Secular humanism is a school of thought that incorporates Metaphysical Naturalism, the scientific method, rationalism and unbelief.  But a major goal of secular humanism is committed to forming a positive view toward life, one that can be transmitted to the formation of pragmatic ethics and behavior in human culture.  It attempts to create the terms for a fulfilling life in the naturalist universe we inhabit. Secular humanism is a worldview that embraces joy, ethics and courage.

The history of secular humanism closely parallels that of naturalism (see Naturalism).  This preface will glance at the story of humanism, stopping at the high spots.  It will take up its more specific history in the 20th Century, which saw the rapid rise and spread of secular humanism.

Some of the first stirrings of secular humanism in the West were in ancient Greece.  Many of the thinkers of that period were most concerned with rationalism and the question of what constituted the “Good Life,” which they believed was in man’s ability to achieve.  Protagoras, a (5th Century B.C.E.) Greek philosopher first made the statement that “Man is the measure of all things.”  Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E.,) with its emphasis on virtue and excellence, is considered an exemplar of the human spirit (see Ethics – Virtue Theory).

After Greece, the quest for rationality and the emphasis on human values were subsumed in Europe’s Dark Ages.  The dominance of dogmatic faith and fear of the Catholic Church put a temporary end to the restless interrogation of man’s nature and values.

Humanism began to slowly become important again when translated texts by Aristotle began to appear from Islam in the 12th Century C.E. and gradually became significant during the 14th Century.  There was an explosion of thought about what the good life meant, how happiness could be attained on Earth, and that earthly pleasures should be enjoyed.  The great Renaissance scholar, Jacob Burckhardt, states (Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860) that in the Middle Ages, religious salvation had occupied the position of utmost importance. During the Renaissance, however, humanism, stressing the need for individuals to reach their potential in this world, rose up to accompany and rival the goal of salvation.[1]  This was the age of the great scholars and philosophical humanists, such as Manetti, Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola in Italy, as well as Erasmus in Holland.

Montaigne, the great 16th Century skeptic, wrote of humanist values in his classic Essays (1580).  Spinoza, the 17th Century pantheist philosopher, rejected biblical revelation, was a champion of free thought, and identified god with nature.  He wrote about achieving liberal, democratic societies much ahead of his time.  There is a longstanding debate whether or not he was an atheist, but there is no doubt he believed in humanist values.

With the European Enlightenment came an assault on the dogmatism of religion and the tyranny of monarchist governments.  (See Naturalism.)  Figures such as Diderot, Voltaire and d’Holbach were part of the movement that framed the concept of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Anticlericalism and anti biblical revelation were very common among Enlightenment intellectuals and their admirers.  They wanted to see human life shaped by reason and nature.  The 19th Century utilitarians, Mill and Bentham (see Ethics – Utilitarianism) wrote works about a society based on reason, which might calculate the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  They were champions of rights for women, the poor and animals.

Secular humanism came into its own in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason (1795) is considered a text that “projects Humanity as the hero of reason.”[2]  The English novelist, George Eliot, translated the philosopher Feuerbach’s anti religious Essence of Christianity, published in 1841. (See Feuerbach and Schopenhauer)  In a letter, she states “…the idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is entirely human. (i.e. an exaltation of the human.”)[3] Auguste Comte, considered the founder of the science of sociology, proposed a secular religion of Humanity at this time, although some of his principles were modeled on outdated religious ideas.

The British Humanist Religious Association was formed as one of the earliest forerunners of contemporary chartered humanist organizations in London in 1853.  In 1877, “humanist” was used with a negative connotation in America to denigrate Felix Adler.  Adler founded the humanist Ethical Culture Society which now exists as the humanist affiliated New York Society for Ethical Culture.  Charles F. Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York, whose advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.  The first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933. In 1941 The American Humanist Association was founded with some noted authors as presidents over the years:  Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal.  In 2004 the American Humanist Association, along with other groups representing agnostics, atheists and other free thinkers, joined in creating The Secular Coalition for America; one of its goals was the separation of Church and State.

The Humanist Manifesto, 2000, endorsed by the International  Academy of Humanism, states “that the overriding need is to develop a new Planetary Humanism that will seek to preserve human rights and enhance human freedom and dignity and will emphasize our commitment to the planet as a whole.”[4] Paul Kurtz, the philosopher, states that the secular humanist paradigm has six main characteristics: (1) it is a method of inquiry; (2) it provides a naturalistic cosmic outlook; (3) it is non-theistic; (4) it is committed to humanist ethics; (5) it offers a perspective that is democratic; (6) it is planetary in scope.[5]

An interesting question for the non theist is whether secular humanism can be called a religion.  Many humanists would reject that label and the most recent humanist proclamation called humanism a “life stance.” Many atheist and agnostics identify themselves as humanists, but an atheist or agnostic is not necessarily a Humanist.  In the 1994  9th Circuit Court decision in Peloza vs Capistrano, it was ruled that “…the Supreme Court had never held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes.” 

Peloza, a high school biology teacher brought action against the school district that employed him, its board of trustees, and various personnel at the high school, challenging the school district’s requirement that he teach evolutionism, as well as a school district order barring him from discussing his religious beliefs with students. Peloza’s complaint made this claim: the school district’s actions establish a state-supported religion of evolutionism, or more generally of “secular humanism.”This decision essentially refuted the argument made by religious fundamentalists.[6]  Fundamentalists would like to overturn secular humanism, but that would be essentially turning back the clock on modernity.  If they were successful, culture would be at risk for becoming theocracy dominated, with reason and scientific method secondary to religious dogma.

