Nathan B. Weller

What is Humanism? A Comprehensive Guide

If you're a fan of science, liberal arts, democracy, and human rights you may also like humanism.

Humanism may be one of the most influential and widely embraced philosophies in the world today. However, that does not mean it’s well known or understood. If asked, “What is humanism?” most folks probably wouldn’t know what to say. Which is understandable. It’s hard to define and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. I, for example, was raised as a conservative evangelical. I grew up thinking humanism was synonymous with hedonism and human worship, and as such, that it was an arrogant (even evil) worldview.

Imagine my surprise when, as an adult, I learned the real history and meaning of humanism. That it’s a philosophy, tradition, and way of life that champions democracy and individual freedom, promotes the use of reason and science, recognizes the dignity of every human being, and prescribes compassion and understanding when engaging with the world.


Today I am proud to call myself a humanist. I’ve even become a humanist celebrant in an effort to serve my local community in a way that’s consistent with my values. This philosophical and cultural tradition has become important to me and I’d like to help raise awareness of its actual meaning and history, its influence on culture today, and the social movement attached to it.

I’ve organized my thoughts into a short blog post series titled An Introduction to Humanism. This is the first post, I hope you enjoy it!

Defining Humanism

Humanism is notoriously difficult to define. This is largely because it’s not a fixed belief system that relies on unchanging orthodoxy. By design it adapts with culture, human needs, and human experience. Taking new information into account as science and the humanities discover and interpret it.

The best way to gain an understanding of humanism is to learn its history, underlying principles, and the people who have identified as humanists or embodied its ideals throughout time. That said, its still useful to have clear definitions for things.

Many of today’s most prominent humanist organizations have done their best to provide their own “minimal statement of humanism.” I’ve curated some of them below. You’ll notice none of them are the same, but they’re all similar. This will begin to help you recognize the “flavor” of humanism when you encounter it. I’ve also included the Humanist Manifesto III by the American Humanist Association.


Minimal Statements of Humanism

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.

American Humanist Association

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.

Humanists International

The humanistic view of life is based on reason and experience, critical thinking, humanistic and ethical values. Roughly speaking, humanism can be said to be based on three cornerstones: Confidence in science and human experience. The belief that man has a potential for freedom and must take responsibility for his own life. The belief that people together can develop the ability for ethical reflection and moral action.

Norwegian Humanist Association

Humanists are people who trust sceince and rational inquiry to help explain the universe around us, and who do not resort to supernatural explainations. Humanism is a belief system which puts human happiness and flourishing at its heart, and promotes cooperation towards a shared common goal.

Humanists of Scotland

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making. Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called humanism.

Humanists UK

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life based on a profound respect for human dignity and the conviction that human beings are ultimately accountable to themselves and to society for their actions. It is a secular worldview that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical and meaningful lives.

Humanist Canada

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.


American Humanist Association

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.


Humanists International

The humanistic view of life is based on reason and experience, critical thinking, humanistic and ethical values. Roughly speaking, humanism can be said to be based on three cornerstones: Confidence in science and human experience. The belief that man has a potential for freedom and must take responsibility for his own life. The belief that people together can develop the ability for ethical reflection and moral action.


Norwegian Humanist Association

The Humanist Manifesto III

“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.


Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.”

-Humanist Manifesto is a trademark of the American Humanist Association
© 2003 American Humanist Association


What Humanism is Not

There are a lot of misconceptions about humanism. Many are a result of conflating humanism with another philosophy or worldview. I’ve tried to cover the most common ones below.


Nihilism and humanism represent contrasting philosophical outlooks on life and existence. Nihilism posits that life lacks inherent meaning, purpose, or objective value. It rejects the existence of any ultimate truths or moral absolutes, often leading to a sense of existential despair and the belief that life is ultimately futile. In contrast, humanism embraces the belief in the inherent worth and potential of human beings. It promotes the idea that individuals can find meaning and fulfillment through their relationships, experiences, and contributions to society.


Hedonism places emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the ultimate goals in life. It prioritizes immediate gratification and personal desires above other considerations. In contrast, humanism emphasizes reason, ethics, and the pursuit of knowledge and personal growth as pathways to fulfillment. While hedonism seeks pleasure as the primary aim, humanism would emphasize the importance of personal well-being alongside the well-being of others and the planet.


