Happy20HumanistWhat is Humanism?


What is Humanism?

Humanism is a philosophy based on human values, human knowledge of the natural universe, and human endeavor. It is based on the belief that we are responsible for our own destiny. Humanists reject any notion of the supernatural, and therefore reject the idea that our lives are presided over by any supernatural force or “god”, and that our ethics and standards of behavior are “handed down” to us by “divine authority”.

The rejection of the supernatural also forces us to question the idea that our existence serves some predetermined “purpose”. It is the view of Humanists that we create our own purpose and that we must use our intelligence, our knowledge, and our compassion to build good lives for ourselves and for future generations.


Humanist history

Humanistic ideas of worldly concern for humanity may be traced back to ancient China, India and Greece. After the Dark Ages the motto of ‘think for yourself’ was revived in Europe by the Enlightenment movement and the rise of science.

Modern Humanism is a non-religious world-view which was formulated by secular, progressive groups in a number of countries during the twentieth century. The worldwide Humanist movement coalesced in reaction to the horrors of the Second World War, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was founded in Amsterdam in 1952. In Australia, Humanism grew out of the free-thought movement of the early 1900s, when the terms ‘freethinker’, ‘secularist’ and ‘rationalist’ were common. The Humanist Society of Victoria was founded in 1961. Since then its members have been actively involved in promoting a Humanist way of life and have contributed to local movements of feminism and homosexual and abortion law reform.

Secular Humanist values and beliefs

Humanists of today identify with a distinctive belief system, specifically known as modern Humanism. This system is identified by certain essential features. These are:

  1. Humanism is naturalistic

Humanism views the universe, including all life, as having a natural, evolutionary origin. This view excludes acceptance of any supernatural act of creation by any kind of spirit creator. Humanists take a sceptical scientific approach to ideas about spirits, souls or other transcendent beings, forces, or supernatural processes, including life after death.

  1. Humanism is ethical

The ethics of Humanism are based on quality of life considerations relating to the maximisation of well-being and the reduction of suffering. Humanist values are also reflected in a deep concern for equity, fairness and social justice. Humanists recognise that a person only becomes fully human in a community that respects each person’s autonomy and liberty whilst fostering a culture of mutual care and cooperation. As they mature, individuals learn to take responsibility for their choices and actions, a development which is particularly important when these affect the lives of others.

  1. Humanism is rational

Humanists consider that knowledge is gained through experience, critical investigation, the formulation of theories, and the careful evaluation of evidence. Humanists adopt a sceptical, scientific approach to unsupported claims of special knowledge, power or authority (e.g. miracles, psychic surgery, channelling spirit messages, divine revelations, etc.).

  1. Humanism is universalist

Humanism is a philosophical life stance that upholds the principles of freedom of, and freedom from, religion. Humanists strive to establish a secular, civil society that respects the individual’s right to freedom of conscience and belief. They envisage a democratic State that operates without the official use of religious symbols or practices. Such a State legislates and operates in a non-discriminatory way towards its citizens without regard to their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or systems of belief. The Humanist project is to build a global community living in harmony with nature under a fair and just secular system of law, and a social organisation which protects human rights and satisfies the basic needs of all.

  1. Humanism is holistic

Humanism recognises the many and varied traits, capacities and abilities of the ‘whole’ person. Humanists acknowledge that each individual has many facets to his or her personality including those in the areas of intellectual, emotional, physical, creative, critical, aesthetic, social, cultural and ethical development. Humanists also acknowledge the place of the human species in the global environment as being both part of nature and totally dependent on it.

[This statement of Humanist values and beliefs was endorsed at the 2002 CAHS Convention on the Gold Coast.]

On the world stage, the fundamentals of modern Humanism have been set out by IHEU, in the Amsterdam Declaration of 2002.

What else do Humanists believe?

Humanists have taken a stand on a wide range of social and ethical issues. Briefly Humanists strongly support the following:

  • A sound education for all children, with emphasis on critical thinking and scientific literacy.
  • Enlightened democracy, dedicated to the common good.
  • Freedom of speech.
  • Equality. Humanism opposes discrimination against any person on the basis of sex, religious belief or sexual orientation.


What about Ethics?

Ethics has no necessary connection with religion. The ethics of Humanism is grounded on human values and rational thought to construct how to live an ethical life in practical ways. Humanists aim to channel desires in ways that facilitate both individual and group survival and well-being. Humanists value human rights and environmental protection as set out in the declarations of the United Nations.

Humanists stand for the following ethical values:

  • having respect for the dignity of every person;
  • being decent and thoughtful towards all people and other life forms;
  • disputes being settled by discussion, negotiation and treaty, rather than by violence;
  • individual freedoms being balanced by social responsibilities, and
  • children being raised to be honest, fair and kind in their dealings with others.


What about Politics?

Humanists favor a liberal democracy that has secular government and constitutional separation of religion and state. By promoting fairness and emphasizing our shared humanity, such societies allow individuals to approach their full potential, while helping to reduce sectarian enmities and exploitation.

What about Things Spiritual?

Through the mind, human imagination can conceive highly original ideas and arouse uplifting emotions. These are the essence of the human spirit. Such thoughts and feelings can be inspired by outstanding human achievements. They are valued as ‘spiritual’ by Humanists, without reference to anything supernatural.

General attributes of Humanists

In general, Humanists

  • agree on the principles stated above, often arguing vigorously over the details;
  • are generally optimistic and idealistic;
  • work for a peaceful and more equitable world;
  • are involved in various community groups;
  • support reconciliation between Australia’s first peoples and those who arrived more recently;
  • welcome the cultural and ethnic diversity of modern Australia.


The challenge of modern Humanism

Human beings must accept responsibility for themselves, for each other and for other life forms on our planet. As there is no evidence of any supernatural power to help, reward or punish us, every effort must be made to gain greater understanding of ourselves, each other, and other life forms. Our resources are

  • human experience,
  • human knowledge,
  • our capacities for reason, curiosity, co-operation and compassion.


The Humanist symbol

The Happy Human (originally the Happy Man) is a secular icon and the official symbol of IHEU, the world body for Humanism, and has been adopted by many Humanist organisations and individuals worldwide. Its origin was a competition organised in 1965 by the British Humanist Association to find a symbol for itself. The winning design was created by Denis Barrington.

External resources

There is an excellent introduction to Humanism, written in 1989, called

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