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The Geography of Humanism

The Essentials of the Faith

Founded: Humanism was founded by the poet Petrarch in the fourteenth century by applying questions of humanism from Greek philosophy to Christian thought. Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More wrote important humanist works criticizing the Church during the Renaissance. Secular Humanism is a movement which was never founded, but one which has come of age with the rise of science. Significant figures include both secular and religious humanists Auguste Comte, John H. Dietrich, G. J. Holyoake, and T.H. Huxley. Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant laid the groundwork for the emergence of Secular Humanism. Writers such as Charles Darwin, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Bertrand Russell have all made significant contributions to the rise of secular humanism.

Adherents: Humanists are widely distributed across the world and are scattered throughout the spectrum of modern society. Secular Humanists are more concentrated in western and socialist societies.

Distribution: Secular Humanists are sometimes hard to classify, and perhaps even more difficult to obtain demographic data about. The following distribution lists two groups: Nonreligious and Atheists. Nonreligious are defined as persons professing no religion, nonbelievers, agnostics, freethinkers, and dereligionized secularists indifferent to all religion. Atheists are defined as persons professing atheism, skepticism, disbelief, or irreligion, including antireligious (opposed to all religion). These terms and figures were obtained from Markham, pp. 356-357:

Area Adherents Population Percentage Adherents Population Percentage
Latin America17,159,0003.7%3,224,0000.7%
Northern America25,265,0009.0%1,319,0000.5%

Major Teachings: Secular Humanism emphasizes the worth of the individual, coupled with concern for the quality of this life, without reference to any deity, afterlife, or religious dogma. Theistic Humanists insist on human values and deny the complete impotence of man in working out his own salvation. However, man is not alone as God works with him.

Significant Writings: Secular Humanism has no canon of scripture as such. The writings of the persons mentioned above were significant in the formation of Secular Humanism.

Major Divisions: Humanism can be separated into secular and religious or theistic segments. Humanistic thinking has even pervaded such fields as Psychology, forming the "third force" or the "human potential movement" as represented by the perspectives of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

The Details about Humanism

In order to define Secular Humanism, it is necessary to quote the selected summary of beliefs found in Markham, pp. 49-50:
  1. The rise of science has eliminated the need for the God hypothesis. For example, God is not responsible for the weather.
  2. Metaphysical arguments between religions are impossible to resolve. No one knows, nor can find out, whether the ultimate reality is an Allah, a Trinity, or Brahman.
  3. Religion is deeply destructive, violent, and intolerant.
  4. Instead, we need to recognize that there is no ultimate meaning to life. As human beings, we face extinction when we die. We must impose our own meaning on life.
  5. We ought to work hard to create a better world for ourselves and each other.
This is a simplified view of the general beliefs of Secular Humanism, so let us define the terms secularism and humanism. According to the Encyclopedia of Religion (p. 700), secularism is "specifically a variety of utilitarian social ethic (named and formulated by G. J. Holyoake, 1817-1906) which seeks human improvement without reference to religion and exclusively by means of human reason, science, and social organization. In general, that movement of protest against the dominance and control of human life by ecclesiastical bodies or by religious faith and dogma which had its new birth at the Renaissance." According to the The New Encyclopædia Britannica (p. 137), "In recent years the term humanism has often been used to refer to value systems that emphasize the personal worth of each individual but that do not include a belief in God. There is a certain segment of the Unitarian Universalist Association that is nontheistic and yet uses religious forms to promote human values. In the same vein the 19th-century French Positivist August Comte established a nontheistic religion of humanity to promote social reform."

For a determination of the global population of secular humanists it has been necessary to substitute the terms atheists and nonreligious; included in these categories are skeptics and agnostics. It may be enlightening to define some of these terms:

The name given for the opinion that a Divine Being, a supernatural world, or human immortality, are subjects that cannot be proved according to accepted mean of rational demonstration. T.H. Huxley is said to have invented the word in 1869. Agnosticism is often used in a wider sense to denote skepticism; but true agnosticism should mean profession of ignorance about the reality of what cannot be apprehended by human senses (Brandon, p. 48).
1. The denial that there is any god, no matter in what sense "god" may be defined.
2. The denial that there exists a being corresponding to some particular definition of god; frequently, but unfortunately, used to denote the denial of God as personal (the denial of theism), or more particularly, of a personal god as defined in a particular creed (Ferm, p. 44).
The view that some particular type of knowledge is inherently impossible; e.g. metaphysical knowledge of things in themselves as distinguished from experience (Kant) or of the objects of religious belief such as God or immortality (Ferm, p. 713).

The Geography of Humanism

Theistic Humanism, followed by Secular Humanism, has greatly affected most aspects of human social, religious, educational, and governmental institutions today as well as in the history of western civilization since the Renaissance. Once control of human thought was wrested from ecclesiastical authorities, man was free to redefine humanity and human institutions from a scientific, rather than a religious point of view.

Governments no longer depend upon the doctrine of Divine Right, but are now founded upon such humanist ideas as "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..." (Declaration of Independence). Public education is no longer based on religious doctrine, but on scientific inquiry and empirical observation. Finally, a basic interest in the rights of mankind rather than rulings on canonical law, permeate the institutions of justice in America.


Brandon, S.G.F., (Editor), Dictionary of Comparative Religion. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.

Ferm, Vergilius, (Editor), Encyclopedia of Religion. Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Company, 1964.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

The New Encyclopædia Britannica, volume 6 Micropædia. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1994.

O'Brien, Joanne, and Martin Palmer, The State of Religion Atlas. New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Links for More Information

Secular Humanism
American Ethical Union
The American Humanist Association
Council for Secular Humanism
Democratic Socialists of America
The International Society for Environmental Ethics (the newsletter is edited by MSU Professor Jack Weir)

Religious Humanism
Unitarian Universalist Association
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations
Version 1.0 dated 1.15.98

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