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date: 07 July 2020

The Practice of Humanism

Abstract and Keywords

What does it mean to “practice Humanism”? This chapter argues that Humanism is best understood as a “life stance” constituting six core value-commitments: an “epistemic commitment” representing pursuit of the truth through rational analysis; a “naturalist commitment” representing Humanists’ belief that human beings are part of nature, related to all life on earth; an “ethical commitment,” representing a concern for the dignity of all people; a “self-actualization commitment,” a belief in the development of all human capacities; a “social commitment,” stressing the importance of relationships and responsibilities towards others; and a “justice commitment,” expressing Humanists’ belief in the responsibility of all people to work for a just society. To “practice Humanism” is defined as “self-consciously acting in such a way as to realize one of these six commitments.” Examples of each commitment in practice are given, and through these examples the nature of each commitment is clarified.

Keywords: humanism, ethics, rationality, naturalism, self-actualization, justice, relationships, religion

What Does It Mean to “Practice Humanism?”

What does it mean to “practice Humanism”? This question is simple to frame but surprisingly difficult to answer, for Humanism doesn’t easily fit into any category of things which are normally “practiced.” Humanism is not a game or set of skills, for instance, which one can practice as one practices playing the piano. When “practicing Humanism” we are not repeating a set of clearly prescribed activities over and over in order to improve our performance. Nor is Humanism a profession like law or medicine, such that “practicing Humanism” might mean “fulfilling the professional responsibilities of Humanism.” While there are “professional Humanists”—Humanist clergy and staff members in Humanist organizations, for instance—it seems wrong to suggest that only those who make their living in organized Humanism can “practice” it.

At first glance, then, it would seem simplest to place Humanism within the category of religion, and understand the term “practicing Humanism” similarly to how we understand “practicing Christianity” or “Practicing Islam.” This notion has some initial plausibility: at least in the minds of the signatories of the first Humanist Manifesto Humanism was a new religious movement—though a non-creedal, anti-dogmatic one which rejected belief in god or the supernatural. The Manifesto was signed by numerous Unitarian and Universalist ministers, as well as representatives of the Ethical Culture movement: these were people with deep connections to humanistic congregations, reinforcing the “religious” character of the movement they were attempting to define and promote.1 They themselves were developing ideas which had been promoted most vigorously by liberal religious thinkers who wished to “rescue” religion from its supernatural assumptions, while maintaining its social and moral force.2

The broadest definitions of “religion” would seem happy to admit Humanism. Durkheim, in his classic definition, called religion “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things … beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”3 Humanism is definitely “a unified system of beliefs,” and to the extent that Humanists the world over comprise a “single moral community,” perhaps then they are part of a religion. If religion is understood as William James defined it—“the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”—then maybe Humanism qualifies so long as “the divine” is reinterpreted in a naturalistic manner as Dewey, another supporter of the idea of “Humanism as religion” suggested we might.4

Yinger argues that “Religion is a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problem of human life,” and Humanism could certainly be included in that category given that it presents a system of beliefs which address ultimate problems.5 Those definitions of religion which see the concept as encompassing a range of phenomena linked by family resemblances might also shelter Humanism under their canopy.6 Furthermore, other prominent traditions, such as Confucianism and Theravada Buddhism, are frequently understood to be religions (or at least to function similarly to religions) despite also rejecting supernatural claims and belief in god.7 Perhaps, then, we have solved our problem: Humanism is a religion, and can be practiced as religions are, by participating in the rites and rituals characteristic of it.

Yet even here problems swiftly arise. First, because the question we are addressing is whether Humanism has “practices” at all, and therefore including it in definitions of religion which specify practice as a necessary component is to beg the question. And second, because Humanism lacks many features of religions adherents traditionally practice. There are no required rites or rituals to become or to be a Humanist: nothing in the tradition requires or even encourages Humanists to pray, or fast, or make pilgrimage. There are no scriptural texts which are required reading, or which are considered especially elevated above all others, so practices like scriptural study would seem to be impossible for Humanists. Humanism demands adherence to no set of codes regarding clothing or food: no hijab, halal, or kosher for Humanists. Although there are Humanist institutions—local, national, and international organizations dedicated to promoting Humanism and protecting the rights of Humanists—they tend not to require any specific practice on the part of their members (unless we consider payment of membership dues to be a “Humanist practice”).

Furthermore, there are plenty of definitions of “religion” which would explicitly exclude Humanism, rejecting as it does any appeal to the supernatural. None of Tylor, Frazer, Martineau, Hick, or Vergote would accept Humanism as a religion, there being no concept of the divine or the transcendent inherent in the philosophy.8 Indeed the centrality of some element of the supernatural to traditional conceptions of “religion” is one of the primary reasons Humanists themselves have tended, particularly in recent decades, to eschew the term themselves: none of the most recent consensus statements outlining the core values and beliefs of Humanism identify it as a religion.9

Humanism, then, is a tradition of thought with very few barriers to entry and minimal requirements: unlike many traditional religions, there is very little you must do to before you call yourself a Humanist. Perhaps we should conclude that Humanism is “unpracticable”—better understood as a set of beliefs people hold, not actions people perform? This conception is reinforced by much of the scholarship on Humanism, which tends to present Humanism primarily in terms of its philosophical commitments, rather than any concrete practices (for instance Lamont, Herrick, Law, and Norman all present Humanism more as a philosophy than as a way of life which can be “practiced”).10

