Skip main navigation

How is the label 'humanist' used?

Watch Chief Executive of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson, describe how the label ‘humanist’ is often used in a very different way from religious labels.
‘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 how we should live.

There are many people who share the humanist worldview but do not self-identify as humanist. For some this is a conscious choice, simply preferring not to identify themselves with a label. However, others will choose to define themselves as humanist, even when they would prefer not to attach a label to themselves, as they recognise that the more people who do describe themselves as humanist, the more the humanist voice is likely to be heard (this argument is often made by humanist campaigners).

Then there are those who adopt a humanist approach to life but do not self-identify as humanist because they have never come across the word. Many people who 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?

This article is from the free online

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now