AcademiaAgriculture & FarmingHumanitiesSocial SciencesSTEM

What Is Secular Humanism?

Updated on June 21, 2017
CatherineGiordano profile image

Catherine Giordano is a writer and public speaker who often writes and speaks on topics related to science, philosophy, and religion.

What Is Secular Humanism?

Secular humanism is a little understood human–centered philosophy of life. It is non-theistic, rooted in science, and it espouses explicit moral and ethical directives. It seeks the greater good for all humanity.

Humanism Seeks the Greater Good.

Humanism stresses the use of reason for the greater good of all mankind.
Humanism stresses the use of reason for the greater good of all mankind. | Source

Wikipedia defines humanism as "a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition."

The London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union defines humanism as “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.”

In the United States, the American Humanist Association defines humanism as ”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.”

What Do Humanists Believe?

The Humanist Manifesto III provides a long list of humanist beliefs. (By the way, “manifesto” turned out to be a poor choice of words, since the term became associated with communism.) The first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1993. It has been updated twice since then.

Humanists believe a lot of the same things theists believe. Humanists believe that all humans are part of one human family. They strive to treat everyone fairly, to avoid prejudice, and to care for other people. Humanists aspire for a world in which everyone has an opportunity to live a happy and fulfilled life.

Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests.

— Isaac Asimov (Scientist and author)

What Are the Precursors to Humanism?

One of the earliest references to a human-centered philosophy, rejecting supernaturalism, can be found circa 1500 BCE in the Rig-Veda, a sacred Hindu text.

In the 6th-century BCE, Gautama Buddha expressed skepticism about the supernatural.

Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes of Colophon, also expressed humanistic beliefs during the 6th century BCE. They rejected the existence of anthropomorphic gods and attempted to explain the world in terms of human reason rather than myth and tradition.

Modern humanism began in Europe during the Renaissance when philosophers rediscovered the works of the ancient Greeks. As Petrarch (1304-1374), an Italian scholar and poet put it, 'It is better to will the good than to know the truth.”

At first humanism and Christianity were not seen as mutually exclusive. “Secular” only meant “of the world” as opposed to monastic life in the church.

In the 17th-18th century, during “The Age of Enlightenment,” humanism began to reject faith and tradition in favor of reason and science. Many philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant espoused the humanistic ideas of “the age of reason.”

In the 19th century, some groups began to call themselves “religious humanists” in order to claim humanism for people who believe in a deity, but did not feel comfortable with the dogma of traditional religions.

Others felt that religion was directly contrary to what they saw as the essential precept of humanism—no belief in the supernatural. These people began to call themselves “secular humanists,” so as to create a clear distinction.

The discovery of what is true and the practice of that which is good are the two most important aims of philosophy.

— Voltaire (18th century philosopher and author)

Is Secular Humanism a Religion?

By definition, humanism is not a religion because there is no belief in a deity. It is a philosophy, a worldview that promotes ethical and moral living based on human values.

Atheism--or you might better say non-theism-- is part of this worldview. However, simply asserting that there is no evidence for a belief in God (or gods), does not make someone a humanist. Secular humanists will tell you that “non-theism is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of humanism.” The moral and ethical code is essential. However, many non-theists (or freethinkers, rationalists and skeptics, as they sometimes call themselves) as well as many deists are also humanists.

You may come across a group calling itself an atheist or humanist church. They are using the word “church” loosely to simply mean a congregation of like-minded people who choose to come together to share and celebrate their ideals. The Ethical Culture Union is one such group.

The United States is such a church-centered society that people, even non-theists, wish to align themselves with a church. Membership in a church, even for theists, is about more than worship. It is a community, a place to make friends, a place to go when you need help, and a place that provides you with an identity.

Can Life Have Meaning Without God?

Of course, life can have meaning without God. Humanists believe that they give meaning to life instead of Having meaning come from someplace outside of themselves.

There is a joke, I like to tell, “Question: Who do atheists thank on Thanksgiving? Answer: Well, I don’t know what all atheists do, but I thank the cook.”

