What is Secular Humanism?

Ethics of a Philosophy Focused on Humanity and Human Needs

Contemplation of Existence
Contemplation of Existence. Miroku/Taxi Japan/Getty

The label "secular humanist" doesn't typically come with the same negative baggage as "atheist," but it has been used in America by the Christian Right as an epithet for everything they dislike about the modern world. Because of that, there is more than a bit of confusion about what secular humanism really is and what secular humanists really believe.

 

Humanist Philosophy

Secular humanists share with other humanists an overriding concern with humanity, with the needs and desires of human beings, and with the importance of human experiences.

For secular humanists, it is the human and the humane which must be the focus of our ethical attention. Specific conclusions about specific situations will of course differ from humanist to humanist and even from secular humanist to secular humanist, but they share the same basic principles as their starting point.

Like other forms of humanism, secular humanism traces its roots back to the 14th century Renaissance Humanism which developed a strong anti-clerical tradition in which the repressive atmosphere of the medieval Church and religious scholasticism were targets of intense critique. This inheritance was developed further during the Enlightenment of the 18th century, in which the case for independent, free inquiry into matters of state, society, and ethics were emphasized.

 

What's Different About Secular Humanism?

What differentiates secular humanists from other sorts of humanists can be found in the nature of the concept of secularism.

This term can be used in more than one way, but two of the most important are found in secular humanism.

In the first place, secular humanism is necessarily non-religious. This doesn’t mean that secular humanists are anti-religious because there is a difference between non-religion and anti-religion.

Although secular humanists are certainly critical of religion in its various guises, the central point of being non-religious simply means that it has nothing to do with spiritual, religious, or ecclesiastical doctrines, beliefs, or power structures. Secular humanists are also almost always atheists, though it's arguably possible to be a theist and a secular humanist since you don't have to have a religion in order to believe in a .

The “secular” of secular humanism also means that, as a philosophy, it does not give any place to the veneration of things holy and inviolable. Acceptance of humanist principles lies in a rational consideration of their value and appropriateness, not in any sense of their having a divine origin or of their being worthy of some form of worship.

There is also no feeling that those principles themselves are “inviolable,” in the sense that they should be beyond critique and questioning but instead should simply be obeyed.

 

Promoting Secularism and Secular Culture

Secular humanism also commonly makes advocacy of secularism a defining principle. What this means is that secular humanists argue for a separation of church and state, for a secular government that gives no special consideration to any theological or religious systems, and for a secular culture that values diversity in religious viewpoints.

Such a secular culture is also one where critique of religious beliefs is accepted rather than pushed aside as “rude” and inappropriate on the notion that religious beliefs, whatever they are, should be placed above criticism. In a secular culture, religious beliefs are not privileged above any other beliefs (political, economic, philosophical, etc.) and thus protected from public critique.

Secularism in this sense becomes a close companion of the humanist principles which value freethinking and free inquiry, no matter what the subject.