Part 1: How Humanists Keep the Faith
Some time ago, the Freedom From Religion Foundation came out with a billboard that quotes a lyric from John Lennon: “Imagine No Religion.” Subsequently, there were posters issued by FFRF and others with a picture of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center that had the same phrase, “Imagine No Religion,” emblazoned on it. As a free thinking, non-theistic Humanist, I thought this was quite a slap in the face for the religionists. Indeed, according to some of my mostly Protestant and partly fundamentalist friends and family, it was, “message received, now go burn in hell.” The implication was, after all, very provocative, if not somewhat hyperbolic.
So, I began to mull over the whole idea of “religion.” I found that the term is one of most overused and misused words in the English language; much like “patriotism,” “equality,” and “free enterprise.” It comprises a plethora of different belief systems, all kinds of rituals and ceremonies, a clergy ranging from priests to preachers to imams to shamans, religious holidays, and rules for establishing and enforcing prescribed behavior.
Religion is also a loaded term of course. It conjures up all kinds of associated concepts – faith, devotion, worship, salvation, prayer, sacred, afterlife, dogma, karma, dharma, God, Allah, The Great Spirit, transcendence, bliss, rapture, 72 virgins, and on and on. Religion, it turns out, is a hodgepodge of different traditions informed by cultural heritage and organized to put doctrine into practice.
Also, the variety of religious belief, not surprisingly, is culture-specific. In the United States, with about three-fourths of the adult population identifying themselves as Christian, “religion” is commonly understood to mean the Western style, Judeo-Christian faith; although these days the meaning might also include Islam. But what would the reaction be if the “Imagine No Religion” sign was translated appropriately and put on display in China, or in Nigeria, or in front of a Penan village in the mountains of Borneo? Or, consider the character in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, who says, “By religion I mean Christianity, by Christianity I mean Protestantism, by Protestantism I mean the Church of England as established by law.”
Excluding the 3.6 billion or so adherents of the Abrahamic religions, that leaves slightly more than 3 billion people, most of whom are more interested in transcendence and the pursuit of harmony with the nature than in some version of a deity or deities. These include, obviously, the Eastern religions, plus what we might call “spiritualism,” which would include the religions of indigenous peoples. Then, of course, there are the Wiccans, the ever-popular Mormons, and whatever it is the Scientologists are.
As it is used today, the term “religion” is way too all-inclusive, if not downright ambiguous. For clarity, I find it helpful to divide the term into four parts – theism, transcendentalism, spiritualism, and naturalism (but not necessarily nudism). Theism, in turn, can be split into monotheism, pantheism, and polytheism. Even monotheism can be separated into the cosmic god of the Deists, the patriarchal god of the Jews, the personal god of the Christians, and the ‘perfected” god of the Muslims. Then there are the gazillion branches, sects, cults, and denominations that comprise, metaphorically at least, the alchemy of religion.
With all this in mind, I felt that surely the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s sign was not directed at all religions. What the FFRF was trying to address, I believe, are those religions that are dedicated to a fundamentalist theology where the associated teachings and beliefs instill and encourage bad behavior in its adherents; specifically Islam. But, I suppose it would be too wordy to have a billboard that said, “Imagine No Cult Extremist Group, al-Qaeda, of a Radical Sect, Salafi, of a Branch, Sunni, of the Religion, Islam.”
With its great variety of combinations, permutations and manifestations, how in the world can “religion” be adequately defined? Well, it’s not easy. Some definitions are either so broad that they could include astrology, the New York Mets, and Ronald Reagan, or so narrow that they are limited to an invisible, all-knowing, all-powerful, creator of the universe. When I searched for “religion” in the books section of Amazon.com I got more than 720,000 hits. So, to say this is not an easy task is a gross understatement. But, as the old Chinese proverb says: “The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names.”
In rooting around the internet, I came across a definition that I think, philosophically at least, comes as close as I could find in capturing the essence of religion in all of its diversity. It was written by one Hans Küng, a Swiss Catholic priest and the founder and president of the Foundation for a Global Ethic. In the introduction to Christianity and World Religions: Paths of Dialogue With Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (Orbis Books, May 1993, p. xvii) Fr. Küng writes:
“Religion is a believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person (though only partially conscience of this) sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers; everything. It is a transcendentally grounded and immanently operative system of coordinates, by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally, and existentially. Religion provides a comprehensive meaning for life, guarantees supreme values and unconditional norms, creates a spiritual community, and home.”
