WHAT IS HUMANISM ? by Frederick Edwords Executive Director, American Humanist Association
WHAT IS HUMANISM ?
by Frederick Edwords
Executive Director, American Humanist Association
What is humanism?
The sort of answer you will get to that question depends on
what sort of humanist you ask!
The word "humanism" has a number of meanings, and because
authors and speakers often don't clarify which meaning they
intend, those trying to explain humanism can easily become a
source of confusion. Fortunately, each meaning of the word
constitutes a different type of humanism -- the different types
being easily separated and defined by the use of appropriate
adjectives. So, let me summarize the different varieties of
humanism in this way.
LITERARY HUMANISM is a devotion to the humanities or
RENAISSANCE HUMANISM is the spirit of learning that
developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of
classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of
human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.
CULTURAL HUMANISM is the rational and empirical tradition
that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved
throughout European history, and now constitutes a basic part of
the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics, and
PHILOSOPHICAL HUMANISM is any outlook or way of life centered
on human need and interest. Sub-categories of this type include
Christian Humanism and Modern Humanism.
CHRISTIAN HUMANISM is defined by Webster's Third New
International Dictionary as "a philosophy advocating the self-
fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles."
This more human-oriented faith is largely a product of the
Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism.
MODERN HUMANISM, also called Naturalistic Humanism, Scien-
tific Humanism, Ethical Humanism and Democratic Humanism is
defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as "a
naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and
relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human
compassion." Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and
religious, and these constitute its sub-categories.
SECULAR HUMANISM is an outgrowth of 18th century
enlightenment rationalism and 19th century freethought. Many
secular groups, such as the Council for Democratic and Secular
Humanism and the American Rationalist Federation, and many
otherwise unaffiliated academic philosophers and scientists,
advocate this philosophy.
RELIGIOUS HUMANISM emerged out of Ethical Culture,
Unitarianism, and Universalism. Today, many Unitarian-
Universalist congregations and all Ethical Culture societies
describe themselves as humanist in the modern sense.
The most critical irony in dealing with Modern Humanism is
the inability of its advocates to agree on whether or not this
worldview is religious. Those who see it as philosophy are the
Secular Humanists while those who see it as religion are Religious
Humanists. This dispute has been going on since the early years
of this century when the secular and religious traditions
converged and brought Modern Humanism into existence.
Secular and Religious Humanists both share the same worldview
and the same basic principles. This is made evident by the fact
that both Secular and Religious Humanists were among the signers
of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933 and Humanist Manifesto II in 1973.
From the standpoint of philosophy alone, there is no difference
between the two. It is only in the definition of religion and in
the practice of the philosophy that Religious and Secular
Humanists effectively disagree.
The definition of religion used by Religious Humanists is a
functional one. Religion is that which serves the personal and
social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical
To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis
for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing
with life's harsher realities, a rationale for living life
joyously, and an overall sense of purpose.
To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities (such
as Ethical Culture societies and many Unitarian-Universalist
churches) offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for
the moral education of children, special holidays shared with
like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of
ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child
welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth),
an opportunity for affirmation of one's philosophy of life, and a
historical context for one's ideas.
Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have
personal and social needs that can only be met by religion (taken
in the functional sense I just detailed). They do not feel that
one should have to make a choice between meeting these needs in a
traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all.
Individuals who cannot feel at home in traditional religion should
be able to find a home in non-traditional religion.
I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition
of religion didn't amount to taking away the substance and leaving
only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true
substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of
individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ
from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace
old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the
same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most
lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core
Religious Humanists, in realizing this, make sure that
doctrine is never allowed to subvert the higher purpose of meeting
human needs in the here and now. This is why Humanist child
welcoming ceremonies are geared to the community and Humanist
wedding services are tailored to the specialized needs of the
wedding couple. This is why Humanist memorial services focus, not
on saving the soul of the dear departed, but on serving the
survivors by giving them a memorable experience related to how the
deceased was in life. This is why Humanists don't proselytize
people on their death beds. They find it better to allow them to
die as they have lived, undisturbed by the agendas of others.
Finally, Religious Humanism is "faith in action." In his
essay "The Faith of a Humanist," UU Minister Kenneth Phifer
Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act
for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the
brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a
remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in
choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever
our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the
responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests
Now, while Secular Humanists may agree with much of what
religious Humanists do, they deny that this activity is properly
called "religious." This isn't a mere semantic debate. Secular
Humanists maintain that there is so much in religion deserving of
criticism that the good name of Humanism should not be tainted by
connection with it.
