Thursday, April 26, 2007

What is Humanism - by David Warden

What is Humanism?

An explanation by David Warden

Humanism is a positive alternative to religious belief. Humanists explore the big questions of life on the basis of human intelligence rather than religious authority and we are committed to moral action in the world and in our individual lives.

What do humanists believe?

Humanists believe in the freedom of the human mind, rather than submission to God or to any tyranny on earth. This is sometimes referred to as ‘autonomy’, an attitude which was the hallmark of the 18th century Enlightenment and many ancient Greek philosophers. Freedom of thought means that Humanists do not have any creed, except the creed of freedom of thought itself.

Humanist ethics

Humanists recognise that there is no basis to ethics except the voluntary adoption of modes of behaviour which enable us to live well together. Deciding how to behave is often a difficult choice between competing claims, for instance between my own needs and the needs of others. Humanists appreciate the complexity of moral reasoning and do not have any simple answers to difficult ethical questions. Ethics is not, however, simply a question of ‘doing good’. To live ethically means exploring the root causes of misery in the world, including oppressive relationships in families and in organisations.

Humanist politics

Humanists recognise that politics is a difficult balancing act between economic freedom and social cohesion, between the rights of the individual and the needs of the community. In constitutional affairs, Humanists would prefer to have an elected Head of State rather than an hereditary monarchy because the monarchy is a powerful symbol of privilege, deference and inequality.

Humanism as a counterculture

Global capitalism and consumerism have become a new form of totalitarianism. Economic well-being is important but Humanists are committed to moral well-being as well. Humanists do not advocate poverty but they have other concerns besides material acquisition.

Humanism and human rights

Human rights are based on the freedom and dignity of the individual and therefore Humanists are committed to human rights as expressed in various international declarations and conventions. We are opposed to any form of discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, age, ability, sexual orientation, belief, background, etc. More positively, we support the emancipation of any oppressed class including women, children, employees in oppressive organisations, animals and so on.

Humanism and education

Humanists are committed to education as long as it is based on the principle of free enquiry rather than the transmission of dogma.

Humanism for the individual

Because Humanists believe in freedom of thought and critical enquiry, they often find themselves going against the flow of society. This is sometimes called ‘authenticity’ – staying true to your own beliefs rather than conforming to society. This attitude is potentially very costly for Humanists as individuals. Many of our freethought predecessors were imprisoned for their beliefs and even today freethinkers in many parts of the world can be arrested and imprisoned.

Humanism in history

The word ‘humanist’ was first used in the late 15th century to refer to Italian scholars who specialised in the study of classical literature (humanitatis) in contrast to theology (divinitatis). The modern meaning of the word Humanism started to gain currency in the early part of the twentieth century with books such as Humanism: Philosophical Essays by Oxford pragmatist Ferdinand Schiller (1903) and Humanism by the American philosopher William James (1904). The first Humanist association was established in America in 1941 and in Britain in 1963. The roots of Humanism are much deeper than this however. In the 19th century there were many freethought and ethical societies which were Humanist in outlook.

Humanist campaigns

Humanists are working to ensure that our intellectual freedoms are safeguarded and that the voice of non-religious people is heard. If you visit British Humanist Association's website you can find out about humanist campaigns. The International Humanist and Ethical Union website website has more information about what is happening in other parts of the world.

How many humanists are there?

There are about 1 billion non-religious people in the world – nearly one-sixth of the world’s population. According to the last UK census, 13 million people in Britain are non-religious, probably an underestimate of the true number of non-believers. The British Humanist Association has around 5,000 members and 40 local groups. In some European countries, such as Belgium and Norway, Humanism has greater numerical strength, partly because of state funding for all religions, including Humanism as a secular alternative. Norway, for instance, has around 60,000 Humanists. There are Humanist groups on every continent including Africa, Asia and South America.

Some notable humanists and humanistic thinkers

Click on the links below to look at encyclopedia entries on specific individuals.

Further reading

  • On Humanism Richard Norman (2004, Routledge)
  • Humanism Jim Herrick (2003, Rationalist Press Association)
  • Humanism Jeaneane Fowler (1999, Sussex Academic Press)
  • Humanism Nicolas Walter (1998, Prometheus)


  1. According to David Pollock

    "Humanists find the best available explanations of life and the universe in the naturalistic and provisional answers provided by scientific enquiry and the use of reason. We think it folly to turn to other sources - such as religion or superstition - for answers to unanswered questions. Humanists are therefore atheists or agnostics - but Humanism is a philosophy in its own right, not just a negative response to religion."

    I propose we include the above statement (or similar) including at a minimum the terms "scientific enquiry" and "Humanists are atheists or agnostics".

  2. There are many forms of conceptual freedom, including psychological, cultural, social, etc. But the post manifesto III Humanist of Europe seem exclusively focus on Religion.

    I do stand against Theocracy.
    But a as an ethical humanist in America when do we focus on real social problems, prisons, emotionally developing kids?

    I think we waste way too much time
    on science and theory.

    We need another Carl Rogers.