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Will the real humanism please stand up? A response to 'Understanding Humanism'

Understanding Humanism by Andrew Copson, Luke Donnellan and Richard Norman was published in September 2022. Andrew is Chief Executive of Humanists UK and President of Humanists International, Luke is Humanists UK’s Director of Understanding Humanism, and Richard is a former Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent and a Patron of Humanists UK.

This response to the book is by David Warden, an honorary member of Humanists UK and Chair of Dorset Humanists which is a partner group of Humanists UK.


One of the authors of this book, Richard Norman, delivered the Darwin Day lecture at Dorset Humanists on February 11, and I had the privilege of briefly discussing Understanding Humanism with him. He confirmed that it is a textbook intended primarily for schools and universities and that, though he and his co-authors wanted to do justice to the range and diversity of views within contemporary humanism, they didn't feel it to be the place to explore in a more speculative way where humanism might go from here. He suggested that a review of the book would indeed be a good place to discuss them - precisely as questions the book implicitly raises but doesn't discuss. Richard's comments have encouraged me to explore some of these questions in this personal response to the book. Needless to say, none of my own thoughts and speculations should be attributed in any way to him.

Understanding Humanism is a welcome and somewhat overdue update to Jeaneane Fowler’s Humanism: Beliefs and Practices which was published in 1999. It’s comprehensive, balanced, factually faultless, nicely structured, and seamless. The division of labour between its three authors has produced a harmonious whole. A mild criticism is that its ten chapter headings are a little opaque. Each chapter could have done with a brief, supplementary description of its content. A quick guide might look like this:

  1. Humanist organisations – a broad overview of humanist organisations and services today with an international perspective

  2. A shared humanity – a deep dive into the history of humanism

  3. Human reason – scientific method, science and religion, scientism

  4. Human imagination – humanism and the arts

  5. Human responsibility – no god will save us, existentialism and humanism

  6. Human values – humanist ethics and morality

  7. Is life sacred? – ethical dilemmas including assisted dying, abortion, and war

  8. Human rights and secularism – freedom of speech and expression, religious schools

  9. Life and meaning – is life meaningful without a god?

  10. Humanism and religion – What is religion? Is humanism a religion? Dialogue with religion.

I hope this expanded list of contents will be helpful for those who might like to dip into chapters of particular interest. Rather than give a detailed review of each chapter, however, what I would like to do in this response is explore the identity of humanism, with reference to some of the content of Understanding Humanism. What exactly is humanism?

The identity of humanism

Is humanism a non-religious worldview, an alternative to dogmatic religion, or a left-leaning political ideology? Understanding Humanism claims, on page one, that it is a non-religious worldview and that there are two kinds of humanists. There are humanists who consciously identify as humanists, and there are humanists who have never even heard the word ‘humanism’ and yet are humanist by default, in the sense that they live according to beliefs and values which may be called ‘humanist’. The authors claim that 30% of the UK population falls into the second category and 7% into the first. These are very big numbers. It means that there are 20 million humanists in the UK, of whom fewer than 5 million are actually aware that they are humanists, and only a tiny fraction of this 5 million have any contact with humanist organisations. No wonder, then, that the mission of Humanists UK is to achieve a situation where humanism is more widely understood. I think 20 million is an underestimate. It seems to me that humanism is the default 'operating system' of most people in that they aim to live life to the full, do not live their lives under the direction of a god, and try to do some good in the world. 200 years ago, the UK was virtually a theocratic Christian state and your life chances would be pretty constrained if you were not a tithe-paying Anglican. We have come a long way. But this achievement is threatened by resurgent forms of fundamentalist religion. Humanism can never complacently assume that its work is done.

Humanism as an alternative to religion

There are at least two alternative answers, though, to the question ‘What is humanism?’. For seventy years, the internationally-agreed definition of humanism (the Amsterdam Declaration) has claimed that it is ‘an alternative to dogmatic religion’. Over the past 150 years, roughly the timescale of organised humanism’s existence, there have been a number of experiments in what a humanistic alternative to religion might look like, including secular, positivist, ethical, and humanist groups and societies. Many of these initiatives have come and gone and the ones which survive today often struggle to attract new members. It may be that ‘organised humanism’ has to accept that, for the vast majority of humanists, humanism means not being organised in any way. In this case, humanism for most humanists is just the background set of beliefs and values which guide their lives. It may not even be called humanism, but just the state of being ‘not religious’. It seems to me that Understanding Humanism addresses this invisible majority, as well as the minority of humanists who actually show up and take an active part in various humanist organisations and services.

But it’s an odd kind of alternative to religion if it’s content for the vast majority of its adherents to be private individuals instead of belonging to some kind of body, be it a group or a society or an organisation. Humanists of all people should know that human beings are a social species and that we need to belong to families, groups, communities and societies in order to thrive, be supported, to learn from each other, and to have good mental health. It seems to me that one reason why we hear so much about poor mental health in the modern world today is that people have less access to the kind of social, community, and pastoral support which organised religion used to provide, and still does for some. This is why I have dedicated myself to leading a humanist society in Bournemouth. It is possible to build a successful community group around the beliefs and values of humanism. We have a steady paid-up membership of around 170 people and we meet at least 36 times a year for informative talks, discussions, walks and socials. 50 or more people often turn up to our main events, even in post-Covid times. We have a small pastoral team and hardship fund for members, a schools outreach team, a trained humanist celebrant, a presence on two university campuses, a mini choir, a portable piano, and a humanist library. We celebrate Darwin Day and we take part in the town’s Remembrance Service, Holocaust Memorial Day, and LGBT pride festival. We raise thousands of pounds for a local food bank. We are a visible and respected presence in the local community. To me, this is what a humanist alternative to religion looks like. It’s modest and volunteer-run, but it’s a visible form of community-based humanism rather than privatised humanism. Understanding Humanism does acknowledge the existence of such groups, namely Windsor Humanists and Chester Humanists. But they need all the help and support they can get to survive and thrive.

