Secular Humanism Defined

Secular Humanism’s Unique Selling Proposition

Coined four decades ago by advertising executive Rosser Reeves, “unique selling proposition” means a distinctive and meaningful characteristic that only one among a cluster of competitors exhibits.1 It’s the thing that makes your message or product different from any other. If secular humanism exhibits such a characteristic, then that would almost certainly justify its existence as an independent life stance—and demonstrate the need for a dedicated organization to be its advocate.

To me, secular humanism’s unique selling proposition is rooted in the balance it strikes between cognitive and emotional/affective commitments. Paul Kurtz captures this when he identifies knowledge (cognitive) and courage and caring (affective) as “key humanist virtues.”2 Christopher Hitchens makes the same point more obliquely when he contrasts “those who believe that god favors thuggish, tribal human designs, and those who don’t believe in god and who oppose thuggery and tribalism on principle” (emphasis added).3

Secular humanism’s cognitive thrust lies in its naturalistic worldview; its emotional or affective thrust lies in its positive ethical outlook. Each element is equally essential to secular humanism; neither stands alone. I submit that this meaningfully differentiates secular humanism from religious humanism, and from simple atheism as well. Continuing with Hitchens’s language, secular humanists necessarily disbelieve in God (naturalism) and just as necessarily oppose thuggery and tribalism on principle (an outgrowth of ethics). Of course, many atheists, agnostics, and religious humanists do the same. But when atheists and agnostics adopt positive ethics, they do so for reasons independent of their atheism or agnosticism. When religious humanists defend naturalism, they do so for reasons outside the boundaries of their religious humanism. Only for the secular humanist do both commitments arise organically within his or her life stance.

Drawing Clear Boundaries:

Pencil Sketch

Unlike religious humanism, secular humanism eschews transcendentalism in any and all forms. Depending on the context, transcendentalism can mean outright mysticism, the “spiritual” (itself a term with many meanings), or simply a rush toward emotional closure disproportionate to the knowable data. However defined, transcendentalism is rejected by secular humanists in favor of a rigorous philosophical naturalism: “naturalists maintain that there is insufficient scientific evidence for spiritual interpretations of reality and the postulation of occult causes.”4

How about atheism? When people ask me whether I’m an atheist, I say, “Yes, but that’s just the beginning.” Unlike simple atheism, secular humanism affirms an ethical system that is:

  • rooted in the world of experience;
  • objective; and
  • equally accessible to every human who cares to inquire into value issues.

I make this point cautiously, since religionists often falsely accuse atheists of having no values. Most atheists I know have strong value systems. In fact, some of my favorite atheists are secular humanists without knowing it. But atheism is only a position on the existence of God, not a comprehensive life stance. Nothing about atheism as such compels atheists to adopt any particular value system. British author Jeaneane Fowler noted that “while atheism is a ubiquitous characteristic of secular humanism, the most that can be said of an atheist is that he or she does not have belief in any kind of deity; the majority of atheists have no connection” with secular humanism.5

The same is true for agnostics (who doubt God’s existence on epistemological grounds) and freethinkers (who engage in systematic, rational criticism of religious doctrines). Like atheism, these stances are not morally self-sufficient. Freethinkers who call it unfair of God to condemn his creations to hell must reach outside of freethought to construct a concept of fairness. Secular humanism is unique among these life stances in that it contains within itself all the raw materials needed to construct inspiring value systems that are both realistic and humane.

What Are Secular Humanist Ethics?

Secular humanism propounds a rational ethics based on human experience. It is consequentialist: ethical choices are judged by their results. Secular humanist ethics appeals to science, reason, and experience to justify its ethical principles. Observers can evaluate the real-world consequences of moral decisions and intersubjectively affirm their conclusions. Kurtz and other secular humanists argue that all human societies, even deeply religious ones, invariably construct consensus moralities on consequentialist principles. Millennia of human experience have given rise to a core of “common moral decencies” shared by almost all.6

Human happiness and social justice are the larger goals of secular humanist ethics. For Owen Flanagan, “[e]thics … is systematic inquiry into the conditions (of the world, of individual persons, and of groups of persons) that permit humans to flourish.”7 These conditions include freedom from want and fear, freedom of conscience, freedom to inquire, freedom to self-govern, and so on. Undergirding all of these is a keen commitment to individualism. Secular humanism takes upon itself the Enlightenment project of emancipating individuals from illicit controls of every type: the political control of repressive regimes; the ecclesiastical control of organized religion; even the social controls of societal and family expectations, conventional morality, and the tyranny of the village. This does not mean that anything goes but rather that social and political limits on human freedom must be justified by the individual and social benefits they confer.