Humanists believe that we are living the only life we will ever have in the only world we will ever know, so we must take responsibility to live our lives in the here and now and to live those lives well.

Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.

— Jean-Paul Sartre (20th century philosopher and writer)

Can You Be Good Without God?

Of course, you can be good without God! The well known author, Kurt Vonnegut, said, "...being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead." If someone is “good” for ulterior motives, such as reward or punishment, they may be acting as if they were good, but are they really good? (Virtue is its own reward.)

Humanists believe in personal freedom, but also social responsibility. And what is ethics but a set of rules for living harmoniously together with one another?

Morality predates modern religions. Humanists are guided by reason, empathy, and understanding to behave in an ethical way. Humanists believe that reason and science provide the best means for understanding the world around you and that treating others with dignity and compassion is the best way to live.

Humanism is being good without God. It is above all an affirmation of the greatest common value we human beings can have: the desire to live with dignity, to be “good”….To put it another way, humanists believe in life before death.

— Greg M. Epstein- (Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and author of "Good without God")

Do Humanists Want to Convert People?

Absolutely not—humanists have a live-and-let-live attitude toward religion. Has a humanist ever knocked on your door offering you tracts or wanting to tell you “the good news”? Humanists do not proselytize, although most humanists will be happy to explain their beliefs if you ask them.

What humanists do not like is having others try to impose their religious beliefs on them. Humanists believe that religious ceremonies belong at home and in the church and not in the schools and at government functions.

There are so many different religions, that religion becomes divisive. There is no one-size-fits-all prayer or belief. The founders of the United States knew what they were doing when they constitutionally required church and state to stay out of each other’s business.

An Excellent Explanation of Humanism.

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe

I think both theists and non-theists will enjoy this book because Epstein makes his case for humanism without rancor. He writes in a conversational tone that I found very engaging. I also liked how he seamless wove history, theology, philosophy, sociology, and even a bit of memoir into his explanation of humanism and why people can be good without God.

 

There are many polls about belief in God. Here is one more.

Which comes closest to your beliefs about God?

See results

What Organizations Exist to Promote Humanism?

The history of humanism as an organization, and not just a philosophy, goes back to 1927 when the Humanist Fellowship was organized at the University of Chicago by a group of professors and seminarians. In 1935, the Humanist Fellowship changed its name to the Humanist Press Association Another reorganization took place in 1941, when the group became the American Humanist Association (AHA). There are local chapters in every state.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was founded in 1952 in Amsterdam, and is now headquartered in London.

The Center for Inquiry is headquartered in Amherst, New York, but also has branches in more than two dozen cities in the United States and in Canada. The affiliated group, Council for Secular Humanism ,has many local chapters. The focus of these two organizations is on science and philosophy.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation mainly focuses on church-state separation issues. They have about many local chapters.

American Atheists, as the name suggests, exists to promote atheism. They self-identify as “firebrands.” They sponsor a podcast, Atheist TV.

For students, there is The Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry on Campus.

Openly Secular is a coalition of humanistic and atheist groups formed to highlight and overcome discrimination against atheists and the nonreligious. They ask atheists/non-religious people to come “out of the closet” so the rest of the world can see that they are normal, moral, successful people just like everyone else.

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

What are your thoughts about humanism?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Humanism may come the closest to my beliefs, although I didn't know the term for it until I read this Hub. I was raised in a General Baptist atmosphere, but I questioned too many things and it just didn't "fit." Throughout my life I have sought answers and never really found them. Your description of Humanism seems to fit better than anything else, although I have no intention of joining a group of humanists. For me that would be too much like an "organized religion," even without the presence of a worshipped deity. I enjoyed this Hub and thank you for sharing this concept.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Most humanists, like yourself, came from a religious background. Many people say I was always a humanist, but just didn't know it. I'm glad I was able to inform you that you are not alone.

