Humanism should not be “religious”

An old argument came up the other day with another Humanist. It was related to some of my earlier posts here. It was the debate between religious and secular humanists. The debate was about Humanism and religion.

I’m not religious. I have no use for religion of any form, but I don’t have anything against religious people or religious humanists – unless they disparage atheists.

It got me thinking. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is something religious about Humanism that I hadn’t considered before, so I decided to review my thoughts on the issue and what has been told to me by people I have debated.

I am familiar with “religion” in a humanist sense. Religious Humanists participate in the functional aspects of religion while not using the supernatural aspects – like the Bible and God. As Fred Edwords, current director of communications for the American Humanist Association, put it:

The definition of religion used by Religious Humanists is a functional one. Religion is that which serves the personal and social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical world view.

To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life’s harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose.

To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities (such as Ethical Culture societies and many Unitarian-Universalist churches) offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for the moral education of children, special holidays shared with like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth), an opportunity for affirmation of one’s philosophy of life, and a historical context for one’s ideas.

What Is Humanism?

It doesn’t seem to be much different than a mainstream theistic church and most religious humanists attend a church although usually it is Unitarian – which is considered non-theistic.

Sometimes they include traditional religious symbolism or dialog in their services like singing hymns, readings, sermons and the like. When I point out how close that is to traditional theistic churches I’m told that some people find comfort in the words or actions and some even think it is a form of art or poetry.

There are some Humanists who say they are spiritual and believe everyone needs to be spiritual to be a whole person. The word “spirit” sets off alarm bells in my head.

Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issue of how our lives fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things. This is true even when our questions never give way to specific answers or give rise to specific practices such as prayer or meditation. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is “spiritual” when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.

Spiritual, But Not Religious

The most popular church for Religious Humanists is Unitarian Universalism (UU). They have sayings like “all stories are sacred” and some even have Spiritual Directors.

To be spiritual, at its root meaning, is to be vital — to possess and express life. The origins of the word, spirit, are intimately connected to breath, wind, energy, creativity and movement. In that regard, we can call spirituality a non-mechanical and unconfined energy; a freely expressive, compassionate way of living; an active orientation toward the deep self and the gracious affirmation of the connections to the deepest parts of all humanity and the all of Creation.

Spirituality, then is the motive power behind and within our lives that moves us toward a deeper consideration for who and what we are, and toward an affirmation of our place in the Cosmos. World spirituality teaches that our rightful place is not in differences and contradictions based in ego or culture. Our place side by side equal with all other humans, as a caretaker and preserver of eco-justice, personal dignity, freedom, and acting as if we committed to a Universalist point of view: we are all saved- or nothing will be saved; all life is holy or sacred; or none is; that all life is sacramental- worthy of our compassion, and care.

A Metaphysical Musing: What Is Spirituality?

Basically I get the sense that Religious Humanists use religious words and rituals and claim to be spiritual in order to make themselves feel good or to deal with life. I could be spiritual if “spirituality” is simply a positive emotional reaction to the universe – but it can’t be divorced from the common usage to mean something supernatural.

As I said before I’m not religious. I have no need for it. I don’t need to know why am I here and I don’t need a sense of purpose. I don’t feel the need or want to know if there is “something” out there beyond myself. I’m a just a bag of goo moving from one day to the next in the best way I think I can. I am here now and it’s far more important to live a meaningful life in the present and that meaning comes from within me.

I enjoy people and especially people who share my philosophy and when I go to meetings of my local Humanist group I wish we could be together all the time, but I don’t need them to feel good. I find the good in the things I do, things I think about, the causes I support, and my family. I don’t need a sermon to remind me of that or to teach me that.

The issue with “religious” in Humanism are the words. Religious words are used and given special definitions that try to remove their theistic history and usage.