Secular humanism affirms the values of both creative and individual self-realization and cosmopolitanism. Therefore, secular humanists sometimes defy ideals of the Left as well as the Right. Free Inquiry has opposed political and religious correctness, defending the right to criticize any teaching, even teachings revered by religious or ethnic communities. We support social and cultural fluidity, for example, championing intermarriage and assimilation when liberal opinion has sought to preserve static ethnic and religious identities.

The Heritage of Secular Humanism

Though different from atheism and religious humanism, secular humanism owes a great deal to both traditions. In fact, secular humanism is best understood as a synthesis of atheism and freethought, from which it derives its cognitive component, and religious humanism, from which it derives its emotional/affective component.

Atheism and freethought trace their roots to ancient Greek philosophy, with its emphasis on rational inquiry and curiosity about the workings of nature. Other sources included early Chinese Confucianism, ancient Indian materialists, and Roman Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. Submerged during the Dark Ages, freethought re-emerged in the Renaissance. With the Enlightenment, rationalist and empiricist thinkers laid foundations for the modern scientific outlook. Utilitarians emancipated morality from religion, foreshadowing consequentialism. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ushered in a golden age for freethought. With the turn of the twentieth century, this flame flickered, but an abiding tradition remained that decades later would emerge as secular humanism.

Religious humanism also began with Greek philosophy and its hope of achieving the good life through human agency. Rome’s Epicureans and Stoics offered early human-centered value systems. Renaissance humanism, a literary and philosophical movement, assigned prime importance to earthly happiness. Ironically, even the Reformation left its stamp on religious humanism, infusing the notion of the primacy of individual conscience. Liberal religion would be religious humanism’s immediate ancestor. Universalism, originally a Christian denial of eternal damnation, was founded in 1780. Unitarianism, which renounced the Trinity, formed its first American congregation in 1785 and organized as a church in 1819. In 1876, Ethical Culture was founded by Felix Adler; it continues as today’s American Ethical Union.

Religious humanism budded from liberal religion in the early twentieth century. Humanist Manifesto I (1933) crystallized a movement among Unitarians that was already two decades old. Drafted by philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, Unitarian minister Raymond Bragg, and others, the unfortunately named Manifesto was signed by thirty-three Unitarian ministers and also philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952).

The principal religious humanist organization is the American Humanist Association (AHA), founded in 1941. (While AHA’s aims extend beyond religious humanism and include naturalistic humanism, it serves as “home organization” for a great many religious humanists.) Other religious humanist organizations include the American Ethical Union, the North American Committee for Humanism, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the former Friends of Religious Humanism, now calling itself “HUUmanists,” and the Humanist Society of Friends. The latter two organizations are now included within the AHA. Religious humanism defends its identity vigorously. For instance, in 2001, an Austin, Texas, Ethical Culture society sued the state of Texas, winning recognition as religious for tax purposes although it asserts no belief in a deity.8

Though the term secular humanism appeared prior to 1961, no organization existed specifically to advocate it until Paul Kurtz and others formed the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) in 1980. The name expressed opposition to totalitarian nontheisms such as those in the communist world. CODESH issued A Secular Humanist Declaration, the successor to Humanist Manifesto II (1973). Free Inquiry was launched late in 1980, publishing the full text of the Declaration in its inaugural issue. In 1996, CODESH shortened its name to the Council for Secular Humanism, the fall of communism having rendered the modifier “democratic” unnecessary. In 1999, the Council issued Humanist Manifesto 2000, the most recent restatement of the secular humanist position.

