What is humanism?

Across the world, the number of non-religious people is growing all the time. Humanists are non-religious people who strive to lead a fulfilling, meaningful and ethical life.

A humanist bases their understanding of the world on reason and science, rejecting supernatural or divine beliefs. They endeavor to make ethical decisions using reason and empathy, and aiming for the welfare and fulfillment of living things.

Humanists International is made up of more than 150 member organizations and associated groups across the world. The definition of humanism varies slightly between these organizations and groups, but they each share some key common themes. Here are a selection of definitions from around the world:

What does it mean to be a humanist?

Knowledge, ethics, value and meaning

A humanist is someone who recognises that we, human beings, are the most curious and the most capable curators of knowledge in the known universe.

  • To gain knowledge, we must use our reason and experience to understand the world. And we may create or partake of the great artistic fruits of humankind to enhance our emotional palettes, deepen our empathy and enrich our understanding. But we reject any reliance on blindly received authority, or on dogma, or what others may claim is divine revelation (because we don’t believe we get tip-offs about truth from a supreme being beyond time and space. That would be cheating!)

A humanist is someone who recognises that we, human beings, are by far the most sophisticated moral actors on the Earth. We can grasp ethics.

  • This does not mean we are the only moral objects. For example other animals deserve moral consideration, too, and perhaps the environment as a whole.
  • It is also worth noting that some other (non-human) animals exhibit patterns of behaviour that look a lot like care, empathy, in a few cases even apparently responding to what looks like ‘unfair’ behaviour by seeking to redress it! These different types and stages of animals thinking about others may be taken as evidence of how ethical behaviour evolved in human beings. However, humans do seem to have a unique capacity for moral choice. It would be unusual for example to say that a dog or a dolphin had behaved “immorally”! But when it comes to humans, we are able to choose to act in the interests of the welfare of living things, advancement of society, and fulfillment of our own and others personal goals… or against them! This choice and our knowledge of that choice makes us ‘moral actors’.
  • To act well, we must take responsibility for ourselves and others. We do not do this for the sake of preferential treatment in any afterlife (even if we believed in it, that motivation wouldn’t make our actions good!). We do it because the best we can do is to live this life as brilliantly as we can. That means helping others in community, advancing society, and flourishing at whatever we do best within those bounds.

And humanists are people who find value in themselves and each other, respecting the personhood and dignity of fellow human beings.

  • We respect other people not because we are made “in the image” of something else (we are a product of evolution, not the product of a divine plan), but because of what we are. We are a sentient, feeling species, with value and dignity in each individual, and that is worthy of respect.

There is no reason to believe that “meaning” has to come from a supreme being. If you can write a sentence on paper which isn’t nonsense, then you can create meaning!

  • For a humanist, there is no divine plan or purpose. The humanist recognises that we make our own purposes, tell our own stories, set our own goals. This gives life meaning.

Who counts as a humanist?

Anyone who broadly agrees with the above might be described as a humanist, or might identify themselves as a humanist (even if they happen to have one or two quibbles).

To be a humanist there is no entrance procedure, no necessary rite of passage, and no hierarchy to which you must belong.

Humanists are humanists, they do not have to join an organization, or be on a list somewhere! However, if you are a humanist, or you are just discovering and exploring the idea, then you are welcome to join Humanists International as an Individual Supporter to learn about our work, or as a first step to getting more information about humanism.

Humanist organizations

Some humanists choose to join — or start their own — organizations, such as local groups or a national organization. There are various motivations to do this. For example, they may have a desire for discussion or socialising with like-minded people, to learn from speakers or other group members, or to contribute to campaigns or humanitarian efforts that are close to their hearts.

Humanists International is the umbrella body for humanist and other non-religious organizations. Our members may encompass all the elements of humanism (e.g. a “Humanist Association”) or focus on specific area (“Atheist Society”, “Secular Association”, “Freethinkers Group”, etc).

Some humanist groups started out as liberal religious groups, which at some point in time decided to leave the concept of “gods” behind. They found a new way of understanding some of the values and ethics they brought with them, but in some cases retained some of the communal elements of religion. Examples include “Ethical Culture” societies, and some Unitarian Universalists.

However, most Humanist groups today have been founded on a secular, humanist philosophy from the outset. Some of these groups were started in response to a government’s privileging of a majority religion and the non-religious citizens’ struggle for equal treatment. Other such groups were started to do social development work and to care for persons that were abused by their family or society (often because of their non-religious views).

If you represent a humanist or non-religious organization you can join Humanists International as a Member Organization.

Interested in getting involved?

Find out more about how you can support the international humanist movement

Get involved

Aspects of Humanism

There are several aspects or components of Humanism. Most of these elements can also stand alone (for example, you can be an atheist but not believe in right and wrong, then you wouldn’t be a humanist). Humanists are likely to agree with most of the following claims, at least in their broad intent.

We live in a natural world

There are no gods or ghosts, disembodied spirits or immortal souls. There is no divine realm. Of course there are strange or as yet unanswered questions about the world, but as we gain knowledge and understanding then previously unexplained phenomena are always brought into the “natural world”, or can be understood “under the laws of nature” (or however you like to think of it). This view is also sometimes known philosophically as naturalism.

Naturalism usually entails atheism (dissent from the existence of a God or gods) or at least some form of agnosticism (the idea that the existence of gods is unknown or unknowable, or even a meaningless question).

“Isn’t it arrogant to rule all these things out?”