Secular Humanists often refer to Unitarian Universalists as
"Humanists not yet out of the church habit." But Unitarian-
Universalists sometimes counter that a secular Humanist is simply
an "unchurched Unitarian."
Probably the most popular exemplar of the Secular Humanist
world view in recent years was the controversial author Salman
Rushdie. Here is what he said on ABC's "Nightline" on February
13, 1989, in regard to his novel The Satanic Verses.
[My book says] that there is an old, old conflict between the
secular view of the world and the religious view of the
world, and particularly between texts which claim to be
divinely inspired and texts which are imaginatively inspired.
. . . I distrust people who claim to know the whole truth and
who seek to orchestrate the world in line with that one true
truth. I think that's a very dangerous position in the
world. It needs to be challenged. It needs to be challenged
constantly in all sorts of ways, and that's what I tried to
In the March 2, 1989, edition of the New York Review, he
explained that, in The Satanic Verses he --
. . . tried to give a secular, humanist vision of the birth
of a great world religion. For this, apparently, I should be
A tried. . . . "Battle lines are being drawn today," one of
my characters remarks. "Secular versus religious, the light
verses the dark. Better you choose which side you are on."
The Secular Humanist tradition is a tradition of defiance, a
tradition that dates back to ancient Greece. One can see, even in
Greek mythology, Humanist themes that are rarely, if ever,
manifested in the mythologies of other cultures. And they
certainly have not been repeated by modern religions. The best
example here is the character Prometheus.
Prometheus stands out because he was idolized by ancient
Greeks as the one who defied Zeus. He stole the fire of the gods
and brought it down to earth. For this he was punished. And yet
he continued his defiance amid his tortures. This is the root of
the Humanist challenge to authority.
The next time we see a truly heroic Promethean character in
mythology it is Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost. But now
he is the Devil. He is evil. Whoever would defy God must be
wickedness personified. That seems to be a given of traditional
religion. But the ancient Greeks didn't agree. To them, Zeus,
for all his power, could still be mistaken.
Imagine how shocked a friend of mine was when I told her my
view of "God's moral standards." I said, "If there were such a
god, and these were indeed his ideal moral principles, I would be
tolerant. After all, God is entitled to his own opinions!"
Only a Humanist is inclined to speak this way. Only a
Humanist can suggest that, even if there be a god, it is OK to
disagree with him, her, or it. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates
shows that God is not necessarily the source of good, or even good
himself. Socrates asks if something is good because God ordains
it, or if God ordains it because it is already good. Yet, since
the time of the ancient Greeks, no mainstream religion has
permitted such questioning of God's will or made a hero out of a
disobedient character. It is Humanists who claim this tradition.
After all, much of Human progress has been in defiance of
religion or of the apparent natural order. When we deflect
lightening or evacuate a town before a tornado strikes, we lessen
the effects of so called "acts of God." When we land on the Moon
we defy the Earth's gravitational pull. When we seek a solution
to the AIDS crisis, we, according to Jerry Falwell, thwart "God's
punishment of homosexuals."
Politically, the defiance of religious and secular authority
has led to democracy, human rights, and even the protection of the
environment. Humanists make no apologies for this. Humanists
twist no biblical doctrine to justify such actions. They
recognize the Promethean defiance of their response and take pride
in it. For this is part of the tradition.
Another aspect of the Secular Humanist tradition is
skepticism. Skepticism's historical exemplar is Socrates. Why
Socrates? Because, after all this time, he still stands out
alone among all the famous saints and sages from antiquity to the
present. Every religion has its sage. Judaism has Moses,
Zoroastrianism has Zarathustra, Buddhism has the Buddha,
Christianity has Jesus, Islam has Mohammad, Mormonism has Joseph
Smith, and Bahai has Baha-u-lah. Every one of these individuals
claimed to know the absolute truth. It is Socrates, alone among
famous sages, who claimed to know NOTHING. Each devised a set of
rules or laws, save Socrates. Instead, Socrates gave us a method
--a method of questioning the rules of others, of cross-
examination. And Socrates didn't die for truth, he died for
rights and the rule of law. For these reasons, Socrates is the
quintessential skeptical Humanist. He stands as a symbol, both of
Greek rationalism and the Humanist tradition that grew out of it.
And no equally recognized saint or sage has joined his company
since his death.
Because of the strong Secular Humanist identity with the
images of Prometheus and Socrates, and equally strong rejection of
traditional religion, the Secular Humanist actually agrees with
"What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?"
