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Debra Campbell / 23 April 2018

Introducing Humanism: Non-Religious Approaches to Life 

 Humanists UK

A review by RSA Member Deb Campbell.


This course was a curious experience.

On the positive side:

  • It was free;
  • The subject obviously interested many people, as there were more than 400 comments left by students as they answered questions and queried others each week;
  • It did make me think, told me many things I did not know – a benchmark of value and success for me – and helped clarified my own beliefs.

But – and it is a big one – like so much in our lives – especially here in Australia at the moment – the course seemed to me to be hijacked by alleged Christian ‘seekers’.  And all they were seeking to do actually, very politely, was

  • muddy the waters of the discussion by insisting that all the rational things humanism purports to stand for aren’t actually rational;
  • and/or were ‘discovered’ by Christians
  • and/or that, by questioning these ‘Christian discoveries’, others were picking on them.

I should state that there was no disrespectful discourse that I saw – I noticed that a couple of people seemed to have had their comments deleted but have no idea what they actually said.

In addition, all this apparently pleasant and ‘respectful’ undermining of the course was aided significantly in my view by the curiously irrational tone of at least some of the course materials and presenters.

I took up Meredith’s suggestion in RSA Daily to do the course to learn more about Humanism: what I thought I knew was that it was secular, rational, non-religious.

What I was not sure about was whether Humanism was in fact too human-focused: whether it took a position on the sustainability of the planet for the whole web of life, and not just those of us who have managed to wreck the joint.

By the end of Week 2, I was reassured on that point: humanism does, or at least can, view environmental sustainability as vital, and does not by and large view us as the most important creatures on the planet.  So far so good.

Throughout the course the comments were often dominated by those with religious views saying ‘we believe that too’ or ‘we thought of that’ or versions of these sorts of comments.  Big problems really set in in Week 6 with a discussion of the definition of humanism.

Now there are at least two good definitions from 1950 [2] and 2002 [3].  These were provided in the course materials without comment from the instructors and set out clearly what have been internationally recognised definitions of humanism.

Yet by the end of week 6 we were actually asked: “Is Humanism a religion” – surely an oxymoronic question??  Well, no, apparently: at 6.14 the course advised us all that:

“There is an alternative way of looking at the problem of whether one can be religious and a humanist, and that is to ask whether humanism is itself a religion. Some people adopt a more essentialist definition of religion. They look for the essential attributes of religion and will often highlight the beliefs in supernatural beings, realms, explanations, or influences over our lives. On this definition humanism cannot easily be defined as a religion.

Only if an outlook has as its premise the existence of one or more supernatural beings from which flow requirements about how we should live can it claim to be a religion.”

AC Grayling, Handbook of Humanism

They might also draw further distinctions between humanism and religions: scientifically rational, rather than revelatory; evidence-orientated, rather than faith-orientated; promoting a negotiated social order, rather than an ordained social order; valuing human freedom and meaning, rather than the following of some ultimate plan; human-centred ethics, rather than divine will.

Others will adopt a more functional definition and ask what purpose religion plays in somebody’s life, for example, the satisfaction of certain personal and social needs. For them, humanism plays the same role in people’s life as religions do and so there is nothing controversial about defining it as a religion.

Both types of definition have their limitations. Essentialist definitions can be overly simplified and fail to do justice to what religion means to many people. Functional definitions can become so broad that almost any belief or practice can be defined as a religion.

Some might prefer to simply ignore the question, claiming that the most satisfactory answer is to say that it merely depends on how you personally define religion: “Is humanism a religion? It’s up to you.” [4]

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that many humanists believe there are clear differences between humanism and many of the world’s largest and most well-known religions. Humanism may attempt to answer many of the same questions that religions attempt to – existential questions about identity, reality, meaning, and ethics – and its answers may, like religion, lead to a set of beliefs and values for human beings to live by.

However, humanists recognise that the answers to these questions are provisional. Reason and evidence may shed further light on them in the future. Nothing is set in stone …[5]

We were then asked to comment on the question:

Can, and should, the word religion be expansive enough to include humanism? Is whether humanism is a religion or not merely a question of definition? Does it matter whether we define humanism as a religion or not? (The further reading below may help you to answer these questions.)

That further reading included ‘Humanism is a Religion? Why Even “Anti-religion” Humanists Should Celebrate’ [6]

My responses were:

1.  Can, and should, the word religion be expansive enough to include humanism? 


2.  Is whether humanism is a religion or not merely a question of definition? 

Not for me: no tooth fairies, no religion.

3.  Does it matter whether we define humanism as a religion or not?

Yes it does see above re tooth fairies.

4.   (The further reading below may help you to answer these questions.)

FYI, it didn’t really. It contained lots of equivocation and twittering around intellectually.