This is not meant as a crack on Religious Humanism or UUs, but in the Theocentric world in which we live, those words can cause confusion unless you explain the context as I have done above. I see no difference in reading some UU religious materials and reading similar materials of a Methodist or other mainstream Christian sect. It can be seen to be dishonest or at least an effort to “blend in” – or to hide – by using those specific religious words. One can’t just co-opt a word and define it differently. Just ask the creators of the label “Brights” as an alternative to atheist or freethinker.

Austin Cline had some excellent notes about this kind of issue in a recent entry of his blog. The article was titled “Are Atheist Necessarily Spiritual or Religious? Try Neither…”. As he put it:

Using idiosyncratic definitions to re-categorize all of humanity according to one’s own personal ideology is a popular tactic, though. Rather than going through the work of defining what one believes and making a positive case for it in order to convince others to agree, it’s easier to just redefine everyone and declare victory — but only after attacking everyone else for being too blind and biased to immediately accept their new categorization.

Are Atheist Necessarily Spiritual or Religious? Try Neither…

A perfect example is some of the complaints that came out about Richard Dawkins book “The God Delusion”. These complaints came from Religious Humanists who were upset about supposed intolerance of the “New” atheists – which was their definition of uppity atheists.

Another similar complaint, and that sparked the creation of this essay, came from someone who doesn’t seem to be a Humanist but uses their special definition of “religion” and accused Dawkins of painting with too wide of brush in his book.

For reasons I’ve ranted about in the past I am as offended as Stanley Fish by the Dawkin-Hitchens school of broad-gauge shotgun, “demonize ‘em all” criticism of religion.

…Dawkins’s arguments are based on a grotesque misunderstanding of what “faith” and “belief” are in a religious context. This is something I touched on indirectly in the Wisdom of Doubt series, but I have found a couple of essays recently that speak to this directly. See John Cromwell, “The Importance of Doubt” (perhaps he read the series) and Madeleine Bunting, “The smallest signs of retreat.”

Believe me, Dawkins’s approach isn’t helping anyone’s cause. What he says is gratifying to many, I’m certain, but he’s not winning any converts.

Religion and Liberalism

But it seems the author of those remarks didn’t read the book because Dawkins is quite clear what he means by religion:

“Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion.” (p. 13)

“My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse.” (p. 20)

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins isn’t attacking “religion” as described by Religious Humanists or even the author of the comments I quoted above.

I want my philosophy to be judged on its own merits and the only way, I think, we can have an honest discussion or review of it is to use words as they are used generally. If we are going to compare apples to apples, it doesn’t help if one person uses apples as a metaphor for the trouble people have in life. Special definitions almost never work for understanding and can cause people to seem foolish.

I would like to leave the religious talk to the believers. It would cause much less confusion and misunderstanding and might actually show Humanism as the alternative to religion we say it is.

Related posts


“Richard Dawkins isn’t attacking “religion” as described by Religious Humanists or even the author of the comments I quoted above.”

He is, and I’ve read quite a lot of Hawkins, thank you. Your little snip of a quote doesn’t even come close to refuting my argument. Neither you nor Dawkins comprehends the scope of what “religion” is.

As a Zen Buddhist my religion is very close to Einstein’s as he described it in his 1930 essay “Religion and Science.” But it’s also very close to the mystical traditions of the several theistic religions. And your use of the words “myth” and “supernatural” reveals you aren’t well aquainted with the subjects of myth and religious metaphor and are viewing these matters in a drearily rigid, literalist way.

I respect your atheism, but I suggest that you cannot fully appreciate humanity if you cannot even grasp the nature of religion, whether you accept it personally or not.

“As a Zen Buddhist my religion is very close to Einstein’s as he described it in his 1930 essay “Religion and Science.” But it’s also very close to the mystical traditions of the several theistic religions. And your use of the words “myth” and “supernatural” reveals you aren’t well aquainted with the subjects of myth and religious metaphor and are viewing these matters in a drearily rigid, literalist way.”

That pretty much proves the point of my essay. If there is a discussion one can’t be comparing apples to oranges and demanding that it is really apples to apples.

