What Humanism Is – and Isn’t

Discussion over the proposed “Atheism +” have brought into the focus the question of what “Humanism” is, and whether Atheism + is meaningfully different to it other than in the title. These discussions have often revealed how poorly Humanists have communicated their ideas to the broader forethought movement, and how many misconceptions still remain about Humanism. This post is a simple introduction to Humanism which aims to address some of the most common misconceptions I’ve seen recently.

What Is Humanism?

Humanism is a philosophy of life which embraces three central values: reason, compassion, and hope. Humanists believe that the best way to figure out how the world works and what is really true is through the exercise of our reason, using disciplines like science and philosophy to better understand our situation. We believe that every person is of equal moral worth and dignity, meaning that no person should be discriminated against or treated poorly based on their race, sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, class or other identifying characteristics. And we believe that human beings must solve our problems ourselves – that any hope for the future we have comes through our efforts as individuals and groups to improve the human condition.

Humanism is defined in the third Humanist Manifesto* in the following way:

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

A short version: a rational mind plus a heart aflame for justice = a Humanist.

*The Humanist Manifestos are provisional documents recording the best of Humanist thought at a particular time.

Humanism and Atheism

Modern Humanists are atheists. The first Humanist Manifesto (1933) makes this very clear, saying:

We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of “new thought”.

This is reaffirmed in the second Humanist Manifesto (1973):

As in 1933, humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.

The third Manifesto (2003) again reinforces this:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. [emphasis mine]

Humanism and Secularism

Modern Humanists are secularists. Humanism has been explicitly committed to secularism at least since the second Manifesto:

The separation of church and state and the separation of ideology and state are imperatives. The state should encourage maximum freedom for different moral, political, religious, and social values in society. It should not favor any particular religious bodies through the use of public monies, nor espouse a single ideology and function thereby as an instrument of propaganda or oppression, particularly against dissenters.

This is reinforced in the third Manifesto:

“Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society” [emphasis added]

Humanism and Skepticism

Humanists, given their commitment to reason, are committed to skepticism and can be considered “skeptics”. A Humanist who does not attempt to exercise reason to critically analyze a claim is not acting in accordance with a defining value of Humanism.

Humanism and Social Justice

Humanists have traditionally been on the forefront of social justice movements such as feminism, anti-racism and gay rights. Prominent figures in each movement have been Humanists, and concern with issues of social justice has been central to Humanism from its emergence as a modern life-stance. Given the Humanist commitment to compassion (equal dignity for all persons) racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism etc. are all flatly incompatible with Humanist values. In short, Humanists must be feminists by definition - and likewise for a commitment to equality and freedom for all individuals and social groups. A Humanist who declares themselves uninterested in feminism is declaring themselves not to be a Humanist.

Humanism and Religion

Humanism is not inherently “anti-religious”, in the sense that it does not assert that all aspects of religious practice are inherently harmful and inhumane (Humanists would view this assertion to be obviously false, and therefore contrary to their commitment to reason). Nor are they inherently “pro-religion”, asserting that all elements of religious practice are positive and valuable. Rather, they seek to eliminate those aspects of religious practice which ARE inhumane and dehumanizing, while reconstituting those aspects which affirm and promote human flourishing. Humanists condemn dogma and irrationalism, but they don’t condemn all expressions of religious culture. We see this as the only reasonable stance to take on this complex issue, since it is the only one which intelligently deals with the variety of aspects which make up the phenomenon of “religion”.

Some people consider Humanism to be a “religion”, while others do not. Generally the term “Humanism”, when used today without qualifier, references a nonreligious life-stance – a set of values, and not how those values are expressed or practiced. Some distinguish between “Secular Humanism” and “Religious Humanism”. “Religious Humanists” might express their Humanism in ways more common to traditionally religious individuals, for example meeting together to discuss values and celebrate certain ceremonies. Some like to maintain a connection to the cultural elements of a religious tradition they have experience of, and continue to participate in religious culture while maintaining strictly Humanist beliefs and values. This has led to the development of Humanistic Jewish, Mormon and other congregations, which engage in cultural practices of those religions without the accompanying supernatural or ethical beliefs.

Critically, “Religious Humanists” are still Humanists – they are atheists (or agnostic, skeptics etc.), they are secularists, and they reject the supernatural. If there is a difference between “secular” and “religious” Humanists it is in how they express and practice their Humanist life-stance. The life-stance is the same in both cases.

Whether Humanists see it as a necessity or not to work alongside religious individuals and groups is a matter of strategy, not ideology. Some Humanists might wish to do so, others might not.

