Humanism has been given a wide variety of often vague meanings. Two of these definitions have been more important than any of the others. In what was historically the first of these two meanings, it was employed to characterize the culture of Renaissance Europe. Renaissance students of the literature of classical Greece and Rome—especially Greece—were called humanists. They all would have agreed with the claim of the Greek tragic poet Sophocles: “Many are the wonders of the world but none more wonderful than man.”

Such students of classical literature were optimistic about human possibilities, attended enthusiastically to human achievements, and eschewed what they wanted to dismiss as theological niceties. Humanism, in this sense of the word, was no doubt formally consistent with Christian religious belief and devotion. But Erasmus, perhaps the greatest of these Renaissance humanists, was embarrassed to be reminded by Luther, during their Dialogue on Freewill and Predestination, of the most appalling doctrine, divine predestination—that God predetermines all of us human beings to conduct our lives in the different ways for which He intends either to reward or to punish us eternally—would appear to have been very clearly taught by St. Paul himself in his Epistle to the Romans. In the same Dialogue, Luther also forestalled what has come to be called the Freewill Defense. He wrote,

Now by “necessarily” I do not mean compulsorily …when a man is without the Spirit of God he does not do evil against his will, as if he were taken by the scruff of his neck and forced to do it … but he does it of his own accord and with a ready will.

In the 20th century, the label humanist was appropriated by people who rejected all religious belief and insisted that they were concerned only with human welfare in this world. By the middle of that century, it had become widely agreed that theism—what the philosopher Hume, rather than the mathematical physicist Laplace, was the first to describe as the religious hypothesis—could not either be proved to be true or proved to be false by reference to any facts of this world.

All such humanists are still atheists. But most now construe the letter “a” in the word atheist as having the same negative but unaggressive meaning as the “a”s in such words as atypical and asymmetrical. By at least the beginning of the 21st century, many of the countries of Europe and North America had become so completely secularized in their culture as to leave little room for specifically humanist organizations. Indeed, well before the end of the 20th century, the main secular humanist organization in the United States gave birth to a Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) while its publishing arm had, well before September 11, 2001, produced more than one substantial scholarly work critical not of Christianity, but of Islam.

Further Readings

Flew, Antony. Atheistic Humanism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993.

Gaskin, J. C. A., ed. Varieties of Unbelief: From Epicurus to Sartre. New York and London: Macmillan, 1989.

Kurtz, Paul, and Timothy J. Madigan, eds. Challenges to the Enlightenment: In Defense of Reason and Science. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994.

Originally published