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Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appealing to universal human qualities, particularly rationality.[1][2] It is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems and has been incorporated into several religious schools of thought. Humanism can be considered as a process by which truth and morality is sought through human investigation. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.[3]



Humanism rejects deference to supernatural beliefs in resolving human affairs but not necessarily the beliefs themselves; indeed some strains of Humanism are compatible with some religions. It is generally compatible with atheism and agnosticism but doesn't require either of these. The word "ignostic" (American) or "indifferentist" (British, including OED) are sometimes applied to Humanism, on the grounds that Humanism is an ethical process, not a dogma about the existence or otherwise of gods; Humanists simply have no need to be concerned with such questions. Agnosticism or atheism on their own do not necessarily entail Humanism; many different and sometimes incompatible philosophies happen to be atheistic in nature. There is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere, and not all are humanistic.[4][5] As Humanism encompasses intellectual currents running through a wide variety of philosophical and religious thought, several strains of Humanism allow it to fulfill, supplement or supplant the role of religions, and in particular, to be embraced as a complete life stance. For more on this, see Humanism (life stance). In a number of countries, for the purpose of laws that give rights to "religions", the secular life stance has become legally recognized as equivalent to a "religion" for this purpose.[6] In the United States, the Supreme Court recognized that Humanism is equivalent to a religion in the limited sense of authorizing Humanists to conduct ceremonies commonly carried out by officers of religious bodies. The relevant passage is in a footnote to Torcaso v. Watkins (1961). It is often alleged by fundamentalist critics of Humanism that the Supreme Court "declared Humanism to be a religion," however the Court's statement, a mere footnote at most, clearly does not in fact do so; it simply asserts an equivalency of Humanists' right to act in ways usual to a religion, such as ceremonial recognition of life's landmarks.

Renaissance humanism, and its emphasis on returning to the sources, contributed to the Protestant reformation by helping to gain what Protestants believe was a more accurate translation of Biblical texts.


According to Humanism, it is up to humans to find the truth, as opposed to seeking it through revelation, mysticism, tradition, or anything else that is incompatible with the application of logic to the observable evidence. In demanding that humans avoid blindly accepting unsupported beliefs, it supports scientific skepticism and the scientific method, rejecting authoritarianism and extreme skepticism, and rendering faith an unacceptable basis for action. Likewise, Humanism asserts that knowledge of right and wrong is based on the best understanding of one's individual and joint interests, rather than stemming from a transcendental truth or an arbitrarily local source.[7]


Humanism features an optimistic attitude about the capacity of people, but it does not involve believing that human nature is purely good or that all people can live up to the Humanist ideals without help. If anything, there is the recognition that living up to one's potential is hard work and requires the assistance of others. The ultimate goal is ; making life better for all humans, and as the most conscious species, also promoting concern for the welfare of other sentient beings. The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now, and leaving the world a better place for those who come after.


Contemporary humanism can be traced back through the Renaissance and back to the Islamic Golden Age to its ancient Greek roots. Humanism can also be traced back to the time of Gautama Buddha (563–483 BCE) and Confucius (551–479 BCE) and the Warring States Period, though the term humanism is more widely associated with Western philosophers. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

The term humanism was coined in 1808, based on the 15th century Italian term umanista, which was used to designate a teacher or student of classic literature. The evolution of the meaning of the word humanism is fully explored in Nicolas Walter's Humanism – What's in the Word.[8]

Greek humanism

Main article: Greek philosophy

Sixth century BCE pantheists Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes of Colophon prepared the way for later Greek humanist thought. Thales is credited with creating the maxim "Know thyself", and Xenophanes refused to recognize the gods of his time and reserved the divine for the principle of unity in the universe. Later Anaxagoras, often described as the "first freethinker", contributed to the development of science as a method of understanding the universe. These Ionian Greeks were the first thinkers to recognize that nature is available to be studied separately from any alleged supernatural realm. Pericles, a pupil of Anaxagoras, influenced the development of democracy, freedom of thought, and the exposure of superstitions. Although little of their work survives, Protagoras and Democritus both espoused agnosticism and a spiritual morality not based on the supernatural. The historian Thucydides is noted for his scientific and rational approach to history.[9]

