Humanism is a philosophical stance that emphasizes the potential and agency of human beings, individually and socially. It considers human beings as the starting point for serious moral and philosophical inquiry.

The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it. Generally, however, humanism refers to a perspective that evolves around human wellbeing and advocates for human freedom, autonomy and progress. It views humanity as responsible for the promotion and development of individuals, espouses the equal and inherent dignity of all human beings, and emphasizes a concern for humans in relation to the world. In the 20th century and beyond, humanist movements are typically non-religious movements aligned with secularism, and today humanism may refer to a nontheistic life stance centered on human agency and looking to science and reason rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world. Humanists tend to be strong advocates for Human Rights, free speech, progressive policies and democracy. They maintain that religion is not a precondition to morality and object to religious involvement in education and the state apparatus. Humans, according to humanists, can shape their own values, and live a good and meaningful life.

Roots of humanism can be traced in ancient Greek philosophy, that prioritize on human morality. In other parts of ancient world, thought resonating humanistic though appeared also. It was in the Renaissance, that the interest in classical literature was renewed and humanistic ideas begun to evolve once again. Advances in science, technology and philosophy during enlightenment fostered secular worldviews creating many rational and ethical associations and currents in the 19th century, that were merged in the 20th century to form secular humanist associations.

Humanism has been traditionally questioned on its metaphysics and relation to truth and freedom. Contemporary critiques claim that because of perpetuating biases humanism is a vehicle for continued oppression.

Etymology and definition

The word "humanism" derived from the Latin concept humanitas, firstly used by Cicero to describe values related to liberal education, something like today's arts, philosophy, history, literature . The word resurfaced during the Italian Renaissance as umanista reaching the English language in the sixteenth century. The world was not used as an -ism but as an -ist to describe a group of people studying and advocating education based on classical literature.[1] In the early 19th century, it was used in Germany as humanismus with various meanings and from there, it re-entered English language with two distinct denotations, one linked to the study of classic literature, that remained an academic term, while the other one was more popularized and signified a non religious approach to life, implying an antithesis to theism.[2] Most probably, it was Bavarian theologian Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer who coined the term Humanismus to describe the new classical curriculum he planned to offer in German secondary schools. Soon, the world was adopted by other scholars such as Georg Voigt and Jacob Burckhardt.[3] In the 20th century, the word was refined further reaching its contemporary meaning signifying a naturalistic approach to life, focusing on the wellbeing and freedom of humans.[4]

Providing a definition of humanism is a difficult task, revealing the controversy surrounding humanism. One one hand, humanism is defined as a champion of human freedom and dignity, on the other, it is linked to oppression (via being a byproduct of modernity).[5] In 1974, philosopher Sidney Hook defined humanism, or humanists by negative characteristics. Firstly, humanists are against imposition of one culture in various civilizations, do not belong to a church or established religion, neither do they support dictatorships, justify violence for social reforms or they are loyal to an organization more than their abstract values. He also adds some positive characteristics, humanists are for eliminating hunger and improving health, housing and education.[6] Also writing in 1974, for humanist philosopher H. J. Blackham is a concept focusing on improving the social conditions of humanity, increasing autonomy and dignity of all humans.[7] More recently, in 1999, Jeaneane D. Fowler sees that definition of humanism should include both rejection of divinity and emphasis on human wellbeing and freedom. She also comments that there is a lack of commonly shared belief system or a doctrine, but in general, humanists are aiming for happiness and self-fulfillment.[8]

In 2015, prominent humanist Andrew Copson, drew five lines in his attempt to capture the essence of humanism, as follows:

  1. Humanism is naturalistic in his understanding of the universe; science and free inquiry will help us comprehend more and more about what is surrounding us.
  2. This scientific approach does not reduce humans anything lesser than human beings.
  3. Humanists insist on the importance of pursuit of a self-defined meaningful and happy life.
  4. Humanism is moral with morality being a way of humans improving our lives.
  5. Humanists engage in practical action to improve personal and social condition.[9]

The international organization of humanists defines it as "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".[10] Dictionary definition place humanism as a worldview or life stance. According to Merriam Webster Dictionary humanism is "...a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason."[11]



Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were the first western philosophers to first to attempt to explain the world in terms of human reason and laws within the nature, without escaping to myth, tradition or religion, thus can be said to be the first Greek humanists. Sixth-century BCE Thales of Miletus, along with the rest of Milesian school (his pupil Anaximander and Anaximenes) led this demythologization attempt and asserted that nature is available to be studied separately from the supernatural realm[12] Another pre-socratic philosopher, Protagoras, who flourished in Athens at c. 440 BCE resonated some ideas fundamental to humanism. Only some fragments survive from his work. He made one of the first agnostic statements, according to one fragment: "About the gods I am able to know neither that they exist nor that they do not exist nor of what kind they are in form: for many things prevent me for knowing this, its obscurity and the brevity of man's life. (80B4 DK)[13] While we are not familiar with the surrounding text, prof Mauro Bonazzi claims that seems that it was an attempt by Protagoras to distance religion from politics and a key concept in his radical humanism.[14] Another well debated axiom of Protagoras is that "man is the measure of all things". While attacked for its moral relativism and inconsistency since the age of Plato, humanists pointed to placing humankind to the centre of the universe while 20th century philosopher Schiller, in defending Protagoras noted that by the word "man", Protagoras refers to humankind rather than separate individuals.[15] Worth noting that contemporary Humanism does not endorse moral relativism.[12] Socrates also spoke of the need to know thyself, changed the focus of the then philosophical currents from nature to human and his wellbeing. Socrates, being a theist but executed for atheism nonetheless, investigated the nature of morality by reasoning.[16] Classical Greece philosopher Aristotle (384 -322 BCE) rationalism and his human nature based ethicism also parallels humanist thought.[12] In the 3rd century BCE, Epicurus formed an influential human-centred philosophy on achieving eudaimonia. Epicurians continued Democritus atomist theory- a materialistic theory that suggested that the fundamental unit of the universe was an indivisible atom. Human happiness, living well, friendship and avoidance of excesses were the key ingrediencies of Epicurian philosophy that flourished in the post Hellenic world and beyond.[12]

The philosophy of Confucius (551–479 BCE), which eventually became the basis of the state ideology of successive Chinese dynasties and nearby polities in East Asia, while not a predecessor to modern humanism, contains several humanistic traits, placing a high value on human life and discounting mysticism and superstition, including speculations on ghosts and an afterlife.[17] Confucianism is best consider as a religious form of humanism since it supernatural phenomena do have a central place in it, as Heaven (tian) which supposedly guides the world.[18]In the Analects of Confucius, humanistic features are apparent- such as respectfulness, reasonableness, kindness, and enthusiasm for learning.A fundamental teaching of Confucious was on how a person could achieve chün‐tzu (nobleness, just, kind)- education was of critical importance. Without religious appeals, Confucius adviced people to act according to an axiom which is the negative mirror of western golden rule.Is there one word that one can act upon throughout the course of one's life?" The Master said, "Reciprocity [shu] – what you would not want for yourself, do not do to others"' (Analects 15:23) After Confucious death, his discipline Mencius371–289 BCE) centered his philosophies on secular, humanistic concerns, like the nature of good governance and the role of education, rather than ideas founded on the state or folk religions of the time[19] Early Taoism and Buddhism, also harbor humanistic characteristics.[20]

Ancient Greek literature was translated in Arabic during at the Abbasid Caliphate during the 8th and 9th centuries, fertilized Islamic currents with rationalism. 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, and free speech, while various school were established at Baghdad, Basra and Isfahan.[21] A prominent example is philosopher Al-Jubba'i whose support to individual freedom is highlightened by his qoute: "God created humans as free. The one who can make good decisions about his faith is the person himself. Nobody is allowed to decide for you how to think. It depends on your human beliefs" Other philosophers also advance the rational discourse in Islamic literature to among them were Ahmad Miskawayh (940–1030), Ibn Sina (980–1037), Ibn Rushd (1126–1198), some (Nasr Abu Zayd and an‐Naim) even went afar as supporting separation of religious and state instructions.[22]


Portrait of Petrarch painted in 1376
David of Michelangelo. Artistic work during the Renaissance illustrates the emphasis given to anatomical details of humans.