Yet there are Humanism organizations which seem to encourage their members to “practice Humanism.” Ethical Culture societies, Humanistic Jewish temples, and Humanist Unitarian Universalist churches are Humanist congregations which exist not only to educate about Humanist values and beliefs, but to encourage people to live in accordance with them. Local and national Humanist groups frequently exhort their members to political action when a Humanist value is under attack, and isn’t political activity in service of Humanist values a way someone could “practice Humanism”? There are explicitly Humanist charities, too, which seek to act out their values by ameliorating the inhumane conditions in which some people live—informed by a distinctly humanistic concern for the proven efficacy of the strategies they employ. One such, the Foundation Beyond Belief, even describes itself as “humanism at work.”11 What is this other than the practice of Humanism? It seems then, if Humanism does not neatly fit into any of the most commonly used categories of “practice,” we need an understanding of the worldview which does elucidate what “the practice of Humanism” might mean.

Humanism as a Life Stance

Fortunately, such an understanding is provided by Stopes-Roe: Humanism is best viewed as a “life stance.” Stopes-Roe offers this concept precisely to locate Humanism in the landscape of religions and nonreligious philosophies, and it is particularly useful when it comes to our current quandary. In developing the concept of a “life stance,” Stopes-Roe outlines what he takes to be the main features of Humanism: a concern for the methods of science and philosophy, which should be applied to every area of life; its “philosophy of life,” which situates the human species and individual human beings in both the natural and moral world (providing a sort of grand scope which religions tend to offer); its ethical commitments, which explore right and wrong and how human beings should act; and its “ethical culture,” Humanism’s picture of the world it wants to build and is working toward. Thus, he claims, “Humanism is distinguished by the particular claims it makes and the particular character of the consequent life and practice.”12

“Consequent life and practice”—this is the very thing we have been searching for: an understanding of Humanism which appreciates that there must be some element which is represented in the lives of those who take it on, some component of “practice.” Stopes-Roe’s contention is that Humanism, like traditional religions, is something which is not only believed but lived, and he makes this clear in his formal definition of “life stance”:

Life stance: The style and content of an individual’s or a community’s relationship with that which is of ultimate importance, the presuppositions of this, and the consequences for life that flow from it.13

Humanists, Stopes-Roe concludes, are those who consider the welfare of sentient beings to be of ultimate importance, and who commit themselves to following the consequences of that belief in their lives. This is an understanding of Humanism we can use to explore “Humanism in practice.” Humanism is not merely a philosophy, and is somewhat different to a religion: it is a life stance which orients those who adopt it toward life, a series of values which if a Humanist is to be consistent, requires them to act in a particular way—for, as Copson puts it, “certain behaviours do flow from certain convictions.”14

One problem remains: what precisely is the “relationship” which Humanists have with their matter of ultimate importance, and what are the “presuppositions” which underlie it? In other words, if to practice Humanism is to act from the position of the Humanist life stance, how to define that stance? Where do Humanists stand? This, too, is a challenge: as a non-creedal and anti-dogmatic tradition, Humanists explicitly reject the idea that there will be any fixed and final statement of what Humanism is. For this reason, it can be extremely difficult to pin down the conceptual boundaries of Humanism. There are at least six different consensus statements of Humanism which have been written since the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933: each of them could potentially be used to define the life stance, and each would give rise to slightly different understandings of what it would mean to practice it.

For the purposes of this chapter I offer an understanding of Humanism based on Humanist Manifesto III.15 This is partly because it is the most recent of the consensus statements of Humanism, and therefore can be expected to offer the most contemporary understanding of Humanism. But my selection also has theoretical benefits: HMIII makes six simple statements each of which can be understood as one enduring commitment on which the Humanist tradition as a whole is founded. Each one has practical implications—consequences for life which flow from it—and therefore we can explore how each is practiced in the lives of individual Humanists and by the institutions Humanists have created.

The Six Commitments of the Humanist Life Stance

The six affirmations of Humanism in Humanist Manifesto III, and the commitments I take them to represent, are

  1. 1. “Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.” This is what I term the “epistemic commitment” of Humanism: Humanists are committed to rational observation and analysis of the world in the pursuit of truth, and to revising their beliefs as new evidence and reasons present themselves.

  2. 2. “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.” The “naturalist commitment”: Humanists view human beings as part of nature, rather than set apart. We are one animal among many others, with no special metaphysical significance. We are related to all life on this planet, and have responsibilities towards it.

  3. 3. “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” The “ethical commitment”: the view that human beings all have dignity and worth, and that actions should be judged by how they promote or diminish that dignity and worth.

  4. 4. “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.” The “self-actualization commitment”: Humanists seek to expand their powers and qualities in such a way as promotes the other commitments and enhances their own life.

  5. 5. “Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.” The “social commitment”: Humanism stresses the importance of social life and our relationships with other people.

  6. 6. “Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness … We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” The “justice commitment”: we have a responsibility to create a world in which the dignity and worth of all people is respected.16

This is how I understand the Humanist life stance, and my contention is that when Humanists self-consciously act in such a way as to realize one of these six commitments, they are practicing Humanism. Christians who mark their foreheads with ash and Jews who consume a Seder meal are instantiating in practice beliefs and values of their religious tradition, and therefore practicing their religion. In a similar way Humanists, when they build communities dedicated to the dignity and worth of all people, establish institutions to ensure people are free from want, create art which celebrates human creativity and accomplishment, and work to make society freer and more equal, are practicing Humanism.

