Bronze-level article

Secular humanism

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Secular humanism comprises a branch of humanism that is based on exclusively secular principles. Its bitter enemies (guess who?) often associate or equate it with atheism-and-agnosticism; however, not all atheists or agnostics identify as secular humanists and not all secular humanists are atheists or agnostics.

Secular humanism aims to establish moral principles conducive to the freedom and well-being of humans based on ethical reasoning that is independent of all alleged supernatural sources of morality.[1] It is not a fixed ethical system and even less an ideology itself, but rather a set of general guidelines for the development of a more concrete programme to increase the knowledge available to humanity and to use this information to further the well-being of humankind.[2] Because of its explicit rejection of the supernatural and of moral codes based on religious convictions, secular humanist philosophy offers a way to develop an alternative to these traditional conceptions of morality.


The terms "secular humanism" and "secular humanist" evolved out of negative descriptions of the organised humanist movement in America. The term "secular humanism" itself originates from a condemnatory 1961 American Supreme Court judgment (Torcaso v. Watkins), in which the phrase "secular" was appended to "humanist" to amplify the judge's negative sentiment towards non-religious humanists arguing for progressive causes. Humanist groups in America later "reclaimed" the term as a positive, while European humanist groups such as the British Humanist Association or the Dutch Humanist Association were keen to avoid what they saw as a tautological prefixing word. This is seen as giving rise to a false etymological assumption that "secular humanism" and "religious humanism" are both descendants of an older humanist movement, when in fact the phenomenon of religious people self-identifying either as "humanists" or "religious humanists" is a relatively recent occurrence, dating only from the late 20th century.[3]

Common beliefs[edit]

There is no set definition of secular humanism, but it is possible to identify the positions that most adherents share. They typically reject the general humanist idea that humans are intrinsically good, instead believing that humans can be good without religion. They believe that only observable reality exists (philosophical naturalism) and that it is best observed and understood with the scientific method (empiricism) rather than faith; that moral judgments should be made based on analysis of consequences instead of adherence to strict religious decrees; and that government, philosophy, and politics should be free of religious influence.[4] It also holds that evidence-based reasoning and — wherever possible — the scientific method should be applied to assess prevailing belief systems (such as religious dogmas and political ideologies).[5]

Religious right[edit]

The endeavours associated with secular humanist morality are generally not too popular with the religious right, as it directly and rather convincingly contradicts one of their primary arguments against atheism: the idea that there can be no morality without religious faith. Indeed, many of the recent secular humanist campaigns that became fashionable following the atheist bus campaign in the UK focus on "being good without God".

The radical religious right often use the term "humanist" or "secularist" to denote any of a variety of Things They Don't Like. It is usually used to imply that somebody denies the Bible or Christianity, and hence is a liberal, and is an atheist, or it is used in a derogatory fashion. One argument against secular humanism is that it is also a religion, and so should not be supported by the government or textbooks either. This was actually, if briefly, formally expressed in American law by William Brevard Hand, a judge in Alabama. His decision was quickly overturned.

Further, conspiracy theorists on the religious right allege that the so-called "secularists" have gained control over many spheres of society, including the education system, media, etc. The theory involving secular humanists did not explicitly appear until the 1970s and 1980s, but had a direct precursor in similar theories on the far right proliferating during the Cold War. The explicitly "secular humanist" brand of these conspiracy theories gained more traction after the 1973 reprinting of the Humanist Manifesto.[6]


The American Humanist Association is a North American organization that advocates a nonreligious life stance,[7] along the lines of the principles outlined above, by working together with many local groups in most parts of the USA, as well as some in Canada. The Humanists International serves as a worldwide umbrella for national groups dedicated to furthering humanist ideals and human rights.[8]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. A Secular Humanist Declaration: "Ethics Based On Critical Intelligence", Council for Secular Humanism
  2. A Secular Humanist Declaration: "Moral Education", Council for Secular Humanism.
  3. Andrew Copson and A.C. Grayling, ed (2015). "What is Humanism?". The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Humanism. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 
  4. What Is Secular Humanism?, alternative version, Council for Secular Humanism
  5. What Is Secular Humanism?, Council for Secular Humanism
  6. "Secular humanism" entry in Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia, ed. Peter Knight, pp. 646-647. [1]
  7. American Humanist Association website
  8. Humanists International website