In the 14th century, humanist ideas spurred in Italy. It was an era when the Catholic Church was deeply corrupted interest in Greco-Roman literature was renewed while fresh scientific discoveries undermined faith in holy scriptures.[23] Scholars were interested in a non-religious study of classical texts. The close circle of intellectual involved managed to keep a distance from religion, since greco-roman text preceded Christianity.[24] Artistic work by Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo and others celebrated human body and mind, expressing their optimism to human potential, was leaning towards naturalism.[25] Enabled by the discovery of printing, along with other Italian Renaissance's ideas, educational and humanistic views travelled to other European centers, libraries and universities.[26] But it was not an easy ride for the early scientists, Catholic Church had a very hostile attitude towards those who contradicted biblical truths as it was the case with Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei.[27] Lutheran Reformation brought to an end renaissance humanism. For Luther, God should be in the focus of our philosophy and life. Even though, Luther acknowledged the importance of education and humanist ideas were not completely eradicated.[28]

Ancient Greek thought, particularly Aristotle, was discovered by Italian scholars through their Arabic translations in Africa and Spain.[29] One of the first centers of Greek literature revival was Padua. There Lovato Lovati and others, passionately studied ancient text and authored new literary works.[30] Other centers were at Verona, Naples, and at Avignon.[31] A significant figure was Petrarch, often referred as the father of humanism.[31] Petrarch, who was raised in Avignon, showed an inclination to education at a very early age and studied along his father who was also well educated. His enthousiasm for ancient text lead him to the discovery of influential manuscripts for the history of renaissance, such as Cicero's Pro Archia and Pomponius Mela De chorographia. Petrarch wrote poems (such as Canzoniere and De viris illustribus) and other works in Latin, where he resonated humanist ideas and his love for antiquity was evident.[32]

It was in education that the humanists' program had the most lasting results, their curriculum and methods. Humanists insisted on the importance of classical literature in providing intellectual discipline, moral standards and a civilised taste for the elite, an educational approach that reached contemporary Era.[33]


During Enlightenment, humanistic ideas resurfaced, this time more afar from religion and classical literature.[34] Science, reason and intellectuallism advanced. God was replaced by mind as the mean to understand world. Divinity was no longer dictating human morals and humanistic values as anti-slavery, toleration started to take shape. Technological discoveries that changed the life of the many, allowed for ordinary people to face religion with a new morality, more confident about humankind and its abilities.[34] New philosophical, social and political ideas appeared. Thinkers moved even to totally rejecting theism, various currents were formed, atheism, deism or hostility to organized religion.[35] Notably during Enlightenment, Baruch Spinoza redefined God to signifying the totality of Nature; Spinoza was accused of atheism but remained silent on the matter.[36] Naturalism was also advance by prominent Encyclopédistes. Baron d'Holbach authored the polemic System of Nature claiming that religion was built on fear and helped tyrants through the ages.[37] Diderot and Helvetius also combined their materialism with sharp political critique.[37]

It was during the enlightenment, the abstract conception of humankind started shaping- a critical turning point for the construction of humanist philosophy. Previous appeals to Men, now shifted towards Man. This is evident in political documents, like the Social Contract (1762) of Rousseau where he proclaims "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains". Likewise, Thomas Pain at Rights of Man used the singular form of the world- revealing a universal conception of Man[38] In parallel, Baconian empirisism, even though not being humanism per se, paved the way for Thomas Hobbes materialism.[39]

From Darwin to current era

French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) introduced the idea of "religion of humanity" (sometimes attributed to Thomas Paine), an atheist cult based on some humanistic tenets, which had some prominent members but soon declined. Nonetheless, it was influential during the 19th century and its humanism and rejection of supernaturalism was echoed in the works of later authors such as Oscar Wilde and George Holyoake (who coined the word secularism), George Eliot, Emile Zola and E.S. Beesly, further re-enforcing and popularizing the conception of humankind. Paine's The Age of Reason along with German 19th-century Biblical criticism of the Hegelians David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, both discussing the importance of freedom, created various forms of humanism.[40]