Christian Humanism

Some of the confusion around the term Humanism stems from confusing modern Humanism with the Christian Humanism of the Renaissance, which retains a belief in God and other supernatural ideas. No one in the Humanist or freethought movement today, when they say “Humanism”, is referring to the “Christian Humanism” of centuries past. Indeed, Christian Humanists today are most often exactly like Humanistic Jews – they do not believe in the supernatural, but value aspects of Christian social practice and culture (see the writings of Anthony Freeman and websites like this).

The Bottom Line

When someone tells you, today, that they are a “Humanist”, you can generally assume the following:

  • They do not believe in god
  • They do not believe in the supernatural
  • They believe in the power of reason and science to understand the world
  • They do not believe in discrimination against any group based on identity characteristics
  • They believe in making efforts to break down structures of oppression, since these facilitate discrimination and violence between people
  • They believe in working together to improve human life
  • They believe in democratic secular government (as opposed to theocracy)
  • They may or may not be a member of a congregation which explores cultural aspects of religion
  • They may or may not feel it necessary to work alongside religious individuals and groups to achieve social ends
About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://www.ethicalstl.org Kate Lovelady

    Hi James–Just found your site and think it’s terrific. A couple responses to this post. First, I wouldn’t assume that all self-described Humanists take any or all of the Humanist Manifestos as creedal, so to speak. Nonetheless, the Third Manifesto’s phrase “without supernaturalism” to me does not necessarily insist that supernatural things don’t exist, rather that people do not have to have supernatural beliefs to have ethics and live good, fulfilling lives.

    Now, one could argue that the stance “Even if God exists he’s none of our business” only makes sense if “God” is defined practically out of existence and is therefore a form of atheism, but that’s another issue. :-)

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hey Kate! I’m glad you found me =D.

      Your comment is a great illustration of why I said you can “generally” assume that Humanists think in this way. The great diversity of thought in the Humanist tradition is one of its distinguishing characteristics!

      You are absolutely right that the manifesto documents are not “creedal”. I find them useful nonetheless as an illustration of Humanist values. We have to have some way to define what Humanism is (and isn’t) and I think the Manifestos give us a place to hang our hat. But they are not binding in any way, as you say.

      I genuinely believe that the tone of the entire HM3 is naturalistic. It does not seem to me to admit of supernaturalism given its focus on the natural world, scientific inquiry etc. And I do take the view that any god which is so defined as to be irrelevant to our experience essentially doesn’t exist – one of the reasons I object to supernaturalism is that it seems to me logically incoherent.

      I think it clear, though, looking at the tradition of Humanist thought across all three manifestos and across other writings, that it is atheistic. Gods are repeatedly rejected as an explanatory force or a source of moral guidance.

      Might it be possible to construct a weak Deism which is compatible with Humanism as I’ve described it? Maybe. But what would be the point of such a thin entity? I think it’s better to do without ;)

      • http://www.ethicalstl.org Kate Lovelady

        I agree, personally. I just happen to know self-described humanists who would insist that they are not atheists. They usually live their lives and make their ethical arguments exactly like atheists, so it doesn’t matter to me what they call themselves, and I’m loathe to perhaps push them away from humanism by insisting that they accept the label of atheist as well. (And I’m not saying that you would insist they accept such a label, I’m just saying this is why when I’m describing humanism I don’t say “humanists are atheists.”)

        • TempleoftheFuture

          I think this is a thorny issue. I recognize some people strongly reject the term “atheist”, and I want to recognize and respect their decision. But I am also a philosopher, and I value precision in language. And I’m quite happy to say that someone actually is an atheist if they meet the definition even if they don’t apply the label to themselves.

  • Evan Clark

    Beautifully written, and helped clarify the difference between Religious Humanism, Secular Humanism, and Christian Humanism for me. Thank you.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Thanks Evan!

  • Tom Flynn

    James,

    I think your definition of religious humanism is deficient, ironically in that it omits the (I think) minority among declared religious humanists who truly are religious. As you define it, religious humanism encompasses only nontheists who find value in the rituals historically associated with congregational life (in contrast to secular humanists, who generally welcome emancipation from such rites).

    But there’s another, perhaps smaller group of religious humanists: those whose humanist practice involves assent to one or more propositions not supported by the available facts. Such religious humanists may not be theists, but they can genuinely be termed “religious” because their humanism depends on their accepting one or more unprovable claims, that is, on the exercise of faith.

