What is Humanism?
Humanists are people who believe in a natural universe as understood through reason, people who wish to live ethical and meaningful lives without faith in the supernatural, and people who care for their fellow human being. Humanists are informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. The International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU) says:
“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 building 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.”
Not all Humanists would consider themselves Spiritual Naturalists. While modern Humanism is naturalistic, many secular Humanists do not care for the term ‘spirituality‘ or wish their stance to be considered a religion. Yet, some Humanists do view their Humanism as a form of spirituality and also subscribe to various compatible practices. There is even a branch of religious Humanists, who are naturalistic but who practice and express Humanism as a religion. The original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto were ministers of this variety. Therefore, Humanism overlaps partly into Spiritual Naturalism and can be compatible with it. For one example of a spiritual naturalist form of Humanism, see The Humanist Contemplative.
The Humanist Manifesto III was signed in 2003 by a long list of people, including notable figures from science, education, literature, entertainment, and other sectors. It was a successor to the first manifesto, published in 1933, and the second published in 1973. In the Humanist Manifesto III, the American Humanist Association outlined the following basic principles of Humanism:
- Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
- Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
- Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
- Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
- Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
- Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.
For a reading of these principles explained in more detail, please see the complete Humanist Manifesto III.
See also: The Really Simple Guide to Humanism
Consistent with Humanism’s values of Freethought and a healthy skepticism that questions dogma, there is no officially recognized ‘authority’ for the Humanist life stance. However, Humanist groups exist at many different scales all over the world. Perhaps the broadest organization is the International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU). It can best be said to represent the views of over three million Humanists in over 100 national organizations in 30 countries.
Here in the United States, the American Humanist Association (AHA) is the oldest national-level Humanist organization. Another major national organization is the Council for Secular Humanism. Both of these organizations publish magazines and have several types of programs and facilities throughout the U.S. There are many other organizations growing all the time, such as the Institute for Humanist Studies and the Humanist Institute, for example.
The History of Humanism
Humanism as an organized, provisional philosophy is relatively new but it is the product of several millennia of human growth and development. Hints of scientific and humanist thought can be found among the earliest nomadic tribes and civilizations. The Ideas of some of the later classical Greek philosophers, as well as the Chinese Confucians, serve to highlight areas where human-centered (as opposed to god-centered) ideas were especially prevalent.
During the Middle Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies, such as those of Michael Servetus and others, were violently suppressed by the dogma and political power of the church. Not until the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with the flourishing of art, music, literature, philosophy, and exploration, would consideration of humanism be permitted.
The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century brought the development of science as philosophers finally began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as “free thought.” In the nineteenth century, with the challenges to religion by celebrities such as Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll, the Freethought movement made it possible for the common citizen to reject faith and superstition without risk of persecution.
The twentieth century has seen remarkable influence from science, technology, and Humanist philosophy. Despite attempts of the unscrupulous to twist science to serve their ends, despite continuing local fluctuations in crime or other problems, the overall growth, prosperity, and human well-being remains unparalleled throughout history. This is a direct result of scientific thinking in the solving of human problems.
These historical foundations have led those who reject supernaturalism as a viable philosophical outlook to adopt the term Humanism to describe their non-religious life stance. In 1933 the modern Humanist philosophy was formulated in the Humanist Manifesto and several organizations have been founded around the world since then. It is with such a rich history that we strive to carry Humanism into the future.
Special thanks to Amanda Chesworth, who co-wrote this section on the history of Humanism.
Well Known Humanists
Many notable people have been humanists or humanistic thinkers. You can click on any of those listed here to see their Wikipedia articles:
Albert Einstein, scientist
Gene Roddenberry, producer/Star Trek creator
Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President/founding father
Whoopi Goldberg, comedian/entertainer
Carl Sagan, scientist/author
Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator
Leonardo Da Vinci, artist/inventor
Mark Twain, author
Clara Barton, Red Cross founder
Isaac Asimov, author
Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood founder
Marlon Brando, actor
Jonas Salk, physician/inventor of polio vaccine
Ted Turner, broadcaster
Gloria Steinem, feminist activist
Kurt Vonnegut, author
Philip Adams, author/filmmaker
Margaret Atwood, author/literary freedom activist
Béla Bartók, composer
Luther Burbank, scientist
Brock Chisholm, physician/World Health Org. Director
Francis Crick, scientist
John Dewey, philosopher/educator
Frederick Douglas, liberator
Albert Ellis, psychologist
Philip José Farmer, author
Betty Friedan, feminist activist
Erich Fromm, psychologist
R. Buckminster Fuller, futurist/inventor
John K. Galbraith, economist
Emma Goldman, author/revolutionary
Stephen J. Gould, scientist/author
Julian Huxley, philosopher/biologist/UNESCO Director
Robert G. Ingersoll, author
Margaret Kuhn, Grey Panthers founder
Richard Leakey, anthropologist
Abraham Maslow, psychologist
John Boyd Orr, Food & Agriculture Org. first Director
Linus Pauling, scientist
A. Philip Randolf, human rights activist/union leader
Carl Rogers, psychologist
M.N. Roy, political thinker/Radical Humanism founder
Bertrand Russell, mathematician/philosopher
Andrei Sakharov, scientist/human rights activist
Michael Servetus, theologian/physician
Barbara Smoker, author/freethought activist
James Thurber, humorist
Harriet Tubman, educator
James Watson, scientist
Faye Wattleton, Planned Parenthood Director
Walt Whitman, poet
E.O. Wilson, biologist
Frank Lloyd Wright, architect