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
Boy Scouts of America: Still Bigoted
Building Better Secularists?
A Humanist's Guide to Working with Clergy
God and the Gay Humanist - A Response to Matthew Vines
About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 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.


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