In what follows I will outline some of the ways in which Humanists and the Humanist movement has sought to practice each of these six commitments. Because each of the commitments could find countless different expressions in practice, none of these sections are exhaustive. Rather, I have sought in each to select illustrative examples which clearly show how the relevant commitment is finding expression in the practice of the individuals and organizations described and, where appropriate, demonstrate the impact the practice of Humanism has had on related spheres of human endeavor. What is revealed is a life stance with significant motive force and impressive social effect: the practice of Humanism makes a big difference in the lives of those who practice it, and potentially in their communities and cultures too.

Practicing the Epistemic Commitment

In 1922 Bertrand Russell gave a lecture at Conway Hall, a Humanist organization, in a lecture series held in honor of Moncure Conway, a Humanist clergyman. In it he outlined his notion of the “will to doubt,” which distils the essence of the Humanist epistemic commitment:

None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error … Every man of science whose outlook is truly scientific is ready to admit that what passes for scientific knowledge at the moment is sure to require correction with the progress of discovery; nevertheless, it is near enough to the truth to serve for most practical purposes, though not for all. In science, where alone something approximating to genuine knowledge is to be found, men’s attitude is tentative and full of doubt.17

According to Russell, human knowledge—even in the rigorous sciences—is provisional, subject to change and contestation, and never final. We human beings use our best intellectual tools to come to satisfactory solutions to our problems, but should never consider the epistemic task to be complete: there is always more to be learned, and the imperfect concepts of today will be overturned by better ones tomorrow. The responsibility of the Humanist is to develop their critical intelligence and turn it on every area of life—including their most cherished beliefs.

The opening statements of each of the three Humanist Manifestos themselves demonstrate how Humanists can practice this commitment to criticality and epistemic humility, for each begins with a clarification that what follows is not a fixed dogma but a provisional statement of values made at one point in an evolving tradition. Humanist Manifesto 1 begins as follows: “The Manifesto is a product of many minds. It was designed to represent a developing point of view, not a new creed.”18 The second declares: “Those who sign Humanist Manifesto II disclaim that they are setting forth a binding credo … New statements should be developed to supersede this.”19 The third, similarly, avers “The lifestance of Humanism … evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.”20

That some of the most significant consensus statements of Humanism should begin this way is a telling representation of the importance Humanists place on skepticism and self-criticism. While there are lively traditions of scholarship, criticism, and reinterpretation in many religious traditions, hardly any make such a forthright declaration that their fundamental commitments are not absolute truths. That the three Humanist Manifestos are significantly different to each other is itself an indication that Humanists take the epistemic commitment seriously: the second even begins by offering a series of specific reasons why a new formulation of Humanism is required! This is practicing the epistemic commitment of Humanism: the very statements outlining what Humanism is have been repeatedly revised in the face of new evidence as society and culture have changed and we have learned more about the human species and our needs.

Humanists also practice their commitment to rational thought and free inquiry in their approach to education. Humanists have, since the birth of the organized Humanist movement, set up their own educational institutions and have had an outsized influence in the educational field. Felix Adler (founder of the Ethical Culture movement, a network of Humanist congregations still in existence today) set up numerous schools including the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and the first free kindergarten in the United States.21 Adler was passionate about adult education, moral education, vocational education—in every area of life he championed the human intellect. He even saw what Radest calls a “prophetic element” in education, believing that education’s aim was “to train reformers … who believe that their salvation consists in reacting beneficently upon their environment.”22 The pedagogical approach in Adler’s school was notably progressive (even if Adler himself was skeptical of that term), including “manual arts … drama and music … opportunities for direct experience [and] the evaluation of those experiences.”23 In all, Adler’s approach to education certainly fostered the development of the critical intellect and a concern for truth: both concerns central to the work of another influential Humanist (and colleague of Adler’s), John Dewey.

Dewey, a signatory of the first Humanist Manifesto, was one of the most influential modern thinkers on education. His educational philosophy championed inquiry and rational thought, and argued against a prevailing educational model that saw children as mere passive recipients of the knowledge of their forebears, and which established schools as insular institutions disconnected from the outside world. Instead, he hoped children would be encouraged to think deeply about their experiences, respected as intelligent beings themselves, and engaged in the life of the community.24 Dewey considered “Freedom of intelligence,” which he understood to mean “freedom of observation and of judgment exercised in behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worth while” to be “the only freedom that is of enduring importance,” and he believed in an education system which would promote this freedom in its students.25 There are clear elements of the Humanist epistemic commitment here, with the focus on observation, experimentation, and rational analysis with the goal of developing autonomous individuals.

Echoes of Dewey’s commitment to developing the critical intelligence of children can be found in the Sunday school programs of Unitarian Universalist and Ethical Culture congregations today, both of which promote reason and encourage their young charges to ask questions and come to their own conclusions. The Sunday educational program at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, for instance, is organized around 11 core values, three of which are “I learn from the world around me by using my senses, mind, and feelings,” “I am free to question,” and “I am free to choose what I believe.”26 Each of these demonstrates the epistemic commitment of Humanism in practice.

