(15th-16th century)

A formal term applied in the 19th century to the re-emergence and synthesis of classical thought during the Renaissance.

Although evident in Petrarch’s studies of classical texts in the 14th century, it was particularly during the 15th century (in Florence, Venice and Naples) that scholars’ rediscovery of classical civilization and literature led to the development of rational thought and approaches which were not dependent on Christian customs.

In Florence, this intellectual shift was confirmed by the establishment of Marsilio Ficino’s neo-Platonic academy in 1492.

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

The meaning of the term “humanism” has changed according to the successive intellectual movements that have identified with it. Generally, the term refers to a focus on human well-being 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.

Starting in the 20th century, humanist movements have typically been non-religious and aligned with secularism. Most frequently, humanism refers to a nontheistic view centered on human agency, and a reliance on science and reason rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world. Humanists tend to advocate for human rights, free speech, progressive policies, and democracy. Those with a humanist worldview maintain religion is not a precondition of morality, and object to excessive religious entanglement with education and the state. Humans, according to humanists, can shape their own values, and live good and meaningful lives.

The origins of humanist ideas in the West can be largely traced to ancient Greek philosophy, which prioritizes human morality, but similar concepts and ideas were also expressed elsewhere in the ancient world, such as ancient India, Norway, southern Africa, and China. During the European Renaissance, interest in classical literature from Greece was renewed and humanistic ideas began to evolve again. Advances in science, technology, and philosophy during the Enlightenment fostered secular world views, creating many rational and ethical associations and movements in the 19th century, some of which merged to form secular humanist associations in the 20th century.

Etymology and definition

The word “humanism” derives from the Latin concept humanitas, which was first used by Cicero to describe values related to liberal education, which was similar to 21st century arts, philosophy, history, and literature. The word reappeared during the Italian Renaissance as umanista and reaching the English language in the 16th century. The word “humanist” was used to describe a group of students of classical literature and those advocating for education based on it.[1] In the early 19th century, the term humanismus was used in Germany with several meanings and from there, it re-entered the English language with two distinct denotations; one an academic term linked to the study of classic literature while the other, more popular use signified a non-religious approach to life, implying an antithesis to theism.[2]

It is probable Bavarian theologian Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer coined the term humanismus to describe the new classical curriculum he planned to offer in German secondary schools. Soon, other scholars such as Georg Voigt and Jacob Burckhardt adopted the term.[3] In the 20th century, the word was further refined, acquiring its contemporary meaning of a naturalistic approach to life, focusing on the well-being and freedom of humans.[4]

Defining humanism reveals the controversy surrounding humanism. Humanism is defined as a champion of human freedom and dignity but it is linked to oppression through it being a byproduct of modernity.[5] In 1974, philosopher Sidney Hook defined humanism and humanists by negative characteristics. According to Hook, humanists are opposed to the imposition of one culture in some civilizations, do not belong to a church or established religion, do not support dictatorships, do not justify violence for social reforms or are more loyal to an organization than their abstract values. Hook also said humanists support the elimination of hunger and improvements to health, housing, and education.[6] Also writing in 1974, humanist philosopher H. J. Blackham said humanism is a concept that focuses on improving the social conditions of humanity, increasing the autonomy and dignity of all humans.[7] In 1999, Jeaneane D. Fowler said the definition of humanism should include a rejection of divinity, and an emphasis on human well-being and freedom. She also comments there is a lack of a shared belief system or doctrine but, in general, humanists are aiming for happiness and self-fulfillment.[8]

In 2015, prominent humanist Andrew Copson attempted to define humanism as follows:

  • Humanism is naturalistic in its understanding of the universe; science and free inquiry will help us comprehend more and more about what is surrounding us.
  • This scientific approach does not reduce humans to anything lesser than human beings.
  • Humanists place importance of the pursuit of a self-defined, meaningful, and happy life.
  • Humanism is moral; morality is a way of humans improving our lives.
  • Humanists engage in practical action to improve personal and social conditions.[9]

According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union:

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]

Dictionaries define 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 attempt to explain the world in terms of human reason and natural law without relying on myth, tradition, or religion. Thales of Miletus led this demythologization in the 6th century BCE along with the rest of the Milesian school. Thales’ pupils Anaximander and Anaximenes said nature is available to be studied separately from the supernatural realm.[12]

