By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

    Is humanism a philosophy or a religion?
    Is humanism an offspring of religious traditions or is it anti-religious?
    Can a person be religious and humanist at the same time?
    Are all secular humanists anti-religious?
    Can secular humanists and religious humanists work together on humanitarian projects?
    Is humanism a philosophy, a way of life or a communal lifestyle?

    These are some of the questions I encountered when I studied humanistic literature created by religious and secular scholars and listened to the passionate discussions of my free thinking agnostic, atheist and humanist friends. On one hand I can say that there are as many humanisms as humanists because every humanist has his/her own unique interpretation of humanistic terminology, philosophy and lifestyle based on his/her studies and life experiences. But on the other hand I can easily classify all humanists in three distinct groups.

              For the first group of humanists, humanistic philosophy is a modern way of thinking and living that people have adopted over the last couple of centuries after scientific and secular thinking was introduced to humanity by the discoveries of philosophers and scientists like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. They believe that it is the philosophy of the future and as the frontiers of science expand, the frontiers of organized religions will shrink.

              For the second group of humanists, humanistic philosophy existed as part of traditional religions all over the world. They believe humanism is the essence of all religions and humanistic philosophy is born from the womb of religion.

    The third group of humanists believes that in every culture there were two parallel traditions. The majority followed a religious tradition and believed in traditional concepts of God, scriptures, prophets, life after death and divine revelations and interventions, while the minority believed in secular and humanistic values. For them, human beings rather than God were at the centre of the philosophy. Human experience and rational thinking were more important than blind faith and divine revelations. This group considers Moses, Jesus and Mohammad as the forefathers of religious tradition and Buddha, Confucius and Socrates as the leaders of secular and rational tradition.

              Pat Duffy Hutcheon in her book The Road To Reason…Landmarks in the Evolution of Humanist Thought raised the question, “Was the Buddha the first Humanist?” (Ref 1 p1) as Buddha considered human experiences more important than divine revelations. Pat Hutcheon shared that modern Buddhist scholar Rhys Davids, after studying the original writings of Buddha in Pali “claimed that the Buddha had attempted a religious reform aimed at deposing them all.” (Ref 1 p 5). Buddha had stated,

    “Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it

    Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held

    Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books

    Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin

    Believe nothing just because someone else believes it

    Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.”

              Confucius also included humanistic concepts in his philosophy. Pat Hutcheon writes, “…tradition tells us that when Confucius was asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits, he answered, ‘until you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts?’ And when asked about the status of the dead, he said, ‘until you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead.’” (Ref 1 p 15)

              We are all aware that Socrates was the forefather of Greek Philosophers and his disciples Plato and Aristotle were instrumental in developing the rationalist movement in the West.

              When we focus on the term Humanism from an epistemological point of view we realize that the word has its roots in homo (man) and humus (earth) and has humanity as the focus of the doctrine. Nicolas Walter in his book Humanism…Finding Meaning in the Word has given an excellent overview of the history and tradition of humanistic philosophy and movement. He highlights that the essence of humanistic philosophy was expressed by fifth century Greek philosopher Protagoras who stated “man is the measure of all things.” (Ref 2 p 10) Stoic philosophers also emphasized the tradition of “universal brotherhood of all human beings.” (Ref 2 p 11)

              Over the centuries, philosophers of humanistic tradition emphasized that all human beings are equal and deserve equal respect and that all citizens of the state should enjoy equal rights and privileges. Humanist philosophers promoted humanism to counteract the barbarism and tribalism that was practiced for centuries and was the root cause of many human sufferings. Because of barbarism people were treated cruelly and unjustly and because of tribalism people were deprived of human rights because they belonged to an underprivileged class. When privileged people of a tribe gained power, they were likely to abuse it and deprive poor people of their own tribe and vulnerable people of other tribes of their basic human rights.

              Although humanistic philosophy was prevalent and practised in different shapes and forms over the centuries, the terms humanist and humanism were popularized by John Addington Symond in 1875 in his famous books on the Renaissance in Italy. (Ref 2 p 26) The essence of humanistic philosophy was presented by Friedrich Feuerbach in 1843 in his book The Religion of the Future when he stated that “religion should be based on man rather than God” and, that “the supreme quality was not divinity but humanity”. In the West the humanistic approach remained as part of Christianity for centuries and gradually became the centrepiece. In 1825 French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon mentioned in his book New Christianity that all men ought to act towards each other as brothers. (Ref 2 p 45)

    Gradually humanistic philosophy became independent of religion and adopted a secular orientation. In this way we had two groups of humanists: Religious Humanists and Secular Humanists, a division that exists until today.