Further advances in science and philosophy erode religious belief even more. Charles Darwin theory of natural selection offered naturalists an explanation for the plurality of species, declining the previous convincing teleological argument for the existence of God.[41] Darwins theory also implied that humans were just another species, contracting traditional theological view that humans were something more than just that.[42] Philosophers (i.e. Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx) attacked religious on various grounds, and theologians (David Strauss, i.e. Julius Wellhausen) questioned the Bible.[41] In parallel, utilitarianism was developed in Britain, due to the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism, a moral philosophy, centered its attention to human happiness, aiming to eliminate human and animal pain, and in doing so, opinions related to supernatural phenomena should not be considered.[43] In Europe and the US, along with philosophical critique of theistic beliefs, large parts of society abandoned or distanced themselves from religion. Ethical societies were formed, paving the way for the contemporary humanist movement.[44] Advances of previous centuries, made it easy for humanism and other non religious attitudes to flourish in the western world. Bertrand Russell's advocacy of atheism at Why I Am Not a Christian popularized even more the humanist ideas. But even in liberal countries, discriminations in educational system and elsewhere against non-believers, still exist. In the ongoing social debates, humanists are constant supporters of civil liberties.[45] In other parts of the world, mostly at Islamic countries, non religious people are persecuted.[46]

The rise of rationalism and scientific method was followed by the birth of many rationalist or ethical associations in the late 19th century, such as the National Secular Society, the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association, in Britain, while in the other coast of atlantic American Ethical Union emerged from various newly founded small ethicist societies.[47] In the 20th century, humanism was further promoted by the thougt and work of philosophers as A.J. Ayer, Antony Flew and Bertrand Russell. In 1963, the British Humanist Association was formed by the merging of smaller ethical and rationalist groups. Humanist organization were flourishing elsewhere in Europe as well. In Netherlands, the Dutch Humanist Alliance gained a wide base of support after World War II. In Norway, the Norwegian Humanist Association also gained popular support.[48] In the United States, humanism evolved with the aid of significant figures of Unitarian Church. Humanist magazines appear such as The New Humanist which published the Humanist Manifesto I in 1933. The American Humanist Association (AHA) was established in 1941 and as some European counterparts, gained popular success. It spread to all states and some prominent public figures have been, or still are, members as Isaac Asimov, John Dewey, Erich Fromm, Paul Kurtz, Carl Sagan Gene Roddenberry among others.[48] Humanist organizations from all continents have created the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), now known as Humanists International. Humanists International works to promote the humanist agenda, via United Nation (having a consultative status), UNESCO and UNICEF.[49]

Types and adjectives to humanism

Through the time, various adjectives have been attached to humanism.

Religious humanism, is a term used in early 20th century by naturalists who view their humanism as a religion, and even participated in church-like congregations. Religious humanism appeared mostly in the US and now is practically non-existed. American Humanist Association roots are to be found in religious humanism.[50] The same term (religious humanism) has also been used by religious group to self describe themselves, as the quackers, but the term is somewhat misused in those cases.[51] In the internet era, it is circulated by unreliable sources that contemporary humanism is the sum of secular and religious humanism, which is fault; contemporary humanism rejects any kind of supernatural phenomena.

"Renaissance humanism" is the name later given to a tradition of cultural and educational reform engaged in by civic and ecclesiastical chancellors, book collectors, educators, and writers, who by the late fifteenth century began to be referred to as umanisti—"humanists". It developed during the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries.[52] Whilst modern's humanism roots can be traced in renaissance, it differs vastly.[53][54] Christian humanism was a historical current in the late Middle Ages, where Christian Scholars combined Christian faith with interest in classical antiquity and focusing on human wellbeing.[55]

Political humanism, to describe movements as marxism and communism, are also a misuse of the term, since these political ideologies do not value freedom of speech and political dissent.[56] Ethical humanism focused on relations between humans, was prominent in USA in early 20th century.[57] Scientific humanism was affirming the belief on scientific method, was advanced by the works of Dewey and John Huxley.[58] Secular humanism has been coined more recently, in the mid-20th century. Initially, it was an attempt to demote humanism, but was embraced by some humanists associations initially.[59] It is synonymous to the contemporary humanist movement.[60]

Philosophical grounding of humanism

Education, reason, individualism and a strong belief in the universal human nature are the core elements of humanistic thought. Atheism, which is common among humanists, is a byproduct of reason embracing science.[61]

Humanists believe in the fundamental part of education, forming human nature.[62] Humanists emphasize on the unity of brain and body- traditional ideas in western countries have emphasize the priority of mind over body. This is objected by humanists who see it as a false dichotomy. Sex education will help pupils and future adults understand and express their feelings, physical education to promote health, moral education by sympathy and tolerance, while the culture of examinations is considered unhelpful- it does not let children focus on their passions, nor it promotes deeper thinking.[63] Humanists also are against religious education at school, mostly because they are against indoctrination. The common contra-argument they face is that parents have the right to upbring their children in the way they want, humanists reply that parents do not own their children, and hence do not have such a right while children should be raised in a way they could be able to make their own choices- that is the meaning of respecting their autonomy.[64]

Humanism is strongly based on reasoning.[65] For humanists, not only humans are reasonable beings, but they consider reasoning (and hence scientific method) as the mean towards truth.[66] Reasoning along science have gained widespread approval since its tremendous successes in various fields the last decades.[67] On the other hand, appeals to irrationality, invoking supernatural phenomena, testimonials about various events have failed to explain the world in a coherent way. One form of irrational thinking is adducing hidden agencies to explain natural phenomena or diseases yielding in a range of claims but Humanists are skeptical towards these kinds of explanations.[68]

Human autonomy is the hallmark of humanist philosophy.[61] For someone to be autonomous, both beliefs and actions of a person, must be the result of her own reasoning.[61] Humanists see autonomy what dignifies each individual- without autonomy, people are reduced to less than humans.[69] They also consider human essence to be universal, irrespective of race or social status, diminishing the importance of collective identities, signifying the importance of individual.[70]


Humanism and morality

Humanism has a secular approach on morality.[71] Humanism reject supernatural springs of morality, not only because of the rejection of extra-natural phenomena as a whole, but also because of their inconsistencies. The popular belief of linking religion to morality has been highlighted by Dostoevsky's axiom at The Brothers Karamazov "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted", and its subtle suggestion that chaos will ensue if belief in case of religion disappears.[72] For humanism, belief in theism is neither a precondition for morality, it is rather an obstacle.[73] Humanists point to the subjectivity of the alleged objective divine commands by referring to the Euthyphro dilemma: God commands people to act good, to be pious- that has two different reads: i)that goodness is independent from God; God does not make something good, therefor he is not omnipotent and creator of everything, and since morality is independed, humans may reach morality without god. ii)A second answer might be that God created morality- that opens the door to relativism.[74] Another point, is that interpretation of holy scriptures almost always includes human reasoning, with interpreters reaching quite contradictory theories, indicating that morality is based on human reasoning.[75] Also, acting out of fear or blind adherence to a dogma, expecting rewards doesn't sound moral, it is rather selfish motivation.[76]

Humanist attitude towards morality has changed through the centuries. During modern era, starting at the 18th century, humanist were oriented towards an objective and universalist stance to ethics. Utilitarian philosophy (aiming to increase human happiness-decrease human suffering) and Kantian ethics (Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law) shaped the humanist moral narrative until the early 20th century, but since basic concept as Free Will and reason were not based on scientific naturalism, their influence remained but was reduced in the early 20th century among humanists by social progressiveness and egalitarianism.[77]

Contemporary humanism considers morality a natural phenomenon that evolves with and around society. Morality is seen as a tool aiming for human flourishing rather than a set of doctrines. As writes: "Humanism is that ethical philosophy which regards humans and their moralities naturalistically; understands the proper functioning of morality and culture for their contributions to human flourishing in this life; regards every human being as equally worthy of moral treatment and protection; respects how people are highly social and need communal encouragement and support; promotes the capacity of intelligence for evaluating and modifying morality and wider cultural ways; privileges individual dignity and autonomy over the necessary but subordinate goals of cultural or political groups; and encourages ethical ideals promoting human intelligence and flourishing that all cultures can reasonably support."[78] Along with the social changes state-nations faced in the late 20th century, humanist ethics evolved also to be a constant voice supporting secularism, civil rights, personal autonomy, religious toleration, multiculturalism and cosmopolitism.[79]

