By Ruby Forrester, Inform
Humanism can be understood as a non-religious worldview that emphasises the agency and importance of human beings. It is most commonly used to describe a system of thought that places humanity at its centre, concerned with human interests and welfare
The term “humanism” has several applications including an approach towards learning or culture and a particular European intellectual movement at its height between the 14th and 16th centuries. Today, however, it is most used to describe a system of thought that places humanity at its centre, concerned with human interests and welfare.
In contemporary usage, humanism is frequently associated with existential beliefs and cultures, sometimes described as a “worldviews”. Existential humanism is a form of materialism that emphasises human achievement and flourishing as sources of meaning and value.
In this form it is an atheist tradition and frequently involves a wider rejection of supernatural claims. Existential humanism is associated with post-European enlightenment and modernity, reflected in cultural movements such as the shift away from sacred art to an increasing interest in the human in the arts.
Humanist organisations often engage with and support people with diverse non-religious worldviews, not limited to those with humanist orientations. Conversely, many of those with humanist outlooks do not have contact with the Humanist movement and may not have a humanist identity. Many prefer to identify as atheist, agnostic or non-religious. Identifying as “humanist” is therefore limited as a measure of humanism in society and culture.
Humanists are found across the world and throughout history, and both draw on and have produced a rich tradition of literature, art and culture which shape what it means to be a humanist today.
Modern understandings of humanists’ application of reason and morality can be linked to ancient Greek culture, with Thales (625-547 BC), Anaximander (610-546 BC), and Protagoras (481-11 BC) promoting the importance of placing observation and reason above mythological and religious explanations. Protagoras is notably famous for his thesis that “Man is the measure of all thing”, which contemporary humanists have frequently interpreted to mean that humans are responsible for creating and maintaining worldly morals and reason, not supernatural divine beings.
The Roman Empire is also a crucial period for many contemporary humanists. Some influential Roman thinkers widely cited by humanists include Cicero (106-43 BC), who promoted the idea of rational thinking over religious ideologies, and Seneca (2 BC-AD 65), who argued that religion was a tool used by rulers.
In the age of the European Enlightenment, across 17th and 18th-century Europe, larger numbers of people first began to adopt a humanist approach.
In the 19th century, emerging humanist ideas and cultures were shaped in significant ways by scientific and historic discoveries that continue today.
In 1808, following this trend, the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Niethammer (1766-1848) defined the belief system as “humanism”. However, the term continued to be applied to other positions, beliefs, and worldviews.
Despite these developments, existential humanism, and the materialist and atheist ideas it involved, were taboo. By the time of the 20th century, however, writers, artists, and philosophers more freely expressed humanist ideas and people became increasingly willing to be open about their humanist beliefs.
What is humanism?
In broad terms, humanism can be understood as a non-religious worldview that emphasises the agency and importance of human beings. Existential or exclusive humanism rejects ideas of supernatural or divine influences within the world and believe that this world is the only world and that there is no afterlife. Reflecting this, the humanist worldview focuses on the centrality of human experiences and success in the present world. For humanists, decisions should primarily be based upon reason, empathy, and concern for broader humanity.
This understanding of humanism has been consolidated and advanced by the humanist movement, which has grown since the mid-20th century. In 1952, the first World Humanist Congress met to agree on a shared definition that outlined what they believed to be the fundamental principles of modern humanism. This statement was named The Amsterdam Declaration.
The statement has been revised, in 2002 and in 2022, to reflect modern advancements and beliefs. The 2022 Declaration of Modern Humanism can be found in full here; however, in short, it outlines that humanists strive to be ethical and rational while also seeking fulfilment in their lives.
In practice, the term “humanism” is still a broad one and each organisation has different definitions suited to their cultural context. For example, the Humanists UK says:
“Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical, meaningful, and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method when trying to understand how the universe works, made their ethical decisions based on a concern for the welfare of human beings and other sentient animals, and sought to make a positive contribution towards building a better society.”
The American Humanist Association website defines it thus: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good.”
Beliefs and values
Like many contemporary worldviews, modern humanism is not associated with highly centralised worldview institutions analogous to, for example, a Christian church. Similarly, humanism is not associated with a single or set of sacred texts or special teachers.
Humanist organisations often emphasise that belief is inherently personal. Although focused on using reason and science to lead fulfilling and successful lives, humanists implement their beliefs in their own ways. Some humanists participate in active roles within humanist organisations; others observe humanist values in their everyday lives. Humanism is centred on the development and success of humanity and the natural world around us, but beyond this, beliefs are unique to each believer.
The Humanists UK website outlines five core features. While these are not accepted as concrete pillars, they are helpful when attempting to gain a deeper understanding of what humanists believe. They are:
- Human beings: the recognition and celebration of the biological and physical processes involved in the evolution of human beings.
- Understanding the world: accepting the natural and non-superficial elements of the world around us. Science is thus a source of greatness and enlightenment.
- The one life: despite the absence of any true divine meaning within the universe, humanists still make life meaningful.
- Humanist ethics: origins of morality lie within human beings and not external sources. Make ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and consequences.
- Humanism in society: only humans are responsible for maintaining and improving the natural world around us.
In a discussion of humanism, Stephen Law, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, outlines what he believes to be the central tenets of beliefs. His seven core characteristics suggest that the humanism worldview comprises scientific belief, agnostic or atheist believers, the one life, commitment to moral values, emphasis on moral autonomy, meaningful lives without supernatural influences, and secular in their understandings of religion and politics.
Existential humanism or a “humanist worldview” is distinct from Christian humanism. This refers to individuals who believe that certain humanist values, like universal human happiness, are compatible with the teachings of Jesus. This branch of humanism emerged from Renaissance Humanism, with Erasmus (1469-1536) as one of the most famous Christian humanists. Humanism has been said to link back to Greek and Roman times, but Erasmus used Christian texts, not those from Ancient Greece and Rome.
More recently, individuals such as C. S Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have used the term “Christian humanism” to describe various religious and humanist viewpoints.
Humanist weddings and funerals have become increasingly popular in recent years. The latest Office of National Statistics data states that in 2019 only 18.2 per cent of weddings were religious ceremonies, and the rest were civil. However, this does not include data from humanist celebrants.
Unlike religious ceremonies, humanist marriages are not bound by rules regarding location, vows, and key words; instead, the ceremony focuses on expressions of freedom and the couple’s needs. Furthermore, in contrast to civil ceremonies, humanist weddings are not bound by a legal script or content. Humanist weddings gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005 and in Northern Ireland in 2017. However, they are still not legal in England and Wales. Humanists UK say their own research shows there were 287 humanist weddings in the UK in 2004, but this increased to 1,051 in 2016. In addition, Humanists UK say that in Scotland, humanist weddings are second only to civil ceremonies with a registrar.
A humanist funeral is based upon the beliefs and values of the humanist worldview and not guided by religion. Like humanist weddings, the ceremonies are tailored to the individual, their life, their values, and their relationships. As funeral ceremonies have no legal status, humanist funerals can be held anywhere. There are no independent statistics of the number of funerals conducted by humanist celebrants, but Co-operative Funerals reported in 2019 that 77 per cent of their funeral directors said requests for funerals to take place outside of traditional religious settings have increased in the past five years, with 27 per cent wanting a non-religious service.
Another ceremony that is popular among humanists is baby naming. The ceremony is an opportunity to celebrate the child in a non-religious way. Some features of a naming ceremony can include music, singing, poems, readings, parental promises to their child, the appointment of “guideparents”, and perhaps a symbolic action such as planting a tree, signing a certificate, or writing in a wish book.
An official humanist celebrant holds humanist weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals. A celebrant is an individual who writes and conducts meaningful ceremonies in a non-religious manner. To become a humanist celebrant, you must be trained and accredited by a humanist organisation. In the case of Humanists UK, individuals seeking to become a celebrant can undertake a specialised course for about £2,000. Humanists UK states that they aim to “develop a diverse network of celebrants that represents the wider society that we serve.
Humanism in British society
Humanist organisations first formed in the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Humanists UK was founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies. The Humanist Heritage website presents research and other information on the history of humanists in Britain and Ireland.
Since the late 20th century, humanism has become more mainstream in many countries worldwide. The role of humanists and humanist organisations in society varies widely across the world. In countries such Belgium, the Netherlands, or Norway, humanist organisations have the same official status as national churches; in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, or China, humanist organisations are illegal.
