The philosophy or life stance of secular humanism (alternatively known by some adherents as Humanism, specifically with a capital H to distinguish it from other forms of humanism) embraces human reason, ethics, social justice and philosophical naturalism, while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.
It posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a god. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently evil or innately good, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature. Rather, the humanist life stance emphasizes the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical consequences of human decisions. Fundamental to the concept of secular humanism is the strongly held viewpoint that ideology—be it religious or political—must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith. Along with this, an essential part of secular humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy. Many Humanists derive their moral codes from a philosophy of utilitarianism, ethical naturalism or evolutionary ethics, and some, such as Sam Harris advocate a science of morality.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world union of more than one hundred Humanist, rationalist, irreligious, atheistic, Bright, secular, Ethical Culture, and freethought organizations in more than 40 countries. The “Happy Human” is the official symbol of the IHEU as well as being regarded as a universally recognised symbol for those who call themselves Humanists. Secular humanist organizations are found in all parts of the world. Those who call themselves humanists are estimated to number between four and five million people worldwide.
The meaning of the phrase secular humanism has evolved over time. The phrase has been used since at least the 1930s, and in 1943, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was reported as warning that the “Christian tradition… was in danger of being undermined by a ‘Secular Humanism’ which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith.” During the 1960s and 1970s the term was embraced by some humanists who considered themselves anti-religious, as well as those who, although not critical of religion in its various guises, preferred a non-religious approach. The release in 1980 of A Secular Humanist Declarationby the newly formed Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH, now the Council for Secular Humanism) gave secular humanism an organisational identity within the United States.
However, many adherents of the approach reject the use of the word secular as obfuscating and confusing, and consider that the term secular humanism has been “demonized by the religious right… All too often secular humanism is reduced to a sterile outlook consisting of little more than secularism slightly broadened by academic ethics. This kind of ‘hyphenated humanism’ easily becomes more about the adjective than its referent.” Adherents of this view, including the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the American Humanist Association, consider that the unmodified but capitalised word Humanism should be used. The endorsement by the IHEU of the capitalization of the word Humanism, and the dropping of any adjective such as secular, is quite recent. The American Humanist Association began to adopt this view in 1973, and the IHEU formally endorsed the position in 1989. In 2002 the IHEU General Assembly unanimously adopted the Amsterdam Declaration, which represents the official defining statement of World Humanism for Humanists. This declaration makes exclusive use of capitalized Humanist and Humanism, which is consistent with IHEU’s general practice and recommendations for promoting a unified Humanist identity. To further promote Humanist identity, these words are also free of any adjectives, as recommended by prominent members of IHEU. Such usage is not universal among IHEU member organizations, though most of them do observe these conventions.
The term secularism was coined in 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake to describe “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.” Once a staunch Owenite, Holyoake was strongly influenced by Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and of modern sociology. Comte believed human history would progress in a “law of three stages” from a theological phase, to the “metaphysical,” toward a fully rational “positivist” society. In later life, Comte had attempted to introduce a “religion of humanity” in light of growing anti-religious sentiment and social malaise in revolutionary France. This religion would necessarily fulfil the functional, cohesive role that supernatural religion once served. While Comte’s religious movement was unsuccessful, the positivist philosophy of science itself played a major role in the proliferation of secular organizations in the 19th century.
Historical use of the term humanism (reflected in some current academic usage), is related to the writings of pre-Socratic philosophers. These writings were lost to European societies until Renaissance scholars rediscovered them through Muslim sources and translated them from Arabic into European languages. Thus the term humanist can mean a humanities scholar, as well as refer to The Enlightenment/ Renaissance intellectuals, and those who have agreement with the pre-Socratics, as distinct from secular humanists. In the 1930s, “humanism” was generally used in a religious sense by the Ethical movement in the United States, and not much favoured among the non-religious in Britain. Yet “it was from the Ethical movement that the non-religious philosophical sense ofHumanism gradually emerged in Britain, and it was from the convergence of the Ethical and Rationalist movements that this sense ofHumanism eventually prevailed throughout the Freethought movement.”
As an organized movement, Humanism itself is quite recent – born at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, and made public in 1933 with the publication of the first Humanist Manifesto. The American Humanist Association was incorporated as an Illinois non-profit organization in 1943. The International Humanist and Ethical Union was founded in 1952, when a gathering of world Humanists met under the leadership of Sir Julian Huxley. The British Humanist Association took that name in 1967, but had developed from the Union of Ethical Societies which had been founded by Stanton Coit in 1896.
Manifestos and Declarations
Humanists have put together various Humanist Manifestos, in attempts to unify the Humanist identity.
The original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, declared themselves to be religious humanists. Because, in their view, traditional religions were failing to meet the needs of their day, the signers of 1933 declared it a necessity to establish a religion that was a dynamic force to meet the needs of the day. However, this “religion” did not profess a belief in any god. Since then two additional Manifestos were written to replace the first. In the Preface of Humanist Manifesto II, in 1973, the authors Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson assert that faith and knowledge are required for a hopeful vision for the future. Manifesto II references a section on Religion and states traditional religion renders a disservice to humanity. Manifesto II recognizes the following groups to be part of their naturalistic philosophy: “scientific,” “ethical,” “democratic,” “religious,” and “Marxist” humanism.