What is Humanism?

Humanism is often characterized as a worldview, lifestance or philosophy.  However, in the First Humanist Manifesto, a declaration on central Humanist beliefs written in 1933, it was described as a religion.  Since then, the term ‘religion’ has come to imply certain things, such as the spiritual entities and dogmas, that do not accurately describe Humanism either as it was understood then or is lived now.

So how would one describe the worldview of Humanism?

Humanism has three essential characteristics:

  • Methodology: A reliance on reasoned experience, which, however flawed, is the only means to understanding ourselves and the world in which we live in.
  • Values: The belief that we are interdependent creatures who rely on social virtues, such as integrity, compassion and community, to live flourishing lives.
  • Contrast: In comparison to most other Western worldviews, Humanism rejects belief in the supernatural.  Nontheism and naturalism is therefore a defining characteristic.

Methodology

Many Humanists strongly favor Science as basis for knowledge.  However, all modes of rational thinking and personal experience are also integral for figuring out the universe both within us and without.   Humanists, however, do not believe in astrology, revelation, wishful thinking, spiritual worlds or that we somehow already have the ‘answers’ buried deep inside.  Knowledge is difficult and we must instead come together and rigorously discuss the issues at hand, all the while admitting we could be wrong.

Values

Because Humanists readily admit that our methodology does not flow from an omniscient being, we will readily admit that our ethical beliefs may be wrong, and some Humanists believe ethics isn’t the kind of thing that can be right/wrong.  However, this is no excuse not to be ethical.  Suffering can be easily read from others’ faces without such divine revelations and we have innate capacities toward compassion and cooperation.  We may disagree regularly, but that only spurs the Humanist to constantly ask questions of their beliefs, to seek others’ help in forming them and to not condemn those that disagree.  Because we have no omniscience to guide us or omnipotence lean on, Humanists further find solace and value in each other.  Because of this Barry Klassel, the Rutgers Chaplain, describes Humanism as “being alone together.

Contrast

Defining oneself by what one is not isn’t much of an identity.  But since belief in a personal God is so salient for so many worldviews in Western Society, Humanism stands out for being nontheistic.  Nontheists include atheists, agnostics and, for some Humanists, deists.  We are of course not alone in this and have good allies with the atheistic or deistic religions of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and others.  Like them, Humanists still find much joy in life, meaning in ethics and love in relationships.

There are no dogmas in Humanism.  

Claims to certainty or blind faith are not only frowned upon, but seen as incompatible with Humanism.  For many this has made Humanism a rich source of pluralism and tolerance.  All of the declarations therefore open by establishing that the tenets outlined within are not and never will be unquestionable.  Further, each declaration makes clear that individual members of the committee would probably, if they could, change a few lines here or there.

If some item of a Humanist declaration doesn’t seem right, question it.  If it still doesn’t make sense, scrap it.

For instance, many Humanist documents discuss the central importance of privacy, progress and democracy, but Humanism takes no fundamental stance on politics or economics.  Our interdependence, for example, may be understood by one Humanist in terms of capitalism, nuclear families, division of labor and democracy.  For others it may take a more collectivist bend focusing on the larger communities and relationships bound by duty.  For many Humanists this interdependence is extended to animals and nature.

Prominent Humanist Organizations’ Descriptions

The International Humanist and Ethical Union

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

American Humanist Association

“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
~The AHA’s What Is Humanism page

American Ethical Union

Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society. Our faith is in the capacity and responsibility of human beings to act in their personal relationships and in the larger community to help create a better world. Our commitment is to the worth and dignity of the individual and to treating each human being so as to bring out the best in him or her. Members join together in ethical societies to assist each other in developing ethical ideas and ideals, to celebrate life’s joys and support each other through life’s crises, and to work together to improve our world and the world of our children.
~American Ethical Union Statement of Purpose

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For a more detailed discussion and other founding documents, such as the Humanist Manifestos, please read our Further Resources section.

If you would like to get into even more detail, please consider taking one of the Humanist Institute’s online courses (many of which are free) with the Continuum for Humanist Education.

Paul Chiariello, 2012