Secular Humanism the Rise and Research Proposal

Excerpt from Research Proposal :

This work provided an intensive discussion historical forces that were to lead to modern humanism but also succeeds in placing these aspects into the context of the larger social, historical and political milieu. .

Online sources and databases proved to be a valid and often insightful recourse area for this topic. Of particular note is a concise and well-written article by Stephen Weldon entitled Secular Humanism in the United States. This article provides a well-structured overview of the main issues in the development of secular humanism. It also provides insight into the influence of secular humanism in the United States.

An online article that is especially pertinent in terms of the consequences of the rise of secular rationality in an ideological sense is The Great Scandal (part 1) Christianity's Role in the Rise of the Nazis by Gregory Paul. This article also adds to the complexity of the debate about the positive or negative influence of the ideology of secularization in the last century.

Primary sources were also consulted, especially in terms of research on the philosophical view of secularization in the twentieth century. An example is the insightful lecture by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell entitled Why I Am Not a Christian (1927). This is a major example of the impact that secular humanism had on central thinkers and academics.

There were numerous works consulted that dealt with the intersection between secular humanism and religion. One book of note is Bryan R. Wilson's, Religion in Secular Society: A Sociological Comment (1966), as well as Paul's "The Secular Revolution of the West: It's Passed America By-So Far," (2002). Both these and other studies provided a comprehensive background to the development of secular humanism in the last century. A study by Matthew D'Agostino, Reason and Rationality: The Core Doctrines of Secular Humanism, was also a useful source of data and insight in this regard.

1.3. Definitions and Overview

The following definition is one that emphasizes the positive values and life-affirming aspect of this humanism

HUMANISM is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. Free of theism and other supernatural beliefs, humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.

The above quotation emphasizes a number of initial points that should be unpacked in order to better understand this view of life and reality. The first is the emphasis on human rationality and reason as the central means of obtaining knowledge that is verifiable and 'true'. The second is the emphasis on the value of human potential, creativity and intellect and the focus on human responsibility for the world and society.

The third is concomitant with the preceding points. This refers to the secular element of human being which makes it free "…of theism and other supernatural beliefs" and from ideological and abstract constructs and constraints that do not serve human interests. The secular aspect of this ideology in fact flows from the emphasis on human capability that is unconstrained by creed or religious dogmas. As will be discussed, while the development of a general humanism is often accepted, the secular aspects of humanism are an issue that raises a number of concerns for many thinkers in the twentieth century. The last line of the above quotation possibly sums up the main trajectory of secular humanism -- which is to assert that, "…humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny."

The ideology of secular humanism has its roots in Enlightenment thought and is "…based in large part on the Western tradition of liberalism and notions about the status and role of science in the modern world."

It is described more correctly as a "…nontheistic belief system that upholds the prime importance of rationality, human autonomy, and democracy."

The term humanism is an essential aspect that needs to be understood in detail in order to comprehend the relevance of this ideology to our modern age. In the late fifteenth century the term 'umanista' was used to refer to a scholar or teacher of the humanities; which included the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy.

These fields of study were also referred to as 'studia humanitatis', which is, importantly, a phrase which refers to a contrast between the study of 'humanity' and the study of divinity.

Humanists in the fourteenth fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in European countries were in particular interested in "….the study of the classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome, finding in it an ideal of human life which they wished to revive."

This is an important aspect in understanding the roots of secular humanism in that the Greek world in particular provided a model of reason and democracy that was to be emulated by many early humanist writings. For example the Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola wrote On the Dignity of Man, which was concerned with reconciling the worldviews as well as the literature of the ancient world with Christian religious belief.

This aspect of Classical influence is further strengthened by the fact that the term 'Humanismus' is to be found in a German educational context in the nineteenth-century. This term refers to the traditional classical education built around the humanities.

The extension of the term humanism to mean more than just a concept in education was established by Jacob Burckhardt's famous book Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien ( 1860). In this book Burckhardt"…speaks of humanism not just as an educational curriculum but as a broader cultural phenomenon, and he hints at the potential conflict with the Christian church. "

This points to the way in which the ideals of humanism were to spread and emerge as a cultural and social phenomenon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - as well as raising the ire and condemnation of conventional and orthodox religion.

An important aspect of early humanism is expressed by Norman ( 2004);

With his celebration of the distinctive human capacity for free choice, however, Pico does put a new slant on traditional Christian views of human nature, and more generally the Italian humanists represent a new emphasis on the value of human achievements in this life rather than seeing it simply as preparation for the life to come.

The above is extremely important in terms of an in-depth understanding of this term. This refers to an understanding of the term secular humanism as opposed to religious humanism. In other words, in general it can be argued that the earlier view of humanism was one that was more concerned with the potential of human freedom and development in relation to and in conjunction with the religious ideologies and spiritual traditions of the time. This was to change with the nineteenth and twentieth century and with the views of modern science that resulted in the secularization of the humanist ethos.

The term secular also poses a number of problematic areas of discourse and understanding. It is recognized as term that is extremely difficult to define in precise or exact terms. As Diamond ( 2004) states; "What, then, do we mean by "secular"? The word is a staple of contemporary parlance, bandied about almost without thinking as something opposed to or different from "religious."

He emphasizes that there is little scholarly consensus about the meaning of this term and that there is also a decided difference better the words secularization and secularism.

There are a number of divergent views about the nature and meaning of secular. One scholar refers to the view that secular is essentially the opposite of religious. Secularization is described with reference to the view that,"… religion is a set of beliefs about the ultimate ground of existence, that which is unconditioned, not itself created or caused."

The secular or secularization is the movement in society away from the subjective belief "….in an ultimate ground of existence, a deity, God."

This movement within the society and culture away from a religious perception or conception of reality means that,"…, people usually also cease to worship and pray in community, in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. They reject religion altogether. "

There are other views about the meaning of secular which consider a dualistic opposition between secular and religious as being too simplistic and extreme. One theologian comments that, …we need a new model for describing the world that we actually inhabit. It is neither exclusively secular nor exclusively religious, but rather a complex combination of both the religious and the secular, with religious and secular phenomena occurring at the same time in individuals, in groups, and in societies around the world.

In other words, the binary opposition between secular and religious is seen in this view to be unrealistic and that there are many 'shades of grey' or areas where the secular and the religious interact and…

Sources Used in Document:


Anthony Giddens: Modernity, post-modernity and the post-traditional. accessed 8 January, 2010); available from

Blitz, Mark. "Understanding Heidegger." Public Interest 106 (Fall 2001).

Blond Phillip, ed., Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology [book online] London: Routledge, 1998, accessed 4 August 2008); available from Questia,

D'Agostino, S. Matthew. "Reason and Rationality: The Core Doctrines of Secular Humanism."Free Inquiry, Winter 1994, 47+.

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