What is Secular Humanism and How Does it Differ From Atheism?

portrait of woman

Secular humanism is much broader than atheism and entails many things that atheism does not. This is easy to understand if you remember that atheism refers to nothing more than the lack of belief in any sort of gods. Some people do not like to hear this and disparage what I just said as "dictionary atheism." I find this unfortunate since communication is impaired when we forget that words have meaning. We don't need to expand atheism to include everything secular humanism includes, and we don't need to demand that all atheists become secular humanists. It is okay for them to co-exist as having distinct meanings. Unlike atheism, secular humanism takes us much closer to something resembling a worldview. So what is secular humanism?

We begin with humanism. According to Prof. Paul Kurtz, "Humanism is an ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook" which can be traced "back to the philosophers and poets of ancient Greece and Rome, Confucian China, and the Charvaka movement in classical India." Humanism is an optimistic human-centered stance, entailing "confidence in the power of human beings to solve their own problems and conquer uncharted frontiers." Humanists believe that reason, science, and technology can benefit humanity and seek to promote their growth. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? I think so too.

Adding the "secular" modifier in front of humanism stresses scientific naturalism. That is, secular humanists are those who reject the existence spiritual/supernatural entities because there is no evidence for any such entities. In this way, secular humanists go beyond atheism, rejecting not just the notion of god(s) but of anything supernatural. This seems to have at least one interesting implication: while atheists are free to believe in ghosts or other supernatural entities that are not gods, this is not something we should expect from secular humanists.

Secular humanists maintain that reason and empiricism are the paths to knowledge. The secular humanist understands that religious faith has nothing to do with knowledge. It is not a different way of knowing; it is not a way of knowing at all. Thus, I think it would be fair to say that secular humanism has some skepticism baked into it as well as some atheism.

Ethically, secular humanism has something important to offer too. Secular humanists believe that ethics are derived from reason rather than superstition. Some of the core ethical precepts (e.g., the "Golden Rule") predate Christianity. This poses no problem for secular humanists because they are under no obligation to defend "holy" books. I think it makes sense to associate secular humanism with empathy and compassion for others. In fact, I think we could probably characterize these as being among the hallmarks of secular humanism. That is, an important part of what makes secular humanists who they are is that they give a damn about humanity and are motivated to reduce human suffering.

In the political arena, secular humanists are proponents of democracy, valuing human rights and their application to all humans. Thus, secular humanists are committed to humanity as a whole and less likely to be infected with divisive idiocies like patriotism, nationalism, or tribalism. The secular humanist strives to promote human dignity and respect, discarding inherently divisive religious and political dogma.

This post started life as a condensed version of a previous post addressing secular humanism but has been revised a few times to improve clarity.