Thursday, May 24, 2012

Defining Humanism

What does it mean to be a secular humanist? Is it just a euphemism for atheist, or does it mean something different? While most secular humanists do also identify as atheists, there may be a subtle difference in terms, whether by the technical definitions or by their connotations.

The word humanism, in its current sense, was first used in mid 18th century France and roughly meant “A general love of humanity.” Today, the American Humanist Association defines humanism as […] a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Does that mean that a humanist cannot have theism and supernatural beliefs, or does it mean that a humanist just doesn’t use supernatural beliefs to guide his/her ethical life?

Now, the word “secular” is a little less vague. It means, roughly, separate from religion, or only pertaining to worldly things.

Another word that we hear often when talking about atheism, humanism, etc., is agnosticism. Agnosticism is the belief that supernatural claims cannot be proven or disproven with the current set of data (or potentially at all, ever). By that definition that would certainly make most Christians agnostic (it is all about faith, right?) and it certainly makes atheists agnostic. We cannot truly claim to know God does not exist, can we? Colloquially, agnosticism is used to suggest one’s own doubt about whether or not a claim is true.

However, the most important definition of a word comes from how people actually use it. How do you identify yourself? What do these words mean to you when you hear them? Is “secular humanism” a redundant term, or can there be religious humanism?


  1. I consider myself to be an agnostic-atheist/secular humanist. I don't believe in the supernatural but admit that I cannot disprove the supernatural. I think many people with religious beliefs would also classify themselves as humanists – meaning that they strive to do good for others while alive – so I think the term "secular" is important when placed in front of humanist.

  2. I primarily prefer to call myself an atheist. I don't feel the need to qualify with agnostic because I use agnosticism in its textbook sense- meaning that it is impossible to prove whether or not God exists by pure logic. If that is the case, then everyone is agnostic or insane, frankly. So I don't feel the need to say "Hello, I'm an agnostic atheist human being from Earth."

    I also call myself an atheist as opposed to (secular-)humanist because of my personal feeling that "atheist" has become a bad word. Humanist sounds a lot nicer to people who might think bad things about "atheists." So in a way, I do think that humanism has become a euphemism for atheism and that just rubs me the wrong way.

    Maybe I'm just really confrontational…

    1. Well put! Why not call a spade a spade. Atheist describes me perfectly. I don't care about the connotation because we can change that by living exemplary lives. So, get used to it, World, I wear the title with great pride. ~ Brigitta

  3. We are all, born as Atheists; The majority of us are then later indoctrinated into the Belief Systems of our parent's religion. I like to describe myself as "A Born Again Pagan". The label "pagan" is a christian term, which hopefully might cause some people to think about their unsupported beliefs in a "Vengeful Sky Master".

  4. Greetings from Canada! I agree that we are all born atheists. I call myself a humanist but you may find it interesting that our Humanist organization just changed its name to Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba. We were previously called the Humanist Association of Manitoba, but we haven't even changed our web page yet and we only just finished making a new Logo for our organization.

    When we initially brought up the idea for a name change three months ago and we found that over 90 percent of our members agreed when I asked if members they wanted to use all three names (humanist, atheist, agnostic). Many felt it better explains who we are at a glance and that it also give members "room to move" in terms of their own journey of non belief. I next asked if anyone was offended or opposed to the name change and no one seemed concerned. Although, we did have a healthy discussion about it and many members talked about how they fall into all three categories.

    If someone referred to me as an atheist I would agree strongly. I am an atheist in the truest sense of the word. If they called me agnostic I would agree for good philosophical reasons, since we cannot know for sure about claims about any god said to exist.

    We are trying to be inclusive to all of those who see themselves as nonbelievers and our members seem to like that.

    Jeffrey Olsson, President,
    Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics of Manitoba

  5. Defining Humanism at times seems almost as vexing as defining god. Perhaps it is a matter of semantics which creates a need to put it in context of culture and society. To me, it is a description of the beautiful human quality of unbridled curiosity of the ‘Humanists’ I have encountered. In doubting the existence of god at the end of intellectual capacity, realty becomes its own unique fulfillment in the joy of the ‘Humanist’ existence. I think all that is out of reach in of our human experience makes it by no means supernatural. Brigitta