The word “humanism” has a number of meanings, and because there are so many different meanings it can be quite confusing if you don’t know what kind of humanism someone is talking about.
Literary Humanism is a devotion to the humanities or literary culture. Renaissance Humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.
Cultural Humanism is the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved through out European history, and now constitutes a basic part of the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics, and law.
Philosophical Humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest. Sub categories of this type include the two following.
Christian Humanism is defined by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as “a philosophy advocating the self fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles.” This more human oriented faith is largely a product of the Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism.
Modern Humanism, also called Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism and Democratic Humanism is defined by one of its leading proponents, Corollas Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub categories.
Religious Humanism emerged out of Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, and Universalism. Today, many Unitarian- Universalist congregations and all Ethical Culture societies describe themselves as humanist in the modern sense. The most critical irony in dealing with Modern Humanism is the inability of its supporters to agree on whether or not this world view is religious. The Secular Humanists believe it is a philosophy, where the Religious Humanists obviously believe it is a religion. This has been going on since the early years of the century where the Secular and Religious traditions combined and made Modern Humanism. Secular and Religious Humanists both share the same world views as shown by the signing of the Humanist Manifestos I and II. The signers of the Manifestos were both Secular and Religious Humanists. To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life’s harsher realities, a rational for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose. To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for the moral education of children, special holidays shared with like minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcoming, coming of age celebrations, funerals, etc.), an opportunity for affirmation of one’s philosophy of life, and a historical context for one’s ideas. Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have personal a social need that can only be met by humanism. They do not feel that one should have to make a choice between meeting these needs in a traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all. Individuals who cannot feel at home in traditional religion should be able to find a home in nontraditional religion. A popular example of Secular Humanists views of the world was said by author Salman Rushdie on ABC’s “Nightline” on February 13, 1989.
The Secular Humanist has been known for defiance, a defiance that dates back to ancient Greece. Humanist themes that are shown in Greek mythology are rarely ever shown in the mythologies of other cultures. And they are certainly not shown in modern religion. The best example from Greek mythology is the character of Prometheus. Prometheus stands out because he was idolized by ancient Greeks as the one who defied Zeus. He stole the fire of the gods and brought it down to earth. He was punished and still he continued his defiance despite the torture. The next time we see a Promethean character in mythology it is Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But now he is the devil. Whoever defies god must be evil. That seems to be a given of traditional religion. But the Greeks didn’t agree. To them, Zeus, for all his power, could still be mistaken. This exemplifies Secular Humanists tradition of skepticism. Just like every religion has it’s sage, so does Secular Humanism. All other sages created rules or laws save the Secular Humanists sage, Socrates. Socrates gave us a method of questioning the rules of others.