Another pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras, who lived in Athens c. 440 BCE, put forward some fundamental humanist ideas. Only some fragments of his work survive. 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] According to scholar Mauro Bonazzi, this was an attempt by Protagoras to distance religion from politics, and a key concept in his radical humanism.[14] Protagoras also said: “man is the measure of all things”. Philosopher Friedrich Schiller defended Protagoras against charges of relativism, noting he used the word “man” to refer to humankind rather than separate individuals.[15] Contemporary humanism does not endorse moral relativism.[12]

Socrates spoke of the need to “know thyself”; his thought changed the focus of the contemporary philosophy from nature to humans and their well-being. Socrates, a theist who was executed for atheism, investigated the nature of morality by reasoning.[16] Aristotle (384–322 BCE) taught rationalism and a system of ethics based on human nature that also parallels humanist thought.[12] In the 3rd century BCE, Epicurus formed an influential human-centered philosophy that focused on achieving eudaimonia. Epicureans continued Democritus’ atomist theory—a materialistic theory that suggests the fundamental unit of the universe was an indivisible atom. Human happiness, living well, friendship, and the avoidance of excesses were the key ingredients of Epicurean philosophy that flourished in and beyond the post-Hellenic world.[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, 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 considered a religious form of humanism because supernatural phenomena such as Heaven (tian)—which supposedly guides the world—have a place in it.[18] In the Analects of Confucius, humanist features are apparent; respectfulness, reasonableness, kindness, and enthusiasm for learning. A fundamental teaching of Confucius was that a person could achieve chün‐tzu (the quality of being noble, just, or kind) through education. Without religious appeals, Confucius advised people to act according to an axiom that is the negative mirror of the Western golden rule: “Is there one word that one can act upon throughout the course of one’s life?” According to Confucius; “Reciprocity [shu]—what you would not want for yourself, do not do to others”. (Analects 15:23) After Confucius’ death, his disciple Mencius (371–289 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 include humanistic characteristics.[20]

Ancient Greek literature, which was translated into Arabic during the Abbasid Caliphate during the 8th and 9th centuries, influenced 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 medieval Islamic thought was open to the humanistic ideas of individualism, occasional secularism, skepticism, liberalism, and free speech; schools were established at Baghdad, Basra and Isfahan.[21] A prominent example is philosopher Al-Jubba’i, whose support of individual freedom is highlighted by his quote: “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 advanced rational discourse in Islamic literature; among them were Ahmad Miskawayh (940–1030), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980–1037), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126–1198). Some, including Nasr Abu Zayd and An‐Naim, supported the separation of religious and state instructions.[22]


Portrait of Petrarch painted by Altichiero in 1376

David by Michelangelo, 1501–1504. Artistic work during the Renaissance illustrates the emphasis given to anatomical details of humans.

Along with the trespassing from Middle ages to Renaissance, an intellectual movement appeared firstly in Italy that transformed western culture and was later named as “renaissance humanism”.[23]Italian scholars discovered Ancient Greek thought, particularly that of Aristotle, through Arabic translations from Africa and Spain.[24] Renaissance humanism emerged in Italy along with the flourishment of literature and the arts in the thirteenth century Italy.[25] One of the first centers of the Greek literature revival was Padua, where Lovato Lovati and others studied ancient texts and wrote new literary works.[26] Other centers were Verona, Naples, and Avignon.[27] Petrarch, who is often referred to as the father of humanism, is a significant figure.[28] Petrarch was raised in Avignon; he was inclined toward education at a very early age and studied alongside his father, who was also well educated. Petrarch’s enthusiasm for ancient texts led him to discover manuscripts that were influential for the history of the Renaissance, such as Cicero’s Pro Archia and Pomponius Mela’s De chorographia. Petrarch wrote poems such as Canzoniere and De viris illustribus in Latin, in which he described humanist ideas; his love for antiquity was evident.[29] His most significant contribution was a list of book he created outlining the four major categories or disciplines (rhetoric, moral philosophy, poetry, and grammar), that would be the base of humanistic studies (studia humanitatis) that were widely adopted for educational purposes. His list relied heavily on ancient writers, especially Cicero.[30]

