Understanding Humanism

Dos and don’ts

How to present humanism and avoid misconceptions

Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

When it comes to teaching about humanism, it’s important that students understand that the above is not a doctrine that spells out how a humanist must behave. It’s perhaps more appropriate to understand ‘humanist’ as a descriptive label that can be applied to those who adopt such an approach to life. In that sense, the word operates differently from many religious labels. A Christian, Muslim, or Hindu will normally adopt the label (or be labelled) as (or before) they develop the associated beliefs and practices. In contrast, a humanist will typically discover the label after (sometimes long after) they have already formed the associated beliefs. There is no compulsion to self-identify. While around 5% of the UK population adopt the label ‘humanist’, many more will have a humanist worldview, but will not use the word to describe themselves.

Where might we go wrong in teaching about humanism?

We need to support students’ understanding of what humanists typically do believe in and stand for (freedom, reason, empathy, human rights, making the most of the one life we have), not just the things they do not (a god, an afterlife, an external ‘ultimate’ meaning and purpose to the universe).

Teaching about non-religious worldviews involves more than covering some of the reasons people might not believe in a god. Atheism is just one small part of a non-religious approach to life. For many humanists, their atheism is of little relevance to their daily lives. There is a danger that if humanism is not explored more fully, then students might develop the mistaken impression that humanism is defined in opposition to religion and that individual humanists spend more of their time focused on what they don’t believe in rather than what they do. 

This approach is perhaps not helped by the use of particular individuals as examples of the non-religious. Richard Dawkins, for example, devotes a great deal of his writing to challenges to religion. It is important that students don’t see him as representative of humanists, or the non-religious more widely. Humanists should be discussed for reasons other than flagging up criticisms of religious approaches to life in order to explore the religious responses (using the non-religious to better understand religion).

It is important that students are presented with a wide range of voices when covering humanism. Teachers should look for diverse examples of humanists from around the world. Understanding Humanism features personal video stories from many humanists that can help students to develop a richer understanding of the humanist approach to life. Humanism is not simply a modern Western phenomenon. Humanist approaches to life have a long and diverse history, and humanist thought can be found in writings from ancient India, China, and Greece.

The staff and board of Humanists International

Many teaching resources focus on the diversity of belief that exists within those who define themselves as ‘non-religious’. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as teachers are accompanying this with a similar exploration of the diversity that exists within those who hold religious identities. Some people who describe themselves as ‘non-religious’ will hold what could be described as ‘religious’ beliefs: they are not all atheists, for example. However, the reverse is also true: significant numbers of self-identified Jews and Anglicans, for example, do not believe in a god (or have strong doubts). Labels hide diversity across the board. A sense of belonging is not always an accurate guide to belief or behaviour. Religion and belief are messy.

It is important to avoid the often restrictive religious lens through which non-religious worldviews have traditionally been explored. We should move away from questions that are perhaps of particular concern to the religious and instead focus more on the ways non-religious people make sense of themselves and the world.

In summary…

  • Explore more than just questions about why non-religious people might reject religion or not believe in a god.
  • Present a range of non-religious voices rather than just those who criticise religion.
  • Humanism is not something that has simply arisen in recent history in response to religion.
  • Humanism should not simply be presented as something that defines itself in relation to religion – many humanists do not concern themselves with religion at all.
  • It is not enough to use humanism to flag up criticisms of religious perspectives only in order to explore the religious responses.
  • The non-religious should not be presented en masse. Like we present specific examples of religious worldviews, we should introduce students to humanism as an example of a non-religious worldview, and to the same level of depth.
  • Just as we study patterns of impact and influence in religion, so we should with those who live life without it. 
  • Acknowledge diversity of belief lies within those who describe themselves as non-religious and those with religious identities.
  • Most importantly, focus on what humanists do believe in and the questions and issues that are of concern to them.


Other useful information (see also What isn’t humanism)

  • Sometimes people will describe themselves as being ‘religious humanists’. This may be because they feel they belong to a religion in a cultural sense but hold humanist beliefs. Some may simply define ‘religion’ in a way that includes all worldviews or approaches to life, and therefore define humanism as a religion (this is more common in the USA than the UK). However, some may hold religious beliefs and define humanism differently. It is important that students are aware that the word is being used here in a different way. Most modern dictionary definitions of humanism today, however, define humanism as a non-religious worldview and define humanists as atheists or agnostics. That is also the way most humanist organisations understand the term.
  • Some humanists may use the word ‘spiritual’ to describe themselves. When doing this, typically they are using the word to describe a purely natural feeling of awe and wonder, connection, or escape from the day-to-day demands of life, not a belief in anything supernatural.
  • Humanism is as opposed to atheist totalitarianism (e.g. Stalinism) as it is to religious authoritarianism. Humanists are also typically opposed to egoism, relativism, and nihilism.
  • The word ‘humanism’ may contain the word ‘human’, but that does not mean that human beings are the sole object of concern. Humanists are typically concerned about animal welfare, believing we should work to reduce the suffering of all sentient creatures, and support work to reduce the human impact on the environment. They will differ on their attitudes towards eating meat.


Tips for teachers to ensure inclusive teaching about religion and worldviews

  • Avoid defining the non-religious as ‘unbelievers’ (they do hold beliefs) or considering their approach to life as one of ‘living without god’.
  • Use inclusive language wherever possible (for example, ‘belief’, ‘worldview’, ‘philosophy’, or ‘approach to life’, instead of ‘religion’ or ‘faith’).
  • Include non-religious perspectives when addressing questions of life, death, meaning, purpose, and ethical issues to students to see that non-religious answers are available.
  • When teaching about rites of passage, include humanist ceremonies and other ways non-religious people may mark important milestones, life events, and the passing of time.
  • When setting tasks, make sure someone who is non-religious can participate without any barriers (for example, all students can write a reflection, while writing a prayer may not be appropriate for all).
  • Be clear when teaching religious stories (for example, creation stories and miracles) that many people (non-religious and religious) do not believe these are true stories.
  • Be clear that ‘moral’ and ‘religious’ are not the same thing.
  • Make sure any statement about any worldview is prefaced by, ‘Some people believe…’ rather than ‘We believe…’
  • Don’t assume children and young people come from a religious background, hold the same religious beliefs as their parents, or believe in an afterlife or a god.

Good teaching about religion and worldviews means all students, religious and non-religious, can understand that it is possible to lead a good, happy, and meaningful life.

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Illustrations by Hyebin Lee