What’s the Difference Between a Humanist and a Humanitarian?

Confused by the terms ‘humanist’ and ‘humanitarian’? It’s easy to mix them up, especially when they sound alike, but these terms describe quite different beliefs and actions.

A humanist is someone who values humans, trusting in our ability to think rationally and live ethically. Meanwhile, a humanitarian is a person of action dedicated to providing practical help to others, often in emergency situations.

Both admirable, both needed, yet fundamentally different in their approaches to advocating for human welfare. But wait, could you possibly be a bit of both? Let’s find out!

What Is a Humanist?

Humanism is a way of thinking and living that emphasizes the importance of human values and concerns. It looks at the world through a lens that respects and promotes human dignity, potential, and worth.

This mindset doesn’t necessarily depend on religious beliefs, making it flexible and universal. However, it doesn’t oppose religious beliefs unless they conflict with humanist values. Many humanists are non-religious, but others might incorporate their religious perspectives, focusing on the shared human values that bridge different faiths.

Core Principles of Humanism:

  • Importance of human reason and evidence over faith or superstition.
  • Belief in the potential for people to find fulfillment and solve problems.
  • Support for democracy and human rights.
  • Emphasis on personal responsibility and ethical behavior.
  • Encouragement of arts and science as ways to understand and improve the human condition.

Brief History

The concept of humanism has deep roots that stretch back to the time of ancient Greece and Rome when thinkers started to value human reason and evidence-based understanding of the world.

  • Renaissance Humanism (14th-17th centuries): A cultural and educational movement highlighting the value of classical Greek and Roman literature and advocating a curriculum focused on the humanities.
  • 19th-century: The term “humanismus” was first used by German scholars to describe the Renaissance focus on classical studies and the educational system of the liberal arts.
  • 20th-century: Humanism evolved into a philosophical and ethical viewpoint, stressing human values and rationality over the supernatural, championing human potential and the scientific method.
  • Contemporary Humanism: Today, humanism is a secular life stance promoting human welfare based on reason, ethics, and a commitment to human rights and science for the betterment of society.

What Is a Humanitarian?

Humanitarianism is driven by the desire to ensure people’s safety, well-being, and dignity. It often involves responding to crises where human suffering is most acute, such as natural disasters, wars, or health emergencies.

Humanitarian efforts can stem from religious faiths that command followers to help the less fortunate, but they’re not exclusive to believers. Non-faith-based organizations operate under the same humanitarian principles and strive to provide aid regardless of religious affiliations.

Core Principles of Humanitarianism:

  • Efforts are directed towards those in most urgent need, regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
  • Staying neutral and not taking sides in hostilities or engaging in political, racial, religious, or ideological controversies.
  • Providing help based on need alone and striving to relieve suffering, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress.

Brief History

  • Late 18th Century: Originally used in a theological context, “humanitarian” referred to the view that Christ was solely human, not divine.
  • 19th Century Onwards: The concept started to be secularized and is increasingly associated with social, ethical, and political reforms intended to address human crises and improve conditions for the vulnerable.
  • Late 19th to Early 20th Centuries: The founding of the Red Cross in 1863 by Swiss businessman Henry Dunant marked the start of systematic humanitarian aid and the development of International Humanitarian Law. This led to the emergence of various organizations focused on addressing the aftermath of wars, natural disasters, and other emergencies.
  • Post-World War II Era:
  • The term now covers a worldwide effort to assist those impacted by wars, natural disasters, and poverty. The United Nations and its partners are key contributors to this cause. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights strengthens the commitment to defend human rights across the globe.
  • Late 20th to Early 21st Century: NGOs and international groups are more involved in giving humanitarian help, focusing on lasting development, long-term improvement, and immediate aid. Humanitarian efforts still deal with issues like staying neutral and avoiding political influence on aid.

Humanist vs. Humanitarian: What Sets Them Apart?