    Who are these people, you ask? Humanists who believe that the success and future grandeur of the human species is inevitable (a claim prominent in AHA membership solicitation mailings a decade or so ago). The best-known exemplar of this view may be William Faulkner, whose 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech included the famous line “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” Taken seriously, such a claim demands the support of faith.

    There are other “real” religious humanist types. They include humanists who define the human “spark” as something spiritual or who find humanity so wondrous as to be a legitimate object of worship. Techno-utopians of the transhumanist sort, or of the Teilhardian-Tiplerian kind who believe that humanity will inevitably spread throughout the cosmos and develop technologies necessary to preserve our species into the next cosmic cycle (whatever they think THAT is). For good measure I think you can include political, social, and economic utopians who out of sincere humane conviction posit absurd and arbitrary schemes are pursue them with unjustified vigor: this group includes everything from the Fourierists of old to 20th century Marxists and modern-day libertarians and Objectivists who really believe that limited government and/or the rejection of altruism maximally promote human welfare. (If Objectivism isn’t really a religion, damned if I can understand WTF it is!)

    In my “Secular Humanism Defined” (http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=main&page=sh_defined) I note the irony here. It is only religious humanists of this second type who truly qualify as religious, by virtue of the faith commitment their view requires. The first group of religious humanists — the only ones your definition encompasses — aren’t really religious at all. Nontheists with a taste for ritual, they are less religious than simply, well, “churchy.”

    In my view this is a big part of the reason why so many in the movement find “religious humanism” such a difficult term. There’s a genuine squishiness in there, in that for historical reasons it has come to label two groups that are actually quite different: the churchy, ritual-loving nontheists and the gaggle of extreme humanophiles and utopians for whom humanism serves as a genuine, if nontraditional, religion.

    Tom

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I’m not ignoring this – we have discussed it over at Tom’s blog!

  • Mclean

    This perspective from someone academically studying humanism, well worth reading:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/95432047/Frank-L-Pasquale-Humanist-Focus-of-Attention

    • TempleoftheFuture

      That was actually very good – thank you!

  • http://multiversalist.blogspot.com/ Tony Houston
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  • Nadai

    Thank you for this lucid explanation of Humanism. I’ve been following the debate about atheism+ over at FtB and have come to the conclusion that I don’t know nearly as much about Humanism as I should, whatever its comparability to atheism+ might be. I can see I have a lot of reading in my future. :)

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Thanks Nadai!

  • Suzanne Paul

    Are you the Tom FLynn that worked for Paul Kurtz? Some things never change…I see you are still fighting the “religious” vs “secular” humanism stance.

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  • ullrich fischer

    I like Greta Christina’s take on the pro- / anti- religion aspects of humanism. She points out that unlike naturalism, religion has no checks and balances. While humanists will readily revise their opinions as to which policies are moral or not based on new science, the only way religions can make such adjustments is by the fiat of some (usually old and hidebound) religious leader. This leads to all kinds of atrocious religion-based “morality” like throwing acid into or spitting on the faces of women and girls who are perceived to be doing an inadequate job of hiding their bodies from the view of (apparently devoid of self control) males. This ties into the larger question of the pros and cons of basing one’s morality on religious dogma regardless of the social consequences of the dogma vs basing it on what moral principles will have the largest benefit/cost ratio in terms of human wellbeing. Humanists universally come down on the consequential morality side, while far too many religious folks remain glued to dogma. The bottom line: religion and faith based or magical thinking in general has done and does far more harm than good.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Here you can make quite a useful distinction between “religion” and “faith”. It seems to me the problems you are describing are due to “faith” – all of which I agree with, incidentally.

      On the issue of consequentialist ethics, in fact Humanists do NOT ” universally come down on the consequential morality side”. There are many Humanists who introduce some sort of moral absolutes into their system, the equal dignity of all people being the most common. A great example is Felix Adler, whose “ethical manifold” included fundamental commitments he considered unbridgeable. In practice most Humanist philosophers today are consequentialists, but it doesn’t seem to be a requirement.

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  • Rochelle Carr

    Hi James. Thanks for putting up this site and explaining the Humanist philosophy so well. We will be starting a secular humanist group tomorrow and would love to share this site and its contents with the group. It will be a great starting point to our discussion, and a great tool for those who don’t understand what we are about.
    Thanks!

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hi Rochelle! Thanks for commenting and please use this in any way you please!

  • http://www.religiondispatch.org/2012/07 Culture and Religion

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It really useful & it helped me out a lot. I’m hoping to provide one thing back and help others like you helped me.


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