What is Humanism?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: What is Humanism?

The American Humanist Association has a wonderful, detailed description of what constitutes Humanism on their website.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

    When I call myself an Atheist I am stating one fact about myself, that I am not a theist. Atheism says nothing about who I am as a person. It does not describe my values, my politics, my ethics, my principles, my aspirations, my feelings and most importantly my beliefs. Calling myself an Atheist does not say I am a member of a church or adhere to religious doctrines. Calling myself an Atheist does not suggest I am deluding myself with irrational thoughts or fantasies. And it definitely does not suggest that I am in denial of something. Calling myself an Atheist does not mean I am anti-religion or against theism nor does it say I hate Santa Claus or Christmas. It just says, “I am not a theist.” That’s it. If Theism means “a belief in gods” then the opposite (Atheism) is “not a belief in gods” it does not mean denying or lacking or against a belief in gods.

  • Brian P.

    Perhaps an argument from etymology, but humanism as a label seems anthropocentric, as if ascribing homo sapiens some sort of distinct status is its defining characteristic. Offset from theism being God centric, humanism seems definitionally humanity centric. Given I’m not sure humanity ought to be the center of all things, I’d think there to be more generous, less self-centered -isms to consider. Dogs are humanistic. Cats? Most definitely felinistic. Humans? We seem to elements of impatient, selfish, clannist, sexist, racist, specist, mammalist, and even give a certain deference to the “things” toward which we take what Dennett references to as an intentional stance. Perhaps theism itself can be lumped under that latter category where the theos is little other than a labeling shortcut of the ascription of intentionality to the everything/nothing/other existential philosophical paradox. Personally, I’d contextualize being species-centric within a chain of these -isms. Personally, I’d prefer none of these labels and would rather live in ways that others characterize as altruistic, generous, and even friendly. Hemant, in being the Friendly Atheist I always hope you’ll give friendliness the primacy and atheist the secondary ascribed self-identity.

    • baal

      Your personal view on what the word ‘humanism’ means isn’t what humanists think the word means.

      The American Humanist organization suggests a slightly different definition:

      Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life
      that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our
      ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment
      that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

    • Heathen Mike

      Of course humanism is anthropocentric! That’s the point of it; that it is up to humans to solve human problems; to meet the needs of humanity. That’s not a bad thing. Humanism does not claim sole responsibility over issues of nature. It only acknowledges that, as humanity is so far dependent on the natural world for our existence, we certainly ought to try not to fuck it up if we don’t want to screw ourselves over.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

      I’d like to add that, this is strictly my opinion and in no way factual, Humanism is not species-centric. Meaning Humanists would have an ultimate goal to live in harmony with nature. I’d like to think that Humanists would be opposed to Dominionist ideals. Defined as, and in the most basic of definitions, that the earth is our sole domain and that we can do anything we want to it with out regards to consequences (since there is an afterlife.) So, in my opinion, Humanism represents Naturalistic Ideals.

      • C Peterson

        You should move to Germany, so you could capitalize all your nouns!

        Humanism is human-centric. That’s why it’s called humanism. Being human-centric doesn’t mean devaluing other species, or devaluing nature. Humanists generally recognize that we all benefit from protecting the natural world and environment. Some may believe in things like “animal rights”, some may not. But the end result is the same simply by seeking to maximize human happiness and success.

  • C Peterson

    Hey Hemant, I think you missed something here. The question! What is humanism? You discuss the label without discussing the philosophy.

    You make a great (and extremely important) point about the fact that “atheist” tells us almost nothing about a person. You make a great point that “humanist” does. But unless you are assuming your audience already knows what humanism is, you needed to go a bit farther. Of course, you don’t need to go through the manifesto point by point (which wouldn’t define all humanists in any case). But at least a brief overview of what humanism actually is would be welcome. A reference to just how it connects to those moral values you alluded to (but did not list). After all, given an audience that is likely to maintain terribly inaccurate stereotypes about atheists, centered mostly on their morals, the idea of an ethical code that comes from something other than religion is a very important concept to get across.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

      Are you a Humanist? This kind of goes out to everyone on this blog, with the exception of the theists and also my verbosity is partially due in part because of the influence of vodka and because I am attempting to be as clear as possible, about what I am asking. I am asking because I am at an impasse of defining myself.

