The Pink Triangle Trust

Introducing the Humanist Tradition

Leaflet number 6: A Few Words

25% of the people of Britain identify themselves as agnostics and atheists – that’s one in every four.

Humanists are agnostics and atheists who apply reason and goodwill to build happy lives.

Agnostic is a word coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley, who defended the work of Charles Darwin and was known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. It denotes a cautious attitude to definite knowledge of any kind and commonly refers to one who neither affirms nor denies the existence of God.

Atheists are people who deny, or do not believe in, the existence of God. But the definition given by Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), Britain’s first atheist MP, was that the atheist does not say “There is no God”, but “I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation”.

In former times ‘atheist’ was used mainly as a term of abuse, not as a neutral description. Socrates, Christians, and people who doubt that the Bible is the sole ‘word of God’, have all been described as atheists. The first people in Britain to identify themselves as atheists were the authors of a book published in 1782.

Our Humanist monthly magazine The Freethinker, as long ago as 7 July 1895, wrote of both words: “Is not the difference rather metaphysical than practical? The only value of the term ‘Agnostic’ lies in its being less offensive to orthodox ears”.


The word itself is significant. ‘Humanism’ describes an ethical tradition which is concerned with the whole of humankind. It is not confined by such matters as geography, nationality, race, gender, or culture. It is not the same as humanitarianism, and because Humanism has an ethical dimension it is not the same as agnosticism, or atheism, although it includes both of these. Being concerned for others is certainly a part of Humanism, but it is concerned with other things as well. So, although Humanists support humanitarian aid and act in humane ways to other human beings and to animals, Humanism is also concerned with all other aspects of life. In other words it is equivalent to a religion or a philosophy.

The origin of the word does not derive from the name of an individual so its use also makes it clear that Humanism does not focus on the teachings of any one person.

It is built on the assumption that only atoms and void exist (the fundamental particles of atoms, and void space). And without some basic structure of nature apart from atoms to provide an essence or soul it is not possible, for example, for a mind to function without a physical brain. That is why Humanists say that you cannot have a mind without a brain, and why ‘supernatural things’ have no place in Humanism. These include such things as the ‘Forms’ and ‘Ideas’ of the philosopher Plato, as well as spirits and angels and devils. They are contrary to our knowledge and our reason.

Humanism must comply with the discoveries of science. Indeed we believe that scientific methods should be applied to the whole of human life and experiences. We believe that life, including human beings, developed naturally, no doubt by evolution by natural selection.

It follows that Humanist ethical values are not based on rewards and punishments after our deaths, but on the consequences of actions, sometimes called ‘The Doctrine of Consequences’. These take place in particular circumstances and so may be referred to as ‘Situational Ethics’, and Humanist ethics do not recognise any ‘Absolute Values’ because situations vary.

Some people believe that the future is pre-ordained, or can be predicted. We believe this flies in the face of our experiences. Astrology makes no sense. Anyone who can foretell the future should do the football pools!

In summary, we believe that our physical life is our one and only life, and we have to make it as useful and as fulfilled as possible if we are to be happy.

The aim is ‘the happy life’. What makes ‘the happy life’ is not a matter for discussion of different opinions. The Humanist concept of ‘the happy life’ is derived ultimately from the sensations we each feel of physical pleasure and physical pain. The only information we have comes through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Through these we experience pleasure and pain. But, as Epicurus taught, we need to be prudent too. The three ‘P’s, pleasure and pain and, in particular, prudence are the foundations of our personal moral judgements. And, as Epicurus also taught, human happiness comes from, and is enhanced by, friendship, which is the result of reciprocal goodwill.

Therefore only the particular individual physically experiencing the sensations can decide whether in any activity the sensations of pleasure outweigh those of pain or vice versa. It is not a matter anyone can decide for someone else. It is no use telling someone, “You enjoy a good beating”. And, because each individual must decide, this makes Humanism democratic not authoritarian. Humanists could never plead, “We were only obeying orders”.

In matters outside personal physical experience Humanists consider the evidence available at the time. In other words we Humanists try to work things out for ourselves but with the help of other people. There is not any one book which is authoritative. Instead we believe in investigation and enquiry, free of censorship – the Open Mind – and openness in society – the Open Society – as discussed by Sir Karl Popper in his books.

In social and political matters decisions should aim to be both practical and useful for ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ of people. This criterion for ethics is often called utilitarian and was advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Humanism excludes selfishness, because acting selfishly makes you unhappy in no time. The more selfish you are the harder it is to live with other people, and we need the company of other people because we are social animals.

We believe it is only possible to lead ‘the happy life’ if such a life is one of prudence for ourselves, and of honour and justice for ourselves and for everyone else.

Thomas Paine summarised our outlook best, perhaps, in his words:

“My country is the world,
my religion is to do good”.

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Created : Sunday, 1998-03-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :