Much of the debate over religious and secular humanism turns on the meanings of words. Here are sample definitions of essential terms:


4. Pertaining to the world or to things not spiritual or sacred; relating to or connected with worldly things; disassociated from religious teachings or principles; not devoted to sacred or religious use… .”1

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Coined in 1841 by English freethinker George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906), who defined it as “the extension of freethought in ethics.”2 Plainly, Holyoake intended something very like the synthesis of unbelief and rational ethics seen today in secular humanism.

“… a variety of utilitarian social ethic which seeks human improvement without reference to religion and exclusively by means of human reason, science, and social organization.”

—Robert Worth Frank, 19453

A narrower dictionary definition: “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.”4

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2. Any system of thought or action concerned with the interest and ideals of people.”

4. … the intellectual and cultural movement … characterized by an emphasis on human interests rather than on the natural world or religion.”5

“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It 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. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

Minimum Statement adopted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, 1996

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“from Gr. atheos, without a god: a (priv.) and theos (god).”6 Atheism is popularly supposed to demand the active denial of God’s existence, or even a faith in God’s nonexistence as unbending—and irrational—as the faith of believers. This is untrue; all atheism requires is the lack of belief in God.

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Defining religion is a minefield. Geddes MacGregor managed to compile an entire Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy that skipped the word and its cognates altogether!7 In The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto pictured religion “in terms of the presence of an awareness of the sacred or the holy.”8 Mircea Eliade also found “the unique and irreducible essence of all religious experience” in “sacredness”; see his The Sacred and the Profane (1951).9 Winston L. King summarized the conventional view of “religion as a set of beliefs and practices that are different from surrounding beliefs and practices and that embody a special relationship to deity, that transcendent other.”10

Many twentieth-century thinkers tried to break religion’s ties to the supernatural. Friedrich Schleiermacher called religion “a feeling of absolute dependence”; Tillich famously called God “the ground of all being.” Dewey proposed independent meanings for religion and religious, maintaining a transcendental definition of religion but a more abstract one for religious. Julian Huxley called for an “evolutionary and humanist religion,” holding that the word could encompass nontheism.11 Abraham Maslow yearned to tear “‘religious’ out of its narrow context of the supernatural, churches, rituals, dogmas, professional clergymen etc., and distribute it in principle throughout the whole of life.”12 Writing in Mircea Eliade’s 1995 Encyclopedia of Religion, Winston King settled on this bafflingly vague definition: religion is “the attempt to order individual and social life in terms of culturally perceived ultimate priorities.”

The “how not to” award goes to Verglius Ferm, editor of An Encyclopedia of Religion (1945). Despairing of defining religion at all, Ferm elected to define only religious: “to be religious is to effect in some way and in some measure a vital adjustment (however tentative and incomplete) to whatever is reacted to or regarded implicity or explicity as worthy of serious and ulterior concern.”13

My own preferred definition: 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.”

I’ll close this survey with wisdom from the late anthropologist and Humanist Laureate, Sir Raymond Firth: “Religion is a name for some of man’s most audacious attempts to give meaning to his world, by giving his constructions a symbolic transcendental referent.”14 Hear, hear.

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  1. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. Gordon Stein, “Secularism,” in Stein, ed., The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985), p. 613.
  3. Robert Worth Frank, “Secularism,” in Vergilius Ferm, ed., An Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Philosophical Library, 1945), p. 700.
  4. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary.
  5. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Geddes MacGregor, Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy (New York: Paragon House, 1989).
  8. Winston L. King, “Religion,” in Mircea Eliade, ed.-in-chief, The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1995), v. 12, p. 284.
  9. King, in Eliade, ed., p. 284–85.
  10. Ibid., p. 283.
  11. Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices (Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 1999) p. 31.
  12. Abraham Maslow, “Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences,” in W.A. Sadler Jr., ed., Personality and Religion (London: SCM, 1970), p. 70.
  13. Verligius Ferm, “Religion, the Problem of Definition,” in Ferm, ed., p. 647.
  14. Raymond Firth, Religion: A Humanist Interpretation (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 70.