      Atheism, as you explained to me in a comment, is derived from a person’s philosophical stance or position. As you said, ” You have put the cart before the horse,” to elaborate upon what you said, “Atheism comes from philosophy and not the other way around.” Christians don’t go around saying, “I’m a Theist.” in the same sense that we say, “I am an Atheist.” In our sense, or at least my sense, when we say, “I am an Atheist” we are implying religious like values to Humanist (or otherwise) ethical and moral precepts or standards. Almost as if by claiming, “I am an Atheist” has the same implication and is equal to a theist claiming he is a christian. But yet we both agree that Atheism is not a religion nor a valuation system.

      Here are the questions and I am not implying any absolutes, because many definitions could apply:

      Can we really call ourselves Atheists, compared to theists calling themselves Muslims or Christians?

      Would it not be better to call ourselves Humanists or Secular Humanists etc., since Atheism is not a philosophy or religion or political position, etc.?

      If we are to stick with the title Atheist, in the same sense as theists stick with christian or Muslim or Hindu etc, would it not be in our best interest to have a some kind of doctrine or reference material that helps define the meaning of Atheism, beyond its basic definition?

      • C Peterson

        As with “atheist”, I take exception to turning “humanist” into a proper noun. When you do that, I don’t know what you mean exactly, which is why I would never claim to be an “Atheist” or a “Humanist”. Either one seems to be attempting to tie my beliefs to some kind of formal belief system, which would not be accurate. “Atheist” isn’t a title like Muslim or Hindu.

        I’m an atheist simply by definition: I don’t believe in a god or gods. I didn’t become an atheist; no philosophy made me one. Rather, my beliefs (mainly skepticism and the belief that rational analysis leads to more accurate knowledge) stopped me from adopting any theistic belief system.

        Christians go around proclaiming they are theists all the time. They simply narrow things down (I’m a Christian, I’m a Catholic, I’m a Mormon…)

        Humanism doesn’t follow from atheism. While enough atheists are humanists that I’d consider that a serious possibility for any atheist I met, I’d never assume an atheist was also a humanist, nor that a humanist was necessarily an atheist.

        I think it is a huge mistake to associate atheism with anything else. Atheists believe all sorts of things. They cover the political spectrum. They may or may not be skeptics, they may or may not value rationalism. They may support equal rights, they may be bigots. They may think religion is good, they may think it evil. We should not support the misconception that an atheist is anything other than somebody who does not believe in gods.

        • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

          Thanks. I don’t know why I feel the need to label myself with some absolute definition of what I am. I guess in part it’s about identifying with a group but on the other hand it may also be that I don’t feel like atheism goes as far as I want it to for explaining my objections to religion.
          I don’t exactly hate religion, but the part I hate is how it has retarded scientific development in the past and seeks to continue to do that even today.
          This maybe an ignorant assessment on my part but I honestly believe that had religion not stifled the many fields of science and technology, we could be a thousand years or more advanced. When the new millennium came, I felt let down and I blame religion for that. I often imagine that great minds like Galileo and DaVinci had imagined a future far more advanced than the one we have today. Even science fiction authors, just a few decades ago, imagined a 21st century with the sky’s filled with flying cars and travel to distant stars and a world free of poverty, hunger and disease. But it seems like instead of progressing towards those goals religion wants to put us back into the dark ages. I guess I feel like there could be some magic silver bullet that will stop the anti-progress campaign of religion and that the popularity of Atheism today, could be the thing that does that. But it also seems to me without organization, like religion has, that goal will never be met, at least in my lifetime.

        • Bill Haines

          Humanist (capitalized) already is a proper noun and has been for many years. The minimal defining characteristics are here: http://iheu.org/content/iheu-minimum-statement-humanism

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        I do not think Atheist should be capitalized as a proper noun, as it is the counterpart to theist. It doesn’t come with any set of doctrines views on the world. Claiming to be an atheist is a statement of nonbelief only and I think it should stay that way in order to keep space open for the many philosophies people can follow while not believing in the supernatural/gods.

        Humanism/Humanist can be capitalized or not. We call people both Communist and communist, after all, and as Humanism is a formal philosophy like Communism it is appropriate to capitalize it.

        I am a Secular Humanist, but I don’t assume all atheists are. It’s pretty common, so it’s likely anyone identifying as an atheist is also a Humanist, but it is by no means universal.

        • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

          Let me see if I am grasping what you and C Peterson are saying and if you see an error in my reasoning please feel free to correct me.

