Humanism as it was conceived in the early 20th century rejected revealed knowledge, theism-based morality and the supernatural. Yet most of the founders of the humanist philosophical movement envisioned it as a religion, with the functions, ceremonies, and moral guidance that 'supposedly revealed' religions traditionally provided. In the late 20th century the humanist movement came into conflict with conservative Christian groups in the United States and "Secular Humanism" became the most visible element of organized humanism.
In 1793 during the French Revolution, the cathedral Notre Dame de Paris was turned into a "Temple to Reason" and many of its treasures were destroyed or stolen. Several sculptures were smashed and destroyed, and for a time Lady Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars.
In the 1850s, Auguste Comte, the Father of Sociology, founded Positivism, a "religion of humanity". Auguste Comte was a student and secretary for Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, the Father of French Socialism. Auguste Comte coined the term "altruism".
One of the earliest forerunners of contemporary chartered humanist organizations was the Humanistic Religious Association formed in 1853 in London. This early group was democratically organized, with male and female members participating in the election of the leadership and promoted knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.
The Ethical Culture movement was founded in 1876. The movement's founder, Felix Adler, a former member of the Free Religious Association, conceived of Ethical Culture as a new religion that would strip away the accumulated unscientific dogmas of traditional religions while retaining and elevating the ethical message at the heart of all religions. Adler believed that traditional religions would ultimately prove to be incompatible with a scientific worldview. He felt that the vital aspects of religion should not be allowed to fall by the wayside. Religions provided vital functions in encouraging good works. And religions taught important truths about the world, albeit these truths were expressed through metaphors that were not always suited to modern understandings of the world. For example, monotheistic religions were based on a metaphor of an authoritarian monarchy, whereas democratic relationships were now understood to be the ideal.
Initially, Ethical Culture involved little in the way of ceremony and ritual. Rather, Ethical Culture was religious in the sense of playing a defining role in people's lives and addressing issues of ultimate concern. Some Ethical Societies have subsequently added a degree of ritual as a means of marking special times or providing a tangible reminder of humanistic ideals.
Before the term "humanism" was ever coined or even thought of being integrated into religion it had existed in America in at least an idealogical sense for a very long time. Groups like the Free Religious Association (FRA) which was formed in 1867 and other less radical groups mainly consisting of extreme forms of early American Protestants such as the Unitarians and Quakers had existed from the very first landings of the Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. In 1915, a Positivist defined the term "humanism" in a magazine for the British Ethical Societies. Another Unitarian Minister John H. Dietrich read the magazine and adopted the term to describe his own religion. Dietrich is considered by some to be the "Father of Religious Humanism" (Olds 1996).
In 1929 Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York whose advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Potter was a minister from the Unitarian tradition and in 1930 he and his wife, Clara Cook Potter, published Humanism: A New Religion. Throughout the 1930s Potter was a well known advocate of women’s rights, access to birth control, "civil divorce laws", and an end to capital punishment.
A Humanist Manifesto, also known as Humanist Manifesto I to distinguish it from later Humanist Manifestos, was written in 1933 primarily by Raymond Bragg and was published with thirty-four signatories. Unlike the later ones, the first manifesto talked of a new "religion", and referred to humanism as a religious movement meant to transcend and replace previous, deity-based religions. However, it is careful not to outline a creed or dogma. The document outlines a fifteen-point belief system, which, in addition to a secular outlook, opposes "acquisitive and profit-motivated society" and outlines a worldwide egalitarian society based on voluntary mutual cooperation.
The Fellowship of Humanity was founded in 1935 by Reverend A. D. Faupel as one of a handful of "humanist churches" seeded in the early 20th century as part of the American Religious Humanism movement. It was the only such organization to survive into the 21st century and is the first and oldest affiliate of the American Humanist Association.
In 1961, Webster's Third New International Unabridged Dictionary defined religious humanism as "A modern American movement composed chiefly of nontheistic humanists and humanist churches and dedicated to acheiving the ethical goals of religion without beliefs and rites resting upon superstition."
American Religious Humanist organizations that have survived into the 21st century include the HUUmanists, formerly the Friends of Religious Humanism, and the Humanist Society, formerly the Humanist Society of Friends.
In the past, humanist versions of major religions, such as Christian humanism and Humanistic Judaism have arisen. In addition, many Dharmic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and other Asian religions and belief systems like Confucianism, that focus on human nature and action more than theology, were always primarily humanistic. Currently, however, humanism is dominated almost exclusively by secular humanism. This has given rise to a newer version of humanist religions which are similar in philosophy to secular humanism. Secular humanists and revealed religious humanists primarily differ in their definition of religion and their positions on supernatural beliefs. They can also diverge in practice since religious humanists endorse religious ceremonies, rituals, and rites.
Another approach, Christian Existential Humanism, related to the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, features a humanist perspective grounded in Christian religious belief; where humanity is something to be celebrated, but not as a replacement for the divine.
The humanist approach to Buddhism shares the fundamental principle of analysing and evaluating the tradition according to natural, human values, but the particular interpretations and results various Buddhist humanists come up with will naturally vary. Most Buddhist groups are more or less humanistic anyway, but there is also a particular modern Chinese Buddhist organisation that calls itself 'Humanistic Buddhism'.
The teachings of the modern Chinese Buddhist thought of Humanistic Buddhism encompass all of the Buddhist teachings from the time of Gautama Buddha to the present. The goal of Humanistic Buddhism is the bodhisattva way, which means to be an energetic, enlightened, and endearing person who strives to help all sentient beings liberate themselves. Humanistic Buddhism focuses more on issues of the world rather than on how to leave the world behind; on caring for the living, rather than the dead; on benefiting others, rather than benefiting oneself; and on universal salvation, rather than salvation for only oneself.
Other Buddhist scholars are exploring a humanist method of analysis and evaluation of the Buddha's teachings based exclusively on the pre-sectarian early texts, which were probably mainly composed pre-300BCE. The focus of this form of humanistic Buddhism is analysis of the implicit authority theories contained in the different stages of evolution of Buddhist tradition, and critiquing the misunderstanding and misuse of religious 'authority' to justify abuse of individuals. It also re-emphasises value-pluralism, which is a humanistic way of reasoning about ethics.
Many medieval Muslim thinkers pursued humanistic, rational and scientific discourses in their search for knowledge, meaning and values. A wide range of Islamic writings on love poetry, history and philosophical theology show that medieval Islamic thought was open to the humanistic ideas of individualism, occasional secularism, skepticism and liberalism. Certain aspects of Renaissance humanism has its roots in the medieval Islamic world, including the "art of dictation, called in Latin, ars dictaminis," and "the humanist attitude toward classical language."