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      I love this article, and I can relate to Nancy. Your response was interesting-that most humanists come from a religious background. I was raised in a very conservative Christian home. I am the "lost lamb" in my family. This does not bother me. Voted up & sharing.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      @Iris and Catherine, my darling late sister was so devout, she was a Deaconess in her church. I was always the "black sheep," because I questioned everything I was told. Religious people simply told me that I must take it "on faith." Well, I took Santa Claus on faith too, and he didn't exist either. (smile)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Iris. I'm sure it was hard for you to break with the religious tradition of your family. I was a little nervous about negative reaction to this hub, but so far, so good. I hope you will visit a local chapter of one of the groups I mentioned; you will find that you are not alone.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks, Nancy. My reply to Iris applies to you also. It seems that both of you are comfortable with your religious beliefs and I am glad to hear that. It is often very wrenching for people to leave the faith tradition of their families. Talking about Santa Claus, a friend told me he went to Catholic school and after he found out that Santa wasn't real, he kept waiting for the nuns to tell him Jesus wasn't real either.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      hahahaha, Catherine, I know how he felt!

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Catherine, I can certainly see why you were a bit nervous about this one, but you were very respectful (live and let live). I have found too that the articles I get nervous about publishing are the ones that are the most important. I'm really happy that you did put this out there. It's important.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Iris. I appreciate your support. I did this as part of the OpenlySecular campaign that I mentioned in the hub.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      These views are interesting and good to know. Good presentation!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you MsDora. I wanted to provide information about the moral and ethical underpinnings of secular humanism because many people do not know about it.

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      The OpenlySecular campaign interests me. I checked out their website. I may follow your lead shortly and do an article of my story.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Great idea. A story of "coming-out secular " would complement my piece because your story would be personal, and I tried to write objectively, like something you would see in a newspaper or an encyclopedia.

    • Donald Ogba profile image

      Obinna Donald Ogba 2 years ago from Los Angeles

      I consider myself a "recovering Christian" and your hub puts where I think am heading in perspective. Thanks! But do you think a deist can be a humanist too? Cause I think I belief in God, but I doubt if He intervenes or is involved in the affairs of men.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Yes, a deist could be a religious humanist. If you do not worship or pray to a deity and you look to science and reason for your ethics and morality, you would essentially be a humanist.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I know a number of people this describes, and yes they are in the closet so to speak. It fascinates me how the entire question or issue of religion seems to pervade some people's lives while for others, they don't know or care what they believe religiously. Twin studies suggest the controversial notion of heritability of religiosity.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Flourish: Thank you for your comment. Every now and then I hear stuff about "the religion gene." I think it is more a matter of culture. In England, about half of the population are "non-believers."

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent and informative Hub describing Secular Humanism, Catherine. I am firmly in the Secular Humanist realm and you have described it very well.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you HS. I appreciate your comments.

    • profile image

      bradmaster from orange county ca 2 years ago

      CatherineGiordano

      This is a well written hub, and well structured.

      However, none of it fits my view.

      I grew up a Catholic, but then I started thinking for myself.

      First, my opinion is that people are basically evil. They were that way in ancient times, and they are still evil today.

      It takes force, threats, and restrictions on their free will to bring out any good in them. This is my general rule. It covers the majority of the people in the world.

      Second, I don't believe in labels, or pigeon holes. So, I didn't fit in your poll.

      I don't believe in the biblical Gods, but that doesn't make me an Aetheist. Because the majority of the world doesn't believe in it also.

      The bibles are the best writing of man trying to control man. Man really means Man and not mankind. Women were not significant in it.

      It seems to me that what ever created the Universe, and specifically the Earth didn't do a good job. The Universe is a waste of particles. People on Earth can't get along with other humans, so how would they do with life forms from another world. One of three outcomes would be inevitable based on the history of humans.

      1. The humans would try to kill them

      2. The Aliens would try to kill the humans.

      3. The humans would be servants of the Aliens.

      Our Solar System is a death trap because of the Asteroid belt that runs through it. One look at the Moon would be an example of that.