    The term  “secularism” was created in 1846 by George Jacob Holyoake in order to describe a “form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life” and the term “secular humanism” was used in 1958 by Leo Pfeffer to mean “those unaffiliated with organized religion and concerned with human values.”

              As secular humanism grew there was more emphasis on reason than revelation. Secular Humanists encouraged people to think rationally, logically and objectively and not rely on blind faith and divine revelations to solve their problems. American philosopher John Dewey “saw science as a universal approach to solving human problems.” (Ref 1 p 74) Although secular humanists tried to distance themselves from religious traditions, Christians in the West continued to insist that humanism was part of Christianity. Nicolas Walter writes, “Christians have frequently pointed out that the original humanists were all Christians, and Catholics have correctly pointed out that most of them were actually Catholics. It should indeed be recognized that the Judeo-Christian tradition has strong humanistic elements.” (Ref 1 p 59) And we all know that Islam has close links with Judeo-Christian tradition and many Muslim scholars like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Abul Kalam Azad, Abdus Salam and Ghulam Ahmed Pervaiz also claimed that humanism is part of Islamic tradition and one can be a Muslim as well as a Humanist. They belonged to the philosophical tradition of Islam that encouraged Muslims to study science and develop scientific thinking while still staying within the fold of Islam. Even some Western scholars acknowledge that in the 12th century, Muslim scholars were instrumental in promoting scientific and humanistic thought all over the world.  Paul Kurtz states, “Humanism began to reappear with the re-discovery and translation by the Islamic philosopher Averroes of the works of Aristotle in the twelfth century, and their transmission to Europe during the Middle Ages.” (Ref 3 p 11)

              The relationship between religious and humanistic traditions remained close until the 19th century when the secular movement became strong and centres for Secular Humanists appeared in different parts of the world including Europe, Asia and North America. In the West many people who belonged to Universalist and Unitarian traditions gradually became closer to the humanist tradition.

              British biologist Julian Huxley who pioneered the concepts of scientific humanism and evolutionary humanism became a major force in Europe. In his popular book Religion without Revelation published in 1927 he defined “the idea of humanism” as “human control by human efforts in accordance with human ideals.” In one of his lectures he described it as “a religion based on science and human nature.” (Ref 2 p 76)

              The discussion started by Julian Huxley has been taken to new heights by British zoologist Richard Dawkins in his books The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and The Blind Watchmaker. Pat Hutcheon comments on his writings in these words, “Dawkins notes that science shares with religion the claim to answer fundamental questions concerning the origin and nature of life and the cosmos…with one important difference. That difference is while scientific beliefs are held tentatively on the basis of evidence, religious ones rely only on faith and authority of myth. And the problem facing us all is that, if humankind is to survive, myth must at some time give way to fact.” (Ref 1 p 164)

    Over the decades secular humanists emphasized that humanism was a philosophy and not a religion, as it did not accept the concepts of God, scriptures and prophets, as they are part of traditional religions. Julian Huxley was instrumental in taking the message of humanism all over the world. He presided over an International Conference of Humanism and Ethical Culture in 1952 in Amsterdam where delegates from America and India and other parts of the world participated. In that founding congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) a draft was presented to define Humanism. That draft was modified over the decades and finally in 1991 in Prague and in Mexico in 1996 the definition of humanism took the following shape:

              “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. [It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities]. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”  (Ref 2 p 15)

              In the 20th century, while secular scientists, biologists and zoologists were exploring the mysteries of nature, secular psychologists like Eric Fromm and Abraham Maslow were giving birth to humanistic psychology. They were studying “religious experiences” as human experiences. They believed that “spirituality” could be studied as part of humanity and not part of divinity. Maslow called those experiences “peak experiences” and proved that they could occur in people who do not believe in God and organized religions. Maslow tried to build a bridge between traditional religion and traditional science by redefining them. He stated, “Sooner or later, we shall have to redefine both religion and science.” (Ref 5 p 13) By calling spiritual experiences  “peak experiences”, he not only wanted to present spirituality as part of humanity rather than divinity, he also wanted such experiences to be scientifically analyzed and “accepted as real by clergy-men and atheists alike.” (Ref 5 p 54) Paul Kurtz acknowledged the contributions of humanist psychologists in these words, “…modern theories of self-actualization draw upon humanistic psychology as described by Abraham H. Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Eric Fromm. Humanistic psychologists tend to view human beings as potentially good. They argue that each human’s development of moral tendencies depends in part on the nurturing care received by the individual and the satisfaction of biogenic and socio-genic needs (including homeostatic and growth needs, self respect, love, the experience of belonging to some community, creativity and the capacity for peak experiences.” (Ref 3 p 26)

