One of the most significant insights that I’ve had is an understanding that Humanism is a religion. It is with this understanding that I am able to see many seemingly diverse trends coalesce into a logical narrative.
Humanism is a force that has done much to shape the world that we live in, dominating the means of expression and education in the Western world. If Humanism is a religion, then Atheism, Feminism, Environmentalism, Socialism, Marxism and the Progressive movement are denominations of the Mother Religion, perhaps the dominant religion of the entire world.
I will be painting with a broad brush, and it is with the knowledge that not every person driven by an “Ism” is a Humanist. I ask for your understanding that simple narratives help distil a complex world into a form that can be used as a start for further thought and discussion.
From a young age my dad had instilled in me a love of learning and open-minded inquiry. Healthy skepticism was encouraged, and I was taught not to accept anything presented as fact without the application of critical thought. This laid the mental groundwork that led me to a loss of faith when I was 14. My manner of thought came into conflict with what I was being taught in the church. It also didn’t gel with my own observations and study, but critically, at an intuitive level I felt that something wasn’t right.
Not long after this break with religion I came to notice that at its extreme, Environmentalism contained many of the same broad themes of Christianity; an early period of paradise, the loss of paradise through man’s sins. Following the loss of paradise comes the acknowledgement of man’s base nature, the acceptance of personal sin, and finally, the return to paradise.
It struck as significant that many leading environmentalists are atheists, and that the reverence afforded “Mother Earth” or “Gaia” seemed to be a substitute for the older religion’s God or gods.
As time goes by
It was the Environmentalist’s desire to remake the world to fit an ideal that lead my thinking, and I realized that certain other forms of activism, expression and phrases were aligned with Environmentalism. I could sense the gravitational nature that exists between Environmentalism, Socialism, Feminism, Communism and Marxism…a dogma was emerging. Only after a great deal of thought and research was I able to put a name to it. The thread that ties these philosophies together is Humanism.
Humanism can be defined as an existential belief system. At its core, there is a belief that it is morally incumbent for humanists to influence culture in a way consistent with the Humanist ideal of reason based on scientific knowledge.
The genesis of Humanism
Historically Humanism has been embraced by many who have possessed fierce intellect, and its roots lie deep with these great minds. These ideas and ideals coalesced in the first Humanist Manifesto, published in 1933. This seminal document proclaims, in part, the following;
“Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life (my emphasis). Their end has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world view), the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult), established for realizing the satisfactory life. A change in any of these factors results in alteration of the outward forms of religion. This fact explains the changefulness of religions through the centuries. But through all changes religion itself remains constant in its quest for abiding values, an inseparable feature of human life.
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 none the less 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. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation.”
Humanism as a religion
My understanding that Humanism is a religion was initially based on intuition; “If it walks like a duck…”, but further study confirmed my initial gut feeling. The Humanist worldview is a total in its nature, and it gives meaning, purpose and direction to its member’s lives. They are morally compelled to act according to its dictates. Humanists see themselves as “enlightened”, with a shared faith in the potentiality of man.
As you can see, I’ve highlighted the first sentence of the Humanist Manifesto. It’s significant, because almost immediately following it being published, Humanists began to backpedal, attempting to deny that their worldview was a religion. I surmise that it was realized by Humanist advocates that the precept of “separation of church and state” would work as a two edged sword, limiting the influence of not only the theistic religions, but the Humanist religion as well. A great deal of emphasis was given in pointing out internal divisions within the ranks of Humanists, showing that certain Humanists embraced overtly religious aspect of Humanism, to include the establishment of churches and the gathering of congregations, while other Humanists eschewed such outward trappings of religion.
I suggest that even those who chose not to practice Humanism in an overtly religious manner can be seen as fundamentally religious based on the idea encapsulated in the highlighted sentence and the devotion of their lives to a higher common purpose.
John Dewey, one of the modern world’s most influential educators and humanists, wrote in his 1934 book A Common Faith, that the word “religion” comes from a root that means to bound, or tied by vows to a particular way of life. Certainly this would encompass the Humanist living his life according to Humanist ideals.
Other Humanists have pointed out the lack of any form of deity, and this deflects the thoughts of the casual member of western culture. What it fails to address is the fact that Buddhism, certainly a prominent religion, also lacks any form of deity. A footnote in the 1961 Supreme Court decision in Torcaso v. Watkins states “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others. See Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 U.S. App. D.C. 371, 249 F.2d 127…” Even more recently, a federal district court in Oregon ruled that Secular Humanism is a religion, and is afforded 1st Amendment protections (American Humanist Association v. United States).
The ranks of Humanists are rather amorphous, lacking the structure and clear delineation of older religions, but it is possible to see some broad trends. The Global Secular Humanist Movement, which has over 307k Facebook followers, describe their group thusly “Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions”. They go on to define Humanism and its mission “Secular Humanism (n.) : a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values especially a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason, (a) philosophy viewed as a nontheistic religion (my emphasis) antagonistic to traditional religion. The Global Secular Humanist Movement is a social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the secular humanistic worldview…”
It takes little imagination to see that individuals subscribing to that world view who are seeking to remake the world according to the group’s ideals are truly members of a new religion.
If Humanism is a region, then it certainly has some diverse denominations. A few, out of many, of the denominations are highlighted below.
-New Atheism; while being an Atheist merely denotes a decision regarding a belief, New Atheism is a Humanist movement with the goal of countering traditional religion. It is overtly antagonistic to traditional religion. It is somewhat ironic that this simply mirrors the historical animosity commonly found among religions.
-Animal Rights Movement; as early as 1908, Mrs. H. Clay Preston was tying “Humane Education” to Humanistic principles. By 1975, Australian Humanist of the year Peter Singer had written “Animal Liberation” Dr. Nik Taylor said “I believe firmly that in order to secure a better future for all…we need to address broad societal attitudes towards disenfranchised others. This necessitates an analysis of the operations of power, discourse and inclusion in modern society: an analysis which has animals firmly at the centre…”
-Feminism; Feminism is going through throes right now trying to disengage itself from Humanism, it has critical historical ties to Humanism. Betty Friedan, an influential Feminist from the 1960’s was a signatory of the 2nd Humanist Manifesto. Gloria Steinem was the 2012 Humanist of the year…the ties go on and on.
-Progressive Movement; this is quite simply the expression of Humanist solutions to what they view as world problems.
From its founding, the United Nations was based on Humanist ideals, with several prominent Humanists serving as founding directors. Our current world and daily lives are impacted by the religion of Humanism, for example, the concept and practice of “politically correct speech” is Humanist in origin. Once one is able to see Humanism for what it is, we see that from earliest education to the highest levels of learning Humanism affects all of us. Certainly, if you look, you can find the Humanist dogma present in our public schools.
I challenge you to not accept my conclusions. Conduct your own research, consider my opinion, and form your own conclusions.