Humanism is an ethical non-religious worldview – not just an atheist or agnostic one – deeply committed to Human rights with a range of beliefs and attitudes.
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.
- International Humanist and Ethical Union’s “Amsterdam Declaration” -
Humanism is not an ‘-ism’. That is, it has no source book of unquestionable rules, no leaders to define infallible doctrine. You don’t ‘convert’ to Humanism and then have to take the rough with the smooth. Instead, most people become humanists without contact with any humanist organisation, without even knowing the word.
Humanism is an ethical worldview, not just an atheist or agnostic one. For many non-religious people it is a ‘lifestance’ that frames answers to so-called ‘ultimate questions’ about life in the same way that a religion does for believers. It is a ‘belief’ in terms of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the article that protects freedom of ‘religion or belief’.
Humanism itself is fundamentally committed to human rights: if this is the only life we have, people should have the maximum freedom to live it according to their own beliefs. In this commitment to the open society, where difference is acknowledged and no final answers are imposed, Humanism differs utterly from those religions and ideologies that seek to impose their own notion of truth or right living on everyone. Humanists defend the civic virtues of democracy, which requires the negotiation of differences and the art of compromise as the best method for achieving social consensus.
Humanists defend the right of others to have their own beliefs and life styles, subject only to them not interfering with other people’s rights – hence our work to oppose constant extremist religious efforts to restrict personal freedom, especially sexual freedom, reproductive freedom for women, especially contraception, abortion, and artificial insemination, to oppose scientific research in matters such as genetics and to resist voluntary euthanasia – the right to die with dignity.
Ideologies, nationalism, fundamentalism, partisan opinions have no place in humanism which instead stands for tolerance, openness to others, the wish to build bridges between different beliefs, religions and political forces. Humanism, in short, is diametrically opposed to any system of thought that emphasises differences and fuels them artificially in order to establish ideological dominance more securely..
Read more on Humanists's societial views here.
Are you a Humanist ?
Find out by taking the quiz set up by our member the British Humanist Association, it only takes a minute!
Many people are humanists without even knowing it. If you are non-religious and look to science, reason, empathy, and compassion in order to live an ethical and meaningful life, you’re probably a humanist!
Where does humanism come from ?
Humanism is certainly the oldest ethical and philosophical tradition in Western civilisation. Developed in Classical Greece and Rome, it was expounded by thinkers as diverse as Socrates, Protagoras, Aristotle, Democritus, Epicurus, Aesop and Lucretius. After the Dark Ages, humanist thinking – albeit accompanied by at least nominal religious beliefs – reasserted itself in the Renaissance and in writers and thinkers such as Erasmus and Shakespeare. In the Enlightenment and after, we find David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Denis Diderot, Jeremy Bentham, the Curies and endless other and more modern examples.
Increasingly in the 19th century religion came under explicit challenge from thinkers and reformers. However, the explicit formulation of Humanism as a ‘lifestance’ or system of belief came about only in the 20th century when it became acceptable to live openly as an atheist or agnostic.
In the beginning...
(The story of Secular Humanissm, by Malta Humanist Association)
The origins of modern humanism can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance, although writings exhibiting the core principles of humanism can be found in early Roman and Greek philosophy, as well as Chinese, Indian and other cultures. This ubiquity is due to the fact that humanism is derived from our common human qualities and experiences.
Protagoras, a Greek philosopher and teacher who lived around the 5th century BCE, is best known for his statement that “Man is the measure of all things” as regards morality. Another thing that he was notorious for is his skepticism about the traditional gods and beliefs of Athens - for which he was exiled. Democritus, who coined the term “atom”, believed the universe to be totally physical, made of these small elemental particles, while Epicurus expanded on this to say that there are no gods to please and appease, and that we must strive to lead a happy, good life in this life since there was no other. In Rome, the poet Lucretius not only discarded the old gods but held them, and their religions, to be the source of much unhappiness, saying that “We, peopling the void air, make gods to whom we impute the ills we ought to bear.” Seneca famously said that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
Of course, many of these were voices in the wilderness, if I may sneakily borrow a phrase. However, Rome - more so than Greece - were very secular and practical in their attitude towards religion. If a religion or even a god offered something they could adopt and utilise they did. Throughout their empire there were lots of different religions that the Romans did nothing to suppress, at least until the Christian era.
