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Harvard University’s organization of chaplains has elected as its next president an atheist and secular humanist named Greg Epstein. Along with his role as chief chaplain, Epstein also serves as the humanist chaplain at Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Epstein was ordained as a humanist rabbi through the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Here are nine things you should know about secular humanism.

1. The phrase ‘secular humanism’ was coined by Christians.

Use of the phrase is believed to have started in the 1930s by Anglican priests. William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned in 1943 that Christian tradition was “in danger of being undermined by a ‘Secular Humanism’ which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith.” By the 1960s, the term had been embraced by humanists who considered themselves secular. Today, most groups who align with the tenets of this view have dropped the secular and refer to themselves merely as humanists.

2. Secular humanism is necessarily rooted in agnosticism/atheism.

During the past few centuries, humanism has come in numerous forms, including Christian humanism, Jewish humanism, and the more generic religious humanism. What makes secular humanism distinct is its embrace of non-theism. In the words of Free Inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, “Secular humanism begins with atheism (absence of belief in a deity) and agnosticism or skepticism (epistemological caution that rejects the transcendent as such due to a lack of evidence).”

3. Secular humanism is a man-centered ethical system.

While here is no universal definition of secular humanism, there is a general agreement—both among critics and adherents—that it is a man-centered system of ethics. In A Christian Manifesto, apologist Francis Schaeffer said that “We must understand what we are talking about when we use the word Humanism. Humanism means that the man is the measure of all things.” Many secular humanists would agree with the basis of that definition. As the Council for Secular Humanism says, “Because no transcendent power will save us, secular humanists maintain that humans must take responsibility for themselves.” As the council defines it, secular humanism is “a comprehensive nonreligious life stance that incorporates a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system.”

4. The creed of secular humanism is the Amsterdam Declaration.

During the first World Humanist Congress, held in the Netherlands in 1952, the assembly adopted what became known as The Amsterdam Declaration. At the 50th anniversary of the World Humanist Congress, the assembly unanimously passed a resolution updating that declaration, which is referred to as The Amsterdam Declaration 2002.

The fundamentals of modern humanism include these tenets:

  • Humanism is ethical.
  • Humanism is rational.
  • Humanism supports democracy and human rights.
  • Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility.
  • Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion.
  • Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognizes the transforming power of art.
  • Humanism is a life stance aiming at the maximum possible fulfillment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times.

5. The Happy Human is the international symbol of secular humanism.

In 1965, the British Humanist Association (now known as Humanists UK) held a design competition for a logo. The winning design, by Dennis Barrington, was originally known as the Happy Man but was later renamed the Happy Human. Although Humanists UK holds the trademark for the original Happy Human symbol, it has freely licensed the original 1965 design for use by humanist organizations around the world.

6. In the United States, secular humanism is legally considered a religion.

Many secular humanists deny that their belief system constitutes a religion. But in 2014 a federal district court held that “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” In the 1961 decision Torcaso v. Watkins, the court stated that the Establishment Clause prevents government from aiding “those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” In a footnote of that decision, the court clarified that this principle extended to “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God . . . Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.”

7. Harvard was the first American university with a humanist chaplain.

A former Roman Catholic priest and chaplain named Thomas Ferrick had a desire to serve as a chaplain for non-religious students at Harvard. He joined Harvard in 1974 as the first Humanist Chaplain, at a time when the university only had chaplains for Protestants, Jews, and Catholics. Ferrick served in this role until his retirement in 2005, when he passed the position to Greg Epstein. In 2018, Epstein also became humanist chaplain at MIT. Today, humanist chaplains work at additional schools, such as American University, Columbia, New York University, Rutgers, Stanford, and the University of Central Florida.

8. In Scotland, humanist weddings outnumber Christian weddings.

In the United Kingdom, humanist marriages are legally recognized in Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Channel Islands, but not in England or Wales. In 2019, humanist marriages made up 23 percent of marriages in Scotland, while Christian marriages made up 22 percent. In the Republic of Ireland, around 9 percent of legal marriages were humanist.

9. Secular humanism is the latest branch of Judaism.

Secular Humanistic Judaism (sometimes Humanistic Judaism) is a branch of Judaism that finds no meaning in the worship of God. Humanistic Jews celebrate the traditional Jewish festivals, but with the supernatural elements removed. Humanistic Judaism is non-theistic and based on the principles that Judaism is more than a religion (seeing it as the culture of the Jewish people) and that the source of power for solving human problems lies within human beings.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine (1928–2007) founded the first Humanistic Jewish congregation in 1963 and helped establish the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969. According to Rabbi Paul Golin, nearly 30 communities affiliate with the Society for Humanistic Judaism in North America, including in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Toronto, and Washington, D.C.

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