          Atheism is not a (absolute) title to be applied to oneself. It is just another hat I would wear in a large collection of hats that include philosophies like secular humanism or absurdism. Atheism would not be a deist’s hat nor a supernaturalism hat but it could include a (for lack of a better term) Jefferson biblical hat. Atheism could be many things, but it is very specifically, not one thing and that is a non theism hat. And all of these hats could be thrown upon a bed without any consequences.

          Did I get it right?

          • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

            I … think so? The hats confused me :( Atheism does have meaning, of course, but its meaning is solely a statement of what one does not believe. It’s not a statement of what one does believe, and as such it doesn’t have any implications for which philosophy one does or does not follow.

            I would agree that atheism is not a sufficient title to apply to oneself as a statement of how one lives one’s life or how one sees the world.

            • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

              There is an old saying, “A man of many hats” it means that a person could take on many different personalities, for instance one day he is a plumber the next day he isa politician.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                Ah. No, I think atheism is a little more intrinsic than what is implied in the saying “a man of many hats”. That implies someone who can do many things, all of them well, but that none of them define what ze is. Saying one is an atheist is a necessary but not sufficient part of explaining how one sees the world.

                • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

                  Thanks go out to you too.

          • Bill Haines

            Except for the Jefferson biblical hat, yes. Jefferson was a theist who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, essentially a Unitarian; he thought highly of the Unitarians of his own day.

      • Pseudonym

        Are you a Humanist? This kind of goes out to everyone on this blog, with the exception of the theists [...]

        Hang on, why are theists excepted from being considered Humanists?

        Oh, yeah, I forgot. Humanism Manifesto III ignores most of I and II. What the AHA advocates today is only a tiny subset of humanism.

        • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

          Didn’t say that, hell I didn’t even imply that, you are reading more into what I said than what I actually said. One could easy conclude that my exception makes theist’s automagically humanists. If anything I am implying that I am not going to read theistic impressions of what humanism means. Furthermore my intended audience is Atheists and how they define humanism. The exception in my opinion clarifies that.

          • Pseudonym

            Fair enough. I apologies for dragging you into the debate over the meaning and future of humanism.

        • Bill Haines

          Not just the AHA, but the IHEU as well, representing the vast majority of self-described Humanists worldwide. Even groups that describe themselves as religious humanists, such as the one within the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, are not actually religious (in the sense of being communities centered around rituals involving myths based on supernatural beliefs) and I know of none that are theistic.

          That article is terrible, its writer obviously having a snobbish personal distaste for the direction Humanism has taken over the last eight decades and its recent growing association with so-called New Atheism, so he conflates the two as if they were the same and uses the same rhetorical tactics against us that he accuses us of using against religious folk.

  • Heathen Mike

    I agree with C. Peterson, here, that “what” humanism says about a person would be good to try to clarify. Baal was helpful in copying over a partial more or less official definition. As I was listening to the video, I was thinking about my understanding of the term, from what I remember what I’ve read over the years. Here’s my stab at it:

    Humanism: An ethical framework, the focus of which is on the central role humans play in the task of meeting the needs of humanity. Secular Humanists, which I consider myself, and so probably too do most on this site, naturally understand that, since “god(s)” is/are a fiction of religious people’s imaginations, it truly is up to us humans to assure that people are treated with kindness, respect, compassion, and to strive to solve social ills, such as poverty an mass hunger, epidemic disease, etc. Of course, you can be a religious humanist as well. In that case, whatever your belief in the role of your deity/deities, you still think it important, perhaps your duty, to do all you can to serve the needs of humanity, however you understand those needs.

    A side thought: I really like the term “Humanist.” Unlike “atheist,” as Hemant pointed out, Humanism is not just about one thing; it is about a whole host of issues relating to how we conduct ourselves and relate to our fellow humans. The recent talk about “Atheist” churches springing up, I find semantically a little silly. Don’t get me wrong; the groups/meetings sound like a great idea. but calling them “atheist” seems off-base. As if we’re getting together to talk about what we don’t believe. Aren’t they actually more accurately “secular humanist churches?” Maybe with a nod to science?

    I’m a humanist, atheist, agnostic (meaning I respectfully acknowledge I don’t know everything about how the cosmos runs, NOT that I’m confused and looking for “the right” deity), secularist (meaning one who believes that religion should not be involved in the governance of society).

    …there seems to be a lot of overlap in language. just sayin’


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