Islamic humanism

Main article: Islamic ethics#Humanism

Many medieval Muslim thinkers pursued humanistic, rational and scientific discourses in their search for knowledge, meaning and values. A wide range of Islamic writings on love poetry, history and philosophical theology show that medieval Islamic thought was open to the humanistic ideas of individualism, occasional secularism, skepticism and liberalism.[10] Certain aspects of Renaissance humanism has its roots in the medieval Islamic world, including the "art of dictation, called in Latin, ars dictaminis," and "the humanist attitude toward classical language", in this case classical Arabic.[11]

Renaissance humanism

Main article: Renaissance humanism

Renaissance humanism was a movement that affected the cultural, political, social, and literary landscape of Europe. Beginning in Florence in the last decades of the 14th century, Renaissance humanism revived the study of Latin and Greek, with the resultant revival of the study of science, philosophy, art and poetry of classical antiquity.(see Burckhard The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy) The revival was based on interpretations of Roman and Greek texts, whose emphasis upon art and the senses marked a great change from the contemplation on the Biblical values of humility, introspection, and meekness. Beauty was held to represent a deep inner virtue and value, and an essential element in the path towards God. [How to reference and link to summary or text] Civic humanism, "civic" which is rooted from the latin word "civis" meaning citizen. Humanism's divergence from orthodox Christianity can be identified with the condemnation of Pelagianism by Jerome and Augustine. Like the Humanists, Pelagius perceived humans as possessing inherent capacity for developing the qualities that the church perceived as necessitating the gift of grace from God. Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin. The Humanists likewise recognize humans as born not with a burden of inherited sin due to their ancestry but with potential for both good and evil which will develop in this life as their characters are formed. The Humanists therefore reject Calvinistic predestination, and understandably therefore arouse the hostility of Protestant fundamentalists.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Renaissance humanists believed that the liberal arts (music, art, grammar, rhetoric, oratory, history, poetry, using classical texts, and the studies of all of the above) should be practiced by all levels of wealth. They also approved of self, human worth and individual dignity.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Noteworthy humanist scholars from this period include the Dutch theologian Erasmus, the English author (and Roman Catholic saint) Thomas More, the French writer François Rabelais, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch and the Italian scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Modern era

One of the earliest forerunners of contemporary chartered humanist organizations was the Humanistic Religious Association formed in 1853 in London. This early group was democratically organized, with male and female members participating in the election of the leadership and promoted knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In February 1877, the word "Humanism" was publicly used, apparently for the first time in America, to apply to Felix Adler, pejoratively. Adler, however, did not embrace the term, and instead coined the name "Ethical Culture" for his new movement – a movement which still exists in the now Humanist-affiliated New York Society for Ethical Culture.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Active in the early 1920s, F.C.S. Schiller considered his work to be tied to the Humanist movement. Schiller himself was influenced by the pragmatism of William James. In 1929 Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York whose advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Potter was a minister from the Unitarian tradition and in 1930 he and his wife, Clara Cook Potter, published Humanism: A New Religion. Throughout the 1930s Potter was a well-known advocate of women’s rights, access to birth control, "civil divorce laws", and an end to capital punishment.[12]

Raymond B. Bragg, the associate editor of The New Humanist, sought to consolidate the input of L. M. Birkhead, Charles Francis Potter, and several members of the Western Unitarian Conference.

Bragg asked Roy Wood Sellars to draft a document based on this information which resulted in the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. The Manifesto and Potter's book became the cornerstones of modern humanism. Both of these sources envision humanism as a religion.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In 1941 the American Humanist Association was organized. Noted members of The AHA included Isaac Asimov, who was the president from 1985 until his death in 1992, and writer Kurt Vonnegut, who followed as honorary president until his death in 2007. Robert Buckman was the head of the association in Canada, and is now an honorary president.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

After World War II, three prominent humanists became the first directors of major divisions of the United Nations: Julian Huxley of UNESCO, Brock Chisholm of the World Health Organization, and John Boyd-Orr of the Food and Agricultural Organization.[13]

Humanism (life stance)

Main article: Humanism (life stance)

Humanism (capital 'H', no adjective such as "secular")[14] is a comprehensive life stance that upholds human reason, ethics, and justice, and rejects supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world union of more than one hundred Humanist, rationalist, 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 that call themselves Humanists (as opposed to "humanists"). In 2002 the IHEU General Assembly unanimously adopted the Amsterdam Declaration 2002 which represents the official defining statement of World Humanism.[15]

All member organisations of the International Humanist and Ethical Union are required by IHEU bylaw 5.1[16] to accept the IHEU Minimum Statement on 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.

