Secular humanism, or simply humanism, is a philosophy or life stance that embraces human reason, ethics, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.
Secular humanism posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a god. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently evil or innately good, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature. Rather, the humanist life stance emphasizes the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical consequences of human decisions. Fundamental to the concept of secular humanism is the strongly held viewpoint that ideology--be it religious or political--must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith. Along with this, an essential part of secular humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy. Many secular humanists derive their moral codes from a philosophy of utilitarianism, ethical naturalism, or evolutionary ethics, and some advocate a science of morality.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world union of more than one hundred Humanist, rationalist, irreligious, atheistic, Bright, secular, Ethical Culture, and freethought organizations in more than 40 countries. The "Happy Human" is the official symbol of the IHEU as well as being regarded as a universally recognised symbol for those who call themselves Humanists. Secular humanist organizations are found in all parts of the world. Those who call themselves humanists are estimated to number between four and five million people worldwide.
The meaning of the phrase secular humanism has evolved over time. The phrase has been used since at least the 1930s by Anglican priests, and in 1943, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was reported as warning that the "Christian tradition... was in danger of being undermined by a 'Secular Humanism' which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith." During the 1960s and 1970s the term was embraced by some humanists who considered themselves anti-religious, as well as those who, although not critical of religion in its various guises, preferred a non-religious approach. The release in 1980 of A Secular Humanist Declaration by the newly formed Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH, now the Council for Secular Humanism) gave secular humanism an organisational identity within the United States.
However, many adherents of the approach reject the use of the word secular as obfuscating and confusing, and consider that the term secular humanism has been "demonized by the religious right... All too often secular humanism is reduced to a sterile outlook consisting of little more than secularism slightly broadened by academic ethics. This kind of 'hyphenated humanism' easily becomes more about the adjective than its referent". Adherents of this view, including the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the American Humanist Association, consider that the unmodified but capitalised word Humanism should be used. The endorsement by the IHEU of the capitalization of the word Humanism, and the dropping of any adjective such as secular, is quite recent. The American Humanist Association began to adopt this view in 1973, and the IHEU formally endorsed the position in 1989. In 2002 the IHEU General Assembly unanimously adopted the Amsterdam Declaration, which represents the official defining statement of World Humanism for Humanists. This declaration makes exclusive use of capitalized Humanist and Humanism, which is consistent with IHEU's general practice and recommendations for promoting a unified Humanist identity. To further promote Humanist identity, these words are also free of any adjectives, as recommended by prominent members of IHEU. Such usage is not universal among IHEU member organizations, though most of them do observe these conventions.
Historical use of the term humanism (reflected in some current academic usage), is related to the writings of pre-Socratic philosophers. These writings were lost to European societies until Renaissance scholars rediscovered them through Muslim sources and translated them from Arabic into European languages. Thus the term humanist can mean a humanities scholar, as well as refer to The Enlightenment/ Renaissance intellectuals, and those who have agreement with the pre-Socratics, as distinct from secular humanists.
In 1851 George Holyoake coined the term "secularism" to describe "a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life".
The modern secular movement coalesced around Holyoake, Charles Bradlaugh and their intellectual circle. The first secular society, the Leicester Secular Society, dates from 1851. Similar regional societies came together to form the National Secular Society in 1866.
Holyoake's secularism was strongly influenced by Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and of modern sociology. Comte believed human history would progress in a "law of three stages" from a theological phase, to the "metaphysical", toward a fully rational "positivist" society. In later life, Comte had attempted to introduce a "religion of humanity" in light of growing anti-religious sentiment and social malaise in revolutionary France. This religion would necessarily fulfil the functional, cohesive role that supernatural religion once served.
Although Comte's religious movement was unsuccessful in France, the positivist philosophy of science itself played a major role in the proliferation of secular organizations in the 19th century in England. Richard Congreve visited Paris shortly after the French Revolution of 1848 where he met Auguste Comte and was heavily influenced by his positivist system. He founded the London Positivist Society in 1867, which attracted Frederic Harrison, Edward Spencer Beesly, Vernon Lushington, and James Cotter Morison amongst others.
In 1878, the Society established the Church of Humanity under Congreve's direction. There they introduced sacraments of the Religion of Humanity and published a co-operative translation of Comte's Positive Polity. When Congreve repudiated their Paris co-religionists in 1878, Beesly, Harrison, Bridges, and others formed their own positivist society, with Beesly as president, and opened a rival centre, Newton Hall, in a courtyard off Fleet Street.