Revival of classicist authors continued after Petrarch’s death. Florence chancellor and humanist Coluccio Salutati, made his city a prominent bastion of humanist values. Members of his circle, were other notable humanists such as Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Niccoli and Leonardo Bruni who rediscovered, translated and popularized ancient texts.[31] Humanists succeeded in setting the principles of education. Vittorino da Feltre and Guarino Veronese created schools based on humanistic principles, their curriculum was widely adopted and by the sixteenth century, humanistic paideia was the dominant outlook of pre-university education.[32] Parallel with advances in education, humanists in renaissance made progress in other fields, as in philosophy, mathematics and religion. In philosophy, Angelo Poliziano, Nicholas of Cusa , Marsilio Ficino contributed furthering the understanding of ancient classical philosophers and Gianfrancesco Pico undermined the dominance of Aristotelian philosophy with revitalizing Sextus Empiricus skepticism. Religion was not untouched with the increased interest of humanistic paideia, Pope Nicholas V initiated the translation of Hebrew and Greek biblical and other texts to Latin.[33]

Humanist values spread outside of Italy through of books and people. Individuals moving to Italy to study, returned to their homelands and spread humanistic messages. Printing houses dedicated in ancient text established in Venice, Basel and Paris. By the end of fifteenth century, the center of humanism was shifted from Italy to northern Europe, with Erasmus of Rotterdam being the leading humanist scholar. [34] The most profound and longest-lasting effect of Renaissance humanism was their education curriculum and methods. Humanists insisted on the importance of classical literature in providing intellectual discipline, moral standards, and a civilized taste for the elite—an educational approach that reached the contemporary era.[35]


During the Enlightenment, humanistic ideas resurfaced, this time further from religion and classical literature.[36] Science, reason, and intellectualism advanced, and the mind replaced God as the means with which to understand the world. Divinity was no longer dictating human morals, and humanistic values such tolerance and opposition to slavery started to take shape. Life-changing technological discoveries allowed ordinary people to face religion with a new morality and greater confidence about humankind and its abilities.[36] New philosophical, social, and political ideas appeared. Some thinkers rejected theism outright and various currents were formed; atheism, deism, and hostility to organized religion.[37] Notably during the Enlightenment, Baruch Spinoza redefined God as signifying the totality of nature; Spinoza was accused of atheism but remained silent on the matter.[38] Naturalism was also advanced by prominent Encyclopédistes. Baron d’Holbach wrote the polemic System of Nature, claiming religion is built on fear and helped tyrants through the ages.[39] Diderot and Helvetius also combined their materialism with sharp, political critique.[39]

Also during the Enlightenment, the abstract conception of humankind started forming—a critical juncture 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, in which he says “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains”. Likewise, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man uses the singular form of the word, revealing a universal conception of Man.[40] In parallel, Baconian empiricism—though not humanism per se—paved the way for Thomas Hobbes’s materialism.[41]

From Darwin to current era

French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) introduced the idea of a “religion of humanity”—which is sometimes attributed to Thomas Paine—an atheist cult based on some humanistic tenets that had some prominent members but soon declined. It was nonetheless influential during the 19th century, and its humanism and rejection of supernaturalism are echoed in the works of later authors such as Oscar Wilde, George Holyoake—who coined the word secularism—George Eliot, Emile Zola, and E.S. Beesly, further re-enforcing and popularizing the concept of humankind. Paine’s The Age of Reason along with the 19th-century Biblical criticism of the German Hegelians David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach—both of whom discuss the importance of freedom—created forms of humanism.[42]

Advances in science and philosophy further eroded religious belief. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection offered naturalists an explanation for the plurality of species, weakening the previously convincing teleological argument for the existence of God.[43] Darwin’s theory also implied that humans are just another species, contradicting the traditional theological view of humans as something more than just animals.[44] Philosophers Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx attacked religion on several grounds, and theologians David Strauss and Julius Wellhausen questioned the Bible.[43] In parallel, utilitarianism was developed in Britain through the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism, a moral philosophy, centers its attention on human happiness, aiming to eliminate human and animal pain and, in doing so, giving no attention to supernatural phenomena.[45] 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, leading to the contemporary humanist movement.[46] Advances of previous centuries made it easy for humanism and other non-religious attitudes to flourish in the Western world. Even in liberal countries, however, discrimination against non-believers still exists. In the ongoing social debate, humanists are constant supporters of civil liberties.[47] In many parts of the world, not practicing the faith of the region can result in persecution, prosecution, and death.[48]