Peter Singer, the neo-utilitarian philosopher, has criticized humanism as speciesist.  He commends the latest Council of Secular Humanism’s “The Affirmation of Humanism: A Statement of Principles,” as aspiring to “avoid needless suffering on other species.”[7] But Singer maintains that humanists do not define “needless suffering “adequately. He believes humanists should take a stronger stand for protectionism of species, and that they are still caught in the conceptual trap of the biblical permission to oppress other species.  There have been some signs of late that humanists have started taking note of animal rights.

John Gray, in Straw Dogs (2002) finds that many thinkers “…run together two irreconcilable philosophies- humanism and naturalism.  Darwin’s theory shows the truth of naturalism: we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on Earth are the same.  Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth.” [8]One might answer Gray’s criticism by affirming that humanism does not aspire to ruling the Earth, but to making the minds of people freer, more rational and more respectful of the dignity of all life in order to bring about a flourishing for all species on our planet.

Videos of Lecture: Humanism

Recommended Books

Grayling, A. C.  Meditations for the Humanist:  Ethics for a Secular Age. U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Grayling teaches philosophy at the University of London and is a writer for both the Guardian and the New York Times.  On page viii of his Introduction to Meditations Grayling states: “…the considered life is a life enriched by thinking about the things that matter: values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderta both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meaning of life.”

Grayling’s volume is divided into three parts: (1) Virtues and Attributes, (2) Foes and Fallacies, and (3) Amenities and Goods and covers such topics as fears, speciesism and reason.  There are over 60 Essays. Readers and critics describe it as an inspiring text for the secular humanist, as well as atheists and agnostics. This is a book of well-turned essays written from a secular viewpoint.  Readers looking for a history of humanism or philosophic discussions of humanism will not be interested in reading it.  The book lacks a bibliography.

Knight, Margaret and Jim Herrick.  Humanist Anthology: From Confucius to Attenborough. Rev.Ed New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.

Margaret Knight was a psychology lecturer at Aberdeen University who first published this anthology in 1961.  Jim Herrick, editor of the Rationalist Press Association (UK) and New Humanist, has updated the text, bringing in new authors, frequently unexpected, such as Mark Twain.  The text brings humanist thought together through classical China and Greece, the Renaissance and Enlightenment, ending in the 19th and 20th Centuries’ rational, naturalist traditions.

Humanist Anthology is a wonderful book for browsing and for affirmation of “the good life” of secular humanism.  It is ammunition for countering the arguments of theists, but best of all, it is a moving and entertaining compilation of humanist thinking.  The new edition adds some Islamic and Indian skeptics as well as Dawkins, Agee, and George Eliot.

Kurtz, Paul. What is Secular Humanism? Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Paul Kurtz’s volume on humanism is a succinct, concise description of the history of humanism to the present day.  Kurtz is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a dedicated humanist, who firmly believes that the naturalized outlook is not a reductive one.  He argues that secular humanism finds its meaning in the here and now, and helps people to live full and complete lives with confidence and joy.

The text argues in defense of secular humanism’s conclusions and tenets.  Kurtz states that the “three key humanist virtues are courage, cognition and caring- not dependence, ignorance or insensitivity to the needs of others. “ This slender volume is still the best single introduction to secular humanism.  Kurtz is the author or editor of around forty-five books and this small position statement on humanism is arguably one of his best.  Some readers have complained about the book’s size, 42 pages, vis-à-vis the price.  But the book is packed with humanist concepts and facts and reads very well.  There is a very good four page bibliography for readers who want to read more volumes on secular humanism. Highly recommended.

Lamont, Corliss.  The Philosophy of Humanism.  n.p., Humanist Press, 1997.

Philosophy of Humanism, by the well known philosopher and activist, Corliss Lamont, is a study of the history and spread of humanism.  Dr. Lamont attempts to defend secular humanism against the charges made against it by religious fundamentalists.  He explains that adopting a life stance of humanism does not mean selfishness or extreme materialism.

Interestingly, Lamont reports that Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind Series (Rapture-end times) and a “moral majority” leader, cited the Philosophy of Humanism thirty -six times in his volume Battle for the Mind (1980.) Lamont states that Battle calls humanism “amoral” and “the most dangerous religion in the world.”  Someone should have informed Mr. LaHaye that secular humanism is not a religion.  (See Preface to Humanism.) Lamont wages a spirited defense of secular humanism as a joyous affirmation of life that puts its trust in reason, science and democracy. 

Some readers find Lamont’s style dry; others find it interesting and enriching.  There is a slight tendency to jump around in some areas, but the amount of ground Lamont is trying to cover makes it forgivable. This is a very thoughtful volume and raises thoughts for the secular reader to contemplate.

A few more books on secular humanism: 

Greg Epstein. Good Without God (2010); T. Davies. Humanism. (1997); A. Goodman. The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe. (1990.); Hector Hawton. The Humanist Revolution. (1963); Yervant H. Krekorian. Naturalism and the Human Spirit; (1944.) Julian Huxley. Evolutionary Humanism. (1992.); Jim Herrick. Humanism: An Introduction.  (2005).


1 Burckhardt, Jacob. (1860)  The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990.  (Note: Do not purchase the edition from Bibliobazaar.  It has numerous typos, and cheap binding, according to readers.)

2 Davies, Tony.  Humanism. New York: Routledge, 1997. 26-27.

3 _________. 27.

5 Kurtz, Paul. “Secular Humanism.” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 699.

6 Cline, Austin. “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?” About.comGuide.  n.d. Agnosticism/Atheism.

7 Singer, Peter. “Taking  Humanism Beyond Speciesism.” In Free Inquiry, 24, no. 6 (Oct/Nov 2004), p. 19-21.

8 Gray, John.  Straw Dogs. London: Granta Books, 2002, p. 31.

See the Bibliography for all the lectures on Philosophy. There are over 76 works listed.