The Religious Should Not Define Humanism

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image showing an abstract word cloud focused on Secular HumanismOne of my pet peeves about the Humanist movement is that some support the use of religious words or activities in Humanist settings. Using such words in the context of a nontheistic philosophy like Humanism not only causes public confusion but also dilutes our message and shows a lack of conviction of our own principles, not to mention it is a bit silly. We should define ourselves and not let the religious do it.

I came across an essay written by American Humanist Association board treasurer Jason Torpy that was published in the online Humanist Network News. Torpy writes:

Among atheists, I lament an ‘allergy’ to certain terms. There is a concern among many that anything with ‘church’ or ‘god’ or ‘prayer’ is tainted and must be purged from culture or at least from the humanist community. This comes honestly as many have been downright traumatized personally by an oppressive religious upbringing and have a concern about the wider culture. Now this ‘allergy,’ as I like to call it, is not nearly as bad as the religious right claims it is. They like to marginalize every legitimate church-state violation as just the whining of an offended atheist. All rhetoric aside, many of us could stand some more acceptance of the terminology of religion.

Consider part of this Franciscan blessing: “May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”

I could “secularize” this, but what would really be the point? The religious wording adds no real value, but there is little value in stripping it out. Why not give credit? Franciscans, at least in this case, encouraged people to reach for their dreams and to seek to do what others say can’t be done. We even have the opportunity, as I did, to look up the full “blessing.” It is an inspiring encouragement of skepticism, social justice, and compassion as well as meaningful action.

When Words Matter: Would Humanists Benefit From Being More Open to Religious Language?

Torpy’s claim is a version of the “we don’t believe it but it sounds pretty” argument common in religious humanist circles. The problem is that a nontheistic people using religious words doesn’t show one is more open minded, it leads to people who aren’t Humanists to be confused about what our principles are. It comes across as dishonest.

If “religious wording adds no real value” then why use them? Secular alternatives exist and have the same meaning without the confusion of using religious words. If we hide behind redefined religious language then how does anyone know that we stand as an alternative to religion. Arguing to continue using the words shows laziness and lack of conviction of one’s own beliefs. Humanism is suppose to be progressive – not regressive.

Of course Jason Torpy wants it both ways because he states that some religious words shouldn’t be used. He writes “it is clear not all religious wording is innocuous or transferable“. I agree.

The issue becomes how do we know which ones are merely pretty and which ones cross the line. This is why I argue that all of them cross the line and we should not use them.

We can’t divorce the baggage the god talk contains from our positive nontheistic philosophy. We can call a chair anything we want but a majority of people won’t accept our word or definition and will have one of their own.

Just like if we act like a church and meet on Sundays, using religious words will mean one thing to the religious majority – Humanism is a religion. We know that is not true.

It would be much easier to drop the god talk and be clear and honest about our principles. That to me is as pretty as any Franciscan blessing.

We need to stop letting the religious define us.


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