The New York City version of the church was established by English immigrant Henry Edger. The American version of the "Church of Humanity". was largely modeled on the English church. Like the English version it wasn't atheistic and had sermons and sacramental rites. At times the services included readings from conventional religious works like the Book of Isaiah. It was not as significant as the church in England, but did include several educated people.
Another important precursor was the ethical movement of the 19th century. The South Place Ethical Society was founded in 1793 as the South Place Chapel on Finsbury Square, on the edge of the City of London, and in the early nineteenth century was known as "a radical gathering-place". At that point it was a Unitarian chapel, and that movement, like Quakers, supported female equality. Under the leadership of Reverend William Johnson Fox, it lent its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke in 1829 on "rights of women". In later decades, the chapel changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society, now the Conway Hall Ethical Society. Today Conway Hall explicitly identifies itself as a humanist organisation, albeit one primarily focused on concerts, events, and the maintenance of its humanist library and archives. It bills itself as "The landmark of London's independent intellectual, political and cultural life."
In America, the ethical movement was propounded by Felix Adler, who established the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1877. By 1886, similar societies had sprouted up in Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis.
These societies all adopted the same statement of principles:
In effect, the movement responded to the religious crisis of the time by replacing theology with unadulterated morality. It aimed to "disentangle moral ideas from religious doctrines, metaphysical systems, and ethical theories, and to make them an independent force in personal life and social relations." Adler was also particularly critical of the religious emphasis on creed, believing it to be the source of sectarian bigotry. He therefore attempted to provide a universal fellowship devoid of ritual and ceremony, for those who would otherwise be divided by creeds. For the same reasons the movement at that time adopted a neutral position on religious beliefs, advocating neither atheism nor theism, agnosticism nor deism.
The first ethical society along these lines in Britain was founded in 1886. By 1896 the four London societies formed the Union of Ethical Societies, and between 1905 and 1910 there were over fifty societies in Great Britain, seventeen of which were affiliated with the Union. The Union of Ethical Societies would later incorporate as the Ethical Union, a registered charity, in 1928. Under the leadership of Harold Blackham, it renamed itself the British Humanist Association in 1967. It became Humanists UK in 2017.
In the 1930s, "humanism" was generally used in a religious sense by the Ethical movement in the United States, and not much favoured among the non-religious in Britain. Yet "it was from the Ethical movement that the non-religious philosophical sense of Humanism gradually emerged in Britain, and it was from the convergence of the Ethical and Rationalist movements that this sense of Humanism eventually prevailed throughout the Freethought movement".
As an organized movement, Humanism itself is quite recent - born at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, and made public in 1933 with the publication of the first Humanist Manifesto. The American Humanist Association was incorporated as an Illinois non-profit organization in 1943. The International Humanist and Ethical Union was founded in 1952, when a gathering of world Humanists met under the leadership of Sir Julian Huxley. The British Humanist Association took that name in 1967, but had developed from the Union of Ethical Societies which had been founded by Stanton Coit in 1896.
Humanists have put together various Humanist Manifestos, in attempts to unify the Humanist identity.
The original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, declared themselves to be religious humanists. Because, in their view, traditional religions were failing to meet the needs of their day, the signers of 1933 declared it a necessity to establish a religion that was a dynamic force to meet the needs of the day. However, this "religion" did not profess a belief in any god. Since then two additional Manifestos were written to replace the first. In the Preface of Humanist Manifesto II, in 1973, the authors Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson assert that faith and knowledge are required for a hopeful vision for the future. Manifesto II references a section on Religion and states traditional religion renders a disservice to humanity. Manifesto II recognizes the following groups to be part of their naturalistic philosophy: "scientific", "ethical", "democratic", "religious", and "Marxist" humanism.
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.
To promote and unify "Humanist" identity, prominent members of the IHEU have endorsed the following statements on Humanist identity:
According to the Council for Secular Humanism, within the United States, the term "secular humanism" describes a world view with the following elements and principles:
A Secular Humanist Declaration was issued in 1980 by the Council for Secular Humanism's predecessor, CODESH. It lays out ten ideals: Free inquiry as opposed to censorship and imposition of belief; separation of church and state; the ideal of freedom from religious control and from jingoistic government control; ethics based on critical intelligence rather than that deduced from religious belief; moral education; religious skepticism; reason; a belief in science and technology as the best way of understanding the world; evolution; and education as the essential method of building humane, free, and democratic societies.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, members of Humanist organizations have disagreed as to whether Humanism is a religion. They categorize themselves in one of three ways. Religious Humanism, in the tradition of the earliest Humanist organizations in the UK and US, attempts to fulfill the traditional social role of religion. Secular humanism considers all forms of religion, including religious Humanism, to be superseded. In order to sidestep disagreements between these two factions, recent Humanist proclamations define Humanism as a "life stance"; proponents of this view making up the third faction. All three types of Humanism (and all three of the American Humanist Association's manifestos) reject deference to supernatural beliefs; promoting the practical, methodological naturalism of science, but also going further and supporting the philosophical stance of metaphysical naturalism. The result is an approach to issues in a secular way. Humanism addresses ethics without reference to the supernatural as well, attesting that ethics is a human enterprise (see naturalistic ethics).
Secular humanism does not prescribe a specific theory of morality or code of ethics. As stated by the Council for Secular Humanism,
It should be noted that Secular Humanism is not so much a specific morality as it is a method for the explanation and discovery of rational moral principles.
Secular humanism affirms that with the present state of scientific knowledge, dogmatic belief in an absolutist moral/ethical system (e.g. Kantian, Islamic, Christian) is unreasonable. However, it affirms that individuals engaging in rational moral/ethical deliberations can discover some universal "objective standards".
We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation.
Many Humanists adopt principles of the Golden Rule. Some believe that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. However, they believe such necessary universality can and should be achieved by developing a richer notion of morality through reason, experience and scientific inquiry rather than through faith in a supernatural realm or source.
Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore, and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God. Contrary to what the fundamentalists would have us believe, then, what our society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of the nature of morality.
Humanism is compatible with atheism and agnosticism, but being atheist or agnostic does not automatically make one a humanist. Nevertheless, humanism is diametrically opposed to state atheism. According to Paul Kurtz, considered by some to be the founder of the American secular humanist movement, one of the differences between Marxist-Leninist atheists and humanists is the latter's commitment to "human freedom and democracy" while stating that the militant atheism of the Soviet Union consistently violated basic human rights. Kurtz also stated that the "defense of religious liberty is as precious to the humanist as are the rights of the believers". Greg M. Epstein states that, "modern, organized Humanism began, in the minds of its founders, as nothing more nor less than a religion without a God".
Secular humanist organizations are found in all parts of the world. Those who call themselves humanists are estimated to number between four and five million people worldwide in 31 countries, but there is uncertainty because of the lack of universal definition throughout censuses. Humanism is a non-theistic belief system and, as such, it could be a sub-category of "Religion" only if that term is defined to mean "Religion and (any) belief system". This is the case in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of religion and beliefs. Many national censuses contentiously define Humanism as a further sub-category of the sub-category "No Religion", which typically includes atheist, rationalist and agnostic thought. In England, Wales 25% of people specify that they have 'No religion' up from 15% in 2001 and in Australia, around 30% of the population specifies "No Religion" in the national census. In the USA, the decennial census does not inquire about religious affiliation or its lack; surveys report the figure at roughly 13%. In the 2001 Canadian census, 16.5% of the populace reported having no religious affiliation. In the 2011 Scottish census, 37% stated they had no religion up from 28% in 2001. One of the largest Humanist organizations in the world (relative to population) is Norway's Human-Etisk Forbund, which had over 86,000 members out of a population of around 4.6 million in 2013 - approximately 2% of the population.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the worldwide umbrella organization for those adhering to the Humanist life stance. It represents the views of over three million Humanists organized in over 100 national organizations in 30 countries. Originally based in the Netherlands, the IHEU now operates from London. Some regional groups that adhere to variants of the Humanist life stance, such as the humanist subgroup of the Unitarian Universalist Association, do not belong to the IHEU. Although the European Humanist Federation is also separate from the IHEU, the two organisations work together and share an agreed protocol.
Starting in the mid-20th century, religious fundamentalists and the religious right began using the term "secular humanism" in hostile fashion. Francis A. Schaeffer, an American theologian based in Switzerland, seizing upon the exclusion of the divine from most humanist writings, argued that rampant secular humanism would lead to moral relativism and ethical bankruptcy in his book How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976). Schaeffer portrayed secular humanism as pernicious and diabolical, and warned it would undermine the moral and spiritual tablet of America. His themes have been very widely repeated in Fundamentalist preaching in North America. Toumey (1993) found that secular humanism is typically portrayed as a vast evil conspiracy, deceitful and immoral, responsible for feminism, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and New Age spirituality. In certain areas of the world, Humanism finds itself in conflict with religious fundamentalism, especially over the issue of the separation of church and state. Many Humanists see religions as superstitious, repressive and closed-minded, while religious fundamentalists may see Humanists as a threat to the values set out in their sacred texts.
