|About the Curator:
Rick Heller leads weekly meditations for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and is the author of Secular Meditation (New World Library, 2015). Rick received a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and also hold degrees from Harvard and MIT. His writing has appeared in Free Inquiry, UUWorld, Tikkun, Buddhadharma, the Boston Globe, and Lowell Sun. His fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.
Humanists are people who do not believe in the supernatural, but do believe in helping one’s fellow human being. Humanists also believe in respect for the lives of animals; the term ‘humanist’ does not imply compassion for humans only.
Humanists believe that close observation of the natural world and drawing conclusions through the use of reason are the best ways to understand the universe. Humanists are informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.
Not all Humanists would consider themselves Spiritual Naturalists. While modern Humanism is naturalistic, many secular Humanists do not care for the term “spirituality.” Yet, some Humanists do pursue practices that are somtimes viewed as spiritual, such as meditation. The Spiritual Naturalist Society sponsors an online meditation group. For more thoughts on spirituality and humanism, see The Humanist Contemplative.
In the Humanist Manifesto III, (a successor to previous manifestoes) the American Humanist Association outlined basic principles of Humanism. The Humanist Manifesto III was signed in 2003 by a long list of people, including notable figures from science, education, literature, entertainment, and other sectors. Among the principles are:
- Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
- Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
- Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
- Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
- Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
- Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.
For a reading of these principles explained in more detail, please see the complete Humanist Manifesto III.
Consistent with Humanism’s values of Freethought and a healthy skepticism that questions dogma, there is no officially recognized ‘authority’ for the Humanist life stance. However, Humanist groups exist at many different scales all over the world. Perhaps the broadest organization is Humanists International. It can best be said to represent the views of over three million Humanists in over 100 national organizations in 30 countries.
Here in the United States, the American Humanist Association (AHA) is the oldest national-level Humanist organization. Another major national organization is the Council for Secular Humanism. Both of these organizations publish magazines and have several types of programs and facilities throughout the U.S. There are many other organizations growing all the time, such as the Institute for Humanist Studies and the Humanist Institute, for example.
The History of Humanism
Humanism as an organized, provisional philosophy is relatively new but it is the product of several millennia of human growth and development. Hints of scientific and humanist thought can be found among the earliest nomadic tribes and civilizations. The Ideas of some of the later classical Greek philosophers, as well as the Chinese Confucians, serve to highlight areas where human-centered (as opposed to god-centered) ideas were especially prevalent.
During the Middle Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies, such as those of Michael Servetus and others, were violently suppressed by the dogma and political power of the church. Not until the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with the flourishing of art, music, literature, philosophy, and exploration, would consideration of humanism be permitted.
The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century brought the development of science as philosophers finally began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as “free thought.” In the nineteenth century, with the challenges to religion by celebrities such as Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll, the Freethought movement made it possible for the common citizen to reject faith and superstition without risk of persecution.
These historical foundations have led those who reject supernaturalism as a viable philosophical outlook to adopt the term Humanism to describe their non-religious life stance. In 1933 the modern Humanist philosophy was formulated in the Humanist Manifesto and several organizations have been founded around the world since then. It is with such a rich history that we strive to carry Humanism into the future.
Rick Heller curates this page. Special thanks to Amanda Chesworth, who co-wrote this section on the history of Humanism with Daniel Strain, originally for Houstonians for Secular Humanism (HSH).
The Humanist Contemplative, Daniel Strain
Foundations of Humanism, Robert D. Finch
How Do Humanists Do Spirituality?, Jennifer Hancock
Humanist Ethics: Emotion and the Ethical Foundations of Humanism, Robert D. Finch
Humanism, Art, and Technology, Robert D. Finch
Humanist Futures, Robert D. Finch
Is A Universal Ethics Possible? A Humanist Proposition, Marian Hillar
Daniel Strain blog archive (2004-2014): HumanistContemplative.org
Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age, A.C. Grayling
The Courage to Become: the Virtues of Humanism, Paul Kurtz
The Philosophy of Humanism, Corliss Lamont
Jen Hancock’s Handy Book Humanism Handbook, Jennifer Hancock
The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto, Edwin H. Wilson
The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, A.C. Grayling
Humanism as the Next Step, Lloyd and Mary Morain
Well Known Humanists:
Many notable people have been humanists or humanistic thinkers. As in any community, people often fall short of the ideals of the community, and inclusion on this list does not imply an endorsement of all the ideas or actions of these thinkers. Not all of these humanists would identify with the term “spiritual.”
Phillip Adams, author/filmmaker
Isaac Asimov, author
Margaret Atwood, author
Béla Bartók, composer
Luther Burbank, scientist
Francis Crick, scientist
Jared Diamond, anthropologist
Denis Diderot, encyclopedist
John Dewey, philosopher/educator
W.E.B. Du Bois, sociologist/civil rights activist
Albert Einstein, scientist
Albert Ellis, psychologist
Philip José Farmer, author
Betty Friedan, feminist activist
Erich Fromm, psychologist
R. Buckminster Fuller, futurist/inventor
John K. Galbraith, economist
Emma Goldman, author/revolutionary
Stephen J. Gould, scientist/author
Julian Huxley, philosopher/biologist/UNESCO Director
Robert G. Ingersoll, author
Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President
Margaret Kuhn, Grey Panthers founder
Richard Leakey, anthropologist
Abraham Maslow, psychologist
Joyce Carol Oates, author
Linus Pauling, scientist
A. Daniel Radcliffe, actor
A. Philip Randolph, civil rights activist/union leader
Gene Roddenberry, producer/Star Trek creator
Carl Rogers, psychologist
M.N. Roy, political thinker/Radical Humanism founder
Salman Rushdie, author
Bertrand Russell, mathematician/philosopher
Carl Sagan, scientist/author
Jonas Salk, physician/inventor of polio vaccine
Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood founder
Andrei Sakharov, scientist/human rights activist
Dan Savage, columnist
Michael Servetus, theologian/physician
Gloria Steinem, feminist activist
James Thurber, humorist
Ted Turner, broadcaster
Mark Twain, author
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist
Kurt Vonnegut, author
James Watson, scientist
Faye Wattleton, Planned Parenthood Director
Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator
Walt Whitman, poet
E.O. Wilson, biologist
Frank Lloyd Wright, architect