In Britain, the 2018 Social Attitudes Survey recorded that, since 1983, the percentage of individuals identifying as having “no religion” had increased from 31 per cent to 52 per cent. The report suggests, alongside wider research, that Britain is increasingly becoming more non-religious, and that non-religious worldviews are growing.
Results of the 2021 Census, published in December 2022, revealed that 22.2 million people (37.2 per cent) ticked “no religion” in England and Wales. Of those, the largest groups were: agnostic (32,000), atheist (14,000) and humanist (10,000).
However, there are specific challenges when observing how many people now identify as humanists within the UK. In 2017, Humanists UK commissioned research by YouGov asking about beliefs, for example whether people use science or faith to understand the universe. It says the answers suggested 5 per cent identified as humanists, but 22 per cent hold humanist beliefs and values without the label of being humanist.
Humanists say that non-religious worldviews, such as their own, are still often misrepresented and misunderstood. In January 2018, the story of a Pakistani humanist named Hamza bin Walayat hit the headlines after he was denied asylum in Britain for failing to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers. Walayat, who had lived in the UK since 2011, was seeking asylum because he would face persecution for his beliefs if he returned to Pakistan. Yet, The Home Office suggested that his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best” and therefore rejected his asylum claim. Although this decision was revoked in mid-2019, the initial conclusion from the Home Office highlights their “deeply flawed” understanding of humanists, according to Dr Lois Lee, senior lecturer in secular studies at the University of Kent.
The number and diversity of non-religious beliefs like humanism are still largely unrepresented in many public institutions. In her work with the “Understanding Unbelief” programme, Dr Lee suggests that more research must be undertaken to advance the scientific understanding of atheist beliefs and worldviews. Dr Lee’s work is here, and her work on the Understanding Unbelief project here.
Many humanists participate in campaign work focused on removing religious privilege where necessary and challenging discrimination against non-religious believers. The campaign section on the Humanists UK website says their work is primarily split into four expansive sections: schools and education, human rights and equality, secularism, and public ethical issues. The focus of their campaign work is on protecting human rights, including people with religious beliefs and those without. They suggest that their work is often in tune with the British Government’s own agenda.
Humanism in British education
In late 2015, three British humanist parents challenged in the High Court the government’s decision to exclude non-religious worldviews from the 2015 religious education guidelines. They argued that the guidelines failed to respect their non-religious beliefs. The judge ruled in their favour, and said curriculums must include non-religious worldviews.
There has been a growing movement to widen the religious education curriculum in England and Wales. In 2018 the Commission on RE published its vision for schools in England. It emphasised the need to teach students a broad-based and reflective education.
The category “worldviews” is being debated. Humanists say humanism is a worldview, but contest the “disappointing” identification of atheism, agnosticism, and secularism as non-religious worldviews, arguing that they, unlike humanism and nihilism, do not constitute that.
After the commission’s final report, Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward, was published, Humanists UK commended the proposed changes. Since then, Humanists UK have produced a series of resources entitled Understanding Humanism Curriculum.
In 2022, the Welsh RE curriculum was reformed to become “religions, values, and ethics” with the study of non-religious worldviews included.
Many humanist organisations exist worldwide. An article, published by Understanding Humanism, notes that humanist organisations share similar ambitions and goals, which commonly focus on promoting secularism and human rights.
Popular humanist organisations include:
Anthony Grayling, Humanism, YouTube
Andrew Copson, “What is humanism?”, in The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism, ed. by Andrew Copson and A. C. Grayling (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), pp. 1-33.
Andrew Copson, Richard Norman, Luke Donnellan, Understanding Humanism (Routledge, 2022)
Bullivant, Stephen and Lois Lee 2016. The Oxford Dictionary of Atheism (Oxford University Press)
Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex, Sussex Academic Press, 1999)
Lois Lee, Recognising the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015).
Richard Norman, On Humanism (Routledge, 2012)
Stephen Law, Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).
Ruby Forrester is a researcher at Inform, based at King’s College London, mailto:[email protected]. Inform can often put journalists in touch with academics with recent evidence-based research on specific movements