In recent years, humanists such as Dwight Gilbert Jones and R. Joseph Hoffmann have decried the over-association of Humanism with affirmations of non-belief and atheism. Jones cites a lack of new ideas being presented or debated outside of secularism, while Hoffmann is unequivocal: "I regard the use of the term 'humanism' to mean secular humanism or atheism to be one of the greatest tragedies of twentieth century movementology, perpetrated by second-class minds and perpetuated by third-class polemicists and village atheists. The attempt to sever humanism from the religious and the spiritual was a flatfooted, largely American way of taking on the religious right. It lacked finesse, subtlety, and the European sense of history."
Some Humanists celebrate official religion-based public holidays, such as Christmas or Easter, but as secular holidays rather than religious ones. Many Humanists also celebrate the winter and summer solstice, the former of which (in the northern hemisphere) coincides closely with the religiously-oriented celebration of Christmas, and the equinoxes, of which the vernal equinox is associated with Christianity's Easter and indeed with all other springtime festivals of renewal, and the autumnal equinox which is related to such celebrations such as Halloween and All Souls' Day. The Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrates most Jewish holidays in a secular manner.
The IHEU endorses World Humanist Day (21 June), Darwin Day (12 February), Human Rights Day (10 December) and HumanLight (23 December) as official days of Humanist celebration, though none are yet a public holiday.
The issue of whether and in what sense secular humanism might be considered a religion, and what the implications of this would be has become the subject of legal maneuvering and political debate in the United States. The first reference to "secular humanism" in a US legal context was in 1961, although church-state separation lawyer Leo Pfeffer had referred to it in his 1958 book, Creeds in Competition.
The Education for Economic Security Act of 1984 included a section, Section 20 U.S.C.A. 4059, which initially read: "Grants under this subchapter ['Magnet School Assistance'] may not be used for consultants, for transportation or for any activity which does not augment academic improvement." With no public notice, Senator Orrin Hatch tacked onto the proposed exclusionary subsection the words "or for any course of instruction the substance of which is Secular Humanism". Implementation of this provision ran into practical problems because neither the Senator's staff, nor the Senate's Committee on Labor and Human Resources, nor the Department of Justice could propose a definition of what would constitute a "course of instruction the substance of which is Secular Humanism". So, this determination was left up to local school boards. The provision provoked a storm of controversy which within a year led Senator Hatch to propose, and Congress to pass, an amendment to delete from the statute all reference to secular humanism. While this episode did not dissuade fundamentalists from continuing to object to what they regarded as the "teaching of Secular Humanism", it did point out the vagueness of the claim.
The phrase "secular humanism" became prominent after it was used in the United States Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins. In the 1961 decision, Justice Hugo Black commented in a footnote, "Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others."
The footnote in Torcaso v. Watkins referenced Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, a 1957 case in which an organization of humanists sought a tax exemption on the ground that they used their property "solely and exclusively for religious worship." Despite the group's non-theistic beliefs, the court determined that the activities of the Fellowship of Humanity, which included weekly Sunday meetings, were analogous to the activities of theistic churches and thus entitled to an exemption. The Fellowship of Humanity case itself referred to Humanism but did not mention the term secular humanism. Nonetheless, this case was cited by Justice Black to justify the inclusion of secular humanism in the list of religions in his note. Presumably Justice Black added the word secular to emphasize the non-theistic nature of the Fellowship of Humanity and distinguish their brand of humanism from that associated with, for example, Christian humanism.
Another case alluded to in the Torcaso v. Watkins footnote, and said by some to have established secular humanism as a religion under the law, is the 1957 tax case of Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 249 F.2d 127 (D.C. Cir. 1957). The Washington Ethical Society functions much like a church, but regards itself as a non-theistic religious institution, honoring the importance of ethical living without mandating a belief in a supernatural origin for ethics. The case involved denial of the Society's application for tax exemption as a religious organization. The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the Tax Court's ruling, defined the Society as a religious organization, and granted its tax exemption. The Society terms its practice Ethical Culture. Though Ethical Culture is based on a humanist philosophy, it is regarded by some as a type of religious humanism. Hence, it would seem most accurate to say that this case affirmed that a religion need not be theistic to qualify as a religion under the law, rather than asserting that it established generic secular humanism as a religion.
In the cases of both the Fellowship of Humanity and the Washington Ethical Society, the court decisions turned not so much on the particular beliefs of practitioners as on the function and form of the practice being similar to the function and form of the practices in other religious institutions.