The rise of rationalism and the scientific method was followed in the late 19th century in Britain by the birth of many rationalist and ethical associations such as the National Secular Society, the Ethical Union, and the Rationalist Press Association.[49] In the 20th century, humanism was further promoted by the work of philosophers such as A.J. Ayer, Antony Flew, and Bertrand Russell, whose advocacy of atheism in Why I Am Not a Christian further popularized humanist ideas. In 1963, the British Humanist Association evolved out of the Ethical Union and merged with many smaller ethical and rationalist groups. Elsewhere in Europe, humanist organizations also flourished. In the 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.[50]

In the US, humanism evolved with the aid of significant figures of the Unitarian Church. Humanist magazines such as The New Humanist, which published the Humanist Manifesto I in 1933, appeared. The American Ethical Union emerged from newly founded, small, ethicist societies.[49] The American Humanist Association (AHA) was established in 1941 and became as popular as some of its European counterparts. The AHA spread to all states, and some prominent public figures such as Isaac Asimov, John Dewey, Erich Fromm, Paul Kurtz, Carl Sagan, and Gene Roddenberry became members.[50] Humanist organizations from all continents have created the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which is now known as Humanists International and promotes the humanist agenda via the United Nations organizations UNESCO and UNICEF.[51]

Varieties of humanism

Early 20th century naturalists, who viewed their humanism as a religion and participated in church-like congregations, used the term “religious humanism”. Religious humanism appeared mostly in the US and is now rarely practiced. The American Humanist Association arose from religious humanism.[52] The same term has also been used by religious groups such as the Quakers to describe themselves but the term is misapplied in those cases.[53]

The term “Renaissance humanism” was 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 15th century, began to be referred to as umanisti (“humanists”). It developed during the 14th and early 15th centuries.[54] While modern humanism’s roots can be traced to the Renaissance, “Renaissance humanism” differs from it vastly.[55][56]

Other terms using “humanism” in their name include:

  • “Christian humanism”: a historical current in the late Middle Ages, where Christian scholars combined Christian faith with interest in classical antiquity and a focus on human well-being.[57]
  • “Political humanism”: used to describe political movements such as Marxism and communism; the associated 20th-century states and movements, however, did not value freedom of speech and political dissent.[58]
  • “Ethical humanism”: a synonym of Ethical culture, was prominent in the US in early the 20th century, focused on relations between humans. [59]
  • “Scientific humanism”: emphasises belief in the scientific method as a component of humanism, as in the works of John Dewey and Julian Huxley. Largely synonymous with secular humanism.[60]
  • “Secular humanism” was coined in the mid-20th century. It was initially an attempt to denigrate humanism but was embraced by some humanist associations.[61] It is synonymous with the contemporary humanist movement.[62]

Philosophical grounding

The core elements of humanistic thought are education, reason, individualism, and a strong belief in the universal human nature. Atheism, which is common among humanists, is a byproduct of reason embracing science.[63]

Humanists believe education plays a fundamental role in forming human nature.[64] Traditional ideas in Western countries have given the mind priority over the body; humanists see this as a false dichotomy and emphasize the unity of brain and body. Humanists support sex education to help people to understand and express their feelings; physical education to promote health, and moral education by sympathy and tolerance. Some consider the culture of examinations, which does not let children focus on their passions and does not promote deeper thinking, unhelpful.[65] Humanists are opposed to religious education in schools, mostly because they are opposed to indoctrination. A common counter-argument is that parents have the right to bring up their children in the way they want; humanists reply parents do not own their children and hence do not have such a right. They argue children should be raised to make their own choices, respecting their autonomy.[66]

Humanism is strongly based on reason.[67] For humanists, humans are reasonable beings but reasoning and the scientific method are the means of finding truth.[68] Science and reason have gained widespread approval due to their tremendous successes in various fields.[69] Appeals to irrationality and invocation of supernatural phenomena have failed to coherently explain the world. One form of irrational thinking is adducing hidden agencies to explain natural phenomena or diseases; humanists are skeptical of these kinds of explanations.[70]

The hallmark of humanist philosophy is human autonomy.[63] For people to be autonomous, their beliefs and actions must be the result of their own reasoning.[63] For humanists, autonomy dignifies each individual—without autonomy, people are reduced to being less than humans.[71] They also consider human essence to be universal, irrespective of race or social status, diminishing the importance of collective identities and signifying the importance of individuals.[72]