So, let’s say that what Fr. Küng offers is, for the purposes here, a reasonable, working definition of religion. You might well ask, then, is Humanism itself a religion; does it fit the definition? it seems to me that Humanism does indeed share many of the same attributes. For instance, the “Humanist religion,” has a an institutionalized worldview and a creed (through its various organizations and by its philosophy and principles); a clergy (through its Celebrants and Chaplains); a belief system (including nature [and human nature], science, and reason); educational and devotional aspects (through its array of publications, conferences, chartered and affiliated member groups, The Kochhar Humanist Education Center, and Camp Quest); observance and celebration of certain Holidays (Darwin Day, National Day of Reason, and the Winter and Summer Solstice); and even has its own religious symbol (The Happy Human).
And Humanism, like most other religions, offers a coping mechanism that can be used by its followers to help deal with a foreboding and dangerous world, to help explain nature in all of its aspects, and to establish a survival strategy for living and cooperating as social animals.
I argue, therefore, that Humanism from an epistemological standpoint can be construed as a valid and functioning religion, albeit a non-theistic, non-transcendent, non-spiritual one.
This should come as no surprise since the modern Humanist movement, meaning the one that we know of today, seems to have originated from Auguste Comte’s “Religion of Humanity,” written in 1851. He advocated a positivist society as an alternative to the cohesive function once held by traditional religion. Comte was an influence on Marx (Arg) and Nietzsche (double Arg,) although his friend, John Stuart Mill, was not so enamored with his philosophy.
Comte’s ideas, along with those of other prominent humanist philosophers of the nineteenth century, together with the emergence of secular humanism, found their way into and helped shape the American Unitarian movement.
Charles Francis Potter, a Unitarian minister, founded the “First Humanist Society of New York” in 1929. In 1930, he and his wife, Clara, published a small book titled, Humanism: A New Religion. Shortly thereafter, in 1933, the Potters, along with Roy Wood Sellars, Raymond Bragg, and others, published Humanist Manifesto I. Its philosophy is presented in the introduction, which states, in part:
“Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. Such a vital, fearless, and frank religion capable of furnishing adequate social goals and personal satisfactions may appear to many people as a complete break with the past. While this age does owe a vast debt to the traditional religions, it is nonetheless obvious that any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. ”
With Humanist Manifesto I as its imprimatur, the American Humanist Association was established in 1941 as an educational institution. Enter Corliss Lamont, Socialist, Marxist, and philosophy professor Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, and the New School for Social Research. Dr. Lamont became a leader in the Humanist movement and, in 1949, he penned Humanism As a Philosophy, later re-titled, The Philosophy of Humanism. In the eighth edition of The Philosophy of Humanism, (p.157) Dr. Lamont writes:
“Traditionally religion has involved appeal to, reliance on, or faith in supernatural powers, elements, or states of being. However, my minimum definition for a functioning religion is that it must be an over-all way of life (including a comprehensive attitude towards the universe and other human beings), to which a group of persons gives supreme commitment and which they implement through the shared quest of ideals. Under this definition Humanism qualifies as a religion. Nonetheless, I prefer to call Humanism a philosophy or way of life.”
So, the Humanist movement actually began life as a new religion and was understood as such for many years thereafter. But, forty years after Humanist Manifesto I, and perhaps in reaction to some Supreme Court rulings (discussed in Part 2,) the Humanist leaders of the day began to back-pedal on what the relationship to religion ought to be. Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973, was an effort to give Humanism a more specific identity and to distance itself from some of the more radical anti-theist groups that wanted to share its message, saying in pertinent part, with my underscores added:
“The varieties and emphases of naturalistic humanism include ‘scientific,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘democratic,’ ‘religious,’ and ‘Marxist’ humanism. Free thought, atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, deism, rationalism, ethical culture, and liberal religion all claim to be heir to the humanist tradition. . . . But views that merely reject theism are not equivalent to humanism. They lack commitment to the positive belief in the possibilities of human progress and to the values central to it.Many within religious groups, believing in the future of humanism, now claim humanist credentials.”