That is, Secular Humanists identify more closely with the
rational heritage symbolized by ancient Athens than with the faith
heritage epitomized by ancient Jerusalem.
But don't assume from this that Secular Humanism is only
negative. The positive side is liberation, best expressed in
these words of Robert G. Ingersoll:
When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that
all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my
brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense,
the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison
crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and
all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no
longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no
master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I
was free--free to think, to express my thoughts--free to live
my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free
to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread
imagination's wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream
and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was
free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all
Enough to make a Secular Humanist shout "hallelujah!"
The fact that Humanism can at once be both religious and
secular presents a paradox of course, but not the only such
paradox. Another is that both Religious and Secular Humanism
place reason above faith, usually to the point of eschewing faith
altogether. The dichotomy between reason and faith is often given
emphasis in Humanism, with Humanists taking their stand on the
side of reason. Because of this, Religious Humanism should not be
seen as an alternative faith, but rather as an alternative way of
These paradoxical features not only require a unique
treatment of Religious Humanism in the study of world religions,
but also help explain the continuing controversy, both inside and
outside the Humanist movement, over whether Humanism is a religion
The paradoxes don't end here. Religious Humanism is usually
without a god, without a belief in the supernatural, without a
belief in an afterlife, and without a belief in a "higher" source
of moral values. Some adherents would even go so far as to
suggest that it is a religion without "belief" of any kind--
knowledge based on evidence being considered preferable.
Furthermore, the common notion of "religious knowledge" as know-
ledge gathered through nonscientific means is not generally
accepted in Religious Humanist epistemology.
Because both Religious and Secular Humanism are identified so
closely with cultural humanism, they readily embrace modern
science, democratic principles, human rights, and free inquiry.
Humanism's rejection of the notions of sin and guilt, especially
in relation to sexual ethics, puts it in harmony with contemporary
sexology and sex education as well as aspects of humanistic
psychology. And Humanism's historic advocacy of the secular state
makes it another voice in the defense of church/state separation.
All these features have led to the current charge of teach-
ing "the religion of secular humanism" in the public schools.
The most obvious point to clarify in this context is that
some religions hold to doctrines that place their adherents at
odds with certain features of the modern world which other
religions do not. For example, many biblical fundamentalists,
especially those filling the ranks of the "Religious Right,"
reject the theory of evolution. Therefore, they see the teaching
of evolution in a science course as an affront to their religious
sensibilities. In defending their beliefs from exposure to ideas
inconsistent with them, such fundamentalists label evolution as
"humanism" and maintain that exclusive teaching of it in the
science classroom constitutes a breech in the Jeffersonian wall of
separation between church and state.
It is indeed true that Religious Humanists, in embracing
modern science, embrace evolution in the bargain. But indi-
viduals within mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism
also embrace modern science--and hence evolution. Evolution
happens to be the state of the art in science today and is
appropriately taught in science courses. That evolution has come
to be identified with Religious Humanism but not with mainline
Christianity or Judaism is a curious quirk of politics in North
America. But this is a typical feature of the whole controversy
over humanism in the schools.
Other courses of study have come to be identified with
Humanism as well, including sex education, values education,
global education, and even creative writing. Today's Christian
fundamentalists would have us believe that "situation ethics" was
invented by 1974 Humanist of the Year Joseph Fletcher. But
situational considerations have been an element of Western
jurisprudence for at least 2,000 years! Again, Secular and
Religious Humanists, being in harmony with current trends, are
quite comfortable with all of this, as are adherents of most major
religions. There is no justification for seeing these ideas as
the exclusive legacy of Humanism. Furthermore, there are
independent secular reasons why schools offer the curriculum that
they do. A bias in favor of "the religion of secular humanism"
has never been a factor in their development and implementation.
The charge of Humanist infiltration into the public schools
seems to be the product of a confusion of cultural humanism and
Religious Humanism. Though Religious Humanism embraces cultural
humanism, this is no justification for separating out cultural
humanism, labeling it as the exclusive legacy of a nontheistic and
naturalistic religion called Religious Humanism, and thus
declaring it alien. To do so would be to turn one's back on a
significant part of one's culture and enthrone the standards of
biblical fundamentalism as the arbiter of what is and is not
religious. A deeper understanding of Western culture would go a
long way in clarifying the issues surrounding the controversy over
humanism in the public schools.
Once we leave the areas of confusion, it is possible to
explain, in straightforward terms, exactly what the modern
Humanist philosophy is about. It is easy to summarize the basic
ideas held in common by both Religious and Secular Humanists.
These ideas are as follows:
1. Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who
think for themselves. There is no area of thought that
a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.
2. Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means
for comprehending reality. Humanists make no claims to
possess or have access to supposed transcendent
3. Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in
the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to
the question of the most valid means for acquiring
knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary
faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of
4. Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists
recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation,
flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of
consciousness, and even religious experience, while not
valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources
of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the
world. These ideas, after they have been assessed
rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to
work, often as alternate approaches for solving
5. Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now.
Humanists regard human values as making sense only in
the context of human life rather than in the promise of
a supposed life after death.
6. Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist
ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and
answering human problems--for both the individual and
society--and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of
the desires of supposed theological entities.
7. Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists
recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need
for careful consideration of immediate and future
consequences in moral decision making.
8. Humanism is in tune with the science of today.
Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural
universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this
planet over a long period of time, that there is no
compelling evidence for a separable "soul," and that
human beings have certain built-in needs that
effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value
9. Humanism is in tune with today's enlightened social
thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties,
human rights, church-state separation, the extension of
participatory democracy not only in government but in
the workplace and education, an expansion of global
consciousness and exchange of products and ideas
internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving
social problems, an approach that allows for the testing
of new alternatives.
10. Humanism is in tune with new technological
developments. Humanists are willing to take part in
emerging scientific and technological discoveries in
order to exercise their moral influence on these
revolutions as they come about, especially in the
interest of protecting the environment.
11. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love
with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own
lives and relish the adventure of being part of new
discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new
options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated
answers to the great questions of life, Humanists enjoy
the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of
discovery that this entails.
Though there are some who would suggest that this philosophy
has always had a limited and eccentric following, the facts of
history show otherwise. Among the modern adherents of Humanism
have been Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and 1957
Humanist of the Year of the American Humanist Association;
humanistic psychology pioneers Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow,
also Humanists of the Year; Albert Einstein, who joined the
American Humanist Association in the 1950s; Bertrand Russell, who
joined in the 1960s; civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randoph who
was the 1970 Humanist of the Year, and futurist R. Buckminister
Fuller, Humanist of the Year in 1969.
The United Nations is a specific example of Humanism at work.
The first Director General of UNESCO, the UN organization
promoting education, science, and culture, was the 1962 Humanist
of the Year Julian Huxley, who practically drafted UNESCO'S
charter by himself. The first Director-General of the World
Health Organization was the 1959 Humanist of the Year Brock
Chisholm. One of this organization's greatest accomplishments has
been the wiping of smallpox from the face of the earth. And the
first Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization
was British Humanist John Boyd Orr.
Meanwhile, Humanists, like 1980 Humanist of the Year Andrei
Sakharov, have stood up for human rights wherever such rights are
suppressed. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem fight for women's
rights, Mathilde Krim battles the AIDS epidemic, and Margaret
Atwood is one of the world's most outspoken advocates of literary
The list of scientists is legion: Stephen Jay Gould, Donald
Johanson, Richard Leakey, E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk,
and many others--all members of the American Humanist Association,
whose president in the 1980s was the late scientist and author
The membership lists of Humanist organizations, both
religious and secular, read like Who's Who. Through these people,
and many more of less reknown, the Humanist philosophy has an
impact on our world far out of proportion to the number of its
adherents. That, I think, tells us something about the power of
ideas that work.
This may have been what led George Santayana to declare
Humanism to be "an accomplishment, not a doctrine."
So, with modern Humanism one finds a philosophy or religion
that is in tune with modern knowledge; is inspiring, socially
conscious, and personally meaningful. It is not only the thinking
person's outlook, but that of the feeling person as well, for it
has inspired the arts as much as it has the sciences, philanthropy
as much as critique. And even in critique it is tolerant,
defending the rights of all people to choose other ways, to speak
and to write freely, to live their lives according to their own
So, the choice is yours. Are you a Humanist?
You needn't answer "yes" or "no." For it's not an either-or
proposition. Humanism is yours--to adopt or simply to draw from.
You may take a little or a lot, sip from the cup or drink it to
It's up to you.
This is the text of a talk that has been presented to various
audiences over the years.
(C) Copyright 1989 by Frederick Edwords
So long as profit is not your motive and you always include this
copyright notice, please feel free to reproduce and distribute
this material in electronic form as widely as you please. All
nonprofit Humanist and Freethought publications have additional
permission to publish this in print form. Other permission must
be sought from the author through the the American Humanist
Association, which can be contacted at the following address:
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
PO BOX 1188
AMHERST NY 14226-7188
Phone: (800) 743-6646
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