What is a humanist?

Previous Board of Humanists International

Throughout recorded history, there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision-making.

Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called humanism. Many millions of people around the world share this way of living and of looking at the world, but many of them have not heard the word ‘humanist’ and don’t realise that it describes what they believe.

Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic),
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals,
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

When it comes to what motivates humanists, they will typically make reference to making the most of the one life we know we have. They will speak of the need to ensure we all have the necessary freedoms to live full and flourishing lives. They believe in the importance of recognising that the responsibility for making improvements to human wellbeing lies with human beings alone. And they will often highlight the fact that, as social animals, it is the connections we make in our lives that play an important role in making our lives meaningful (often emphasising the value they get from time spent with other people).

These beliefs will motivate different humanists in different ways. However, throughout the course, you will hopefully recognise when these themes reappear. You’ll then be able to judge for yourself whether the definition of humanists above fits the people you meet.

Information about the course

This course is not designed to provide a philosophical investigation into the nature of humanism (for a deeper exploration of humanism, please take a look at our other course, Introducing humanism: non-religious approaches to life). It instead focuses on the opportunity to hear first-hand from people who describe themselves as humanist, on their stories and experiences, on what it means to live one’s life as a humanist. Of course, not all humanists will live their lives this way. There is no obligation on humanists to adopt the individual approaches you will encounter. However, many humanists will share many of the same beliefs and values.

It is important to recognise that the people you encounter will be providing their personal views. The aim is for you to learn more about what it means to be a humanist from the perspective of humanists, why they believe the things they do and make the choices they make. The content is designed to be a stimulus to promote discussion. It will be up to you to identify where there might be disagreement and where there is consensus, and to draw your own conclusions about the humanist approach to life. There will be plenty of opportunity for you to share your own thoughts and ask your own questions, and we hope that you will engage with your fellow learners wherever there is the opportunity.

We hope that you will take the opportunity to dig deeper into those stories that interest you the most. Links at the end of some of the steps should help you to do this.

Hopefully, whether you agree or disagree with the humanists you encounter, you will be able to use what you learn to support an exploration of your own approach to life. We hope you enjoy the course.

A note

When we use the word ‘humanists’ in this course, we do not claim to speak for all humanists. However, it would be cumbersome to say ‘some’ or ‘many’ or ‘most’ humanists every time we speak about something on which the majority of humanists would agree, even if there might not be unanimous agreement. Where, on the other hand, disagreement is more prevalent among humanists, we will be more explicit about it.

Photo credit: Humanists International

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanist Lives

Humanists UK