Humanism and morality

Humanism has a secular approach to morality.[73] Humanism rejects supernatural sources of morality, because of their inconsistencies and because it rejects extra-natural phenomena in general. The popular belief religion is linked to morality is highlighted by Dostoevsky’s axiom in The Brothers Karamazov; “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted” and its suggestion chaos will ensue if religious belief disappears.[74] According to humanists, if people act only out of fear, blind adherence to a dogma, or expectation of a reward, it is a selfish motivation rather than morality.[75]

For humanists, theism is an obstacle to morality rather than a precondition for it.[76] Humanists point to the subjectivity of the supposed objective divine commands by referring to the Euthyphro dilemma; does God command something because it is good or is something good because God commands it? If goodness is independent from God, humans can reach goodness without religion but relativism is invited if God creates goodness.[77] The interpretation of holy scriptures almost always includes human reasoning; interpreters reach contradictory theories, indicating morality is based on human reasoning.[78]

The humanist attitude towards morality has changed through the centuries. During the modern era, starting in the 18th century, humanists were oriented towards an objective and universalist stance on ethics. Utilitarian philosophy, which aims to increase human happiness and decrease human suffering, and Kantian ethics—acting 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. Because the concepts of free will and reason are not based on scientific naturalism, their influence on humanists remained in the early 20th century but was reduced by social progressiveness and egalitarianism.[79]

Contemporary humanism considers morality a natural phenomenon that evolves with and around society. Morality is seen as a tool aiming for the flourishing of human rather than a set of doctrines. John R. Shook wrote;

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.[80]

Along with the social changes nations faced in the late 20th century, humanist ethics evolved to be a constant voice supporting secularism, civil rights, personal autonomy, religious toleration, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism.[81]

Humanist philosopher Brian Ellis argues for a social humanist theory of morality called “social contractual utilitarianism”, which is built on Hume’s naturalism and empathy, Aristotelian virtue theory, and Kant’s idealism. According to Ellis, morality should aim for eudaimonia, an Aristotelian concept that combines a satisfying life with virtue and happiness by improving societies on a global scale.[82] Humanist Andrew Copson takes a consequentialist and utilitarian approach to morality. According to Copson, humanist ethical traits all aim at human welfare.[83] Philosopher Stephen Law emphasizes certain principles of humanist ethics; respect for personal moral autonomy, rejection of god-given moral commands, an aim for human well-being, and “emphasiz[ing] the role of reason in making moral judgements”.[84]

Humanism and 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.[85] While opposition to the various forms of theism might come from many philosophical or historical domains, the most convincing argument in terms of public opinion is naturalism. Historical arguments fail to convince the public because historical research is often open to interpretation.[86] For similar reasons, large parts of the population are unconvinced by arguments based on aesthetics (classical literature touches human souls more than holy scriptures) or ethics (religion’s history on slavery, gay rights, racism).[85] Driven by the successes of science and technology, naturalistic arguments gain prominence in public opinion.[87]

On the other hand, traditional arguments for the existence of God are falling short. The ontological argument (roughly, that God exists because we can think of him) lacks empirical evidence, and seemingly lacks understanding of reality. The cosmological argument (God as the necessary first cause) also doesn’t prove God’s existence since other causes, or prime movers (physical entities, mass, energy, or something else) might have been the cause of the universe. The teleological argument (or argument from design) has been eliminated by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. However, the failure of rational arguments to prove God’s existence does not prove God’s non-existence.[88] A more popular cause of religious belief is personal experience—which is also problematic, because personal experiences are vague and subject to interpretation, and wishful thinking might also lead the way to desired conclusions.[89]

While humanism was founded as antithetic to religious establishments, religious views are not totally incompatible with humanism. Many deists, for example (such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Voltaire, Thomas Paine), had views resonating with a humanistic approach to life—since (for deists) God does not interfere with our daily life or give commands, they can espouse a humanistic perspective.[90] Also, many humanists have an anthropological interest in religions—how they evolved, matured, affect morality, and other features of the human condition.[91]

Humanism and the meaning of life

In the 19th century, the problem of the meaning of life arose, along with the decline of religion and its accompanied teleology, puzzling both society and philosophers.[92] Unlike religions, humanism does not have a definite view on the meaning of life.[93] Humanists commonly say people create rather than discover discover meaning. While many philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche wrote on the meaning of life in a godless world, the work of Albert Camus has echoed and shaped humanism. In The Myth of Sisyphus, the absurd hero Sisyphus is destined to push a heavy rock up to a hill; the rock slips back and he must repeat the task.[94]