National Humanist organizations also practice the epistemic commitment through political activism and work to improve their national education systems. Humanists UK has a series of in-depth position statements regarding education, and from 2002–2014 ran a successful campaign to require the teaching of evolution in British state-funded schools, and to preclude the teaching of creationism as science.27 The American Humanist Association (AHA), responding to a US culture which is significantly more religious than that in the UK, sponsors a “National Day of Reason” which occurs annually on May 2nd, the same day as the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer. Its purpose is essentially to represent the epistemic commitment of Humanism in the public square, reinforcing the importance of reason and rationality, and pushing back on the illegitimate encroachment of religion on public life. The AHA encourages local Humanist groups to work toward the proclamation of the National Day of Reason in their state or local area, and since the first such proclamation in 2012, numerous local municipalities and some states have done so.28

Schools like those founded by the Ugandan Humanist Schools Trust state explicitly their commitment to “rational enquiry, science, and the need to support argument with evidence”: indeed, one of the schools’ core values is “Rationality: Use Reason, Logic, and Science to solve life’s problems.”29 A striking demonstration of one Humanist educator putting the epistemic commitment into practice comes from one of these schools, the Isaac Newton School at Mbute. In 2014 a group hostile to the school’s ethos and activities, who wished to set up their own competing school, spread rumors that students at Isaac Newton had been possessed by spirits which were then haunting the premises. In a darkly ironic turn, the critics claimed that it was the school’s very commitment to science and reason which had angered the spirits: “They informed the newspaper that our school, being a humanist school, did not believe in the existence of spirits. Consequently the spirits were annoyed to the extent of burning the school down.”30 In response to these false claims, Peter Kisirinya, the school’s director, held a series of open meetings with the press and members of the community, and committed to “sleeping at the school, on the floor of the kitchen storeroom to demonstrate that there are no evil spirits to fear.”31 Then, he organized for professors of psychology to present about witchcraft at an open meeting to further educate the public about the baselessness of the claims. While sleeping on the floor of his school, Kisirinya contracted malaria from mosquito bites—but this did not prevent him from practicing the Humanist epistemic commitment.

Finally, the contemporary skeptic movement is also an example of the epistemic commitment of Humanism in action. Organizations like the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a program of the Center for Inquiry, exist to demonstrate the flaws in pseudoscientific thinking and to promote epistemic hygiene. In recent years their magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, has tackled a menagerie of hoaxes, frauds, and forms of pseudoscience, including supposed cold fusion devices (which is critiqued along with the credulous scientists who offered their support); the (non-) existence of ghosts; and the illegitimate claims of psychics.32 While these may seem frivolous topics—perhaps even attempts to ruin people’s fun—it is clear that Skeptical Inquirer takes its commitment to the scientific method seriously, by seeking to promote science and reason in every area of life. Following the efforts of groups like the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a robust skeptics movement now exists, comprising of blogs like Skepchick; YouTube channels like that of the Skeptics Society; events like Skepticon; and local Skeptics groups like Skeptics in the Pub.

In different ways these individual Humanists and Humanist organizations seek and have sought to promote rational and scientific thinking in society. Whether the effort is focused in schools, in government, or written into the consensus statements of Humanists themselves, the goal is the same: to encourage more people to appreciate that “knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.”

Practicing the Naturalist Commitment

What I have termed the “naturalist commitment” represents Humanists’ belief that human beings are metaphysically indistinct from all other life on earth (and, in principle, from all other life which might exist in the universe). Humanists reject the idea that human beings alone are imbued with a “divine spark” or “essence,” believing instead that we are part of the natural world. In practice, this means that the theory of evolution—the scientific theory which describes our own origin and which demonstrates our relationship with all other life—is particularly important to Humanists. As Patrick Vosse, a critic of Humanism, notes:

The philosophical principles of Humanism rely heavily on evolution for support. It is interesting to note that HM2 and 3 specifically cite evolution as a fundamental component of their philosophy … [Evolution] provides a non-theistic explanation for our existence. 33

Vosse is correct: for many Humanists the theory of evolution, in describing how human beings came to exist and in helping us understand our relationship to all other life on earth, provides something of a secular creation story.

The centrality of the theory of evolution to Humanists can be seen in the way that Humanist groups celebrate International Darwin Day, an international day of celebration held annually on Darwin’s birthday. Darwin Day is “a day of celebration, activism, and international cooperation for the advancement of science, education, and human well-being,” initiated by three Humanists and today championed by the American Humanist Association and Humanist groups around the world.34 Humanists UK holds an annual Darwin Day Lecture, and once sought to have Darwin Day recognized as a national holiday.35

Humanists’ practice of the naturalist commitment can also be seen in their work for animal rights. Humanists have long understood that we have genuine ethical responsibilities toward other life forms, and the same reasons which undergird their respect for human beings commit Humanists to respecting other animals as well. Philosopher Peter Singer, who has dedicated much of his work to enumerating our ethical responsibilities to other animals, notes the affinity between religious skeptics and concern for non-human animals:

At least in the West, all the most philosophically important advocates for animals—Plutarch, Montaigne, Hume, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Salt, George Bernard Shaw—have been skeptical about religion. Even in recent times, leaders of the animal movement—the late Henry Spira and Ingrid Newkirk (and if it were not too immodest, I would include myself)—have tended to be nonreligious.36

While not all the figures Singer lists are precisely contemporary Humanists, the kinship in their fundamental values is undeniable, showing that Humanists and proto-Humanists have been practicing the naturalist commitment (at least as it relates to the welfare of other animals) for quite some time. Henry Stephens Salt is a particularly fine example: Salt was an ardent social reformer, formulator of the concept “animal rights,” and a promoter of vegetarianism.37 He described himself as a “rationalist, socialist, pacifist, and humanitarian,” and said “I wholly disbelieve in the present established religion.”38 He was, in other words, a Humanist living out the naturalist commitment, following the consequences of his belief in the interconnectedness of all life to what he believed to be their logical conclusions.

