You may have arrived here out of curiosity.
You may want to know more because you're fed up with the way that religion is creeping into all aspects of public life – into politics, education (faith schools, for example), welfare services, and so on.
You may think that it's shocking that British schoolchildren are being taught that we were "created", and not that we evolved from primitive life forms over billions of years – the most interesting and exciting story ever told.
You may be angry because the state visit of the Pope to the UK cost so much money, and he's head of a church with an appalling record of child abuse that opposes safe sex, abortion, and equal rights for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
You may feel that religion is increasingly irrelevant to life in the 21st century, a hangover from a time when people weren't encouraged to think for themselves, and that we should assert positive human values free from superstition.
Enough is enough, you might think – and so do we.
You're not alone; there are millions of others like you.
Alternatives to religion
More and more people are now saying they don't identify with a religion.
More and more people aren't going to church, saying prayers or doing any of the things religion tells them to.
You don't have to be religious. You don't have to be anything. But more and more people are finding alternative ways to express their beliefs and share what they think is important with others.
Some of those ways are explained here:
If you're an atheist, it means you don't believe in any god.
Many choose to describe themselves as atheists. Some people might even describe themselves as atheist even though they belong to a religion - maybe because their parents were religious, sometimes just because they enjoy the culture.
But calling yourself atheist doesn't say what you do believe in, only what you don't.
Find out more...
These websites all offer more guidance and reading
Find a Humanist group near you...
Humanists believe that:
- we can gain knowledge through scientific research and looking at the natural world - what is real, what we can see and touch
- this one life is all we know we have
- our morality (our sense of right and wrong) comes from our human nature and culture
- what is right is what promotes human welfare and fulfilment
- we can and should create meaning and purpose in life
Many people hear this list and say "well, I guess I'm a Humanist". Maybe it's you as well. Most Humanists don't believe in God or belong to any religion, but call themselves Humanist because they share these values.
Humanism is older than all the religions.
There have been humanists since the beginning of recorded history, all over the world, though the word "Humanism" has only been used to describe our beliefs and values since the 19th century. These ideas have been recorded in Europe, from the 6th century BCE to about 6th century CE, in China from the 6th century BCE onwards, in India from the 6th century CE onwards, in the Arab world from the 12th century CE, and in the Western world from the 17th century CE to the present day.
People of religion usually inherit their beliefs from their families, depending on their culture. Humanists have always worked things out for themselves, and we’re still doing it now. For this reason, we’re sometimes called “freethinkers” because that’s what we do – we think freely, rather than believing.
The symbol of Humanism is the Happy Human, shown above, and this page was put together by a Humanist group.
Agnostics believe that it's not possible to know for sure whether there is a god or not - there is always a bit of doubt when we talk about what we believe in, particularly when it comes to religion.
Agnostics may share many values with Humanists - such as the desire to keep inquiring and asking questions - but they allow for the possibility that some kind of god exists. It's possible to believe in a god of some kind without being religious, and many people do.
Secularism is the idea that government and human activites, mainly political activities, should be kept separate from religion. You're more likely to call yourself a secularist if that is important to you, even if you're religious - and many religious people are also secularists. Secularists want:
- a tolerant open society where no group (including religious groups) has unfair influence over others
- mutual respect and equality for all people
- no one view of the universe but lots of views
- all people to be able to realise their potential
Some frequently asked questions
We've put together some Humanist answers to common questions here - just click the question to view the answer. If you have any more, how about asking us?
What's wrong with being religious?
For a start, religion can be divisive – Christians against Muslims, Catholics against Protestants, and so on. History is full of examples of people killing one another in the name of their religions.
When children go to faith schools, they may have very little contact with children from other faiths, as has happened in Northern Ireland, which leads to a lack of understanding, even hatred. If people didn’t try to impose their beliefs on others, it probably wouldn’t be a problem, but too many people do. We’re opposed to children being labelled with the faith of their parents. We think they should be allowed to grow up and make up their own minds. There’s no such thing as a Christian baby, or a Muslim baby, or an Atheist baby – babies are just babies.
So if you don't believe in God, what happens when you die?
Can you remember all that time before you were born? Neither can we! Well, it's probably the same after you die.
Like everything else in the natural world, we’re made from chemicals and minerals. Nothing ever disappears completely. When we die, our bodies break down into these chemicals and minerals again, whether we’re cremated or buried, and they eventually become part of the earth, or of plants, or even of other living things. However, we don’t believe in a “soul”, a supernatural part of a human being.
If you're atheist, isn't that just like being religious? You can't prove God doesn't exist...
No, we can’t prove that a god or gods don’t exist, but we can’t prove that fairies or ghosts exist either – nor can we prove that they do. There have been hundreds, thousands of versions of God throughout history. Which one are we expected to believe in? The god or gods that religious people believe in depends on their culture – where they were born, what their parents worship.