Relativism is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that truth, morality, and knowledge are not absolute or universal but rather dependent on individual or cultural perspectives. It acknowledges the diversity and subjectivity of human experiences and emphasizes the importance of tolerance, open-mindedness, and understanding of different viewpoints. Many humanists are likely relativists too, at least insofar as they do not hold to absolute morality and seek to understand others’ perspectives and culture. However, an important aim of humanism is to establish a broad consensus around basic human values, ethics, and truth (like international human rights) and to enforce them.



Scientism asserts the superiority of science over all other forms of human knowledge or understanding. It promotes the idea that only scientific claims are meaningful, dismissing other domains like philosophy, religion, or the arts as less valid or less accurate ways of understanding the world. Humanism, while recognizing the importance of science in the acquisition of knowledge, actively balances the findings of science with the humanities. Humanists use the information science discovers to inform their philosophy, art, and other mediums of human experience–not to replace them.


It’s hard to imagine two ideas more at odds with each other than totalitarianism and humanism. Totalitarianism is a political system where the state holds total authority over society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life. Humanism, on the other hand, places an immense value on personal freedom, free speech, democracy, and other ideas that are consistently surpressed by totalitarian regimes.


Utopianism is the belief that we are capable of creating a perfect society. This society would possess a perfect balance between individual liberty and collective responsibility. Its social, political, and legal systems would be so harmonious, just, and effective that all of its citizens would be satisfied and content. The height of most humanistic dreams of progress stop well short of perfection, seeing as we’re still talking about a society comprised of imperfect people. But the humanist perspective is one of optimism that sees great potential in human beings to improve themselves and society, even if perfection is out of reach.


Utilitarianism is a philosophical perspective that suggests the most ethical decision in any situation is the one that results in the maximum happiness and minimal suffering of the greatest number of people. Humanism tends to take a more nuanced approach. Humanism recognizes the value of the utilitarian perspective when making moral or ethical decisions, but also recognizes that life and human beings are incredibly complex. There’s not always a clear-cut answer to ethical questions and sometimes its impossible to determine what will benefit the largest number of people or if they would consent to a well-reasoned ethical decision made on their behalf.


Human Worship

Humanism and human worship may sound like they refer to the same thing but they represent two starkly different perspectives. Human worship, whether in reference to specific people, groups, or humanity in general, elevates humans to the status of divinity. It may even refer to a practice of worship that requires or encourages subservience towards specific individuals or groups. In contrast, humanism is concerned with humans as humans and does not consider anyone divine or worthy religious worship. It values equality and acknowledges the limitations of being human in addition to its great potential.


Speciesism refers to discrimination based on species membership, such as the exploitation of animals or the environment, due to a sense of human superiority. While humanism places great value on human life and wellbeing, it also recognizes that we are not separate from nature but a part of it. As such, we are not inherently better than any other life on our planet. But being human, we care deeply about our own lives and the existence of our species. Which is also natural. What exaclty that means in terms of our responsibility towards the rest of life on Earth is a hotly debated topic in modern ethics. With perspectives ranging from “none at all, except as it pertains to our survival” to “we should extend human rights to all life.”

Humanism: Past and Present

In learning the history of humanism we’re able to gain new perspective on the present as well as connect to a rich cultural tradition spanning thousands of years. We learn to recognize the impact of humanism in the world around us and perhaps even become inspired to participate in it.

The Ancient Roots of Humanism

The branch of humanism that eventually formed the foundation of western culture has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome. Philsophers such as Socratese, Plato, and Aristotle (among many others) all emphasized the importance of reason, logic, and the pursuit of knowledge. As a direct result of their contribution to western culture and society we have developed the art and craft of rational inquiry and critical thinking, secular ethics and moral philosophy, political theory and governance (including democracy), the idea of the individual, and so much more.


Humanism: the Western Tradition

It’s important to recognize that western culture does not have a monopoly on the ideals of humanism or the only historical tradition of people, communities, and institutions using those ideals to positively impact their society. However, as someone who was born and raised in the United States writing for a western audience, that’s the tradition I’m exploring in this guide. Starting with what happened in Europe hundreds of years after the fall of the western Roman Empire.

Humanism in Medieval Europe

Humanism in Medieval Europe had a tenuous existence. It was a flickering candle in danger of going out. A candle lit by an ancient flame; the rediscovery of Greek and Roman texts, thought lost forever after the fall of Rome. The works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero became particularly influential among a small minority of monks, priests, scribes, and intellectuals.

This small community, often in and out of favor with both the secular and spiritual powers of their day, nevertheless preserved and built upon the tradition passed down to them. They began a revival in classical learning, liberal arts, and individualism that would prepare the way for the next (much bigger) cultural revolution.