However, as the theistic religions became even more fundamentalist, more visible, and more active, and as the atheists became more involved, the Humanist Movement was driven to further disassociate itself with religion. In 1980, the Council for Secular Humanism was founded by Dr. Paul Kurtz based on his Secular Humanist Declaration. Dr. Kurtz then published, Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for New Planetary Humanism, a book length treatise of the subject.
Shortly thereafter, in 2003, came the release of the American Humanist Association’s Humanism and Its Aspirations – Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. The first sentence in that document says it all:
“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
However, by that statement, Humanists have merely cast themselves as a-supernaturalistic, not a-religionistic. Therefore, Humanists, like their predecessors the Unitarians, can, and in my opinion, still do wear the mantle of religion.
I should probably note that the Council for Secular Humanism disagrees with my conclusion here, as no doubt many others do as well. In the Free Inquiry magazine, (Volume 18, Number 1, Winter, 1997-1998,) Matt Cherry and Molleen Matsumura submit in their article titled, “10 Myths About Secular Humanism,” that:
“Secular humanism is not a religion by any definition: There are no supernatural beliefs, no creeds that all Humanists are required to accept, no sacred texts or required rituals. Humanists are not expected or required to have ‘faith’ in what is said by any authority, living or dead, human or ‘supernatural.’”
I have tried to illustrate above that Humanism shares many of its characteristics with religion. Likewise, to the extent that “creed” means, “a set of beliefs or aims that guide someone’s actions,” then surely the Council’s own, Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles, printed on the inside front cover of Free Inquiry, is as much a creed as the one that came from the First Council of Nicea some 1,400 years ago. Moreover, of the list of twenty-one Affirmations, eight of them, more than a third, begin with the phrase, “We Believe.” Of course, Humanists are not “required” to accept any of them, just as Jews and Christians are not required to accept all the covenants enumerated in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Humanists are on the honor system here; no baptisms, no oaths, no pledges.
Cherry and Matsumura also assert that, “Humanists are not expected or required to have ‘faith’ in what is said by any authority.” Well, actually, they are and they do. Faith, in its preferred meaning (American Heritage Dictionary,) refers to a “confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing,” or, “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” Surely Humanists have faith in their own worldview and philosophy as proffered through their Manifestoes, Affirmations, and so on. And they certainly have faith in those beliefs that are (so far) untestable by science and thereby unfalsifiable; that there is no God, no Supreme Being, no Intelligent Design, and no ghosts (holy or otherwise,) that dark energy and dark matter will be explained, and that solutions to M-theory and String theory will be found. Of course, “Humanists are not expected or required to have faith” in any of this. But it’s hard to image anyone who would want to join an organization that did not reflect her worldview.
Consider, for example, Albert Einstein, who the Humanists claim as one of theirs. Asked at a dinner party if he was religious, Einstein replied:
“Yes, you can call it that. Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find hat, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”
I would also contend here that Humanists have faith in humanity to ultimately adopt something akin to the Humanist philosophy of freedom with responsibility, and to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of all. And Humanists have always had faith that science will provide the knowledge necessary to understand the natural world and to help answer the big questions of the universe (or maybe the “multiverse.”) Finally, Humanists have faith that the theistic religionists will ultimately abandon their allegiance to myth and the supernatural and adopt Humanism’s principles to help move all of us toward a better world. Now that, to me, is a lot of faith.
But that aspect of religion, faith, is less prominent because, in my view, we Humanists tend to put way too much emphasis on science and reason as the most important pillars of our philosophy. Compassion, empathy, wonder and awe, beauty and the arts, love and friendship, none of these can be explained by science or derived from metaphysics. And no Humanist worth his or her Happy Human T-Shirt believes otherwise. We are not Vulcans! Or are we?
Paul Kurtz invented the term “eupraxsophy,” by which he means philosophies or lifestances that do not rely on belief in the transcendent or supernatural. According to Wikipedia, “A eupraxsophy is a nonreligious lifestance or worldview emphasizing the importance of living an ethical and exuberant life, and relying on rational methods such as logic, observation and science (rather than faith, mysticism or revelation) toward that end.”