Humanist philosopher Brian Ellis argues for a social humanist theory of morality, the social contractual utilitarianism, which is takes from Hume's naturalism and empathy, Aristotelian virtue theory, and Kant's idealism. Morality according to Ellis should aim happiness, or more precisely eudaimonism, an Aristotelian concept that combines a satisfying life with virtue and happiness, by improving societies in a global scale.[80] Humanist Andrew Copson takes a consequentialist and utilitarian approach to morality. According to Compson, the various humanist ethical traits, all aim and reflect around human welfare.[81] Philosopher Stephen Law emphasizes principles of humanist ethics: respect for personal moral autonomy, reject god given moral commands, is aiming in human wellbeing and forth "...humanists emphasize the role of reason in making moral judgements"[82]

Relation to religion

Humanism is a naturalistic philosophy- it rejects, gods, angels, immortal souls and all supernatural phenomena. The universe is natural and can be studied by science.[83] While opposition to the various forms of theism might come from many philosophical or historical domains, the most convincing arguments in terms of public opinion, is naturalism. Historical arguments fail to convince the public because historical research is often open to interpretation.[84] Arguments of aesthetic (classical literature is far more touching human souls than holy scriptures) or ethical ones (stance of religion on slavery, gay rights, racism) also fail to convince large parts of the population on the same grounds.[83] Driven by the successes of science and technology, naturalistic arguments gain prominence in public opinion.[85]

On the other hand, traditional arguments for the existence of God are falling short. Ontological argument (roughly, God exist because we can think of Him) lacks empirical evidence and seemingly lacks understanding of the reality. Cosmological argument (how it all begun, what is the first cause) also doesn't prove God existence since other causes, or prime movers (ie physical entities, mass or energy or something else) might have been the causal cause of universe. Teleological argument (who designed the universe) has been eliminated by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The failure of rational arguments to prove God existence, don't prove that God doesn't exist.[86] More popular causes of religious belief is personal experiences - that is also problematic, because personal experiences are vague and subject to interpretation, wishful thinking might also lead the way to likelihood conclusions.[87]

While humanism was founded as antithetic to religious establishments, religious views are not totally incompatible with humanism. Many deists for example (as Mary Wollstonecraft, Voltaire, Thomas Paine) had views resonating with a humanistic approach to life- since God does not interfere with our daily life nor it commands our action, a humanistic perspective can espouse.[88] Also many humanist have an anthropological interest in religions- how they evolved, matured, affect morality, and other features of human condition.[89]

Meaning of Life in humanism and wellbeing

In the 19th century the problem of the meaning of life, arose, along with the retraction of religion and its accompanied teleology, puzzling both society and philosophers since.[90] Contrary to religions, humanism do not have a definite answer on the question of the meaning of life.[91] Humanists commonly reply that we do not discover meaning, we create the meaning. While many philosophers authored on the meaning of life in a godless world (from Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzche) it was Albert Camus whose work echoed and shaped humanism. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus, the absurd hero, is destined to push a heavy rock up to a hill, only for the rock to slip back and start all over again.[92] Personal humanist answers may vary from pursuit of happiness- without recklessness and excesses, being part to human history, to connect with beloved ones, or even living animals and plants.[93] Some answers are not far from the religious discourse if appeal to divinity is overlooked.[94] Humanist professor Peter Derkx, identifies the features that that contribute to the meaning of life: having a purpose in life, that is morally worthy, evaluating positive of yourself, being able to understand the environment around you, being seen and be understood by people around you, the ability to connect emotionally with other people and a desire to have a meaning in life.[95]Humanist professor Anthony B. Pinn places the meaning of life in the quest of what he calls "complex subjectivity". Pinn, who is advocating for a non-theistic humanistic religion, inspired from African cultures, sees that seeking the never-reaching meaning of life contributes to well-being. Pinn argues that during rituals and ceremonies, which are time for reflection, provide opportunity to assess the meaning of life arise, improving wellbeing.[96]

