AskDefine | Define humanists

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  1. Plural of humanist

Extensive Definition

Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities — particularly rationality. It is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems and is incorporated into several religious schools of thought. Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through human means in support of human interests. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects the validity of transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.



Humanism clearly rejects deference to supernatural beliefs in resolving human affairs but not necessarily the beliefs themselves; indeed some strains of Humanism are compatible with some religions. It is generally compatible with atheism and agnosticism but doesn't require either of these. The word "ignostic" (American) or "indifferentist" (British, including OED) are sometimes applied to Humanism, on the grounds that Humanism is an ethical process, not a dogma about the existence or otherwise of gods; Humanists simply have no need to be concerned with such questions. Agnosticism or atheism on their own do not necessarily entail Humanism; many different and sometimes incompatible philosophies happen to be atheistic in nature. There is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere, and not all are humanistic. As Humanism encompasses intellectual currents running through a wide variety of philosophical and religious thought, several strains of Humanism allow it to fulfill, supplement or supplant the role of religions, and in particular, to be embraced as a complete life stance. For more on this, see Humanism (life stance). In a number of countries, for the purpose of laws that give rights to "religions", the secular life stance has become legally recognized as equivalent to a "religion" for this purpose. In the United States, the Supreme Court recognized that Humanism is equivalent to a religion in the limited sense of authorizing Humanists to conduct ceremonies commonly carried out by officers of religious bodies. The relevant passage is in a footnote to Torcaso v. Watkins (1961). It is often alleged by fundamentalist critics of Humanism that the Supreme Court "declared Humanism to be a religion," however the Court's statement, a mere footnote at most, clearly does not in fact do so; it simply asserts an equivalency of Humanists' right to act in ways usual to a religion, such as ceremonial recognition of life's landmarks. Renaissance humanism, and its emphasis on returning to the sources, contributed to the Protestant reformation by helping to gain what Protestants believe was a more accurate translation of Biblical texts.


According to Humanism, it is up to humans to find the truth, as opposed to seeking it through revelation, mysticism, tradition, or anything else that is incompatible with the application of logic to the observable evidence. In demanding that humans avoid blindly accepting unsupported beliefs, it supports scientific skepticism and the scientific method, rejecting authoritarianism and extreme skepticism, and rendering faith an unacceptable basis for action. Likewise, Humanism asserts that knowledge of right and wrong is based on the best understanding of one's individual and joint interests, rather than stemming from a transcendental truth or an arbitrarily local source.


Some have interpreted Humanism to be a form of speciesism, regarding humans as being more important than other species. The philosopher Peter Singer, himself a Humanist, stated that "despite many individual exceptions, Humanists have, on the whole, been unable to free themselves from one of the most central... Christian dogmas: the prejudice of speciesism". He called on Humanists to "take a stand against... ruthless exploitation of other sentient beings", and took issue with statements in the Humanist Manifesto II, which he felt gave "precedence to the interests of members of our own species."

Greek humanism

Sixth century BCE pantheists Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes of Colophon prepared the way for later Greek humanist thought. Thales is credited with creating the maxim "Know thyself", and Xenophanes refused to recognize the gods of his time and reserved the divine for the principle of unity in the universe. Later Anaxagoras, often described as the "first freethinker", contributed to the development of science as a method of understanding the universe. These Ionian Greeks were the first thinkers to recognize that nature is available to be studied separately from any alleged supernatural realm. Pericles, a pupil of Anaxagoras, influenced the development of democracy, freedom of thought, and the exposure of superstitions. Although little of their work survives, Protagoras and Democritus both espoused agnosticism and a spiritual morality not based on the supernatural. The historian Thucydides is noted for his scientific and rational approach to history.

Islamic humanism

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. Certain aspects of Renaissance humanism has its roots in the medieval Islamic world, including the "art of dictation, called in Latin, ars dictaminis," and "the humanist attitude toward classical language."

