Humanism is a philosophy based on the centrality of humans and human flourishing. Without a god at the center of its worldview, it instead considers reason to be the chief formulator of ethical values and decision making.
Humanism has its roots in ancient Greece and was shaped by various movements (the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, etc.) over time. It has numerous variants, but all of them are based on the belief that human interests and dignity are of primary importance.
Most commonly, humanism involves a rejection of religion. Man, not God, is at the center of humanist thought. This focus can often become exclusionary, and therefore humanism has been criticized for it by many scholars, which we will discuss later.
However, humanism has several positive traits that can be immensely valuable in today’s world.
The American Humanist Organization defines humanism as
“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.”
Humanism originated with the works of Pre-Socratic philosophers, who were the first to explain the world without taking recourse to supernatural elements.
Various cultural movements throughout history have shaped humanism. Renaissance (14th-16th centuries) helped direct attention away from God towards the study of “men”, including their works of art, literature, and history.
The Enlightenment (17th & 18th centuries) brought critical thinking and emphasis on rationality to humanism. The works of Darwin and Nietzsche in the 19th century further attacked ‘God’ and reinforced human reason.
- Promotion of Human Dignity: Humanism places human dignity as a central concern. Its focus is on maximizing human life, and therefore respect for all individuals, regardless of their background, ethnicity, gender, or beliefs, tends to be a core ideal.
- Belief and Focus on the Good in the Human Experience: Many religions see humans as inherently floored (i.e. Christianity’s focus on original sin) or life as inherently painful (i.e. Buddhism’s focus on suffering). By contrast, humanism’s focus is on how life can be fulfilling and how humans are all inherently capable of good.
- Support for Universal Human Rights: Humanism supports a universal conception human rights which tends to be influence by western liberal cultural ideals. It strongly advocates for the individual and inalienable rights of individuals. This focus is sometimes criticized as being ethnocentric and condescending of both collectivist cultural values and religious perspectives.
- Focus on Critical Thinking: As humanism sees reason, not god, as the source of knowledge, it has a strong belief in fostering critical thinking. It endorses people coming to ethical positions based on evidence-based knowledge over superstition or religious dogma.
- Embracing Empathy: Empathy, compassion, and kindness are central ideals taught by humanist educators. It prioritizes the well-being of all humans and the importance of understanding and being compassionate toward the multitude of human experiences.
- Focusing on Human Flourishing: With humans at the center of its worldview, humanism encourages personal growth and self-expression. To achieve this, it advocates for lifelong learning, the arts, and creative pursuits.
- Embracing Diversity: With its belief that all humans have dignity, it chooses to embrace and encourage cultural diversity, cultural pluralism, and multiculturalism. It tends to celebrate the richness and multiplicity of human experiences.
- Personal Responsibility: Humanism’s focus on individualism and the supremacy of individual rights has another side to it: it also thinks individuals are ultimately responsible for their actions. As a result, it believes strongly in personal responsibility. All people should act with honest and fairness.
- Appreciation for Art and Culture: Humanism sees life holistically: it’s not just about work and productivity. It thinks we should enjoy our time on earth and engage in fulfilling creative pursuits. As a result, humanism has long appreciated art and culture.
- Peace and Nonviolence: Because humanism highly values human life, it tends to promote peace, nonviolence, and conflict resolution above all. Many huamnists are pacifists, meaning they refuse to engae in war.
- Gender Equality: Humanists believe all lives – regardless of gender – hold equal value. As a result, humanists tend to be feminists as well. They believe strongly in ensuring people of all gender expressions are respected and treated with dignity.
- Global Citizenship: According to humanists, all humans – regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or citizenship – are equal. As a result, it tends to reject nationalism and instead sees us as one world sharing one planet. It works towards a world where all human beings, no matter where in the world, are treated with dignity.
- Acknowledging Interdependence: While a lot of the humanist values are about individualism, humanists also acknowledge that we rely on one another. Together, we can achieve better results for human happiness. As a result, it recognizes the interdependence and interconnectedness of all life.
- Embracing Science: Without a god at the center of its morality, humanism turns to science to understand where we come from and to improve our lives. It believes strongly in using the scientific method to make our lives better.
- Holistic Wellbeing: Human beings aren’t just put on this earth to work hard, have babies, or worship a god. We’re here to enjoy all aspects of the human experience. So, humanists believe in living a holistic life: including enjoying sports, culture, arts, science, and the pursuit of knowledge.
Types of Humanism
- Pre-Renaissance Humanism: Humanism has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy. Pre-socratic philosophers were the first to explain the world in terms of human reason and natural law, without relying on divine command (Law, 2011). This is best expressed in Protagoras’ dictum: “man is the measure of all things”. Socrates wrote about the need to “know thyself” and oriented philosophy towards humans (instead of nature). Aristotle’s rationalism and ethics based on human nature also parallel humanist thought.