Wellbeing and living a Good life, has been in the center of humanist reflection. For humanists, wellbeing is intertwined with values, that stem out of the meaning of life, that each human sets for herself.[97] Humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell described the good life as "inspired by love, guided by knowledge".[98] Also in general terms, A.C. Grayling noted that good life "it is the life that feels meaningful and fulfilling to the one living it".[99] Despite of the platitudes, humanism dose not have a doctrine of good life, neither does it offer any certainties, each person calls his shoots in his quest for a good life, without the expense of others.[100] For humanists, is of vital importance the option for a meaningful and fulfilling life, is open to all members of society.[101]

Humanism in politics

Humanism emphasizes on individual freedom, openness of the society and secularism. For humanism, freedom of individual is priority and any restriction placed upon due to communal living should be well justified; so humanism is leaning towards liberalism. Humanists see that society should include all members, independent of race, religion, sexual orientations.[102] Humanism defends secularism. Secularism is deemed fairer in comparison with theocracy by humanists, since they argue, it protects from discrimination; they also see that secularism protects the plurality of modern societies and preserve personal autonomy.[103] Humanism is at odds with conservativism that stands on natural wisdom, relies on long‐standing tradition, tries to preserve Christian values - all these contain elements that are not desirable to the society necessarily since xenophobia, bigotry, animal cruelty and so long, are also in the bag of our heritage.[104] Also stands against the irrationality of nationalism and totalitarianisms (be it fascist or Marxist–Leninist communism)[105]

Humanism has been part of political philosophies of both major 20th ideological currents - liberalism and Marxism. Early socialism of the 19th century, was connected to humanism. After the prevalence of Marxism, a humanistic branch of Marx interpretation focused on early Marx (contrary to "Scientific communism"). Liberalism, in the US, is associated mostly to humanistic principles, which is distinct from the European use of the same word that has economical connotations.[106] Post World War, Jean‐Paul Sartre and other French existentialist advocated for humanism, tying it to socialism, while trying to stay neutral during Cold War.[107]

Practically, humanism advocate for democracy, champions human rights and progressive policies.[108]

Humanist psychology and counselling

Humanist counselling is the applied phycology inspired by humanism, which is one of the major currents of counselling. There are various approach, either by discussing and critical thinking, replying to existential anxiety or focusing on social and political dimensions of various problems.[109] Humanist counseling focus on respecting worldview of client and placing it in the right cultural context. The approach emphasizes an individual's inherent drive towards self-actualization and creativity. It also pays importance to moral questions, how someone interacts, or should with people around him, according to his worldview. This is examined by a process of dialogue.[110] Generally, humanist counselling aspires in assisting persons to live a good, fulfilling and meaningful live by continual interpretation and reflection.[111] Humanist counselling has it roots to post-World War II Netherlands.[112]

Humanistic counselling, a different term from humanist counselling, is based on the works of psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. It introduced a positive, humanistic psychology in response to what they viewed as the overly pessimistic view of psychoanalysis in the early 1960s. Other sources include the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology.[112]

Organized humanism and ceremonies

Humanist organizations exist in various countries. Humanists UK (former British Humanist Association) and American Humanist Association are two of the most historical bodies of humanists. Humanists International is the global organization of humanists.[113] Humanists UK have been providing ceremonies for wedding, naming, coming of age and funerals. Stephen Law, defending this practice, argues that ceremonies and rituals exist in our culture, not because they have a magical effect to the participant, they rather help humans express deeply felt emotions.[114]

Humanists UK base in London. They have ~28 thousand members and a budget a little above £1.1 to cover operational costs. Some high-profile people are members of the association, such as Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Salman Rushdie, Polly Toynbee, Stephen Fry to name a few). They are mostly known for their vivid participation in public debate mostly by promoting reason, science and secularism (and hence objecting to state funding faith-based events or institutes).[115] Large part of their workload, is organizing ceremonies. They are person-centred, contrary to the god-centred approach of ceremonies by organized religions.[116]

