Humanism: FAQs

On this page you can find various frequently asked questions (FAQs) and our answers. They all relate to humanism: what the word means, how we work together, what humanists are likely to think about certain topics, and what they are unlikely to think!

Words and concepts

Can you explain humanism in less than 100 words?

“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

The above description of Humanism (in just 71 words!) is the “Minimum Statement on Humanism“, created in 1996 by Humanists International. It is a short summary of the Amsterdam Declaration which is the defining statement of Humanism agreed by Member Organizations in 1952 and revised in 2002.

But it’s not the only possible definition of ‘humanism’. Philosophers, activists and ordinary people have variously provided their own definitions and descriptions of Humanism and there have been other declarations by organizatoins, for example the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto, and the regional Nordic Humanist Manifesto (2016).

What's the history of the word "humanism"?

Scholars agree that the first appearance of “humanism” is relatively new. The term was coined for the first time in 1808 by a German pedagogue, F. J. Niethammer, in a book called The Dispute between Philanthropinism and Humanism in the Educational Theory of our Time. But Niethammer’s use of the word “humanism” was different from that of the modern humanist movement: he used it solely to describe a particular type of education which defended “man’s spiritual nature in its autonomy [and] its independence from the material world”.

The adjective “humanist” was already in use before 1808, however, with its roots in the Italian Renaissance, and its function somewhat closer to the modern use. The Italian “Umanesimo” was openly in contrast with the dogmatic and religious medieval tradition, instead putting human intellect, the arts, philosophy, and the idea of a free citizen, at the center of its vision of the world. The movement was driven by a re-exploration of classical antiquity, especially Greek and Roman history and mythology. However, it was was not, for most, a new worldview as such: the relationship of Creator/creature between God and mankind was retained. While “Umanesimo” or “humanism” was the then-contemporary term, today it is often referred to in English as “Renaissance humanism”.

In the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century, some groups and authors began to use the term “secular humanism”. This served to differentiate a non-religious humanist worldview from other uses of the term, including Renaissance humanism, or even “Christian humanism” (sometimes this refers to a branch of Renaissance humanism which presented the shift toward a more human-centered view of history as itself a movement with Christianity, other times it seemed to be an attempt to take ‘humanism’ back from the non-religious, a kind of “Humanism + Jesus”!).

However, today “humanism” even without the qualifier “secular”, can usually be assumed to refer to a non-religious worldview. That is, a worldview which embraces human responsibility and reason, and works on a democratic basis toward a more just world for everyone. Most organizations within the international humanist movement use “humanist” without a qualifier and they represent a humanism that is secular, non-religious or naturalistic.

What is secularism?

When we talk about ‘secularism’ we mean a political principle that favours the separation of religious institutions from the state (sometimes called ‘church-state separation’), or that the state acts in a way which is neutral with regard to people’s beliefs (for example, governments should not discriminate against someone just because that person holds a minority belief), and that the state is not over-influenced by particular religious beliefs and institutions (for example, the law should not force someone to comply with religious beliefs that they do not hold).

George Holyoake, who coined the term “secularism” in 1896

The political principle of secularism is nothing like a “ban” on religion, on the contrary it enables people with different worldviews, whether religious or non-religious, to co-exist freely and fairly. Also secularism should not be confused with atheism (i.e. not believing in “God”) and should not be confused with humanism. Humanists will very likely support the political principle of secularism, but it is not unique to humanists or the non-religious either: religious people support secularism for the same reasons that humanists do, because it enables people to live side by side in states which do not discriminate against you based on your beliefs or force you comply with religious beliefs that you don’t share.

The word “secularism” can also be used in other, related ways, and this can cause confusion. For example some people use ‘secularism’ to mean a more general rejection of religious beliefs within society. However, this can also be described more accurately as the ‘secularization’ of society.