Naturalism readily accepts that we might discover profoundly strange answers to certain questions. For example, it’s possible we will one day discover a greater frame for our present reality: the best science may tell us that the universe is a holographic simulation or part of a wider multiverse! But any such discovery would then be part of “our reality” or the total “nature” of the universe; the discovery would not be protected by divine mystery, or sealed off by a supernatural barrier. So, naturalism’s dissent from “the supernatural” is not an arrogant prejudice about what exists, but a kind of logical or conceptual or methodological constraint. (For a naturalist, it seems far more arrogant to assert the existence of such things as spirits, gods, or otherworldly realms.)

“But don’t we sometimes learn amazing new things?”

Yes, the universe is often surprising! But when humanity does discover strange new things about the universe we live in, they are usually quite unexpected (such as evolution! other galaxies! quantum mechanics!). Such discoveries rarely cohere neatly with supernatural elements of ancient mythology.

We learn about the world using conjecture, reason and experience

Humanists agree that we can learn about the world through the use of reason and scientific method, or conjecture tested against logic and empirical evidence. In other words, the world is amenable to rational investigation. This position is sometimes called rationalism.

As rationalists, humanists value free inquiry, in that they reject artificial limits on investigation. Rationalism also embodies freethought: it focuses on knowledge which people can share and test as one community, rather than the acceptance of authority, tradition, or dogma.

“So you think you know it all, then!”

Rationalism does not imply that humanists think they know everything. On the contrary rationalism raises the standards for truth-claims: it makes it harder to claim to know everything. Rationalism readily accepts that not all scientific questions yet have satisfactory, explanatory answers. But it at least resists answers which are logically unsound or contrary to scientific evidence.

“So you think you’re purely rational all the time, Mr Spock!”

Rationalism does not imply that any one is capable of being rational all the time in everything they do. Nor does it imply that every proposition worth stating must have a logical basis or that logic and evidence are the only ways we interact with the world. For example if we ask ourselves “Who do I love?” or what we value in life or how others are likely to feel in some situation, then we may turn not to logic, but to emotional introspection, empathy, memory, art… All these things in turn may be subject to some logical analysis, but are not reducible to rationality. Rationalism does mean that humanists tend to be suspicious of any claim to grand truths based more on myth than on evidence. Rationalism does mean that humanists are likely to reject any attempt to limit free inquiry by invoking ineffable mysteries.

We must make the most of the one life we have

We give our lives meaning and purpose. Not believing in an afterlife, or any “divine purpose” for the universe, humanists focus on making meaning and purpose for themselves, on living a good life in the here and now.

“Doesn’t that mean you can do whatever you want?”

Living a good life is not the same as unrestrained hedonism, or living a life of unadulterated pleasure or self-interest. Rather, it may mean living in community, helping others, flourishing at what we are good at, contributing to our global society, and exploring and marveling at the world we find ourselves in.

“If the universe has no absolute or divine meaning or purpose, then how can individual lives have a meaning or purpose?”

Why not? Meanings and purposes do not always have to be inherited from some higher meaning or purpose. Sometimes they arise from people setting themselves goals, imagining new courses of action, or working together for some common goal.

Morality arises from human nature and culture

Human beings were not suddenly blessed with love and reason at some point in the past by an external power! Rather, our nature as deliberating, social beings evolved over time. We are able to empathise with others, and reason about fairness, and justice and how societies work (or when they don’t work!).

“Doesn’t that mean you’re moral relativists?”

No, this is not at all the same as the moral relativist position that all human behaviors are equally moral (or equally amoral).

Compare to the situation with language. Like morality, human language — a combination of written, verbal, signed and gestural communication — is a complex phenomenon that evolved over time. It maps our needs and capabilities, but was not fundamentally designed or enforced from the outside. It varies significantly from place to place but is near-universal in some of its broadest features. Nevertheless, there are still better or worse expressions of language: expressions that are well-formed or badly formed, expressions that communicate as intended or which miscommunicate, which are clear or ambiguous, some that are true, some that are false. Morality, likewise, is a complex, evolved set of thoughts and behaviours, but particular actions can be just or unjust, fair or unfair, beneficial or detrimental, ethical or unethical, moral or immoral.

What is morally right promotes welfare and fulfillment

What is the moral sphere (or “right and wrong”, “good and bad”, morality or ethics)?

For humanists, there are moral ‘rights and wrongs’ because of who we are as human beings, including the needs and desires we share, and the needs and desires of individuals; because we interact with each other, and can deliberate over what we do; and because our actions affect both ourselves and others normatively. In other words: we can hinder or help others, make people sad or happy, we can impoverish the lives of others or enrich them, live life with dreary fatalism or with human flourishing. The answers to moral questions are here in the world, in ourselves, others, and our relationships, not in some mystical beyond.

“But I heard that without God nothing would have any moral worth?”

We need make no reference to some absolute law-giver or a designer outside space and time to understand the basis of morality: that some of our actions detract from, and others promote, the welfare of living things, or the advancement of society, or the fulfillment of ourselves and others.

“Is this some sort of human supremacism?”

No. Humanism puts the human moral agent at the centre, because we are the only (or at least, by far the most sophisticated) moral decision-makers that we know of. Humanism does not deny that there are other objects of moral consideration, such as non-human animals. For humanists, moral considerations may include human beings, other animals, our environment, as well as ethical principles, the health of society, and the future we are creating through our actions.

WordPress theme developer - whois: Andy White London