Sometimes the Humanist commitment to respecting the natural world takes on an almost spiritual tone, as in the work of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Together Sagan and Druyan created the Emmy Award Winning and the Peabody Award Winning television series Cosmos which, without any appeal to religion or supernaturalism, situates human beings in the universe as “one voice in the cosmic fugue” of life. As Sagan travels through space and time in his starship he muses “The nature of life on earth and the quest for life elsewhere are the two sides of the same question: the search for who we are.”39 To Sagan and Druyan the Humanist commitment to the natural world extends even beyond the borders of our planet, reaching out to the stars.

Practicing the Social Commitment

Humanists recognize that life is enriched by our relationships with each other: community is, in the words of Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, “a necessary response to one of our most aching and eternal human needs.”40 One of the primary challenges of life is to appreciate our individuality and interdependence both. This is the heart of the social commitment: a commitment to living life together, recognizing that the needs of others are as valid as our own, and that our destinies are interwoven.

Perhaps the easiest place to view the social commitment of Humanism in practice is to visit one of the many Humanist congregations around the world, for how better can a movement demonstrate its belief in the importance of relationships than by building communities? Whether one of the twenty-three Ethical Culture societies, a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a strong Humanist emphasis such as the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanistic Jewish congregation like the Birmingham Temple, or a newly emerged Sunday Assembly, numerous congregations exist in which Humanism is given form in the lives of the clergy and the community. Due to the non-dogmatic, anti-authoritarian nature of Humanism, these congregations tend to look very different from each other, and even two congregations within the same movement are likely to have numerous aesthetic and practical differences: there is no Humanist liturgy, and no authority telling Humanists how they must gather. However, these expressions of Humanist sociality reveal, in their structure and programs, what it means to practice the social commitment of Humanism.

Some of the earliest flowerings of Humanist community were the work of Unitarian and Universalist Ministers who had, in the course of their intellectual and theological journey, arrived at a humanistic place. Many of the signatories of Humanist Manifesto I were Unitarian and Universalist Ministers and lay people, yet despite discarding supernaturalism and traditional conceptions of god, they did not leave behind their belief in the moral community congregations provide. Today, Humanism is recognized as one of the “six sources” of Unitarian Universalism (UU), and some UU congregations have a distinctly Humanist character.41 One such, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis (formerly led by Rev. John Dietrich, a founding figure of contemporary Humanism), epitomizes the importance Humanists place on relationships, offering numerous social activities in addition to its main “assembly” on Sundays. Members can enjoy game nights, potlucks, movies, and knitting together. There’s a men’s group, a women’s group, a grief support group, and a group for caregivers supporting people with dementia—all representations of the communities desire to create “a world of mutual care and concern,” as Humanist Manifesto III would have it.

Ethical Culture’s founder, Felix Adler, had an astute appreciation of the importance of community and social relationships in the development of moral character, saying “how is it possible to induce men to make the effort, there being no authority of book or creed to lean upon. The answer to that is that the method we must pursue is to put men in the midst of crowds”.42 To this end he birthed a movement of non-theistic congregations which would use the power of community to improve the moral lives of their members. Adler’s entire moral philosophy (a full account of which is beyond the scope of this chapter) was based on the metaphor of a “vast and differentiated society … a commonwealth of spirits” in which all forms of human goodness are instantiated.43 Indeed, Adler’s focus on the importance of community and human relationships was so strong that Ethical Culture has been termed a “religion of relationships.”

Sunday Assemblies, a more recent entrant into the congregational marketplace, are “secular congregations that celebrate life,” and they too embody the social commitment of Humanism. Sunday Assembly London’s self-description makes clear the social focus of much of what they do:

We meet twice monthly on Sundays for inspirational events which combine inspiring talks, sing-along pop songs and a touch of mindfulness, all followed up by tea and cake. In between these gatherings there's loads of community activities to get involved with.44

Sunday Assembly, with its energetic and upbeat aesthetic, represents a fresh take on the idea non-theistic community. Yet seen in light of its UU Humanist and Ethical Culture forebears, it is revealed as the latest flowering of the Humanist commitment to social life.

In addition to these congregation models of Humanist social life, non-congregational Humanist groups exist all over the world, enabling Humanists to build relationships with others of like mind. Humanists International boasts more than 160 member organizations in more than 70 countries, and many of those represent numerous local groups, while organizations like Young Humanists International and the Secular Student Alliance exist to give younger Humanists an opportunity to socialize and build relationships.45 So whether understood as a mechanism for moral improvement, a driver of spiritual uplift, or merely a place to enjoy the company of others, all these forms of Humanist community are a representation, in practice, of the Humanist belief that life is better when it is shared with others.