When first proposed by George Holyoake in his 1896 essay English Secularism, he intended secularism as something more like a philosophy of life in its own right, one which was disinterested in religion, was in favour of “improvement of this life by material means”, valued science, and proposed that “it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.” In some ways, Holyoake’s notion of secularism has now evolved into modern humanism, leaving the word ‘secularism’ free to refer to the political principle.

Why does humanism focus on 'reason' and 'science'?

Humanists will value many aspects of human nature and culture: our individual motivations, our collective works, our creativity, our arts, our curiosity. The use of reason and the efficacy of science are just some of the values we promote. But for many, reason and science may be regarded as setting humanism in contradistinction to religion: reason contrasts with ‘faith’ and science contrasts with ‘revealed truth’. So, even though reason and science are only some of the things that humanists value, they are often first in the list, both when humanists and non-humanists describe humanism.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein, who said “ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties; no religious basis is necessary.”

Reason and science are powerful tools. There are various kinds and degrees of animal intelligence. But human rationality and ingenuity certainly set us apart. With reason and science we have cured diseases, established human rights, landed on the Moon, connected the world digitally, connected the world through politics and trade, and understood how life itself evolves.

But we have also conceived and invented terrible weapons, and our industries have sometimes decimated the environment and biodiversity. How we decide to use our reason and the technologies developed through science, are vital moral questions. We have the power to do great harm to ourselves and others, and to the natural environment. So we must have a prudential approach to reason, science and its technological fruits.

Humanism and 'right and wrong'

What is morality or ethics according to Humanism?

Many traditional accounts of the origin of human morality have it that morality came to us from outside ourselves. Religions usually claim that “right and wrong” is something fixed by an external reality. For example, they claim that moral truths are either revealed by a supreme being, or are discoverable only with reference to supernatural entities (like “eternal souls”) or divine purposes (like “God’s plan”).

In contrast, some thinkers (not just philosophers, but ordinary people too!) have always found this idea baffling or unnecessary. In the humanist tradition, including its earliest precursors in ancient thought, have placed the origin of morality in what it is to be human, in our character as social animals, and by thinking about the goals of our actions and what we want to achieve in the real world. A humanist asking questions about right and wrong does not offer answers that refer to some kind of absolute external power or authority, but instead by reference to human preferences and motivations, what we want to achieve, the logic in a situation, the principles of justice we’ve worked out, or the likely impact on other people, animals and the environment.

There are various ways that an ethics based in human reason and responsibility can be cached out in philosophical theory and humanists do not have to agree on precisely the best way to do that – they might not be particularly interested in questions of moral philosophy! But what makes us humanist about ‘right and wrong’ is this focus on the principles of justice we’re embodying and the impact our actions or policies will have in the real world — without any reference to external realities, divine purposes, or supernatural beings.

What does Humanism say about various ethical issues (like LGBT+ rights, gender equality, assisted dying, abortion)?

Generally speaking, humanists tend to adopt a contextual, progressive and liberal approach in ethical issues.

Humanists can use various ethical guidelines when thinking about specific issues, actions or potential policies. For example, we may use the “harm principle”, coined in 1859 by liberal and humanist philosopher John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty. This principle affirms that that individuals have the right to self-determination providing that, in the exercise of their freedom, they do not cause harm to other individuals.

And that’s just one example. We may also think about variations on “the golden rule”, we might employ devices such as John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”, and we might consider any number of other principles of equality, justice, and human rights theory that may help us think through our actions and policies, what they entail, and what they imply.

So, citing the harm principle and the right to bodily autonomy, humanists might stand in favour of assisted dying (the idea that people in extreme suffering should be enable to end their own lives) because they recognise that the individual has the right to make decisions about his or her own life.

Concerning LGBTI+ rights, humanists all over the world stand for the full recognition of gay people and other sexual minorities, and campaign for extending to sexual minorities the rights and legal dignity accorded to heterosexuals.