Value and capabilities of human beingsHuman welfare and alleviating suffering
Often secular. It emphasizes reason, ethics, and justiceEthical action aimed at meeting human needs, often in crisis
May be non-religious, but does not exclude religious peopleTypically includes people of all religions and none
Interconnectedness with ethics and personal responsibilityGuided by principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence
Encourages self-fulfillment and human advancementsDirectly provides relief and support to those in immediate need

Philosophical Basis

  • Humanist: Often rooted in secular philosophy that emphasizes the power of human reason, ethics, and justice to improve human life. A humanist might advocate for education reform, believing that critical thinking and learning can enhance human potential.
  • Humanitarian: Based on the concept of providing unbiased aid and promoting the welfare of others, especially in response to crises. It is a call to action to help those suffering and in need. A humanitarian effort would be to send aid to a country that has just experienced a natural disaster, focusing on immediate relief and survival needs.

Focus (Beliefs vs. Actions)

  • Humanist: Prioritizes the belief system and the development of a worldview that prioritizes human values, intellectual development, and self-realization. Humanists might engage in meaningful discussions and philosophical debates to explore ethical questions and personal development.
  • Humanitarian: Places greater emphasis on tangible actions designed to provide relief, support, and development aimed at saving lives and alleviating suffering. Humanitarians might be found setting up food distribution centers in a war-torn region, providing life-saving aid to affected populations.

Ethical Framework

  • Humanist: The ethical framework is often based on the idea of doing what is best for human flourishing and well-being without relying on divine command. Debates on ethical dilemmas, like end-of-life care, may be driven by a humanist desire for individual dignity and autonomy.
  • Humanitarian: The ethical framework tends to be action-based, driven by the imperative to relieve suffering and maintain human dignity. Humanitarian crisis responses uphold ethics like impartiality, ensuring aid is delivered based on need alone.

Approach to Human Welfare

  • Humanist: Typically advocates for cultural, scientific, and educational advancements to enhance human welfare, promoting a society where individuals have the freedom to realize their fullest potential. Promoting STEM education as a way to empower future generations with the skills to solve human problems effectively.
  • Humanitarian: Often work in emergency or development settings where they can provide direct help, such as medical assistance, basic necessities, and trauma care. Offering emergency medical services in conflict zones where access to healthcare is limited.

Impact on Public Policy

  • Humanist: Might influence public policy by advocating for secular governance, separation of church and state, and the inclusion of humanist perspectives in ethical discussions. Lobbying efforts might aim to keep creationism out of public school science curriculums.
  • Humanitarian: Affects policy in terms of disaster response, international aid, and global development. Campaigning for a government to adopt more open borders for refugees fleeing conflict or persecution.

Focus (Global vs. Individual):

  • Humanist: Generally focuses on the development of the individual and addressing societal challenges through a lens that places human experiences and values at the core. A humanist approach would be to support individual artistic expression as a celebration of human creativity and a means to challenge societal norms.
  • Humanitarian: The focus is on global humanity, addressing the immediate needs of people affected by crises anywhere in the world. Global humanitarian campaigns for disaster response, like fundraising and deploying aid workers to earthquake-struck regions, exemplify their worldwide perspective.

Practical Applications

When considering humanism and humanitarianism, it’s crucial to see how these perspectives translate into day-to-day life. How do these ideologies show up in the real world, and what do they compel people to do?

Humanism in Action

  • Education: Humanists often place a high value on education, advocating for a curriculum that encourages critical thinking and understanding rather than memorization. Schools and universities may offer courses in humanist philosophy and ethics to promote this way of thinking.
  • Arts and Culture: Many humanists find expression through the arts, using painting, literature, and performance to explore and celebrate human experiences, emotions, and ideas.
  • Science and Innovation: Humanists’ emphasis on reason and empirical evidence can lead to support for scientific research and innovation as tools for human advancement. Humanists may be involved in campaigning for evidence-based policies or supporting technological advances that enhance the quality of living.
  • Ethics: Personal and professional ethics are another area where humanism plays a role. This could mean making decisions that prioritize people’s well-being, or it could be about supporting organizations that have ethical practices at their heart.