Now, if eupraxsophy manifests itself merely by “relying on rational methods such as logic, observation and science,” then it will have effectively and simultaneously removed the “human” from Humanism. We would be cold, wooden and humorless, looking at life through the prism of propositions and fallacies, and finding joy only the calculus of the universe rather than its majesty. No compassion here, no empathy, no altruism, no search for peace and harmony. We are reduced to very dull empiricists.
If Dr. Kurtz’s preferred use of “rational methods” for the betterment of humankind becomes the raison d’etre for the Humanist movement, then I would have to agree that a lifestance based on eupraxsophy is most assuredly not religious. But, throw in the social, cultural, and political dynamics between and among us homo sapiens, along with the good, bad, and ugly aspects of our interpersonal and group behavior, and eupraxsophy becomes little more than an answer in search of a question, if not irrelevant altogether.
I have argued here that Humanism is more religious in character than I’m sure many of its adherents would like to admit. But being religious should not diminish Humanism’s role in secularism. Certainly, Humanists will continue working for the separation of church and state and helping to keep Jefferson’s “Wall” from being breached. Many religious organizations, including the Interfaith Alliance, are also adamant about keeping religion out of government.
This notion of secularism brings up something else conspicuously absent from the Humanist philosophy, but which, ironically, also makes it more akin to religion – tolerance. A number of Humanists, mostly those who tend to align themselves more with the emergent New Atheists, are more likely to extend a clinched fist rather than an open hand of friendship when it comes to formal theologies. Implicit in this antipathy toward theism is, among other things, a blatant display of intolerance and an unwillingness to compromise; certainly that is the message understood by what I would call mainstream religion. Of course, the religionists too have their own difficulties with tolerance and open-mindedness.
This issue concerning “tolerance” has been addressed very nicely by Christopher Stedman in his post on The New Humanism website, titled, “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” Stedman posits that since we Humanists live in a pluralistic society with god-fearing folks all around us, then maybe we ought to be good citizens; maybe even follow our own ideas of citizenship and ethics and try to be good, if not at least tolerant, neighbors working side by side for the mutual betterment of our communities; you know, kind of like the Golden Rule. Mr. Stedman writes:
“As America is indeed becoming more secularly-rooted, narratives of pluralism will allow secular-minded individuals to establish relationships that do not dismiss the religious stories of their peers outright. A more empathic articulation of nonreligiosity can consolidate the encounter between religious and secular narratives and hold the two in a tension that does not elicit anxiety but allows them to cohabitate a shared space. One that the religious might even term a “sacred space,” if we’ll allow it.”
If accepted in good faith, Mr. Stedman’s proposal might be seen by the religionists as an expression of goodwill and even motivate the Humanist movement to take a deep breath, revisit its roots, and declare itself a religious entity. Interfaith groups accommodate other godless religions such as the Buddhists and Taoists, so why not the Humanists? Such a move might actually invoke a spirit of cooperation and compromise for all participants; maybe even tolerance.
But, it’s hard to present a united front here. Over the course of this paper, I have briefly mentioned the dicta that the Humanist movement has developed over the years; five basic documents by my count. Now there is a sixth, issued in March, 2010, The Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values that comes from our friend Paul Kurtz through his newly created “Institute for Science and Human Values.”
With all the changes in philosophy over the past 80 years, Humanists can never be accused of relying too much on dogma. But therein lie some other problems. The Humanist movement may be guilty of trying to be all things to all nonbelievers and of trying to appease all conflicting interests, especially as between the mild mannered non-theists and the more militant anti-theists. But that just muddles the message.
Then there are all the different organizations, including the American Humanist Association, the American Ethical Union, the HUUmanists, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Spiritual Humanism Seminary, The Humanist Society, The Institute for Humanist Studies, and the Institute for Science and Human Values. (And those are just in the United States.) So, who will carry the torch? What will the message be? And will it be coherent? Is a new umbrella organization needed? And how, consistently, internally, and without self-contradiction, will Humanists keep the faith in their beliefs?
Next, Part 2: Humanism Meets Religion Under the Constitution