Renaissance humanism

Renaissance humanism was a movement that affected the cultural, political, social, and literary landscape of Europe. Beginning in Florence in the last decades of the 14th century, Renaissance humanism revived the study of Latin and Greek, with the resultant revival of the study of science, philosophy, art and poetry of classical antiquity.(see Burckhard The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy) The revival was based on interpretations of Roman and Greek texts, whose emphasis upon art and the senses marked a great change from the contemplation on the Biblical values of humility, introspection, and meekness. Beauty was held to represent a deep inner virtue and value, and an essential element in the path towards God.
Humanism's divergence from orthodox Christianity can be identified with the condemnation of Pelagianism by Jerome and Augustine. Like the Humanists, Pelagius perceived humans as possessing inherent capacity for developing the qualities that the church perceived as necessitating the gift of grace from God. Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin. The Humanists likewise recognize humans as born not with a burden of inherited sin due to their ancestry but with potential for both good and evil which will develop in this life as their characters are formed. The Humanists therefore reject Calvinistic predestination, and understandably therefore arouse the hostility of Protestant fundamentalists.
Renaissance humanists believed that the liberal arts (music, art, grammar, rhetoric, oratory, history, poetry, using classical texts, and the studies of all of the above) should be practiced by all levels of wealth. They also approved of self, human worth and individual dignity.
Noteworthy humanist scholars from this period include the Dutch theologian Erasmus, the English author (and Roman Catholic saint) Thomas More, the French writer Francois Rabelais, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch and the Italian scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Modern era

One of the earliest forerunners of contemporary chartered humanist organizations was the Humanistic Religious Association formed in 1853 in London. This early group was democratically organized, with male and female members participating in the election of the leadership and promoted knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.
In February 1877, the word "Humanism" was publicly used, apparently for the first time in America, to apply to Felix Adler, pejoratively. Adler, however, did not embrace the term, and instead coined the name "Ethical Culture" for his new movement — a movement which still exists in the now Humanist-affiliated New York Society for Ethical Culture.
Active in the early 1920s, F.C.S. Schiller considered his work to be tied to the Humanist movement. Schiller himself was influenced by the pragmatism of William James. In 1929 Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York whose advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Potter was a minister from the Unitarian tradition and in 1930 he and his wife, Clara Cook Potter, published Humanism: A New Religion. Throughout the 1930s Potter was a well-known advocate of women’s rights, access to birth control, "civil divorce laws", and an end to capital punishment.
Raymond B. Bragg, the associate editor of The New Humanist, sought to consolidate the input of L. M. Birkhead, Charles Francis Potter, and several members of the Western Unitarian Conference. Bragg asked Roy Wood Sellars to draft a document based on this information which resulted in the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. The Manifesto and Potter's book became the cornerstones of modern humanism. Both of these sources envision humanism as a religion.
In 1941 the American Humanist Association was organized. Noted members of The AHA included Isaac Asimov, who was the president before his death, and writer Kurt Vonnegut, who followed as honorary president until his death in 2007. Robert Buckman was the head of the association in Canada, and is now an honorary president.

Modern humanist philosophies

There are many people who consider themselves humanists, and much variety in the exact type of humanism to which they subscribe. There is some disagreement over terminology and definitions, with some people using narrower or broader interpretations. Not all people who call themselves humanists hold beliefs that are genuinely humanistic, and not all people who do hold humanistic beliefs apply the label of humanism to themselves.
All of this aside, Humanism can be divided into secular and religious types, although some Humanists, including the International Humanist and Ethical Union, reject the addition of any adjective at all to "Humanist," and instead intended the word to have universal application. Some have argued against the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s attempts to define Humanism and its various types.

Secular humanism

Secular humanism is the branch of humanism that rejects theistic religious belief and adherence to belief in the existence of a supernatural world. It is often associated with scientists and academics, though it is not limited to these groups. Secular humanists generally believe that following humanist principles leads to secularism, on the basis that supernatural beliefs cannot be supported using rational arguments and therefore the supernatural aspects of religiously associated activity should be rejected.
When people speak of Humanism in general, they are sometimes referring to secular humanism as a default meaning. Some secular humanists take this even further by denying that less anti-religious humanists qualify as genuine humanists. Others feel that the ethical side of humanism transcends the issue of religion, because being a good person is more important than rejecting supernatural beliefs. The Humanist Manifestos, which represent consensus statements of Humanists, present Humanism as an ethical process and a religion through which we can move above and beyond both the divisive particulars of older religious stances and the negation of these.
Some secular humanists prefer the term Humanist (capital H, and no adjective), as unanimously endorsed by General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union following universal endorsement of the Amsterdam Declaration 2002.
The secular humanist movement, by that name, hardly existed prior to 1980. In 1979, Paul Kurtz lost his position as editor of The Humanist. Departing the American Humanist Association, he then launched his own publication, Free Inquiry, and founded the Council for Secular Humanism independently of the American Humanist Association yet pursuing essentially similar goals.