Humanitarianism in Action

  • Disaster Response: Humanitarian organizations respond to crises—like hurricanes, earthquakes, and wars—with immediate aid. This might be sending food, setting up shelters, or providing medical care.
  • Advocacy: Humanitarians often speak up for those who can’t advocate for themselves, seeking to protect human rights and ensure justice. They work on the front line, as well as behind the scenes, influencing policy and raising awareness.
  • Long-Term Development: Humanitarian work also includes efforts to improve the long-term well-being of communities. That might mean building schools, developing clean water sources, or providing vocational training to give people the tools to build a better future.
  • Volunteering: Individual action is at the heart of humanitarian work. Many people volunteer their time, skills, and resources, both locally and internationally, to help others.

Both humanism and humanitarianism aim to promote well-being, but they do so in distinct ways—humanism predominantly through intellectual and cultural development and humanitarianism through immediate, action-based support.

Career and Lifestyle Implications


For Humanists:

  • Education and Academia: Humanists might pursue careers in teaching or research, particularly in fields that highlight human potential and critical thinking, such as philosophy, literature, or social sciences.
  • Arts and Creative Professions: They are often drawn to creative careers—writers, artists, musicians—that allow them to express the human condition or advance cultural appreciation.
  • Ethics and Advocacy: Positions within ethical committees, like those in healthcare or technology, or roles that involve advocacy for human rights, are also natural fits for those who espouse humanist ideals.

For Humanitarians:

  • Non-Profit and NGO Work: Many humanitarians are employed by non-profits and NGOs that provide aid, engage in advocacy or work in development.
  • International Agencies: Careers with international organizations, such as the United Nations or the Red Cross, are prevalent choices that align with humanitarian values.
  • Health and Social Care: Working directly with people in need, such as in medicine, social work, or counseling, is a path that exemplifies the humanitarian focus on alleviating suffering.
  • Volunteerism: Some humanitarians may choose to incorporate their values into their career by volunteering part of their time to support causes they believe in, which can also lead to a lifestyle of service and altruism.


  • Community Involvement: Humanists and humanitarians often extend their values into their personal lives by participating in community organizations, local activism, or educational outreach.
  • Sustainable Living: A lifestyle that minimizes harm to the environment can be important to both humanists and humanitarians, as it reflects a respect for the well-being of others and future generations.
  • Mindful Consumption: Making conscious choices about consumption—such as supporting ethical brands, reducing waste, and advocating for fair labor practices—demonstrates an alignment with the principles that both groups value.
  • Global Citizenship: Humanitarians, in particular, may practice a lifestyle of global citizenship, staying informed about global issues, promoting cultural understanding, and taking action on international concerns.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a person be both a humanist and a humanitarian?

Yes, it is possible to be both. While the two terms have different focuses, nothing precludes an individual from aligning with humanist values while also engaging in humanitarian efforts to alleviate suffering.

Are humanitarians usually volunteers?

Many humanitarians volunteer their time, but humanitarianism also encompasses professionals working in non-profits, NGOs, and international organizations that offer humanitarian assistance as part of their career.

How can I support humanist or humanitarian causes?

You can support these causes by getting involved with organizations that align with your values, whether that’s through donations, volunteering, or advocacy work. Educating yourself and others about the principles and work of humanist and humanitarian groups is also beneficial.


 Let’s take away a simple thought: humanists inspire us to tap into our own potential, to think and live by what’s fair and right. On the flip side, humanitarians are all about reaching out and giving a hand to those in distress.

No matter the path you relate to, remember that both strive towards a better world. And maybe, as you go about your life, you might find a little bit of both. After all, at the core of each philosophy lies a shared hope: a brighter and kinder future for the entire humanity.

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Clariza is a passionate writer and editor who firmly believes that words have great power. She has a degree in BS Psychology, which gives her an in-depth understanding of the complexities of human behavior. As a woman of science and art, she fused her love for both fields in crafting insightful articles on lifestyle, mental health, and social justice to inspire others and advocate for change. In her leisure time, you can find her sitting in the corner of her favorite coffee shop downtown, deeply immersed in her bubble of thoughts. Being an art enthusiast that she is, she finds bliss in exploring the rich world of fiction writing and diverse art forms.