Secularism, Religion, and Confusion

We come to the crux: Is secular humanism a religion? An orientation document on the [former] Council for Secular Humanism Web site said no: “Secular humanism lacks essential characteristics of a religion.”9 Everyday parlance assumes that religion has to do with a god or gods, life eternal, and similar supernatural claims. Yet thinkers as varied as John Dewey, Paul Tillich (1886–1965), and A.H. Maslow (1908–1970) sought to extend the definition of the words religion or religious so as to encompass “ultimate concerns” with or without transcendental content. In A Common Faith, Dewey chose to define religion and religious dissimilarly. Religion retained its common association with the transcendent or supernatural while religious was held to subsume any commitment of deep significance.10

Still, common—that is, pre-Deweyan—usage holds that the genuinely religious necessarily involves the supernatural or transcendent. Common usage has its advantages, not least that it sustains discrete meanings for terms like philosophy and ethics. I still stand by a definition of religion I offered in these pages in 1996: Religion is a “life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.”11

From this definition, it follows that in order to be a genuine religious humanist, one must believe in something that is unprovable in this world. One needn’t believe in a deity or a spiritual substance (though some religious humanists do)—one might simply cling to some historical or social proposition in which one’s faith outruns the available evidence. For example, Teilhardian or Tiplerian optimists who believe in the inevitable perfectibility or triumph of humankind would qualify as religious humanists. So would dedicated Marxists, ironically enough. And of course, there are human-centered thinkers who nonetheless believe in a fairly literal kind of spirit, in the human soul or elan vital, or in a disembodied system of karma: their claim to the term religious humanist is uncontroversial.

On the other hand, if my definition of religion is correct, then a great many self-declared religious humanists … just aren’t. I suspect that three principal processes make religious humanism seem a more popular option than it actually is.

The first process is improperly ascribing the word religious to a secularized “spirituality” from which all transcendence has been wrung. In the Summer 2002 issue of Free Inquiry, Matt Young and Malcolm D. Wise wrote eloquently that they had abandoned transcendentalism.12 For Young, religion had been reduced essentially to an ethnic and social heritage. Wise argued that a wholly this-worldly awe in the face of nature’s wonders served as “spirituality” for him. Based on my definition of religion, I respectfully disagree. If you have journeyed beyond the possibility of belief in any literal transcendence, congratulations—but please find another label. You are not religious, and “religious humanist” misstates your position.

The second process is less edifying and requires little comment. No doubt some who claim the label “religious humanists” simply find it a useful way to avoid having to admit their unbelief.

The third process by which I believe the prevalence of religious humanism is exaggerated is also the most interesting. Some wholly naturalistic humanists call themselves “religious” because their practice of humanism retains certain forms that echo congregational life. I have come to see this as a misnomer. Humanists vary in their enthusiasm for rites of passage, ceremonies, and similar communal symbolic activities. One could arrange us along a spectrum, from crusty freethinkers who disdain ritual in any form to enthusiasts who find humanist ceremonies deeply satisfying. It is tempting verbal shorthand to say that the curmudgeons are “more secular,” the ceremonialists “more religious.” The analogy seems to ring so true: the curmudgeons reject everything “churchly,” some of which the ceremonialists preserve. But this is profoundly misleading. After all, nothing prevents a thoroughgoing naturalist—by our definition, an irreligious person—from cherishing humanist ceremonies. The split between humanists who embrace humanist ceremonial and those who scorn it is not a split between religious and secular humanism; it belongs on some other spectrum. When we confuse genuine religiosity—that is, transcendentalism—with the mere taste for ceremonial, we misrepresent both. And we run the risk that secular humanists holding solidly naturalistic worldviews will mislocate themselves in the religious humanist camp solely because they relish ritual.

I’ll conclude my “pencil sketch” phase by offering two blunt conclusions:

  1. People who hold no transcendent beliefs but don the “religious humanist” label are being dishonest—either with the public, or with themselves.
  2. Because it lacks any reliance on (or acceptance of) the transcendent, secular humanism is not—and cannot be—a religion.