Other forms of humanism

Humanism is also sometimes used to describe "humanities" scholars, (particularly scholars of the Greco-Roman classics). As mentioned above, it is sometimes used to mean humanitarianism. There is also a school of humanistic psychology, and an educational method.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Educational humanism

Humanism, as a current in education, began to dominate U.S. school systems in the 17th century. It held that the studies that develop human intellect are those that make humans "most truly human". The practical basis for this was faculty psychology, or the belief in distinct intellectual faculties, such as the analytical, the mathematical, the linguistic, etc. Strengthening one faculty was believed to benefit other faculties as well (transfer of training). A key player in the late 19th-century educational humanism was U.S. Commissioner of Education W.T. Harris, whose "Five Windows of the Soul" (mathematics, geography, history, grammar, and literature/art) were believed especially appropriate for "development of the faculties". Educational humanists believe that "the best studies, for the best kids" are "the best studies" for all kids. [How to reference and link to summary or text]While humanism as an educational current was widely supplanted in the United States by the innovations of the early 20th century, it still holds out in some preparatory schools and some high school disciplines (especially in literature).[How to reference and link to summary or text]

See also

Manifestos and statements setting out Humanist viewpoints

  • Humanist Manifesto
  • Amsterdam Declaration 2002
  • A Secular Humanist Declaration

Related philosophies




  1. (2007) Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press. "humanism n. 1 a rationalistic system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. 2 a Renaissance cultural movement which turned away from medieval scholastic-ism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought."This article handles sense 1. See history section and main article Renaissance Humanism for sense 2.
  2. (1999) Collins Concise Dictionary, HarperCollins. "The rejection of religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of humanity by its own efforts.".
  3. Definitions of humanism (subsection). Institute for Humanist Studies.
  4. Baggini, Julian (2003). Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, 3–4, Oxford: Oxford University Press. "The atheist's rejection of belief in God is usually accompanied by a broader rejection of any supernatural or 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."
  5. Winston, Robert (Ed.) (2004). Human, New York: DK Publishing, Inc. "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."
  6. Note: The topic of this article has a small initial character as Wikipedia guidelines prescribe for the name of a philosophy. The life stance named Humanism is capitalized as prescribed for the name of a religion. The International Humanist and Ethical Union, coordinating organized Humanist bodies worldwide, has recommended use of the capital H by its affiliates
  7. Lamont, Corliss (1997). The Philosophy of Humanism, Eighth Edition, 252–253, Humanist Press: Amherst, New York. "Conscience, the sense of right and wrong and the insistent call of one's better, more idealistic, more social-minded self, is a social product. Feelings of right and wrong that at first have their locus within the family gradually develop into a pattern for the tribe or city, then spread to the larger unit of the nation, and finally from the nation to humanity as a whole. Humanism sees no need for resorting to supernatural explanations or sanctions at any point in the ethical process."
  8. Walter, Nicolas, 1997 Humanism – What's in the Word, Rationalist Press Association, London, ISBN 0-301-97001-7.
  9. Potter, Charles (1930). Humanism A new Religion, 64–69, Simon and Schuster.
  10. Lenn Evan Goodman (2003), Islamic Humanism, p. 155, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195135806.
  11. Makdisi, George (April-June 1989), "Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West", Journal of the American Oriental Society 109 (2): 175–182, doi:10.2307/604423 
  12. Stringer-Hye, Richard Charles Francis Potter. Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. URL accessed on 2008-05-01.
  13. American Humanist Association
  14. Doerr, Edd. Humanism Unmodified. The Humanist. URL accessed on 2008-07-05.
  15. Amsterdam Declaration 2002. International Humanist and Ethical Union. URL accessed on 2008-07-05.
  16. IHEU's Bylaws. International Humanist and Ethical Union. URL accessed on 2008-07-05.


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