There is a widespread perception, though, that organised humanism does not really understand local humanist groups and societies. Humanists UK is trying to address this deficit with its branch development initiative, in addition to its partner group network. But local humanism does seem to be the poor relation. So how does organised humanism spend most of its energy and resources?

Humanism as a progressive, left-leaning ideology

Some of its energy and resources goes into services which meet the private and occasional needs of non-religious people, such as humanist ceremonies and non-religious pastoral care. And a lot of it goes into humanism understood as a progressive, left-leaning ideology which is seeking to change society. The values of humanism understood in this way are the values of the Enlightenment: rationalism, science, democracy, secularism, equality, human rights, and universalism. It is a progressive movement which hopes that religion, mostly viewed as irrational and sometimes very oppressive, will become a thing of the past, and that the future for humanity will be one of universal rationality, equality, and human flourishing. I share most of these Enlightenment values but the true spirit of the Enlightenment must include scepticism towards, and critical questioning of, all dogmas and ideologies, including those which claim to be based on Enlightenment values. For all its criticism then of dogmatic religion, has humanism itself become a dogmatic, left-leaning ideology?

It may have. My impression of organised humanism today is that there is very little breathing space for humanists who find themselves in sympathy with some aspects of conservative political philosophy. For example, organised humanism has little sympathy with patriotism and nationalism. In the nineteenth century, nationalism was seen as a progressive force. George Jacob Holyoake, founder of a humanistic form of secularism, was friends with Italian revolutionary nationalists like Mazzini who were fighting for self-determination against imperialism. Nationalism lost its lustre as a result of the horrors unleashed by Hitler and Mussolini, but it can plausibly be argued that Hitler, like Putin today, was an imperialist aggressor rather than a nationalist. Britain in 1940, and Ukraine today, are nations which exemplify humanist values by resisting tyranny and fighting for self-determination. The authors of Understanding Humanism claim, on page 70, that ‘The language of patriotism has been used to arouse nationalistic sentiments which issue in hugely destructive wars’, the Amsterdam Declaration is opposed to ‘authoritarian nationalism’, and Humanists International’s General Statement of Policy asserts that ‘Education must seek to overcome nationalistic bias’. Of course, humanists should be against chauvinistic and xenophobic nationalism, but there seems to be little space in humanism today for what might be called moderate, liberal, or even humanistic nationalism. Why does this matter? I think it matters because it disregards a fundamental aspect of human nature which is that we are a social species and we tend to form social groups in concentric circles – family, city, civil society, country – with the people who are ‘in our tribe’ in terms of kin, language, custom, culture, values and history. This is not to say that ‘tribes’ should not intermingle, or be at war with one another, but it is to recognise that they are the primary locus of common bonds, solidarity, familiarity and trust. Conservative particularism, which emphasises the importance of groups and institutions, is an important corrective to liberal universalism, which emphasises the freewheeling individual. Humanism should be able to appreciate both of these poles of existence, not lurch to one at the expense of the other. Maybe this is also why I am so keen to see the development of humanist groups and societies. For me, there is something fundamentally deficient about a humanism which is content for the vast majority of humanists to be non-participative individualists, who barely know that their default operating system is something called 'humanism' which can offer a rich tradition of thought, values, and wisdom going back millennia. Maybe this reflects a flaw in liberalism more generally – the tendency to see humans as unencumbered, freewheeling individuals with few loyalties to place, tradition and institutions.

A related aspect of organised humanism’s bias to the left is its apparent inability to mount any kind of critique of what has become an intolerant form of left-wing ideology. A comprehensive analysis of critical theory and identity politics is beyond the scope of this article, but it should concern humanism that the traditional humanist belief in our ‘common humanity’ has been replaced, on the far left, by the belief that being male, white, heterosexual etc., is an inherently problematic, privileged and oppressive intersection of demographic categories. Critical theory may have some merit, but any attempt to debate or criticise its various manifestations often gets shouted down and labelled as a ‘phobia’ or as hate speech. Humanists must be able to champion free speech and dialogue in response to today’s feverish and polarised ‘culture war’, rather than simply hunkering down. The values of humanism are not safe from the extremes of this cultural revolution. I believe that organised humanism needs to be part of a broad-based resistance movement.

"Humanism as it exists today is too indebted to liberal individualism, which is why it tends to present humanism as a private life choice rather than an alternative to religion which has a visible presence in every town, city, and local community."


To sum up, organised humanism has a number of competing and overlapping identities. It’s a non-religious worldview, an alternative to dogmatic religion, and it’s a progressive, left-leaning political ideology. I love humanism, but if it is to be true to the spirit of the Enlightenment, it must have the courage to adopt a critical spirit towards itself as well as to its traditional enemies. I think humanism as it exists today is too indebted to liberal individualism, which is why it tends to present humanism as a private life choice rather than an alternative to religion which has a visible presence in every town, city, and local community. Organised humanism could benefit from a lot more internal diversity of opinion. It needs to be a lot more inclusive and democratic. In this way, it could fulfil the hopes and dreams of its founders to become a visible and embodied alternative to religion which meets our human needs for meaning, belonging, learning, celebrating and mutual support, without the encumbrance of dogmatic religious beliefs.

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