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Do we need a definition?

There is disagreement around what it means to be a humanist. Read about what this means for trying to define the term.

Below are some definitions of humanism found in several standard works of reference:

  1. An appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and destiny of man, and also giving a grounding for morality … Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God. (Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy)
  2. Any position which stresses the importance of persons, typically in contrast with something else, such as God, inanimate nature, or totalitarian societies. (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia)
  3. A commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality. (Edward Craig, Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  4. Believing that it is possible to live confidently without metaphysical or religious certainty and that all opinions are open to revision and correction, [humanists] see human flourishing as dependent on open communication, discussion, criticism and unforced consensus. (Robert Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy)
  5. A philosophy or set of beliefs, that holds that human beings achieve a system of morality through their own reasoning rather than through a belief in any divine being. (John Andrews, The Economist Book of -isms: From Abolitionism to Zoroastrianism)
  6. A morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals … but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world. (Richard L. Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind)

Think about how well the above definitions fit with what you have learned about humanism so far.


There is no universally agreed upon definition of humanism. There is no doctrine or creed that one must sign up to. The different definitions above all contain many overlapping features. However, it can be hard to produce a precise set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes somebody a humanist: it is hard to agree exactly what, and how many, specific beliefs a humanist must hold. Some might describe it as an essentially contested concept.

‘There are competing versions of [humanism], competing interpretations of how it should be understood. If we were to characterise what is common to all these competing interpretations, our comprehensive account would have very little content.’
Humanist Philosophers Group, What is Humanism?

Of course, just because we can’t come up with a list of necessary and sufficient conditions doesn’t mean we must reject a term, or that we don’t know what something is. Words like ‘beauty’, ‘freedom’, and ‘justice’ can be equally (or perhaps even more) difficult to define, but does that mean that we are unable to talk about them, or that we cannot understand what other people mean when they use these words?

So far in this course we have attempted to give examples of the beliefs and values humanists typically share and those they typically reject. Perhaps simply giving examples is enough. In many cases it can be a perfectly good way of helping somebody to understand what something is. It is the way many of us come to learn the meaning of most words in our language, rather than by learning abstract definitions.

Maybe the best one can do is to say what one believes humanism ought to be, to attempt to give a defensible and plausible interpretation of humanism. However, in the humanist spirit, any such account must be open to the possibility of disagreement.

Question: Do we need a definition of humanism or what it means to be a humanist? If so, how precise does it need to be? Do you think there are any beliefs humanists are required to hold?

This article is from the free online

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

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