Practicing the Ethical Commitment

The essence of the Humanist ethical commitment is the concern for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This entails a commitment to the full range of human rights, including religious freedom, reproductive rights, and LBTQIA+ rights. Furthermore, individual prejudices and structural injustices such as racism and sexism are incompatible with the Humanist life stance, leading Humanists to fight them.

Humanists practice this commitment in numerous ways. Of particular significance has been Humanists’ participation in the United Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the Drafting Committee which created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), was herself a close ally of the Ethical Culture movement and the resulting document, in the words of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, “could easily have been inspired by our very own Humanist Manifesto.”46 The text of the UDHR has a decidedly humanistic tenor, and grounds human rights in the entirely secular conception of “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” without any appeal to the divine.47 No surprise, then, that Humanist organizations have been passionate supporters of the United Nations and of its UDHR for decades.

The Humanist life stance profoundly influenced the shape and direction of three of the major branches of the United Nations, each intimately concerned with the promotion and protection of human dignity, by providing their first Directors-General: the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, headed by Julian Huxley); the World Health Organization (WHO, headed by Brock Chisholm); and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, headed by John Boyd Orr). Huxley’s impact on UNESCO is a particularly striking example of the ethical commitment in practice: he was an avowed and outspoken Humanist (a signatory of the first Humanist Manifesto), and laid UNESCO’s philosophical foundations by penning a pamphlet redolent with references to human dignity and the importance of international cooperation in the service of a better society.48 As Singh suggests, “underlying UNESCO’s vision was the diplomacy of scientific humanism that would bring diverse communities together”—an influence which continues today.49 One example: a 2010 article by then UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova was titled “A New Humanism for the 21st Century,” and not only called for a new humanistic ethic to pervade UNESCO’s work, but also hearkened back to the institution’s Humanist roots. Bokova quoted a 1953 UNESCO declaration on the importance of intercultural dialogue:

The problem of international understanding is a problem of the relations of cultures. From those relations must emerge a new world community of understanding and mutual respect. That community must take the form of a new humanism in which universality is achieved by the recognition of common values in the diversity of cultures.50

The Humanist ethical commitment lives in these words, demonstrating that when Humanist principles are put into practice by energetic and dedicated people, they can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects.

Eleanor Roosevelt was also an early supporter of another flowering of the Humanist ethical commitment: the Encampment for Citizenship, a “project in democratic education” at which “Young people of every racial strain in the United States spend six weeks together studying the role of the citizen in a free society, how to function, how to learn about their community, how to know each other as human beings and work and live on a democratic basis.”51 The Encampment was extremely impactful at its heyday, promoting a model of integrated education which inspired Martin Luther King to support and visit the Encampers.52

Another, more personal face of the Humanist ethical commitment can be seen when Humanists care for people as they suffer. Suffering, caused by illness, injury, or loss, often raises questions of religious, existential, and spiritual significance which, in medical settings, are sometimes addressed by religious professionals. In recent years there has been a greater recognition that non-religious people deserve the same opportunity to request pastoral care that religious individuals have received for a long time, and Humanist chaplains have begun to fill this role.53 These chaplains meet the pastoral and spiritual needs of patients whether those suffering are Humanists or not, but their approach is informed by Humanism. A Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network now exists in the United Kingdom to “ensure that non-religious people have the opportunity to access appropriate and effective likeminded pastoral support that is tailored to work for them.”54 In 2018 Lindsay van Dijk became the first Humanist head chaplain in the UK’s National Health Service—a trend which, she hopes, will lead to more provision being made within the NHS for the pastoral needs nonreligious people.55

Finally, and also in the sphere of healthcare, it seems wise to touch on the long-lasting commitment of many Humanists to recognizing the importance of autonomy as a component of a person’s dignity even unto death. By this I mean that Humanists—prominent individuals and organizations—have long been on the vanguard of support for the right of an individual to choose when and how they should die. Jack Kevorkian, controversial advocate of the right to physician-assisted suicide, was honored with the American Humanist Association’s “Humanist Hero Award” in 1994, while he was under indictment for first-degree murder. The Humanist magazine’s gloss on his acceptance speech, which they published, demonstrates how, in their view, his activism was practicing the ethical commitment:

Dr. Jack Kevorkian is a world-renowned activist for the cause of physician-assisted voluntary euthanasia. He has waged a tireless battle against the medical establishment, politicians, theologians, and all who would actively resist a comprehensive, rational, and compassionate program of death with dignity.56

Humanists, then, have a legacy of practicing their commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person which spans both the globe and the whole of life, from childhood to the deathbed.

Practicing the Self-Actualization Commitment

Humanists, believing that people have but this one life, want to live to the fullest. Hence, the self-actualization commitment, which is powerfully expressed in Humanist Manifesto I:

Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life.57

Since this is an extremely broad commitment, potentially taking in everything which could conceivably bring a person enjoyment, the illustrative examples in this section necessarily but scratch the surface. Nonetheless, the Humanist commitment to self-actualization can be seen in the life-cycle ceremonies Humanists have created to celebrate birth and marriage and to commemorate a person after death; and in the burgeoning field of secular spirituality, which is attempting to extract spiritual practices from their religious origins and reappraise them in the light of science.