All this lead me to the curious conclusion that a course entitled Introducing Humanism: Non-Religious Approaches to Life so prevaricated about definitions of what is and isn’t include in, or precluded from, humanism, that there seemed to be a situation where what I had taken to be the core principle of humanism – its aversion to supernatural explanations, beings and corporations – had been jettisoned in an effort to avoid hurting the tender feelings of the many Christians among the students.

Or perhaps to widen the definition so far that Humanism can be classed as a religion in order to get any state privileges the others get – as I said in one comment ‘cunning plan Baldrick’ but they have lost me.

My final thoughts on the course were:

I became an atheist when I was about six after attending Sunday School and realising it was all a lot of hypocritical nonsense. [This at a time when Father Christmas seemed plausible – mind you that could have been innate self-interest!]

I did not discover the term ‘humanist’ until more recently, and have been wary given what I thought was a focus on humans alone as against the rest of the planet.  I call myself a secular environmentalist, but thought I would do this course to see if I was wrong.

It appears I was wrong and humanism does include a non-human focus.

BUT all the discussion about religion and the possibility of humanist Christianity has completely put me off.

I don’t think it is an issue for debate, and if humanists do, then I am not one.

The course concluded with this:

This week we have explored the question of whether it is possible to define humanism or to say specifically what humanists believe. We have learned about the history of the word, and the history of the beliefs we associate with humanism today. We have taken a look at how many people would use the label ‘humanist’ to describe themselves. Finally we have investigated what kind of a thing humanism might be.

Let’s summarise what we have learned:

  1. It is difficult to precisely define what makes somebody a humanist; recognising the overlapping similarities and resemblances that the different uses of the word have in common can help us to understand what we are talking about when we talk about humanism
  2. Many humanists believe the diversity within humanism is part of each richness; humanism embodies the possibility of disagreement and questioning as part of its nature as an approach to life that is open to change
  3. The word ‘humanism’ has been employed in different ways since its origin in the Renaissance; since the nineteenth century it has come to describe the non-religious attitude to life studied in this course
  4. Although the word might not have been used to describe it, humanist thought can be found as far back as early as the sixth century BCE
  5. Humanism and religion may have influenced each other, but many humanists believe that humanism is not simply a product of, or reaction to, religion
  6. The UK has seen significant demographic change over the past 30-40 years with a majority of citizens now declaring they have no religion; around 5% of the population use the word ‘humanist’ to describe themselves (although that figure rises to about 17% when the word is explained to people).
  7. Whether one can be religious and a humanist depends on how one defines the two terms: being religious can refer to one’s beliefs, practices, identity, or cultural heritage
  8. Whether humanism is a religion or not depends partly on whether one adopts an essentialist of functional definition of religion; humanists believe humanism has several clear differences from the world’s major religions
  9. One way in which humanism differs from religions is in the way many humanists adopt the label as one which fits the beliefs and values they already held

To which my response was:

I have a real problems with items 7 and 8 – the reason I did this course was to discover whether humanism was so human-centric that it failed to address environmental issues.

I have found that it does not have this problem, but discovered to my dismay it has an even bigger one – there appears to be a significant trend or stream within the movement which accepts religious believers and thinkers in its ranks today.

This means I as an atheist of long standing must exclude myself from the label ‘humanist’.  I have no wish to identify with or be identified with supernaturalists.

The attraction of humanism was that we were a group who did not eschew personal responsibility for the bad things that happen to us and to the world we live in by shrugging off the bad stuff on to god’s will or other nonsense.  If humanism does not do this absolutely then I am not a supporter.

The best thing this course did was make me think about the beginnings of ethical behaviour and it has consolidated my understanding that good behaviour [and bad] comes to us directly from animals, and thus predates all religions which have simply plagiarised from the natural world.

The final step was an online survey which told me I am 100% Humanist, which is amusing as this course has dissuaded me from that view by spending so much time trying to incorporate the religious into what I thought was secular philosophy.

[1] https://www.futurelearn.com/courses

[2] http://iheu.org/humanism/the-amsterdam-declaration/the-amsterdam-declaration-1952/

[3] http://iheu.org/humanism/the-amsterdam-declaration

[4] Emphasis added

[5] ibid

[6] https://thehumanist.com/commentary/humanism-is-a-religion-why-even-anti-religion-humanists-should-celebrate

Deb CampbellBorn and educated in Melbourne, Dr Deb Campbell spent 25 years working operationally and as a research and policy analyst in intelligence, industrial relations and indigenous affairs in the private and public sectors, and in universities, in Victoria, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. She holds a PhD in industrial relations history.

Deb has written business book reviews for the mainstream press, contributed to local newspapers and self-published a history of a local community enterprise. Most recently she is the author of Doing Us Slowly: what’s happened to the Australian voluntary euthanasia debate?

All the more reason.