Concerning gender equality and feminism, humanists recognize and fight against the harmful notion of gender inferiority, affirming that all individuals are equal regardless of their gender, and that a fairer society is a society that treats all individuals as individuals, promoting political measures that bridge the (more or less wide) gender gap existing in practically all societies around the world.

Concerning abortion, humanists tend to converge on liberal, “pro-choice” stance, supporting any law which ensures the possibility for women to a safe and painless abortion, exercising freedom of choice and respecting bodily autonomy.

Of course, not every humanist will agree on every issue. But any humanist should agree that we have the power and the responsibility to discuss moral issues, and that such conversations are not arbitrary. Together we can hope we will continue to work out better and better ways of living together, advancing human flourishing, and working for the well-being of all life.

The Humanist movement

Is there such a thing as 'organized humanism'?

The movement of modern, organized humanism is relatively young compared to the millenary humanist tradition. But, since the 18th century freethinkers in the Western world started to gather together in formal groups and associations with the purpose of promoting their secular worldview and of defending their rights. Similar “rationalist” traditions as seen in India, China and elsewhere go back even further.

The focus of the various humanist organizations around the world may differ accordingly to the different cultural and political situations, but in general they are all engaged in at least one of the following activities: the promotion of the humanist lifestance, the defence of secularism, advocacy of human rights and humanist positions on moral questions, providing support to people who want to leave religion in a safe and legal way, the celebration of humanist ceremonies, and doing humanitarian work from a humanist standpoint.

What are humanist ceremonies?

Humanist ceremonies are a secular, non-religious way to celebrate the most important moments of the life of a person, for example: getting married, the birth of a baby, the passage from adolescence to adulthood, the celebration of one’s life after passing away.

Where are humanists?

Humanists can be found in all parts of the world, in all five continents, even in those countries where they are persecuted socially or under the law.

It is notoriously difficult to get a consistent measure of the level of ‘irreligiosity’ (the proportion of people who are non-religious) in different countries. Different terminology, cultural attitudes or sometimes just a lack of data because the question is not asked locally, all make it hard to get consistent answers. This is especially the case in countries where it may be dangerous or illegal to identify as an atheist or “apostate”.

Nevertheless, most surveys suggest that the long-term global trend is away from organized religion, with more and more people identifying as religiously unaffiliated, or specifically adopting terms like humanist, atheist, or non-religious.

Humanism and religion

What's the relationship between atheism, agnosticism and humanism?

Humanism is non-religious. But different humanists may have different answers to questions about religious concepts. There are various ways to be ‘non-religious’, and for some humanists it will be important, while for others it’s just an incidental part of their worldview.

Many humanists are atheists: people who don’t believe in “God” or “gods”. Atheism can be ‘strong’, when someone actively disbelieves (for example, they might say “I think there are good reasons to deny the existence of God”). Or atheism can be ‘weak’, when someone simply does not believe (for example they might say “I just have no reason to believe in God.”)

Some humanists may describe themselves as agnostic about “God” and other religious concepts. This means they think that nothing is really known about such concepts, or perhaps that nothing can be known. That’s quite a philosophical description of agnosticism, however. More colloquially, some agnostics just mean that they don’t actively believe in religious concepts, or they don’t know enough about the question to decide either way, or they don’t think it matters, or that no one really knows.

Another related concept is ‘igtheism’ or ‘ignosticism’, the idea that the existence of “God” is just a meaningless question, because the whole concept of “God” or “gods” is either incoherent, or cannot be given a clear and coherent definition.

For many humanists, whatever their actual view on religion is, the question itself may not be very important. You can be an atheist but say it’s not an important part of your humanism or your worldview, and it may not be something you think about very much at all. For others, it is important to actively distance themselves from a religion they were brought up in, or which they find themselves surrounded by in the daily lives, even though they do not believe. There is no “right way” to be humanist about religion, except that humanism in the sense we are talking about it here is definitively ‘non-religious’.

Is humanism a religion?

No, humanism is not a religion.