The creation of life-cycle ceremonies such as weddings and funerals is typically associated with religious traditions, but Humanists have for many decades created their own. Few collections of Humanist ceremonies exist, but one such—Algernon Black’s Without Burnt Offerings—offers a panoply of readings and rituals to fit almost any occasion. If you wish to welcome a new child into the world, recognize the transition of a child to adulthood, get married, remember someone who has died, or perform an invocation on a special occasion, Black has Humanist rites for you.58 Corliss Lamont, the philosopher-general of American Humanism, himself composed A Humanist Wedding Service.59 More recently, Reinhardt-Simpson has picked up the torch with her Humanist Ceremonies Handbook.60 It is not necessary to turn to any printed material or guide when creating a Humanist ceremony, of course—these texts simply demonstrate that when it comes to recognizing life’s most important moments, Humanists are putting their values into practice by focusing on the individuals and the life they led, creating unique ceremonies which demonstrate their commitment to human flourishing. There are signs that these ceremonies are becoming increasingly popular: today, Humanist weddings are more numerous in Scotland than those of the Church of Scotland, and the Humanist Society Scotland “is now the biggest provider of marriage ceremonies of any belief or religious group.”61

While many Humanists are skeptical of the term “spirituality,” as the number of nonreligious people has grown there has been increasing interest in what could be termed a “Humanist spirituality.” The secular scientific and philosophical study of spiritual experience has a long history, more contemporary theorists have attacked this topic with enthusiasm, insisting that spiritual experience itself can be secularized, extracted from its religious background and appreciated anew. 62

Sometimes, the search for “Humanist spirituality” causes Humanists to create something entirely new. The HumanLight holiday was created from the ground up to offer Humanists an opportunity to celebrate during what in the Christian world is considered the Christmas season. It is intended as a celebration of the positive in life, a chance to “express the positive human values, hopes, and ideals that [Humanists] share.” While it has no fixed ritual elements, HumanLight celebrations often include music, dance, storytelling, and food—not unlike religious holidays and festivals.63 Similar is Secular Solstice, “A holiday for people who like to sing. (And who don’t mind periodically updating their songs to reflect scientific or philosophical progress).”64

Whether perceived as an evolution of religious spirituality, or as a continuation of the same phenomena in the secular sphere, it is now well-established that spirituality can exist without any appeal to the supernatural—and Humanists, with their commitment to exploring every aspect of their humanity, are jumping in with enthusiasm.

Practicing the Justice Commitment

Humanists are committed to bringing about a just world, one in which the dignity of all people is recognized and respected. Throughout history they have demonstrated this commitment through a proud legacy of activism, institution-building, and advocacy. One evocative example of the Humanist commitment to justice is offered by Edward Ericson, who recalls a trip to Alabama during the civil rights era:

Twenty years ago I travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, in answer to Martin Luther King’s call for thousands of Americans to assembled to protest the crushing of civil rights by Alabama state authorities and police. As I waited in the mud and drizzle of the Alabama field, I began to see familiar faces in the gathering throng, first one, then another, and finally whole groups of friends and coworkers. We had gathered—Ethical Humanists, religious liberals, varied religious dissenters in our respective communities for an unexpected family reunion of American Humanists and religious liberals!Humanists are people whose numbers may be insignificant statistically; but on the front lines where the battles are fought to vindicate human dignity and democratic values, Humanists count!65

Ericson’s account of his own experience in the fields of Alabama, though anecdotal, is a prime example of the Humanist commitment to justice. Humanists have a long history of activism in the name of justice, working to benefit society by bringing about conditions in which the dignity of all people is recognized. Indeed King summoned Americans to Alabama shortly after the death of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister who had been killed fighting for civil rights—and who was, in his own mind, a Humanist.66

The justice commitment shines forth in the lives of numerous prominent Humanists who, like Ericson and Reeb, championed causes stemming directly from their Humanist values. Bertrand Russel’s activism, for instance, embraced a range of typically Humanist causes, including anti-war protesting; support for nuclear disarmament; denunciation of war crimes (Zunino, writing decades after Russell’s death, uses Russell’s activism as a model for the future of transitional justice, demonstrating that he was far ahead of his time); championing free speech; speaking against imperialism; and generally dedicating years of time and buckets of ink to the cause of peace and justice.67

This commitment can be seen, too, in the institutions Humanists have established and served. Ethical Humanists established the first settlement house in America; the District Nursing Service which became the Visiting Nurse Service; and the Tenement House Building Company.68 Ethical Culture leader Algernon Black organized and led the New York and National Committees Against Discrimination and Housing, while the New York Society for Ethical Culture started the Center for Applied Ethics, “that helped shape the Ethics in Government Act of the Carter administration.”69 Ethical Culturists were instrumental, too, in founding the institutions which would become the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union—a record of achievement in the field of justice any religious movement would be proud of.70

The work of Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, who established the Atheist Center in Mudnur, India, demonstrates Humanism’s global reach. The center was particularly daring in hosting “cosmopolitan dinners” on the night of each full moon at which people from all castes—including “untouchables”—dined together as equals. This was particularly scandalous at the time, as was the center’s practice of conducting weddings between people of different castes. The center also took a strong position on the equality of women, training women to be printers long before it was common to do so.71 Rao made his Humanism clear in describing why he felt an atheistic approach was necessary for his work:

My method is atheism. I find that the atheistic outlook provides a favourable background for cosmopolitan practices. Acceptance of atheism at once pulls down caste and religious barriers between man and man. There is no longer a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian. All are human beings. Further, the atheistic outlook puts man on his legs. There is neither divine will nor fate to control his actions.72

The Atheist Center continues to this day as a hub for secular social work in the region.

