Many of the words used today to describe aspects of the humanist approach have long histories, and can reveal much about the development of humanism itself. Below are some of the most commonly used terms, with short definitions and brief explorations of how they came to be.
Today, agnostic generally means ‘not knowing’, or keeping an open mind about the existence of gods, and about religious belief. More strongly, it can also mean that as nothing can be proven as ‘true’ about these questions, it is unreasonable – even wrong – to claim otherwise. For many, including its original proponents, this has meant living without reference to, or reliance on, supernatural ideas.
The word ‘agnostic’ was coined in 1869 by Victorian biologist T.H. Huxley, created from the Greek a-, meaning ‘not’, and gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge of the immaterial’. He used it to describe his own position, and a number of other notable figures adopted it to illustrate their own, including Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and John Tyndall.
Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.
T.H. Huxley, letter to The Agnostic Annual (1884)
When the ethical societies (which became the Union of Ethical Societies, now Humanists UK) formed from the 1880s, they often described themselves as ‘agnostic’. They were established on the basis that morality was distinct from religion, and that people could come together to do good without needing to agree on questions of gods or an afterlife. Like the stronger, and older, word ‘atheist’, the use of agnostic as a term of insult led many to defend it. Among these was Julia Stephen, the mother of Virginia Woolf, who particularly challenged the notion that an agnostic woman was necessarily less moral than a religious one.
Purity of life, sincerity of action, obedience to law, love of our fellow creatures, all those qualities which ennoble life are the stronghold of the Agnostic… in the acceptance or rejection of a creed let the woman be judged as the man. In this, if in this alone, man and woman have equal rights and, while crediting men with courage and sincerity, do not let us deny these qualities to each other.
Julia Stephen, ‘Agnostic Women’ (1880)
The word atheist has been used since at least the 16th century to describe someone who rejects the existence of a god or gods.
Historically, and sometimes still today, it has been used pejoratively to suggest immorality or unbridled hedonism. This has led to a number of proposed alternatives (including George Jacob Holyoake’s original definition of ‘secularist’), as well as to conscious reclamations of atheism as a positive philosophy.
Godlessness is negative. It merely denies the existence of god. Atheism is positive. It asserts the condition that results from the denial of god.
Gora, An Atheist With Gandhi (1951)
A freethinker is someone who uses their own logic and reason to decide what is true, and who rejects external authority in favour of thinking for themselves. The word arose in 17th century England, with people (such as deists) who began to reject the concept of divine revelation in favour of examining religious claims using rational enquiry. The term became particularly popular as a means of self-definition during the 19th century, with equivalents in a number of languages. The World Union of Freethinkers was formed in 1880, and The Freethinker founded in 1881.
With their emphasis on freedom and independence of thought, religious scepticism, and rational enquiry, freethinkers form an important part of humanist heritage. As A. J. Ayer wrote in Humanist Outlook (1968), ‘Present-day humanists are in fact the intellectual heirs of those nineteenth-century free-thinkers.
A humanist is someone who seeks to live a good life without religious or supernatural beliefs. Humanists understand the world as a natural place and, believing that this is the one life we have, seek happiness in the here and now. They base their moral principles on reason (which leads them to reject the idea of any supernatural agency), on shared human values, and on empathy and respect for others.
We have no “creed” and no document… Yet there is a powerful common strand of thinking, a strong common awareness of ethical issues, an overriding belief in human responsibility, an unwillingness to accept alleged religious “truths”… The centre piece of Humanism is its commitment to a humane all-encompassing ethic with its stress on social living and personal responsibility for one’s actions.
Hermann Bondi, Preface to Humanism: Beliefs and Practices by Jeaneane D. Fowler (1999)
Although humanist ideas have been in existence since ancient times, the word ‘humanist’ to describe this non-religious philosophy is relatively recent, becoming popularly used to describe it during the first half of the 20th century. It is not to be confused with the idea of a ‘Renaissance humanist’, which refers to a classical scholar of the humanities – many of whom were deeply religious.
Frederick James Gould called his 1923 autobiography The Life-Story of a Humanist; in 1946, the World Union of Freethinkers held a London conference on The Challenge of Humanism; in 1950, a Humanist Council was formed to bring together various secularist and humanist organisations; in 1956 the Literary Guide (now the New Humanist) became The Humanist; and in 1967 the Ethical Union became the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK).
Read more about the history of the word ‘humanism’ here.
A rationalist is someone who prioritises the use of reason in investigating and understanding the world. Rationalists usually reject religion on the grounds that it is unreasonable, or that there is an absence of persuasive evidence. Like ‘freethinker’, the word ‘rationalist’ in English originates from the 17th century, particularly describing those who examined supernatural or miraculous claims from a rational standpoint.
The question is how to arrive at your opinions and not what your opinions are. The thing in which we believe is the supremacy of reason… To my mind the essential thing is that one should base one’s arguments upon the kind of grounds that are accepted in science, and that one should not regard anything that one accepts as quite certain, but only as probable in a greater or a less degree. Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.Bertrand Russell, ‘Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?’ (1949)
Today, a secularist is someone who believes in the separation of church and state, and that laws and public institutions should be neutral with regards to religion and belief. Secularists seek to ensure that persons and organisations are neither privileged nor disadvantaged by virtue of their religion or lack of it. Almost all humanists are secularists, but religious believers may also take a secularist position which calls for freedom of belief.
The term ‘secularist’ was originally coined by George Jacob Holyoake in 1851 as a positive alternative to ‘atheist’, ‘infidel’, and other terms typically used derogatorily. Holyoake’s original definition was more or less synonymous with that of humanism today, emphasising positive action in the one life we could be sure of. Holyoake defined a secularist as anyone who would ‘regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service.’ Two decades later, G.H. Reddalls wrote in The Secular Chronicle that: ‘The object of Secularism is the promotion of human happiness in this world… [The Secularist] believes the surest way of obtaining heaven is to make one here. All his hopes rest in nature and in man’.
Both this original definition of secularist, and its meaning today, derive from the Latin saeculāris, meaning worldly, or ‘of the world’.