American Humanist Association has been formed in 1941, from previous humanist association, along with its journal The Humanist which is the continuation of previous publication The Humanist Bulletin.[49] A few decades later became a well recognized organization, initiating progressive campaigns such as abortion rights or against discriminatory policies, that resulted in becoming the target of religious right by the 1980s.[117] High-profile members of academia and public figures had published work at The Humanist or joined and lead AHA. Since 1953, AHA established the "Humanist of the Year", to honor individuals that promote science.[118]


Criticism of humanism focus on its adherence to Western world values- such as human rights and humanitarism. By these means, critics claim, are becoming the tool of western moral and otherwise dominance around the world that is a form of neo-colonialism leading to oppression and lack of ethical diversity.[119] Contemporary critics of humanism from minority or repressed groups consider humanism as oppressive since it is not free from biases inherited by white, heterosexual males that shaped this philosophy.[120]

For anthropology professor Talal Asad, humanism is a project of modernity, a secularized continuation of western Christian theology. As Catholic church has provided the moral pass, to love your fellow humans but also enslave them, likewise, humanism has been a pretext for western countries to expand their influence, by means of violence, to other parts of the world, in order to humanize "barbarians".[121] Asad has also argued that humanism is not a pure secular phenomenon, but takes from Christianity the idea of the essence of humanity and along with morals developed during Enlightenment ends up at the starting point: propagating western hegemony.[122] Asad is also not optimistic on the ability of humanism to incorporate other humanistic traditions- such as Asian traditions from India and China, without incorporating and consuming them.[123] Sociology professor Didier Fassin see the priority of empathy and compassion instead goodness and justice as problematic. Fassin also sees the roots of humanism in the Christian tradition, particularly at the Parable of the Good Samaritan where empathy is universilied. Fassin goes further and claims that humanism central essence, sanctity of human life, is a religious victory veiled in a religious victory hidden in a secular wrapper.[124] History professor Samuel Moyn specifies his attack on humanism in regards to their advocating for human rights. For Moyn, Human rights in 1960 were a declaration for anti-colonial struggles, but during the 1970s, they were transformed in a utopian vision, replacing the failing utopias of the 20th century. The humanists underpinning of human rights transforms them into a moral tool, that is unpractical and ultimately un-political. He also finds a connection between the catholic discourse on the dignity of human has found its place within humanist rhetoric.[125]


Antihumanism, a term that stands for the rejection of humanism, on the ground of that humanism is an pre-scientific ideology.[126] It was developed during the 19th and 20th century, parallel with the advancement of humanism, objection to humanism by prominent thinkers arose, that questioned the metaphysics of humanism, as the human nature its concept of freedom [120] Nietzsche, while departing from a humanistic, pro-Enlightenment point, criticizes humanism for illusions in a number of topics, especially about the nature of truth. For him, objective truth were merely anthropomorphic illusions and hence humanism was meaningless.[127] Furthermore, replacing theism with reason, science and truth is nothing but replacing one religion with another, Nietzsche argued.[128] Karl Marx belittled his contemporary precursors of humanism as a bourgeois project that attempts to present itself as radical- but is not.[129] After World War II atrocities, questions on human nature and human concept, renewed.[130] During Cold War, influential Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, introduced the term "theoretical antihumanism" to attack both humanism and socialism currents leaning towards humanism eschewing more structural or formal interpretation of Marx. For Althusser, early writings of Marx resonated with humanistic idealism of Hegel, Kant and Feuerbach but in 1845, according to Althusser, Marx took a radical turn towards scientific socialism, rejecting concepts such as the essence of man.[131] Other antihumanists, such as Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault attacked the notion of human, utilizing psychoanalysis, Marxism and linguistic theory.[132]

Philosopher Kate Soper notes that by faulting humanism for falling short of its own benevolent ideals, anti-humanism thus frequently "secretes a humanist rhetoric".[133]

See also


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  11. Cherry 2009, p. 26.
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Further reading