Just because I don’t agree with your definition of religion, you don’t think I know about the subjects of myth and religious metaphor? I am a huge fan of the Star Wars saga. George Lucas picked the brain of Joseph Campbell in developing the story and characters for his movies. When I a kid I use to believe in Santa Claus and in school I found the stories of the Greek Gods interesting. My favorite part of Sunday school was story time – my favorite story is the “Boy who cried wolf”.

I am exposed religious metaphor all the time as I have many acquaintances who attend a UU church. They tell me that I should come by one time and see their Water Ceremony where one of the people in the ritual called the Waterpourer says “Bless us, waters, and bring us home”. Kind of makes me giggle just thinking about it but some of my friends get something out of it.

I like art and poetry but I just have no interest in religious art and poetry. YMV.

Interesting post. I’m new to Humanism and recently found Ethical Culture (I have a long history of involvement with religion – Roman Catholicism, fundamentalism, then Quakerism). I admit – I have high religiosity! 🙂 But, it’s taken me a LONG time to understand that there are people who have no need nor have they ever experienced anything akin to the religious or “spiritual”. I wouldn’t know what life was like (at least up to now) without the “mystical” or “spiritual” experiences, which have, honestly, sometimes been very useful and other times distracting and have detracted from my life. Nonetheless, I’m now convinced that there is no “need” for such experiences; and the “need” or propensity for such things is some mix of genetics, personality, evolution, and social forces than anything that is a separate “purpose” or aspect of existence. Nothing wrong with spirituality – hey, as I wrote, I’m a sucker for this stuff! I can talk about religion ad nauseum…:)

Two other quick points: the whole discussion about the “new atheism” and that the authors have been too broad in their critique of religion – at first I agreed. But, then I noticed how energizing and galvanizing these works have been. And then I remember the old conflicts in the gay rights community: should we try to “fit in” and not “offend”? Or should we be “in your face” and not care about any offense taken? In the end I’ve realized that the glbt community has needed BOTH to make changes. Both approaches have their merits and demerits, but both are needed. Maybe that needs to be accepted more in the humanist/atheist/agnostic/freethinkers/naturalist/rationalist communities (did I cover everyone with those labels :))?

Also – I don’t think of UU’s being humanist anymore although it is open to religious humanists. I think it’s more theologically pluralistic and more theists (of many stripes) are making important inroads into the organization. OTH, your friends’ experiences can easily vary given how each UU group can be idiosyncratic.

You are right that not all UU churches or Humanist groups are the same.

I got lucky and the local Humanist group I joined was secular centered but we do have some people who are religious humanists and attend the local UU church.

Hope you like the midwest in your new job.

Sometimes, like in the dead of winter when it is the 10th or 20th day of below freezing temperatures, I sometimes wish I could move to LA or somewhere warmer.

These labels are very sectarian. Religious Humanist vs. Secular Humanist.

Humanism is a philosophy. Anyway is free to adopt elements of the philosophy or attempt to live their lives by its precepts. Part of the problem I think we have in this movement wide discussion is that a lot of people think of and treat Humanism as if it were a sectarian alternative to religion. It isn’t. It is a philosophy.

I realize some people treat their Humanism as a religion – like the Ethical Culture society does – even though they say it is a non-theistic religion – which is their right. And that is fine, but Humanism itself, is a philosophy. That is why we have so many different types of Humanists (Secular, Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, Religious, etc).

We need to try and not confuse the philosophy of Humanism with the various sectarian versions of the way people choose to practice it.

I like the word “flavors” rather than “sectarian” when describing the various differences in Humanism. A flavor is a different taste of the same good thing.

Calling such differences “sectarian” not only makes the point I was talking about in my essay but also is a touch derogatory.

It is okay for their to be some differences in Humanism. Unless and until we all agree 100% on everything then the different “flavors” are okay as long as one doesn’t try to stomp on the others.

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