“Lifestance” is itself an unfamiliar term to most people, but over the past two decades it has become increasingly common — initially in Britain, but now also in Europe and the whole of the English-speaking world — as a term that is inclusive of religion and non-religious world-views. A “lifestance” is, at best, a comprehensive conception of reality, or, at least, a set of ideas that help us understand the world and find meaning and value in life.
Many lifestances are clearly religious; for example, Christianity is a religious lifestance, as are Hinduism and Islam. Some lifestances are generally viewed as non-religious, such as the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx and his followers, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and humanism. Other lifestances, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, have traditionally been classed as religions, but do not always sit comfortably in that category. The concept of “lifestance” encompasses them all. (See Developing Potential Without Religion for more detailed discussion of the meaning of “religion” and why humanism should not be classified as a religion.)
Lifestances address fundamental existential questions — sometimes called “ultimate questions” — such as, “How do we gain knowledge of our world?” “What is the nature of the universe?” and “How should I live my life?” Everyone has a lifestance: we all have conceptions of what exists and what is of value. But most people may not give much thought to the underlying assumptions that guide their lives: their lifestance has never been made explicit or critically examined. Indeed, it is in the nature of many religious lifestances that we take these underlying assumptions of life as a matter of faith.
Yet our underlying assumptions profoundly affect how we understand the world and live our lives. If your underlying assumptions about life are false, contradictory, confused, or in other ways flawed, you may find yourself leading a confused life marked by harmful illusions, bad choices, and painful conflicts. A well thought out lifestance can lead to greater understanding and success in life. Of course, what you consider “success in life” will depend on your lifestance!
Humanists feel that critically examining your lifestance will not only improve your understanding and success in life, but also make your life more truly your own. Humanists tend to agree with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For the humanist, as for Kant (see sidebar in Lesson I: Brief History of Humanist Thought, Section Two, Part IV: The Age of Reason), enlightenment means growing beyond dependence on the views and instructions of others — be they parents, governments, or religious authorities — and having the courage to live life according to your own understanding and decisions. Our online courses aim to help students achieve this state of self-determination.