Renaissance Humanism

The Renaissance, spanning from the 14th to the 17th century, was a period of remarkable cultural, intellectual, and scientific achievements. It saw a much broader resurgence of interest in the arts, literature, and philosophy than the Middle Ages enjoyed.

Humanist thinkers like Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Pico della Mirandola sought to reconcile Christian values with classical ideals, leading to new forms of intellectual and artistic expression. They believed that literature and the arts could inspire individuals to lead lives of virtue and civic responsibility. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo created masterpieces that showcased high levels of technical skill and a newfound appreciation for human anatomy. Scientists like Copernicus took things even further, challenging the time’s basic understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it.


Enlightenment Humanism

Enlightenment humanism of the 18th century was yet another cultural revolution that further emphasized reason, individualism, and the belief in human capability. It challenged traditional authorities by advocating for freedom of thought and expression, as well as individual rights. Enlightenment thinkers–such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, Diderot, Kant, and others–sought to apply reason to all aspects of life, leading to advancements in philosophy, politics, and science.

Their ideas laid the foundation for concepts such as modern democracy, constitutionalism, and the protection of individual liberties, leaving a lasting impact on modern society. Especially the American and French Revolutions.

This period represented a turning point in history, heralding the transition from traditional, faith-based societies to modern, rational ones. It also established the basis for contemporary western philosophy and political thought.

Western Cultural Humanism

The impact of humanism runs so deeply throughout western culture today that it can be hard to recognize it for what it is. When we benefit from a free and open society, literature and the arts, democratic government, individual and human rights, and scientific progress we’re reaping the rewards of humanistic endeavors undertaken in the past.

Humanism Today

Since humanism saturates our culture, most people who might otherwise identify as humanists, don’t really think about it. The cultural norms and values of humanism have influenced our society to such a degree, we only notice it when those norms are violated. Such as the decline of education, democracy, and social justice. However, there are a few notable self-identifying strains of humanism (all of which widely overlap) that define the present moment.


Literary Humanism

Literary humanism encourages the exploration of universal themes such as love, loss, identity, and the human condition. It values the power of storytelling to foster empathy, understanding, and connection among people from different backgrounds.

In contemporary literature, we see literary humanism manifest in works that challenge societal norms, depict the intricacies of human relationships, and delve into the depths of the human psyche, enriching our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Most people whose views fit this description likely do not self-identify as humanists. However, anyone familiar with the history of literature (especially those who teach or get degrees in it) seem to be more likely to identify as literary humanists. At least that’s my anecdotal experience.

Philosophical Humanism

Philosophical humanism encourages critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and a commitment to social justice and human rights. It acknowledges the inherent dignity and worth of every individual and seeks to provide a framework for individuals to live fulfilling and meaningful lives in a complex and interconnected world.

Secular Humanism

Secular humanism and philosophical humanism are often used interchangeably. And that’s mostly correct. However, they do have some subtle differences. Philosophical humanism represents a broader range of perspectives that may include the spiritual or metaphysical. Secular humanism on the other hand is explicit in its rejection of the supernatural and often advocates for the separation of church and state; including public utilities and affairs, such as healthcare or partisan political endorsements.

Religious Humanism

Religious humanism combines humanistic values with religious beliefs and practices. It emphasizes the worth and dignity of human beings while also embracing the role of spirituality in shaping individual and collective meaning in life; Unitarian Universalism is a good example. There are also members of many liberal or progressive religious traditions today who identify as religious humanists too.

Lesser Known Branches of Modern Humanism

There are several other branches of humanism today that place an emphasis on specific issues that intersect with humanism. Some of these include posthumanism, ecological humanism, and existential humanism.


Wait…Am I a Humanist?

After learning what humanism actually is you may find yourself asking, “Wait…am I a humanist?” Of course only you can answer that. However, if you resonated with the ideals of humanism and they seem to express values you share, then there’s a good chance! I hope you’ll join me for the next installment of this blog post series where I’ll be exploring what it means to be a humanist.

Up Next: What Does it Mean to “Be a Humanist”?

In this post I’ve covered what humanism is, what it’s not, and a bit of its history. But what does it mean to be a humanist? Is there something you have to do first? Is there an official member card or secret handshake? What’s expected of someone who calls themselves a humanist? I’ll get into all of that and more in my next post in the series. If you’d like to follow along, please subscribe to my humanism newsletter.

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1 Comment

  1. Karla

    A thorough write up that I see myself referring back to in the future! I appreciate the approach of clarifying Humanism by defining what it is not. It’s a clever in-depth way of carving out an all encompassing definition. Thanks!


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