The Dark Ages
Christianity in Europe started small but grew rapidly, especially when emperor Constantine adopted it as his own faith. His successor however went one step further - he made it mandatory. This heralded a period when religious freedom was almost entirely wiped out from Europe. Christianity was spread by word or sword, until Europe was practically entirely Christian - at least nobody dared to openly say they were not. The inquisitions were originally created to root out any Jews who were only pretending to be Christians, but went on to oppress anyone who was deemed “heretical”, meaning anyone who was having and propounding thoughts that went against church teachings. Humanism did not have much opportunity to flourish openly in this period, which lasted all the way up to the renaissance. What education existed was in the hands of the church, which was mainly concerned with matters that dealt with religion.
Renaissance Humanism is a period of history between the 14th and 16th centuries, when many ancient Greek and Roman writings were rediscovered and spread. The people of Europe were resisting the inquisition, though it would remain a force to be reckoned with for a long time yet. Starting from the various Italian city-states, where rich individuals patronised artists, philosophers, librarians and others, and set up an intellectual opposition to the church’s erstwhile monopoly on these subjects, there followed a massive effort to study and translate the early Roman and Greek works, where each new discovery would lead to a literary celebration of new-found intellectual wealth. Almost all classical literature today was unearthed in this period. Moreover, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, many philosophers and thinkers fled to Italy, where they further encouraged academic endeavour, especially in areas that had previously been neglected by Christian scholars.
In this period, people like Petrarch and Dante set the humanist wave in motion, applying these earlier humanist principles and concepts to the Christian beliefs of the day.
It should be pointed out that, in this era, most humanists were Christians, including several bishops, cardinals and even two popes (Nicholas V and Pius II). Of course it was still dangerous to be anything else for most of this period, but the humanists were primarily opposing what they considered to be the stuffiness, inflexibility and repression of the church, especially against intellectual freedom. By contrast, humanism offered a refreshing openness.
Although there was little in common between the Protestant reformers and Humanists, one important idea that they shared is that information should be widely available, to all people. The Protestants wanted the Bible in a language that is accessible to the common people, whereas the Catholic church kept it in Latin, which to a significant extent allowed them to expound the church’s interpretation of it to whoever wanted the educational level to read it. The arrival of the printing press made this wide availability of knowledge even more viable. However there the similarities ended. The Protestant reformers wanted this as a means of making the Bible accessible, any other materials were not important to them. One of the most important Humanist writers of this time, Erasmus, was critical of both Christian movements. Over time, this Protestant movement went into two very different directions, giving rise both to the ultra-fundamentalist churches and the more liberal ones.
Deism and the Enlightenment
Deism is often related to Humanism since the two were seen as complementing each other. The Deists believed in a creator god who set the ball rolling, so to speak, but took no further part in the development of the universe, the world, life or humanity. On the other hand, Humanism provided a philosophy where humans have to rely on themselves for the betterment of humanity, and not on any divinity or other supernatural entity. The combination of Deism and Humanism was very popular in the era of the Enlightenment, and was espoused by many of the American founding fathers and critical thinkers such as Thomas Paine.
Certain modern humanist organisations have been around for quite a while. The British Humanist Association was founded in 1896, and the (British) National Secular Society in 1866. The International Humanist and Ethical Union was founded in 1952. Formal Humanist organisations like these provide a variety of services to their members as well as promote a secular society, work against religious discrimination, and promote education, science, equal rights, and so on. Humanist ceremonies, such as baby namings, weddings and funerals are very popular since they are not constrained by the rigid structure of a church function, and can be tailored to suit the family or couple’s wishes. Humanist schools and universities are seen as encouraging independent critical thought. In some countries, such as Norway, the Humanist organisation has over 83,000 members (2012), whereas Malta has a more modest 850 for instance.