What is Humanism?




"My country is the world and my religion is to do good."

—Thomas Paine

"There are always some people who, though living honorable and considerate lives . . . prefer to keep 'an open mind' about the currently accepted explanations for things for which they see no evidence, or only evidence that is unconvincing. These people are in 'the humanist tradition.' "

—Barbara Smoker


The Origins of Humanism

Humanism originated in the West with the Greek philosopher Socrates, and in the East with the Chinese philosopher Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) about 2,500 years ago. Socrates felt that in order to develop sound values people should learn how to think for themselves. Kung Fu Tzu believed that "A society ought to work for the benefit of all its members rather than be used merely as a pretext for the excesses of its rulers," and that "virtue means to love one another." (Paul Strathern, Confucius in 90 Minutes, pages 15 and 19. For those looking for details concerning Confucian humanism, please follow this link to our resource concerning world relgions, or this link, where a humanistic lifestyle is discussed.)

The Core Beliefs of Humanism

Humanism has two core beliefs, from which many important implications follow. An analogy to a court of law may help to clarify these beliefs.

  • In the American system of law, jurors attempt to reach decisions about the guilt or innocence of a defendant based solely on evidence. In much the same way, a good Humanist will try to find good evidence for all of his or her beliefs, including his or her religious and political convictions. This analogy with a court of law can be extended: jurors must, of course, be alert to misleading testimony. Even outside of a court of law, Humanists believe that people must learn how to sift and assess what they are told by the media, or by figures of authority, no matter who those figures happen to be. Defendants cannot always be relied upon to provide reliable, unbiased testimony. Similarly, the media, and authority figures too, often have an agenda of their own—frequently the enhancement of someone's wealth or power. And even when this is not the case, authorities are themselves often uninformed or confused. In short, then, the first Humanist core conviction is that all beliefs, no matter what sort, must be grounded in carefully sifted facts.
  • Humanists believe that the evidence that our values have a supernatural basis is weak; on the other hand, Humanists find compelling the evidence that our values are based in the human person. Therefore, in order to know whether a given course of conduct is meaningful or right, we can ask ourselves whether it promotes the maintenance or development of the normal capabilities of human beings, such as thinking, feeling, and physical health.


Some of the important implications following from these core convctions are:

  • People should try hard to get the facts before forming opinions or commiting to values.
  • People should base their values primarily upon the worth and inherent dignity of the human person.
  • The refinement of any good value system is the project of a lifetime. There is no single, comprehensive, authoritative source of truth.

The idea that all people are much the same everywhere, and are equally entitled to justice and opportunity regardless of race or gender, owes much to Humanism.

Humanism and Religion

Humanism is a down-to-earth philosophical movement that represents a turn toward the satisfaction of human needs, both material and spiritual, and the fulfillment of human potential, here and now. Humanism therefore lacks much interest in the supernatural and theological, or in an afterlife.

This doesn't mean that Humanists are necessarily atheists. Though it may come as a shock to some, there are many religious Humanists. (Christians and Humanists alike would do well to keep in mind that there was a time when Christian thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas consciously incorporated the humanism of Aristotle into Christianity, and that eminent Humanist thinkers like Erasmus were Christians.) Linking religious and secular humanists is the belief that nothing should ever be accepted on faith. There must always be good evidence for beliefs, religious or otherwise. This is the most fundamental tenet of rationalism. On the other hand, nothing specific to Humanism precludes belief in God. Indeed, the controversy concerning the existence of God is far less relevant to values than ordinarily supposed.

Humanism and Science

The three pillars of rationalism are science, mathematics, and philosophy. All three are important to the Humanist as sources of trustworthy understanding. However, there are immense differences between the organic and inorganic realms. A rock, for example, has no feelings or thoughts, and therefore isn't sentient. It follows that a rock cannot have values; and we can do neither harm nor good to a rock. Human beings, by contrast, have both thoughts and feelings, and are sentient. It is from this sentience that all of our values follow.

However, one approach to science, that of reductionistic materialism, is ill-equipped to either recognize or appreciate the distinction between the sentient and the non-sentient. The vastly more Humanistic alternative is that of emergentist materialism , the view that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts in the natural world generally, and especially in the case of the human mind. Indeed, we would go so far as to say that anyone who takes exception to emergentist materialism is no genuine Humanist at all.

Summary: The Essence of Humanism

In summary, then: Humanism is an a fact-based philosophy, that emphasizes the importance of reason and the indispensability of both evidence and compassion for others in the formation of values. Contemporary humanistic morality judges acts primarily on the basis of their affect upon other human beings. Humanists believe that the purposes of life are found in the meeting of human needs —intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—and in the fulfillment of human capabilities, mental and physical.



  • Our multimedia companion magazine, vMeme21, is written and edited from a Humanistic perspective.
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  • Some notes on a Humanistic lifestyle
  • Have a look at some FAQ concerning Humanism
  • Discuss Humanism at the Progressive Living forum
  • Search for more concerning Humanism
  • Have a look at a Humanist web site
  • Look at the relationship between Humanism and Religion.
  • Go to R. C. W. Ettinger's Transhumanism web site
    (Can we change human nature itself for the better?)
  • Go to the Progressive Living preamble
    to have a look at our mission statement
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  • Go on to the essay on Progressivism