The implication in Justice Black's footnote that secular humanism is a religion has been seized upon by religious opponents of the teaching of evolution, who have made the argument that teaching evolution amounts to teaching a religious idea. The claim that secular humanism could be considered a religion for legal purposes was examined by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Peloza v. Capistrano School District, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 515 U.S. 1173 (1995). In this case, a science teacher argued that, by requiring him to teach evolution, his school district was forcing him to teach the "religion" of secular humanism. The Court responded, "We reject this claim because neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or Secular Humanism are 'religions' for Establishment Clause purposes." The Supreme Court refused to review the case.
The decision in a subsequent case, Kalka v. Hawk et al., offered this commentary:
Decisions about tax status have been based on whether an organization functions like a church. On the other hand, Establishment Clause cases turn on whether the ideas or symbols involved are inherently religious. An organization can function like a church while advocating beliefs that are not necessarily inherently religious. Author Marci Hamilton has pointed out: "Moreover, the debate is not between secularists and the religious. The debate is believers and non-believers on the one side debating believers and non-believers on the other side. You've got citizens who are [...] of faith who believe in the separation of church and state and you have a set of believers who do not believe in the separation of church and state."
In the 1987 case of Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County a group of plaintiffs brought a case alleging that the school system was teaching the tenets of an anti-religious religion called "secular humanism" in violation of the Establishment Clause. The complainants asked that 44 different elementary through high school level textbooks (including books on home economics, social science and literature) be removed from the curriculum. Federal judge William Brevard Hand ruled for the plaintiffs agreeing that the books promoted secular humanism, which he ruled to be a religion. The Eleventh Circuit Court unanimously reversed him, with Judge Frank stating that Hand held a "misconception of the relationship between church and state mandated by the establishment clause," commenting also that the textbooks did not show "an attitude antagonistic to theistic belief. The message conveyed by these textbooks is one of neutrality: the textbooks neither endorse theistic religion as a system of belief, nor discredit it".
There are numerous Humanist Manifestos and Declarations, including the following:
Secular Humanism is an outgrowth of eighteenth century enlightenment rationalism and nineteenth century freethought... A decidedly anti-theistic version of secular humanism, however, is developed by Adolf Grünbaum, 'In Defense of Secular Humanism' (1995), in his Collected Works (edited by Thomas Kupka), vol. I, New York: Oxford University Press 2013, ch. 6 (pp. 115-48)
humanism n. 1 a rationalistic system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.
The atheist's rejection of belief in God is usually accompanied by a broader rejection of any supernaturalor transcendental reality. For example, an atheist does not usually believe in the existence of immortal souls, life after death, ghosts, or supernatural powers. Although strictly speaking an atheist could believe in any of these things and still remain an atheist... the arguments and ideas that sustain atheism tend naturally to rule out other beliefs in the supernatural or transcendental.
Neither atheism nor agnosticism is a full belief system, because they have no fundamental philosophy or lifestyle requirements. These forms of thought are simply the absence of belief in, or denial of, the existence of deities.
In the past, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union waged unremitting warfare against religion. It persecuted religious believers, confiscated church properties, executed or exiled tens of thousands of clerics, and prohibited believers to engage in religious instruction or publish religious materials. It has also carried on militant pro-atheist propaganda campaigns as part of the official ideology of the state, in an effort to establish a "new Soviet man" committed to the ideals of Communist society. Mikhail Gorbachev is dismantling such policies by permitting greater freedom of religious conscience. If his reforms proceed unabated, they could have dramatic implications for the entire Communist world, for the Russians may be moving from militant atheism to tolerant humanism.
Ranged against the true believer are the militant atheists, who adamantly reject the faith as false stupid, and reactionary. They consider all religious believers to be gullible fools and claim that they are given to accepting gross exaggerations and untenable premises. Historic religious claims, they think, are totally implausible, unbelievable, disreputable, and controvertible, for they go beyond the bounds of reason. Militant atheists can find no value at all to any religious beliefs or institutions. They resist any effort to engage in inquiry or debate. Madalyn Murray O'Hair is as arrogant in her rejection of religion as is the true believer in his or her profession of faith. This form of atheism thus becomes mere dogma.
Paul Kurtz, considered by many the father of the secular humanist movement, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
There have been fundamental and irreconcilable differences between humanists and atheists, particularly Marxist-Leninists. The defining characteristic of humanism is its commitment to human freedom and democracy; the kind of atheism practiced in the Soviet Union has consistently violated basic human rights. Humanists believe first and foremost in the freedom of conscience, the free mind, and the right of dissent. The defense of religious liberty is as precious to the humanist as are the rights of the believers.