More recently, the justice commitment of Humanism can be seen in Humanist charities such as the Foundation Beyond Belief, which seeks to “Unite the humanist community in volunteering and charitable efforts”; Atheist Alliance Helping the Homeless; SMART Recovery (a science-based alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous whose founding President, Dr. Joe Gerstein, is a Humanist); and the (A+) Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, and the Non-Religious lending team on Kiva (a nonprofit which uses crowd-funding to make loans to people who don’t have access to financial services), which is at the time of writing has funded more loans than any other team but one.73 All these initiatives aspire to “a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort.”74

Finally, it would be wrong to end any consideration of the Humanist commitment to justice without considering the role prominent Humanists have played in securing rights for women. As Copson notes, “It is no coincidence that the authors of the three pivotal texts of modern feminism—Mary Wollstonecraft … John Stuart Mill … and Simone de Beauvoir … were all humanists.”75 It is no coincidence, of course, because Humanism champions the rights and equality of all people, regardless of sex and gender. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s feminism was grounded to a large degree in her religious skepticism, and her The Woman’s Bible is a classic example both of humanistic skepticism and of the justice commitment in practice. Today the work of activists like Sikivu Hutchinson continue Stanton’s legacy, fusing religious criticism with a Humanist ethic to advance the cause of justice for women.76

Conclusion and Directions for Future Research

The framework offered here—the understanding of Humanism as a life stance with six fundamental commitments, each with practical implications—helps clarify numerous matters which might otherwise cause difficulty. First, conceiving of Humanism as a commitment to a set of connected values reveals why it is possible to find elements of Humanism in other traditions. Each of the six commitments outlined above can be pulled apart from each other, and many traditions embrace some of them if not all. Humanism may be unique in asserting the importance of all six together, but humanistic strands can be found in many traditions throughout history. Second, this conception clarifies why the Humanist movement is so diverse in the interests and foci of its constituent organizations. While all Humanist organizations in principle seek to advance all six commitments, many of them focus on one or a few above the others. Finally, this understanding of Humanism explains how so many different groups can be considered “Humanist,” from secular humanist groups, to Ethical Culture societies, to Humanistic Jewish temples: despite their different histories and cultural flavors, all these groups share the six commitments.

There are limitations to this approach, however. By exploring each of the “six commitments” of Humanism separately, I have potentially obscured some of the richness in how they interact with each other. If Humanism is to be understood as a complex of interlinked values, then it is important to examine not just how each of them is practiced individually, but how particular Humanist practices represent a commitment to the totality of Humanist values, and how each of the values enriches the others. The work of the Atheist Center in India, for instance, is not solely informed by the Humanist commitment to justice, for instance, but also by the epistemic commitment (since its founders viewed its egalitarian stance as a representation of the fact of the oneness of humanity) and by the ethical commitment (because it is rooted in concern for human dignity and autonomy). I hope future research will be able to examine the ways in which core Humanist values reinforce each other.

Nor have I explored here any of the ways in which practicing any of the six Humanist commitments might go wrong. The history of Humanism is not a universally positive one: like any tradition there are moments in which certain principles are pursued more vigorously, perverted, or simply misunderstood—this chapter says nothing on this front. However, I think the presentation of Humanism as a complex of interrelated values might be helpful in understanding how Humanism might be perverted: through the over-enthusiastic pursuit of one value to the detriment of others, for instance.

This way of thinking about Humanism opens many doors for future research. At this time the practical effect of Humanist efforts to practice their beliefs is criminally understudied: there are only a handful of peer-reviewed works which examine the efficacy of any of the concrete programs Humanist organizations have instituted to live out their values. Furthermore, much of the philosophical discourse on Humanism has focused on clarifying its foundational principles—the ground on which the life stance rests—rather than on the actions which necessarily flow from them. There is, in other words, a dearth of investigation into Humanist praxis. This is particularly unfortunate because, as I hope to have shown, Humanism has profound practical implications, and when practiced has the potential to enrich the lives of Humanists and to improve the world.


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(7.) Yong Chen, Confucianism as Religion: Controversies and Consequences (Boston: Brill, 1986).

(13.) Ibid.

(15.) American Humanist Association, “Humanist Manifesto III.”

(16.) Ibid.

(18.) American Humanist Association, “Humanist Manifesto I.”

(20.) American Humanist Association, “Humanist Manifesto III.”

(22.) Ibid., 103.

(23.) Ibid., 46.

(25.) Ibid., 61.

(43.) Ibid., 67–68.

(57.) American Humanist Association, “Humanist Manifesto I.”

(68.) Edward L. Ericson, The Humanist Way, 159.

(69.) Ibid., 160–161.

(70.) Greg Epstein, Good Without God, 214.

(72.) Goparaju Ramchandra Rao, An Atheist with Gandhi, n.d., 25:

(74.) American Humanist Association, “Humanist Manifesto III.”