Humanism, Religion, and the Prayer Warriors

Our denials aside, Christian Right activists ceaselessly make the case that secular humanism is a religion. In 1980, Religious Right activist Phyllis Schlafly charged: “Secular Humanism has become the established religion of the U.S. public school system … and the various rationales that have caused public schools to eliminate prayer, moral training, and the teaching of basics.”13

Fifteen years later, little had changed. In 1995, Pat Buchanan thundered: “We see the God of the Bible expelled from our public schools and replaced by all the false gods of secular humanism.”14

Most recently, fundamentalists Tim LaHaye and David Noebel are still pounding that drum. In Mind Siege, their best-selling polemic endorsed by many powerful leaders of the Religious Right, they inveigh: “Until the American people realize that humanism is a religion, not simply a naïve philosophy or modern educational theory, the humanists will continue their siege on the minds of our children.”15

By calling secular humanism a religion, Christian Right activists hope to bar modern science, evolutionary theory, sex education, nonbiblical values, and pedagogical innovation from public schools. In other words, “secular humanism has to be extirpated.”16 Large campaigns have been mounted to achieve this. In 1986, 624 parents aided by then-Governor George Wallace sued Alabama, alleging that forty-four public school textbooks unconstitutionally promoted the “religion of secular humanism.” The case, heard initially by a sympathetic federal judge, W. Brevard Hand, became a media circus. Sub­poenaed to the trial, Paul Kurtz was cross-examined for ten hours about whether secular humanism was or was not religious.17 (Judge Hand’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs was overturned on appeal.18)

Those who paint secular humanism as a religion often—and incorrectly—claim the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a footnote to Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), Justice Hugo L. Black wrote: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.” Justice Black just had his facts wrong. More important, personal footnotes, or dicta, are not considered part of Supreme Court decisions and carry no weight as legal precedent. That didn’t keep then-Justice Antonin Scalia and then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist from citing the footnote in their pro-creationist dissent to 1987’s EdwardsAguilard.

In Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, a 1994 ruling that never faced appeal, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals explicitly denied that the Torcaso footnote constituted a legal finding that secular humanism is a religion. “Neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes,” said the court. “Indeed, both the dictionary definition of religion and the clear weight of the case law are to the contrary.”19

After years of Religious Right activism, overt religious expression is more prevalent in public schools than at any time since 1962. Is the charge that secular humanism is a religion still potent? As we’ve seen, Christian activists go on playing the “religion of secular humanism” card. I conclude that we are wise to scent danger if secular humanism and religion are further conflated in the public mind.

Complicating our task is the undeniable presence of humanists and humanist organizations that are outspokenly religious. Through no fault of its own, simply by existing, religious humanism gives aid and comfort to the prayer warriors.

These nested confusions simply underscore the urgency that secular humanism be unmistakably clear in upholding its nonreligious identity.

Drawing Clear Boundaries: This Time, in Ink

Secular humanism occupies one point on a spectrum of reformist orientations, between atheism on the “left” and religious humanism on the “right.” Drawing from all across this spectrum, it is a vigorous hybrid whose debt to its source traditions should never be forgotten.

Fig 1 - Nontraditional Stances on Religion: A Continuum

Atheism lends a valuable critique of outmoded, regressive religious systems. We welcome its vision of a universe upon which meaning was never imposed from above. But secular humanism goes further, calling on humans to develop within the universe values of their own—as it were, from below. Further, secular humanism maintains that, through a process of value inquiry informed by scientific and reflective thought, men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, crafting ethical systems that deliver optimal results for human beings in a broad spectrum of circumstances.

At the same time, we acknowledge religious humanism’s compassion and its focus on human-centered values. Nonetheless, secular humanists reject religious humanism’s conviction that leaning on spiritual or transcendental moorings—even if lightly—is essential for the good life.

Secular humanism is invigorated by the best that atheism and religious humanism have to offer—thoroughly naturalistic, yet infused by an inspiring value system. It offers a nonreligious template that may one day guide much of humanity in pursuing truly humane lives. This is the fulfillment of secularism as George Jacob Holyoake imagined it: the successful quest for the good life, intellectually, ethically, emotionally rich, and without any reliance on religious faith.

A Secular Humanist Definition

We can now attempt our definition of secular humanism. Secular humanism begins with atheism (absence of belief in a deity) and agnosticism or skepticism (epistemological caution that rejects the transcendent as such due to a lack of evidence). Because no transcendent power will save us, secular humanists maintain that humans must take responsibility for themselves. While atheism is a necessary condition for secular humanism, it is not a sufficient one. Far from living in a moral vacuum, secular humanists “wish to encourage wherever possible the growth of moral awareness and the capacity for free choice and an understanding of the consequences thereof.”20

Secular humanism emerges, then, as a comprehensive nonreligious life stance that incorporates a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system. That is the definition I offer.

