(These are initial sketches provided by Mark Collins, which will need revision.)
Ask anyone who calls themselves a Humanist what a Humanist is and likely you'll get a different answer, and it is often confused with Secularism. Indeed, there is a the modern redefinition of Humanism which embraces non-theism, which I will differentiate here as secular Humanism.
The Wikipedia definition is perhaps a good place to start: it describes Humanism as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the agency of human beings, collectively and individually.
Whichever interpretation of the approach we take, there is a common thread which is not to pay heed to suggestions of supernatural or transcendent involvement with human affairs, but instead to focus on what we can achieve together as people. Some use the term to deny either the existence or the relevance of God (so not strictly atheism or agnosticism or even agnostic atheism!).
Types of Humanism
The ideas of Humanism (focusing on - and trusting in - reason and knowledge rather than the supernatural) have their roots in the ancient societies of China, India, Greece, Medieval Islam and the Icelandic Sagas.
Revival in the study of classical antiquity (starting in Italy, spreading to Western Europe, c14 - c16) was associated with learning and the humanities. Most adherents were religious, seeing humanism as a way of purifying Christianity or returning to the simplicity of New Testament teachings, rejecting what they saw as the complexities of medieval theology. The focus was on society - educating and encouraging engagement with civic life - and seeking to revive the cultural legacy of classical antiquity. This led to the printing press and eventually to the Protestant Reformation.
Whilst most modern humanists would probably not embrace any religious ideology, the historical roots for the embracing of learning and social enablement are clearly to be seen.
The first Humanist Manifesto (1933, Chicago) collected together reason, ethics, social and economic justice as a more satisfactory basis for organising human affairs than dogma and using the supernatural as the basis for morality. However this first manifesto (Humanist Manifesto I) reads in a rather dogmatic manner, even presenting itself as a 'New Religion'. It was indeed signed by 15 Unitarian ministers and theologians, and contained the following statement.
"There is great danger of a final, and we believe fatal, identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which have lost their significance and which are powerless to solve the problem of human living in the Twentieth Century. Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life. Their end has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world view), the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult), established for realizing the satisfactory life. A change in any of these factors results in alteration of the outward forms of religion. This fact explains the changefulness of religions through the centuries. But through all changes religion itself remains constant in its quest for abiding values, an inseparable feature of human life."
Reading this it is interesting how many terms now have a rather different inflection, even meaning, but the examination of the evolution of religion is a very interesting matter to consider, and what the implications of the evolution of 'revealed truth' has about the very nature of revelation.
This approach to humanism can be described as Religious Humanism - no longer seeking to purify old religions, but to replace them entirely with a new one.
Paine called himself a theophilanthropist, a word combining the Greek for "God", "love", and "humanity", and indicating that while he believed in the existence of a creating intelligence in the universe, he entirely rejected the claims made by and for all existing religious doctrines, especially their miraculous, transcendental and salvationist pretensions.
The Wikipedia definition is perhaps a good place to start where it describes Humanism as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the agency of human beings, collectively and individually.
Whichever interpretation of the approach we take, there is a common thread which is not to pay heed to suggestions of supernatural or transcendent involvement with human affairs, but instead to focus on what we can achieve together as people. Some have put it to deny either the existence or the relevance of God (so not strictly atheism or agnosticism or even agnostic atheism!).
Secular, properly defined, means the separation of religion and the affairs of state (politics if you will). [See Secularism] However this can only be at a societal level, as any fair political system (opportunity for discussion of 'fair') cannot exclude people based on their religious belief, so religious people with religious motivation will be involved in the political dialogue.