      The other planets while applying equilibrium to our solar system is a very sloppy design.

      That sloppy design also extends to the rest of the universe.

      It is like when you make soup, but you are not a chef. Sometimes it works out, but most of the time it is bad.

      The Earth itself is a killing machine, from the earthquakes, to the hurricanes, floods, fires, and other deadly things, it can hardly be called a successful design.

      That is my opinion, and it doesn't make any difference whether there is a God or there isn't a God. In either case, the result is the same, people are basically evil. Nobody has to teach people to bad, but teaching people to be good takes a lifetime.

      Thanks

      bradmasterOC

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you for your comment. In my hub, I tried to be objective and not give any personal opinions--Just an explanation about secular humanism for people who may have heard the term, but didn't know much about it. My purpose was not to debate the issues, but just to say what secular humanists believe.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      Interesting Catherine. I was unsure what category to place myself in because deist and humanist were the closest because I do believe in God. Even though I believe God, I do believe that he keeps to himself most of the time but does intervene when necessary.

      When I was born, it was into a Christian family so I was raised a Christian and taken to church every Sunday. When I was old enough I decided for myself that I still believed in God but that church and the people who went were just fakes, so I stopped going. Now I pray at home when necessary, as I said believe in God, study and practice Reiki, chakras, Tai Chi and meditation. So it was hard to decide what category.

      Kevin

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Examiner for explaining your beliefs. I think you are correct to describe your beliefs as deistic. I think you are also correct to describe yourself as a humanist with respect to your moral beliefs. Your comment and some of the others make me think that I need to edit in order to clarify what I have written. I was talking about SECULAR humanists--many people who belong to religions or who are deists also have humanist beliefs. It is not about the labels, but about the morality.

    • VioletteRose profile image

      VioletteRose 2 years ago from Chicago

      Very interesting to learn about different beliefs. I believe in God, but I respect other beliefs too. And I believe that, if someone do good things in his life and help others, it really doesn't matter what his belief is.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Violette. I appreciate knowing that it came across that my piece was about morality--being a good person-and it doesn't matter how you get there. It is my impression that a lot of people don't know the ethical values of secular humanism.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Excellent article. This is the best explanation of humanism I have ever read. You really explain it well especially the part about belief in God. So many times humanism has been written off as a way of learning and living, because it was labeled an atheist philosophy. Thank you for making it clear that its is not atheist. I enjoyed reading this and thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. Voted up+ and shared.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you so much suzette. I always try to do the "best explanation ever" no matter what the topic. Years of writing business reports have taught me how to distill information into a simple outline. I appreciate that you took the time to comment and I am glad that you liked the article. I did a little editing to make it clear that humanism is a moral philosophy that can be useful no matter what your religious beliefs are.

    • sweetpikez profile image

      Pinky de Garcia 2 years ago

      I hope I read your hub in my college years. This is a very good reference material for the Foundations of Philosophy students. This gives the general and specific definitions of humanism. Thanks for sharing this article. This is useful. Voted up+++

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Wow! You think I am good enough to be used as a college text! Thank you, sweetpikez. You have made my day.

    • profile image

      Linda 2 years ago

      This is the most cogent explanation of humanism I've seen in a long time--maybe ever. You hit the nail on the head, and I plan to use some of your remarks the next time I'm asked how someone who doesn't believe in a god can still be a good and moral person.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you, Linda. You might also like to read the essay I did on "Good without God."

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 2 years ago from Bend, OR

      I'm an atheist but extremely tolerant and supportive of believers. However, I'm becoming increasingly frustrated with politics and religion. Our political leaders always have to act more religious than they are to get votes. I want them focused on huge problems such as climate change, not on photo ops leaving church or talking to religious leaders. However, it has changed quite a bit from the the 70s when the Religious Right had so much influence and remember the Bible Belt? I haven't heard that used in a long time! Enjoyed this informative hub, Catherine!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you, letstalkabouteduc: The Constitution says "There shall be no religious test for office," yet that seems to have been forgotten. Everyone has a right to their personal religious beliefs. The operative word is personal. thank you for commenting.

    • profile image

      Harilal Kollara 23 months ago

      I am good without god

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 23 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Harilal Kollara: Thank you for commenting. I wish more people understood that it is possible to be good without God. It is too bad that some churches demonize non-believers. They are afraid if you talked to us, you might start to think like us too.

    • profile image

      Bobbie 19 months ago

      Thank you for a most informative article. I have a neighbour who declares himself a secular humanist, and we have discussed many current events from that perspective. While interested in the approach, I did not realise the entire scope of this worldview so thank you for that and I will pursue it further. I was raised in the Catholic church but have not practised that religion for years. I am interested in the historical development of the faith (all faiths really) but early in my adult life realised I could not accept the dogma as truth. I cannot believe in supreme "gods" of any religion but understand why humans created deities as one way to bring meaning to existence, and establish order and control. However, I am open to the possibility of a Universal force that we don't comprehend but of which we are part. As an evolutionist, I also recognise all the ways that we are of, and connected, to the natural world. It is the bridge between these two with which I struggle and search for understanding. Does that make me a deist or humanist, or neither.....just somewhere on the spectrum? I read an interesting article recently saying that w while there is no scientific evidence an actual god exists, our chances are probably better to believe in a life after death and a judgemental god because if there isn't one, we haven't lost anything by believing, and if there is then we've hedged our bets on the wining side! So much harm has been done in the name of religion that it almost bears saying we cannot only be good without god.....we can be better without god. But....early indoctrination dies hard, and I feel guilty even writing those words! I love the International Humanist and Ethical Unions's definition of humanism that you included at the beginning of this article.....it matches the philosophy I adopted before knowing of Humanism. I would just say then that any god in my spiritual world would support this as human purpose.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 19 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Bobbie: Thank you so much for your comment. It is nice to think that there might be some universal force that connects everyone and everyone, but I'll leave that for the Star Wars enthusiasts. Many people are secular humanists, but just don't know it because they have either never heard the term or understood what secular humanism is about. I wrote this for those people.

      As for the idea that it is better to believe in God than not, I suspect you have come across Pascal's Wager. Please read: "Pascals' Wager: Is It a Good Bet" here on HubPages. https://owlcation.com/humanities/Pascals-Wager-Is-...

    • profile image

      Eddie Hicks 17 months ago

      Catherine this one of the most comprehensive explanations of Humanism I have read. It's fairly short but covers the important aspects of Humanism. I am a charter member of the South Jersey Humanist. I am sometimes asked what is a Humanist by Facebook friends and others. Instead of trying to explain it to them I sometimes provide a link that explains. I'm going to ad your hub to my list of links.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 17 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Eddie Hicks: Thank you. The best compliment I can get is a share. I'm so glad that you found my essay on secular humanism informative and enjoyable.

    • profile image

      Mario Zermeno Alvarez and Atheists of the World 4 months ago

      Okay, I am all for it. Give me all greater good!! I cant wait for it and I want it all for me, like Buddha. And no, I don't think he was much of a humanist, 'cause didn't he eat all the food? Xtians don't understand us because we have the greater moral code.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 4 months ago from Orlando Florida

      I'm glad to hear that you are interested in secular humanism. It provides great moral principles for humanists, Christians, and members of all religions.

      Buddha was a vegetarian. He said not to kill any animal or person. Please check my profile for my articles about Buddha because it seems you do not know much about Buddha.

    • profile image

      Wendy Gregg 6 weeks ago

      I strongly concur with secular humanism. As human beings we, and only we, are responsible for our own thoughts and actions. I do not condone using any supernatural deity as an excuse for reprehensible beliefs and actions.

    • profile image

      audrey 2 weeks ago

      Wow...I've just discovered who I am thanks to this article. What a relief knowing what I feel has a name. Thank you !

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      audrey: Thanks for your comment. Many people feel the same way when thy first discover secular humanism.

    Click to Rate This Article