Religious humanism

Religious humanism is the branch of humanism that considers itself religious (based on a functional definition of religion), or embraces some form of theism, deism, or supernaturalism, without necessarily being allied with organized religion, frequently associated with artists, liberal Christians, and scholars in the liberal arts. It holds appeal for a number of Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, Anglicans and Lutherans. Subscribers to a religion who do not hold supernatural assertions as a necessary source for their moral values may be religious humanists. The central position of human beings in humanist philosophy goes with a humane morality; the latter alone does not constitute Humanism. A humanitarian who derives morality from religious grounds does not make a religious Humanist.
A number of religious humanists feel that secular humanism is too coldly logical and rejects the full emotional experience that makes humans human. From this comes the notion that secular humanism is inadequate in meeting the human need for a socially fulfilling philosophy of life. Disagreements over things of this nature have resulted in friction between secular and religious humanists, despite their commonalities.
Religious Humanism was studied and developed by the late Rev. Paul Beattie during his tenure as editor of Religious Humanism, a periodical which became Unitarian rather than Humanist after his death and continues as such today.
A Jewish form of religious Humanism was developed by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism, now a worldwide movement with 40,000 adherents.

Other forms of humanism

Humanism is also sometimes used to describe "humanities" scholars, (particularly scholars of the Greco-Roman classics). As mentioned above, it is sometimes used to mean humanitarianism. There is also a school of humanistic psychology, and an educational method.

Educational humanism

Humanism, as a current in education, began to dominate school systems in the 17th century. It held that the studies that develop human intellect are those that make humans "most truly human". The practical basis for this was faculty psychology, or the belief in distinct intellectual faculties, such as the analytical, the mathematical, the linguistic, etc. Strengthening one faculty was believed to benefit other faculties as well (transfer of training). A key player in the late 19th-century educational humanism was U.S. Commissioner of Education W.T. Harris, whose "Five Windows of the Soul" (mathematics, geography, history, grammar, and literature/art) were believed especially appropriate for "development of the faculties". Educational humanists believe that "the best studies, for the best kids" are "the best studies" for all kids. While humanism as an educational current was largely discredited by the innovations of the early 20th century, it still holds out, in some elite preparatory schools and some high school disciplines (especially, in literature).

Manifestos and statements setting out Humanist viewpoints

Forms of humanism

See the humanism philosophy box at top on the right.




External links

Manifestos and statements setting out humanist viewpoints

Web articles

humanists in Tosk Albanian: Humanismus
humanists in Arabic: إنسانية
humanists in Aragonese: Umanismo
humanists in Bengali: মানবতাবাদ
humanists in Bulgarian: Хуманизъм
humanists in Catalan: Humanisme
humanists in Czech: Humanismus
humanists in Welsh: Dyneiddiaeth
humanists in Danish: Humanisme
humanists in German: Humanismus
humanists in Estonian: Humanism
humanists in Spanish: Humanismo
humanists in Esperanto: Humanismo
humanists in Basque: Pentsamendu humanista
humanists in Persian: اومانیسم
humanists in French: Humanisme
humanists in Friulian: Umanisim
humanists in Galician: Humanismo
humanists in Indonesian: Humanisme
humanists in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Humanismo
humanists in Italian: Umanesimo
humanists in Hebrew: הומניזם
humanists in Javanese: Humanisme
humanists in Latin: Humanismus
humanists in Latvian: Humānisms
humanists in Lithuanian: Humanizmas
humanists in Hungarian: Humanizmus
humanists in Macedonian: Хуманизам
humanists in Dutch: Humanisme
humanists in Japanese: ヒューマニズム
humanists in Norwegian: Humanisme
humanists in Occitan (post 1500): Umanisme
humanists in Uzbek: Gumanizm
humanists in Polish: Humanizm
humanists in Portuguese: Humanismo
humanists in Romanian: Umanism
humanists in Russian: Гуманизм
humanists in Scots: Humanism
humanists in Albanian: Humanizmi
humanists in Simple English: Humanism
humanists in Slovak: Humanizmus (ľudomilnosť)
humanists in Slovenian: Humanizem
humanists in Serbian: Хуманизам
humanists in Finnish: Humanismi
humanists in Swedish: Humanism
humanists in Thai: ลัทธิมนุษยนิยม
humanists in Vietnamese: Chủ nghĩa nhân đạo
humanists in Turkish: Hümanizm
humanists in Ukrainian: Гуманізм
humanists in Chinese: 人文主义
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