Personal humanist interpretations of the meaning of life vary from the pursuit of happiness without recklessness and excesses to participation in human history and connection with loved ones, living animals, and plants.[95] Some answers are not far from those of religious discourse if the appeal to divinity is overlooked.[96] Humanist professor Peter Derks identifies the features that contribute to the meaning of life; having a purpose in life that is morally worthy, positively evaluating oneself, having an understanding of one’s environment, being seen and understood by others, the ability to connect emotionally with others, and a desire to have a meaning in life.[97] 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 by African cultures, says seeking the never-reaching meaning of life contributes to well-being. Pinn argues rituals and ceremonies, which are times for reflection, provide an opportunity to assess the meaning of life, improving well-being.[98]

Well-being and the living of a good life have been at the center of humanist reflection. For humanists, well-being is intertwined with values that arise from the meaning of life that each human sets for him or herself.[99] Humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell described the good life as one “inspired by love, guided by knowledge”.[100] A.C. Grayling noted a good life “is the life that feels meaningful and fulfilling to the one living it”.[101] Despite the platitudes, humanism does not have a doctrine of good life nor offers any certainties; each person should decide for herself what constitutes a good life.[102] For humanists, it is vital the option for a meaningful and fulfilling life is open to all members of society.[103]

Humanism in politics

Practically, humanism advocates for democracy, and champions human rights and progressive policies.[104] Humanism emphasizes individual freedom, the open society, and secularism. For humanism, freedom of the individual is a priority and any restriction placed upon it due to communal living should be well justified; as a result, humanism leans towards liberalism. Humanists believe society should include everyone, independent of race, religion, and sexual orientation.[105] Humanism defends secularism, which they deem fairer in comparison with theocracy; they argue secularism prevents discrimination, protects the plurality of modern societies, and preserves personal autonomy.[106] Humanism is at odds with conservatism, which relies on long‐standing traditions, and tries to preserve Christian values: elements such as xenophobia, bigotry, and animal cruelty are sometimes also part of Christian values.[107] Humanism also opposes the irrationality of nationalism and totalitarianism, whether these be part of fascism or Marxist–Leninist communism.[108]

In political theory, contemporary humanism is sculptured by two main axons. The first is more individualistic, and the second inclines to collectivism. The trajectory of these two axons leads to libertarianism and socialism respectively, but a whole range of various combinations exist. Individualistic humanists, are often have a philosophical perspective of humanism, in the political arena are inclined to libertarianism and in ethics tend to follow a scientistic approach. Those who lean to collectivism, have a more applied view of humanism, they lean towards socialism and have a humanitarian approach in ethics.[109] The second group has some connections with the thought of young Marx, especially his anthropological views rejecting his political practices.[110] A factor that holds many humanists away from the libertarian view, is the consequences they feel it bears. Libertarianism is tied to neoliberalism and capitalistic society that is conceived to be inhumane. [111]

Historically, humanism has been a part of both major 20th-century ideological currents—liberalism and Marxism. Early 19th-century socialism was connected to humanism. After the prevalence of Marxism, a humanistic branch of interpretation focused on Marx’s early writings rather than his later “scientific communism”. In the US, liberalism is associated mostly with humanistic principles, which is distinct from the European use of the same word, which has economical connotations.[112] In the Post-War era, Jean-Paul Sartre and other French existentialists advocated for humanism, tying it to socialism while trying to stay neutral during the Cold War.[113]

Humanist psychology and counselling

Humanist counseling is the applied psychology inspired by humanism, which is one of the major currents of counseling. There are various approaches such as discussion and critical thinking, replying to existential anxiety, and focusing on social and political dimensions of problems.[114] Humanist counseling focuses on respecting the worldview of clients and placing it in the correct cultural context. The approach emphasizes an individual’s inherent drive towards self-actualization and creativity. It also recognizes the importance of moral questions about the way one should interact with people according to one’s worldview. This is examined using a process of dialogue.[115] Generally, humanist counseling aspires to help people to live a good, fulfilling, and meaningful life by continual interpretation and reflection.[116] Humanist counseling originated in the post-World War II Netherlands.[117]

Humanistic counseling, a different term from humanist counseling, 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 over-pessimistic view of psychoanalysis in the early 1960s. Other sources include the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology.[117]

Humanist organizations

Humanist organizations exist in several countries. Humanists International is a global organization.[118] Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association) and the American Humanist Association are two of the oldest humanist organizations.

