Humanism: What It Is, Why I Embrace It, and Why You Should Too

Am I really writing this article? It feels like I’m proselytizing and I hate proselytizing of any kind. But Humanism is so secular and commonplace that there is no “conversion” to it. You don’t really “become” Humanist because every religion, in theory, advocates for some form of Humanist values.

So What is Humanism Exactly?

The official minimum statement by IHEU (International Humanist & Ethical Union) is:

“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

My own interpretation is that it’s the belief in and advocacy of human and the environment we exist in. Humanism is an international movement, with growing groups in nearly every part of the world. The Humanist network is more far-reaching than you might imagine. Even in countries where nontheist beliefs are not tolerated and, in many cases, people who hold these beliefs are persecuted.

The official Humanist stance separates itself from organized religion and doesn’t accept supernaturalism. However, the “sect”— if you will —of Humanism I grew up in actually considers it to be a religion. Ethical Humanism actually has congregations of people led by professionally trained leaders that fill roles similar to the religious clergy.

Wait, What’s Ethical Humanism?

So Ethical Humanism, also called Ethical Culture, is basically the same thing as Humanism in terms of values, but Ethical Culture has a unique history.

Ethical Culture is actually an outgrowth of American Reform Judaism. Dr. Felix Adler moved from Germany to New York in the 1860s so that his father could accept the role of head rabbi at a Reform Jewish Temple there.

In 1873, after Felix returned to New York with his Ph.D. in rabbinical work from Heidelberg University, he was asked to deliver a sermon at his dad’s Temple. His sermon, “The Judaism of the Future,” shocked the congregation. Felix made no mention of God during the sermon and instead advocated for a Judaism of universal morality for all of mankind.

Four years later, he founded the New York Society of Ethical Culture which was based on the philosophy that we can live fulfilling lives through religion without the trappings of ritual or creed and unites all of humankind— theists, atheists, agnostics, deists —in moral social action (yes, by this definition, you can be religious and Ethical Humanist). Aside from weekly Sunday lectures by Felix, the Society formed a team of nurses who visited sick people in poor parts of New York.

The Society developed an Ethical Culture school a year later which provided free Kindergarten for children of the working poor. Students actually received hot meals and clothing along with their education. Felix served as a rector at the school until his death in 1933. Dr. Adler also served on well-known committees that exist today— the ACLU, the American Philosophical Association, the National Urban League, and he served as the founding chairman of the National Child Labor Committee.

Fun Fact: Robert Oppenheimer attended the New York Ethical Culture School

What Ethical Humanism Looks Like Today

The New York Society still exists today, it’s what we modern day Ethical Humanists call the OG Ethical Society (sometimes).

There are 23 official Ethical Societies across 11 US states, and even more fellowships and smaller congregations. These communities gather weekly for Sunday platforms and speakers from all walks of life speak around ethics, philosophy, or social justice.

Children learn about ethics and get a comprehensive religious education through Sunday School and Youth Group. Ethical Societies also have ceremonies such as weddings, memorials, Coming of Age, and baby naming. The societies are connected and have regular conferences. The 18-35-year-old youth section, called FES (Future of Ethical Societies), is composed of both graduates of Ethical Society children’s programs and young adults who are new to Ethical Culture.

A quick note about my involvement: I grew up at the Ethical Society of St. Louis from Kindergarten on. I’m involved in both FES and the International Humanist & Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO).

The Main Difference between Ethical Humanism and Humanism

In this way, Ethical Humanism differs from the larger umbrella of Humanism. Humanists want nothing to do with religion while Ethical Humanists embrace Humanism as our own religion. The values are all the same, but the approach is a little different.

One of the most notable differences between the two are the communities. In my experience, Ethical Humanist groups are fairly tight-knit and very community-oriented whereas other Humanist groups I’ve interacted with are more focused on expression of opinions and visibility. I think Humanists outside the Ethical Culture movement can learn a lot from Ethical Culture in terms of building strong relationships based on shared Humanist values.

The main tenant of Ethical Humanism: Deed before creed.

You’re always free to choose what you believe, but what really counts is how you exercise those beliefs and how they manifest into action.

So, You’re Probably A Humanist

Whether you identify with a particular faith or not, chances are that at least some of the aforementioned values resonate with you. This is because these are shared values (in theory) across all religions.

If you’re still doubtful, the American Humanist Association has a really simple test to determine if you’re Humanist:

Do you support separation of church and state?
Are you an advocate for science and reason?
Do you care about the environment?
Do you support social justice?
If you answer yes to all of these, then you’re a Humanist.

Yep. It’s really that simple.

Common Misconceptions of Humanism

There are a lot of hokum stereotypes about what Humanism is and the type of people involved. So allow me to clear up the confusion about the kind of people we are:

Humanists worship Satan. No, that’s Satanists. They’re some really nice folks and great activists though.

Humanism is the same as atheism. Humanism is about human values and philosophy, it’s not about theism. Your belief, disbelief, or uncertainty is not as important as it is to do good in this life. While most Humanists are nontheist (meaning atheist or agnostic or just not religious), you’ll find some that are spiritual.

Humanism is incompatible with theism. Ethical Humanism disproves this. The focus is not on what you believe, it’s on how you act.

Humanism is for Left-Wingers and hardcore liberals. Most Humanists by nature of their values are more progressive and left-leaning, but definitely not all Humanists. I grew up alongside a Republican Humanist family and I know a few Humanists that hold rather conservative political opinions.

Humanism and feminism are synonymous. You’ll find Humanists are divided on this issue, but I strongly feel there’s a difference between the two. You can be a feminist without being a Humanist, but you can’t be a Humanist without being a feminist.

Humanism is a cult. No. It’s not.

Humanists are really just regular folks, kind of like how people with religion are regular folks. We just don’t make theism central to our morality.

A Place for Humanism in Business

So now that you know what Humanism is (and what it isn’t), I have one question for you: What are you doing in your business or career to create a better world for humanity?

My own personal credence is that to be the best human I can be, I have to find as many ways as I can to exercise my Humanist values in my business. For me, simply writing on behalf of Humanists has a positive impact. Because, unlike where I live, Humanists in some parts of the world don’t have the freedom to express themselves. By shining a light on Humanism, we make more space and support for those who face persecution for their beliefs.

Humanist values are about being ethical, bringing out the best in others, and advocating for our most basic rights. All of these things can be accomplished in business.

Folks, these are universal values. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no effort to convert people into not believing there’s a God. We’re simply supporting a better life for humanity.

Business owners and entrepreneurs have power and influence to improve the human condition. With the right values and priorities, Humanistic people in business can make a huge impact in this world. A good businessperson sees the value in ethically elevating society around her; using her role in the community to create a better world.

So, I ask you again: What are you doing in your business or career to create a better world for humanity?

Are you ready to embrace Humanism? Are you convinced that Humanism can play a role in your business?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a line or leave a comment below!