The word atheist comes from ancient Greek – "a" means "without", and "theist" means "belief in a god or gods". We don’t believe in goblins or fairies either, so you could say we’re "agoblinist" and "afairyist" too.
I want to get married in a church or buried in a churchyard - so how can I do that if I'm not religious?
A lot of people want to get married in a church just because they’re often beautiful old buildings, but for some time now it has been possible to have a civil ceremony in some lovely buildings – stately homes, hotels, and so on – that aren’t religious. Why not one of them? You can also get married in a registry office and then have a ceremony for family and friends anywhere you like.
It’s sometimes possible to be buried in a churchyard, if the local clergy are willing to give permission, but there are plenty of cemeteries that anyone can be buried in, including green burial sites where trees are planted on the graves.
Isn't Humanism a religion for atheists?
Humanists don’t have the equivalent of a holy book, like the Bible or the Qur’an. We don’t have rules or commandments to follow. There are no Humanist priests or leaders. We don’t have to attend rituals or celebrate festivals, though many of us enjoy the midwinter festival that Christians call Christmas. We don’t have to join an organisation to be a Humanist. Religion means a belief in a supernatural power. That’s not what we do.
What’s the purpose of life, if you don’t believe in an afterlife?
We find out own purpose or meaning in life, in the here and now. It may involve creating a happy family, helping other people to find fulfilment, trying to make life better for others in some way, finding satisfaction through learning to do things really well. There’s no evidence for an afterlife, so we don’t waste any of our precious time thinking about it.
If you don’t believe in a god, what stops you from committing crimes?
We don’t think that it’s natural to behave badly. Most people understand the difference between right and wrong, without having to be told. If you’re in any doubt, you might ask yourself, "What would happen if everyone did as I am doing?". There are many people who commit crimes in the name of their religion – belief in a god doesn’t make people good.
When you hear beautiful music, see great art or enjoy poetry, don’t you feel that there’s a spiritual power that’s more than human?
No, not more than human. We can experience strong emotions through all of these things, but they’re all as human as any other experience.
Do you believe in euthanasia (ending the life of a person to relieve pain and suffering)?
Most humanists think that we have a right to end our own lives when we choose, so that we might die peacefully and with dignity. Voluntary euthanasia is when we choose when we should die, not when other people choose for us. Research has shown that most people in the UK agree with us.
Do you agree with abortion?
Yes, when necessary. Humanists were involved with changing the law to make abortion legal in some circumstances. Before then, many women risked serious injury or even death through unsafe back street abortions. We wouldn’t want to go back to that. However, with good contraception and sex education, abortion should be a last resort for unplanned pregnancies.
Do you think that science can solve mankind’s problems?
No, but we are learning more all the time, so that we can solve many problems and avoid others.
Religious people find comfort in the thought of seeing their loved ones again after they die. What can Humanists offer?
We believe that death is inevitable and final and that it should be as painless and dignified as possible. When we lose someone we love, it’s natural to grieve, but we don’t expect to see him or her again. We find comfort in the sympathy and company of our friends and family, while we keep the memories alive.
What about heaven and hell?
Some religions say that you’ll go to heaven when you die, but what would heaven be like? Will you be there forever? What will you do there? Will you only meet people you like? Will your pets be there too? Does heaven mean enjoying the things you enjoyed when you were alive, such as your favourite foods? Wouldn’t it get boring after a while? The more you think about heaven, the less attractive it might seem. We’re happy to accept that death means the end of us.
Hell has been used by some religions as a threat, to try to make people obey religious teachings. We don’t understand why anyone would want to worship a god that might send him or her to burn in a fiery furnace forever, when some say that God is kind and loving. We think that hell is a human invention, and not a good one.
Do Humanists believe in sleeping around?
No. We think that casual sex can cause all sorts of problems, from unplanned pregnancies to sexually transmitted diseases and emotional hurt. It shows a lack of concern and respect for other people. However, we don’t think that sex should be confined to marriage, if people care for and respect one another. Sadly, we have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the UK, due to ignorance and lack of education. Good sex education is a right for all our children. We oppose attempts by some religious organisations to prevent it.
If you don’t have to follow any religious rules, don’t you have an easy life?
No, not really. We think it’s too easy to follow other people’s rules without having to think about them. The trouble with rules is that the world is changing fast, and they’re soon out of date. We have to think about what we should do whenever we face a problem, and make our own decisions. The sooner that young people start learning to do this, the better.
What’s the point of Humanism? Where does it get us?
Humanists are, on the whole, freer and happier people than those who worry about whether or not they’re doing the right thing, according to their beliefs. Humanists can adapt to challenges with confidence. We accept that our behaviour affects other people and the world around us, so that it’s in our power to change things for the better. Humanists regard everyone else, whatever their race, sexual orientation, colour, ability or disability, as equal citizens of the world – no "them and us". We try to work with other people so that our children (everyone’s children) won’t inherit too many of the problems we haven’t solved.