Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsOne of the most obvious differences between religion and humanism is that in order to be a Christian for example you need to know something about Christianity you need to know at a bare minimum the story about the alleged life of Jesus Christ and its usual for someone who becomes a Christian starts thinking of themselves as a Christian to have learned a bit about Christianity and met other Christians at the point when they take on that self-identity.

Skip to 0 minutes and 39 secondsWell for someone we could describe as humanist that’s not true someone who may never heard the word humanist never identified themselves as a humanist nonetheless can be humanist according to a dictionary definition because the word is something we apply post hoc to beliefs that already exist in the same way we label human being homo sapiens in a biological classification now you and I don’t go around think of ourselves as homo sapiens or telling other people we are homo sapiens well we are whether we define ourselves as such or not if we hold views that are identified by the dictionary description of the word humanist are humanist whether or not they take that identity on themselves so that fundamental difference, all religions require some sort of self-identification or affiliation in that sense the word humanist is just used in a completely different way.

How is the label 'humanist' used?

‘I was a humanist without knowing it for many years before I found the British Humanist Association – when I did, it was like finding a sort of home. Here were people with a range of views that matched my own, who shared my respect for life in all its forms…’

Claire Rayner, former Humanists UK Vice-President

The word ‘humanism’ has become used to describe a certain set of beliefs and values long after those beliefs and values emerged. This distinguishes it from religions, the identifying label for which originates at, or soon after, the birth of the ideology itself.

A similar occurrence applies to many people who identify with the label ‘humanist’. They often adopt the label as one which fitted a philosophy of life they already held. Their ‘humanism’ is discovered. They did not subscribe to the identity and then adjust their beliefs accordingly, they already held those beliefs and found a word that fitted them (discovering one is a humanist is then perhaps akin to the discovery of a label to describe one’s sexual orientation). Many humanists are delighted and reassured to find that many other people, including some of the great thinkers of the past, have reached similar conclusions about the how we should live.

Of course, this means there are still many people who share the humanist worldview, but who do not identify as humanist, very often because they have never come across the word. Many people who instead use the label ‘atheist’ to describe themselves will share humanist beliefs and live their lives according to humanist values.

This raises an interesting question of whether one can be a humanist without self-identifying as one? This is a question that cannot easily be asked of religious identity. Can one’s humanism be unnamed and implicit?

Question: Is it possible to be a humanist and not know it?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK

Contact FutureLearn for Support