London-based Humanists UK has around 28,000 members and a budget of over £1 million to cover operational costs. Its membership includes some high-profile people such as Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Salman Rushdie, Polly Toynbee, and Stephen Fry, who are mostly known for their participation in public debate, promoting reason, science and secularism, and objecting to state funding for faith-based events or institutes.[119] Humanists UK organizes and conducts non-religious[120] ceremonies for weddings, namings, coming of age, and funerals. According to Stephen Law, ceremonies and rituals exist in our culture because they help humans express emotions rather than having a magical effect on the participants.[121]

The American Humanist Association was formed in 1941 from previous humanist associations. Its journal The Humanist is the continuation of a previous publication The Humanist Bulletin.[51] In 1953, the AHA established the “Humanist of the Year” award to honor individuals who promote science.[122] A few decades later, it became a well-recognized organization, initiating progressive campaigns for abortion rights and opposing discriminatory policies, resulted in it becoming a target of the religious right by the 1980s.[123] High-profile members of academia and public figures have published work in The Humanist, and joined and lead the AHA.


Criticism of humanism focuses on its adherence to human rights, which some critics have further claimed are “Western”. Critics claim humanist values are becoming a tool of Western moral dominance, which is a form of neo-colonialism leading to oppression and a lack of ethical diversity.[124] Other critics argue humanism is an oppressive philosophy because it is not free from the biases of the white, heterosexual males who shaped it.[125]

Anthropology professor Talal Asad sees humanism as a project of modernity and a secularized continuation of Western Christian theology. In Asad’s view, just as the Catholic Church passed the Christian doctrine of love to Africa and Asia while assisting in the enslavement of large parts of their population, humanist values have at times been a pretext for Western countries to expand their influence to other parts of the world to humanize “barbarians”.[126] Asad has also argued humanism is not a purely secular phenomenon but takes from Christianity the idea of the essence of humanity.[127] Asad is not optimistic Western humanisms can incorporate other humanistic traditions such as those from India and China without subsuming and ultimately eliminating them.[128]

Sociology professor Didier Fassin sees humanism’s focus on empathy and compassion rather than goodness and justice as a problem. According to Fassin, humanism originated in the Christian tradition, particularly the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which empathy is universalized. Fassin also claims humanism’s central essence, the sanctity of human life, is a religious victory hidden in a secular wrapper.[129]

History professor Samuel Moyn attacks humanism for its advocacy of human rights. According to Moyn, in the 1960s, human rights were a declaration of anti-colonial struggle but during the 1970s, they were transformed into a utopian vision, replacing the failing utopias of the 20th century. The humanist underpinning of human rights transforms them into a moral tool that is impractical and ultimately non-political. He also finds a commonality between humanism and the Catholic discourse on human dignity.[130]


Antihumanism is the rejection of humanism on the ground it is a pre-scientific ideology.[131] This argument developed during the 19th and 20th centuries in parallel with the advancement of humanism. Prominent thinkers questioned the metaphysics of humanism and the human nature of its concept of freedom.[125] Nietzsche, while departing from a humanistic, pro-Enlightenment viewpoint, criticized humanism for illusions on a number of topics, especially the nature of truth. For him, objective truth is an anthropomorphic illusion and humanism is meaningless.[132] Nietzsche also argued replacing theism with reason, science, and truth is nothing but replacing one religion with another.[133]

According to Karl Marx, humanism is a bourgeois project that attempts to present itself as radical but is not.[134] After the atrocities of World War II, questions about human nature and the concept of humanity were renewed.[135] During the Cold War, influential Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser introduced the term “theoretical antihumanism” to attack both humanism and socialist currents that leaned towards humanism, eschewing more structural and formal interpretations of Marx. According to Althusser, Marx’s early writings resonate with the humanistic idealism of Hegel, Kant, and Feuerbach but in 1845, Marx took a radical turn towards scientific socialism, rejecting concepts such as the essence of man.[136] Other antihumanists such as Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault attacked the notion of humanity using psychoanalysis, Marxism, and linguistic theory.[137]

One thought on “Humanism

  1. Carlos Verucchi says:

    This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post. Also, I have shared your site in my social networks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *