, and achievement (PERMA). Understanding these domains can help people avoid chasing things in life that they only think will bring them greater well-being and focus on pursuing that which will enhance one or more of these domains. To put in other terms, this can help people make better decisions that will lead to a greater sense of well-being. Many people focus on just the positive emotion domain thinking that is where happiness can be found, yet many of the actions and behaviors that bring us positive emotion have a greater negative effect on one or more of the other four domains. Conversely, many of the things we do in life that we would not generally consider “fun” such as comforting friends in times of sorrow, working tirelessly for a cause even if the chance of success is slim, or struggling to master a new skill, can do much more for our sense of well-being than any form of positive emotion alone ever can.

Press / Media

The Truth and Freedom Show

Positive Humanism in the media. Airdate: 2015-08-02

The Humanist Hour

Positive Humanism in the media. Airdate: 2014-12-31

The Humanist

Positive Humanism in the media. Airdate: 2014-12-09

Live Presentation

Positive Humanism in the media. Airdate: 2014-12-03

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