Religion is usually defined with an inherent element of supernatural or divine beliefs, something like: “the belief in a god or gods and the activities that are connected with this belief, such as praying or worshipping in a building such as a church or temple.” Humanists do not believe in these things, or worship them. Humanists are likely to reject ‘faith-based’ belief. Other elements connected with religion such as holy books, divine figures, dogmas that must be enforced, are all absent in humanism and run contrary to humanist values of freethought, reason and personal liberty.

When it comes to the big questions of “life, the universe and everything”, people can hold ideas and convictions that aren’t necessarily religious. Humanism is one such set of connected ideas which people can hold. We often use the term ‘worldview’ or ‘life stance’ to describe a non-religious set of big ideas that define how someone thinks about the world and their place within the world.

(Of course, if you use the word ‘religion’ to mean absolutely any set of big ideas functioning as a worldview regardless of the character of those ideas, then humanism would be ‘religious’ on that very broad definition, but then so would everything else — Marxism? Nihilism? Scientism?… — and then the word ‘religion’ would seem to have lost its distinctive purpose.)

Some legal jurisdictions are not very good at representing worldviews other than religious worldviews. In such cases, some humanist and other secular organizations may legally fit in the “religious” bracket for purposes of registering as a legal entity, but it doesn’t make them “religious” in the sense of being faith-based, believing in divine powers, being dogmatic, and so on.

Is humanism anti-religion?

Since humanism is non-religious, humanists obviously disagree with some of the tenets of religion. There are some moral claims for example that we can all share, however humanists do not believe in divinely-revealed truth, supernaturalism, supreme beings or mystical realms, and so on, therefore we disagree with the truth-claims of those beliefs. In this sense humanism is “anti-” (against) parts of a religion. And some humanists might feel so strongly about dissenting from religious beliefs that they describe themselves as anti-theistic or anti-religious in general.

However, if “anti-religious” means a kind of bigotry against communities, or the totalitarian suppression of religion, then humanists would object strongly! Intellectual disagreement with someone else’s beliefs does not necessarily mean you want to those beliefs “banned” or “eliminated”. Disagreement does not equate with bigotry, and is no excuse for bigotry.

Humanists will recognize that there is value in respect, toleration and mutual understanding. Humanist organizations, including Humanists International and all our Member Organizations, stand for the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the idea that everyone has a right to think and believe – or not believe – free from coercion and persecution. We also of course support the right to freedom of expression, under which we should be able to have honest, robust, peaceful debates about beliefs, ideas and practices.

Of course, not everything can be tolerated! Some people became humanists after being raised in a religious family or society, and finding that they did not agree with the religion, or in some cases suffering pressure, marginalization or hatred in connection with religion. There are some religious practices, ideas, and institutions, which a humanist — and anyone else who respects human rights and freedoms — will strongly oppose. There are some ideas (whether based in religion or not) that a humanist will campaign against, trying to end its influence on society. For example, at Humanists International our advocacy and campaigns work includes highlighting “harmful traditional, cultural and religious practices” such as caste discrimination and “witchcraft” accusations. We have objected to particular abuses and institutional practices of the Vatican. We campaign against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ laws and against states which persecute on the basis of religion, highlighting countries which discriminate against the non-religious.

In all these senses we may be “anti-” particular ideas and particular practices which are connected to religion (whether or not most believers agree that they’re part of that religion). This opposition is driven not by bigotry, but by a deep concern for human rights and a desire to combat misery and injustice.

In other words, humanists may object to some of the beliefs or practices associated with religion for the very same reasons that anyone else may object, including some adherents to those religions. In fact, on many ethical issues, humanists may find themselves on the same side as people described as religious liberals, reformists or non-conformists. For example, at Humanists International in our advocacy and campaigns work, we often work together with religious groups whose aims coincide with ours, to promote human rights and resist coercive and discriminatory practices.

Do humanists believe in an afterlife / ghosts / this prophet or messiah / reincarnation / angels etc?

No. See “Is humanism a religion?” above.

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