About humanism

Really simple guide to humanism

The really simple guide to humanism informs interested newcomers about humanism. It offers simple answers to the most frequently asked questions about humanism and the opportunity to think and learn more:


The really simple guide to humanism


Atheism, humanism and secularism


There is seldom a debate involving atheism, or humanism or secularism, where these terms are not interchanged or confused with wild abandon. This is usually, though not always by those wishing to attack one or more of them. As this site is for the promotion of Humanism and its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender context, it is worth distinguishing between them.



Is the absence of belief in a personal god, or gods. As such it is usually taken to encompass not just the idea that there is definitely no god, but the notion that the existence of a god is highly improbable (broadly the Richard Dawkins position) or not one that is seriously worth entertaining. Some religions, for example Buddhism, can be seen as atheistic given the absence of a personal god or gods from their creed. Some philosophies have argued that the notion of God is actually meaningless. Such a position, while not strictly atheistic carries similar implications in practice.

It is sometimes argued that if the existence of God (or gods) cannot be disproved then atheism is ultimately as much a "faith" based position as, say, Christianity or Islam. Against this there are many ideas which cannot be disproved, but where disbelief would not be taken as a sign of faith. (I may need "faith" to believe in fairies, but is my lack of belief in them also an expression of "faith"?). Some atheists will advance arguments against the existence of god, such as occam's razor, where God is held to add complexity without ultimately explaining anything. The Problem of Evil is also often seen as an argument against the existence of a perfect and all-powerful god.

In terms of ethics and morality, atheism effectively precludes morality based on religious authority (although some atheists have been known to argue that even as a false idea, religion can still be socially useful). Some atheists of course also see value in certain religious injunctions (e.g. Christ's "Do unto others...") but do so on non-religious grounds, often arguing that these predate the religion in question anyway.

However a lack of belief in a god or gods carries no direct implications as to what moral system an atheist positively ascribes to. Hence there can be no single moral or political order that is synonymous with atheism. On the contrary, atheists can and have followed wildly diverse moral and ethical systems from Marxism to socialism, utilitarianism, social liberalism, conservatism and right wing authoritarianism and social-Darwinism, with different, and usually mutually incompatible, arguments used to defend each.

Attempts to describe the success or failure of a particular atheistic ethical system as a success or failure of atheism per se are therefore incoherent.


Is a broad belief system founded on the basic notion that moral values and actions can only be grounded in recognisably human attributes, including reason, experience and a natural sense of empathy towards humans and other living beings, rather than any form of instruction or "revelation". Some religious believers may describe themselves as humanist in stressing the value of human reason and experience as gifts from God, and the origins of humanism (going back at least to the 15th century) predate widespread acceptance of atheism. However in the 21st century the term is normally applied to atheists and agnostics adhering to humanistic values.

Because it is so broadly based, and because it lacks a "set text", followers of humanism adopt many different positions on social and moral issues, but will normally see reason and argument based on evidence as the path to resolving any conflicts. Humanism generally values individual autonomy and happiness and self-expression, much more so than either most religious beliefs - such as Christianity where the will of God is paramount, or other atheistic systems such as Marxism (at least as implemented in many societies), where in practice individual interests may be sacrificed to the idea of "progress".

Humanism is sometimes accused of being overly optimistic, as far as human nature or social progress are concerned, in the face of bitter evidence to the contrary. In fact humanism does not depend on any such "faith" in humanity, merely on the pragmatic calculation that human reason and experience and feeling are the best guides to action that we currently happen to have available.

Similarly, humanism does not necessarily mean privileging human beings at the expense of other living things or the natural environment. On the contrary, the same principles of empathy and a duty of care apply.

Humanism has been notably supportive of gay rights, and was so long before these became mainstream, seeing LGBT equality essentially as a question of personal freedom and happiness, which also brings benefits to wider society, with no real downside. This contrast markedly both with most religious positions (especially traditional Christianity and Islam and Orthodox Judaism), and with many non religious ones - such as the versions of Marxism implemented in the Soviet Union and in China.



Is broadly the belief that all religious beliefs and non religious beliefs should enjoy equal protection under the law - provided that they do not impinge on the rights of others. In consequence, no religion (and normally no non-religious belief-system) should hold a socially or politically privileged position. Secularists have for example argued that the head of state should not be linked to a particular religion (as with the British Monarch's position as head of the established church in England), that religious bodies should not have special representation (as with Anglican Bishops in the House of Lords) and that schools run by religious bodies should not be funded by the state.

Many secularists go beyond this in seeing intrinsic value in a "shared space" in society. This would , for example, militate against the presence special schools for particular religious groups, even if all other religions, and all non religious groups (such as Humanists) also had access to the similarly exclusive facilities. This interpretation of secularism sees intrinsic social value in encouraging people from different cultures and belief systems to mix together rather than being divided even on a notionally "equal" basis.

Whilst atheists and humanist will almost by definition be secularist, secularism is also widely supported - to varying degrees - by religious believers, especially where a number of religions coexist in a society. If I am a member of a minority religion, then my interests, and my religion's interests are not normally best served where another religion is privileged. And even adherents of a dominant religion may wish to avoid social conflict by granting equality to followers of other religions and to non believers. Further some religions stress the importance of free will, which sits ill with any social pressure applied on that religion's behalf.

Secularism is sometimes accused of seeking to suppress the freedom and interests of religious believers. On the contrary, followed to the letter, secularism will only impinge on religious freedom where this adversely affects others - as for example where religious beliefs are used to "justify" discrimination against women or gay people. There will in practice be some genuine conflicts of interest, but the secularist will try to resolve these by applying considerations that do not bias the decision in favour of one side - often the most challenging aspect of secularism.

Likewise there can be no "morality of secularism" as secularism is in essence a means of existing different belief systems to coexist as harmoniously as possible.


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January 2016 Edition
Issue 38.pdf
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