Secular Humanism and the Council’s Unique Mission

Secular humanism indeed possesses a “unique selling proposition.” Its full richness cannot be captured by an umbrella organization that encompasses the value neutrality of atheism and the epistemological neutrality of religious humanism. Atheism and freethought are distinct positions that deserve to be represented by organizations of their own. The same is true of religious humanism in its several varieties. Surely no less is true for secular humanism! As secular humanism’s principal exponent and a resolute defender of its nonreligious character, the Council for Secular Humanism fills a unique niche. It champions the best the community of reason has to offer: hard-minded scientific realism tempered by the compassionate commitment to an ethics that welcomes being judged by its results.

Speaking of results, the Council for Secular Humanism’s achievements in its almost three decades of existence are remarkable. Never in the nineteenth- or twentieth-century history of freethought or humanism has any American or­gan­ization mustered as many readers and supporters, as many world-renowned thinkers, as large a staff, or such capable facilities in the service of rational thinking and humane ethics. As part of the international Center for Inquiry movement, the Council continues to flourish despite powerful religious and cultural forces ranged against it.

Secular humanism is a balanced and fulfilling life stance. It is more than atheism, more than “unhyphenated humanism”; it offers its own significant emergent qualities. The secular humanist agenda is a full one—in my opinion, an essential agenda for contemporary civilization. Surely it is more than enough to justify the existence of an independent organization dedicated to implementing it. The Council for Secular Humanism has a compelling mission, one we will continue to pursue with determination and vigor.

Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of Free Inquiry magazine.


I would like to thank Tim Binga, Center for Inquiry Director of Libraries, Paul Paulin, CFI fiscal officer, and David Henehan for valuable research assistance.


* Based on an article that appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of FREE INQUIRY.

  1. Rosser Reeves, Reality in Advertising (New York: Knopf, 1961).
  2. See Kurtz’s The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997).
  3. Christopher Hitchens, “Single Standards.” The Nation, May 13, 2002, p. 9.
  4. Humanist Manifesto 2000, Free Inquiry, Fall 1999, p. 9.
  5. Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices (Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 1999), p. 67.
  6. Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988).
  7. Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 261.
  8. “Texas Court Declares Ethical Culture a Religion,” Washington Ethical Action Office [American Ethical Union] Reports, February 2002, p. 1.
  9. Fritz Stevens, Edward Tabash, Tom Hill, Mary Ellen Sikes, and Tom Flynn, “What Is Secular Humanism?” Posted on the Council for Secular Humanism Web site, 1995-2013.
  10. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934).
  11. Tom Flynn, “Why Is Religious Humanism?” p. 16.
  12. Matt Young, “How to Find Meaning in Religion Without Believing in God,” Free Inquiry, Summer 2002, pp. 44–46; Malcolm D. Wise, “Religion and Spirituality: A Humanist View,” loc. cit. p. 49.
  13. Phyllis Schlafly, “What Is Humanism?,” a 1980 syndicated newspaper column reprinted in Free Inquiry, Spring 1981, p. 8.
  14. “Buchanan on Secular Humanism,” Free Inquiry, Spring 1996, p. 11.
  15. Tim LaHaye and David Noebel, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium (Nashville, Tenn.: Word Publishing, 2000), p. 170.
  16. Paul Kurtz, “The Two Humanisms in Conflict: Religious vs. Secular,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1991, p. 50.
  17. Paul Kurtz, “The New Inquisition in the Schools,” Free Inquiry, Winter 1986/87, pp. 4–5. See also Ronald Lindsay, “Judge Hand Erred in Holding that Secular Humanism Is a Religion,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1987, pp. 25–27.
  18. Randall D. Eliason, “A Tale of Two Secular Humanisms: The Alabama Textbook Case,” Free Inquiry, Spring 1988, pp. 59–62.
  19. “Federal Court Rules Secular Humanism Not a Religion,” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Spring 1995, p. 1. Molleen Matsumura, “New Court Decision Brings Death to a Myth,” FI, Fall 1996, pp. 9–10.
  20. “A Secular Humanist Declaration,” Free Inquiry, Winter 1980/81, p. 5