- Renaissance Humanism: Renaissance humanism was a revival in the study of Classical antiquity that occurred between the 14th and 16th centuries. It assumed the centrality of human beings in the universe and emphasized the value of classical texts in education. Renaissance humanists placed reason at the highest position in human life, contrasting it with “animal passions”. However, most renaissance humanists were also religious, aiming to “purify and renew Christianity” (McGrath, 2011).
- Enlightenment Humanism: The Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), with its central tenets of rationalism and empiricism, once again emphasized the centrality of human thought. Humanist values, such as tolerance and opposition to exploitation (like slavery), started to take shape around this time. The abstract conception of humanity also started forming, visible in the use of the singular term “man”—revealing a universal conception of humanity—in various political documents.
- Modern Humanism (From Darwin to the Present): In the 19th century, advances in science and philosophy further diminished the importance of religion. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection contradicted the theological view that humans are above animals—we are simply another natural species (Lamont, 1997). Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx attacked religion in different ways. Many rationalist associations, such as the National Secular Society (Britain), were also formed.
- Christian Humanism: Some Christian thinkers such as John Milton thought humanism and Christianity aren’t that different, so they developed a concept of human Christianity. They emphasized that human beings should enjoy god’s creations in this world rather than in the afterlife. They also moved away from the Christian notion of the “innate corruption” of human beings. (Abrams, 2015).
- Scientific Humanism: Scientific Humanism is a philosophy that considers the scientific method to be a key component of humanism, as expressed in the works of John Dewey and Julian Huxley. It believes in human reason, secular ethics, and philosophical naturalism and argues that humans are capable of being moral without religion. Scientific Humanism is largely synonymous with the term Secular Humanism.
- Marxist Humanism: Marxist Humanism accepts the foundational humanistic tenets, such as naturalism and secularism, but criticizes it for being politically vague. It tries to understand “what sort of society would be most conducive to human thriving” from a Marxist perspective (Alderson, 2017). Going against dialectical materialism and structural Marxism, Marxist Humanists see Marx’s work as an extension of enlightenment humanism.
Fact File: Humanism in Contemporary Education & Humanities
Modern education, especially humanities, inherits significantly from humanism. Cicero and other Roman thinkers used the term humanitas (from which the word “humanism” is derived) to refer to the values of liberal education. This continues to shape modern humanities today, which comprises philosophy, history, literature, etc. All these disciplines emphasize critical inquiry, individualism, and ethical values based on reason.
For more, see our guide: The Humanist Learning Theory
Weaknesses of Humanism
Humanism has been criticized by various scholars for being exclusionary and essentialist.
Many postcolonial scholars have pointed out how the supposedly “universal” values of humanism are eurocentric. These values are not free from the biases of white, heterosexual males who have shaped them.
Some critics even see humanism as a tool of Western moral dominance, calling it a form of neocolonialism that leads to oppression and a lack of ethical diversity (Jakelić, 2020). It fails to take into account how race can play a huge role in shaping the human experience.
Similarly, feminist scholars have pointed out the patriarchal nature of humanism. As all the famous dictums demonstrate, “man” is the center of humanism, and this has always marginalized women’s experiences and perspectives (hooks, 1990).
Finally, many poststructural scholars argue that humanism (like all human-centered systems) is based on the fallacy of essentialism—the view that there is an essential human nature or a set of innate human features that are universal. This, according to the critics, is mistaken.
Strengths of Humanism
However, despite its limitations, humanism can still be a positive guiding force in our world.
As Martha Nussbaum argues, despite historical and cultural differences, we can still identify a set of basic features that constitute the human form of life (2000). These include our needs (nutritional, sexual, etc.), the knowledge of our mortality, our embodied existence, etc.
This, as per Nussbaum, provides enough grounds for an ‘essentialist’ human nature. Noam Chomsky also defends essentialism, although his reasoning is based on language: biologically, all human beings possess a “universal grammar” that enables “rule-bound creativity” (1975).
Postcolonial and feminist scholars are correct in pointing out the hitherto exclusionary nature of humanism. However, by including marginalized voices, humanism can still be a positive guiding force in our world.
Humanism emphasizes the value of human life, therefore promoting human rights and the potential for human flourishing. It is based on critical and rational inquiry, which encourages us to approach problems with an open mind and be receptive to new perspectives.
Humanism tries to discover moral and ethical values based on reason and compassion. As such, it can become the source of a secular ethical framework. Governments can use this framework to deal with issues of social justice.
Finally, humanism promotes a holistic view of life, which is especially important in today’s fast-paced utilitarian world. Humanism and its disciplines (literature, philosophy, etc.) remind us to slow things down and acknowledge the sociocultural factors that shape our lives.
Humanism gives primary importance to human life, and it assumes that, through reason, we can create our ethical values without any religion.
It is a philosophy of being “Good without a God.” Humanism has a long history, starting from ancient Greece, and it continues to impact our world. Although sometimes criticized for its exclusionary nature, humanism still has many positive traits that can be valuable in our lives.
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Jakelić, S. (2020). “Humanism and Its Critics”. In Anthony B. Pinn (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Humanism. Pemberton.
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