              As the secular humanistic tradition became stronger Paul Kurtz took over and founded the magazine Free Inquiry and a publishing house Prometheus Books, in Amherst, New York to support secular humanists and publish their articles and books. Such efforts gave voice to the secular and atheistic minority of the world but took the conflict between religious and secular people to new heights. There was a time when religious people and humanists could engage in a productive dialogue but gradually the dialogue has broken down in some areas. Free thinkers who have been silenced, abused and persecuted in their communities and countries are sharing their stories in international forums. Since the number of non-believers including agnostics, atheists, free thinkers and humanists worldwide has risen from 1 % in 1900 to 19% in 2000, they are a significant minority. Their voices are a mixed blessing. On a positive note they can no longer be silenced but on a negative note, in the words of Nicolas Walter, “Nowadays humanism is generally seen as definitely separate from and indeed hostile to religion.” (Ref 2 p 114)

              With the rise of religious fundamentalism all over the world in the twentieth century, the confrontation between religious fundamentalists and atheists is escalating. Paul Kurtz in his latest editorial in Free Inquiry titled “Are ‘Evangelical Atheists’ Too Outspoken?” wrote “The recent publication of four books…The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian nation, both by Sam Harris, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett—has provoked great controversy and consternation…Let’s be fair: Until now, it has been virtually impossible to get a fair hearing for critical comment upon uncontested religious claims….The war against secularism by the Religious Right is unremitting. Even New York Times columnists are running scared. We note the column by Nicolas Kristof (Dec 3, 2006) calling for a ‘truce on religion’. He deplores the ‘often obnoxious atheist offensive’ of “secular fundamentalists.” (Ref 4 p 1)

              Paul Kurtz has not only challenged Christian fundamentalists, he has also taken on Muslim fundamentalists by supporting, encouraging and publishing books by writers like Ibn Warraq and Taslima Nasrin who got into violent confrontations with right wing fundamentalist Muslims. Because of the anti-humanistic blasphemy law and the violent reactions of Muslims, these writers have either changed their names and identities or gone underground to avoid persecution and execution. Salman Rushdie is an example. They have published books like Leaving Islam in which “apostates speak out”. Such ex-Muslims seem to be fighting an Islamic guerrilla war with their atheistic ambushes against the army of right wing fundamentalists. It is unfortunate and indeed sad that many mainstream Muslims perceive these writers more as anti-Islam than pro-humanism and thus they win more arguments than hearts. These writers have been waiting for the day when their motherlands will become secular and they can go home They wonder whether that day will come in their lifetime or they will die in exile.

    Some anti-religious atheists and secular humanists get into angry and bitter debates with religious fundamentalists, while there are other secular humanists that welcome religious humanists and focus on similarities rather than differences. They have developed mutually respectful relationships with religious people and their communities. Rather than entering into heated academic theological and atheistic debates, they focus on common projects to decrease human suffering, raise social consciousness and create humanistic communities so that people can live in peace and harmony. They want to create secular states where church and state, mosque and law, synagogue and politics, temples and parliament would be kept separate. In those states laws would be made in a democratic fashion respecting secular tradition, a tradition where there will exist not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. One such example was that of South Africa when religious humanist Desmond Tutu and secular humanist Nelson Mandela worked together to create a just society in South Africa. They worked hand in hand to fight apartheid, Mandela staying in jail and Tutu staying out. After their political success they not only ensured a democratic multi-party election in South Africa but also became Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

              In my opinion Humanism is a philosophy and lifestyle that liberates not only people’s minds from the shackles of blind faith by promoting rational and scientific thinking but also their lives from oppressive, exploitative and prejudiced political regimes. The goal is for human beings to live with dignity, with the opportunity to become fully human individually and collectively. Those are the dreams of all humanists and those dreams can come true if we rise above our differences and join hands towards common goals.


    1. Hutcheon Pat Duffy…The Road to Reason…Landmarks in the Evolution of Humanist Thought…Canadian Humanist Publications

    Ottawa Canada 2001

    2. Walter Nicolas…Humanism…Finding Meaning in the Word

    Prometheus Books  Amherst New York USA 1998

    3. Kurtz Paul…What is Secular Humanism? …Prometheus Books Amherst New York USA 2006

    4. Kurtz Paul…Are ‘Evangelical Atheists’ Too Outspoken? …Free Inquiry Magazine ,Jan 29, 2007…Council for Secular Humanism.

    5. Maslow Abraham…Religions, Values and Peak Experiences…Penguin Books USA 1970

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