Like other difficult questions, there are no clear answers to the old debate of whether or not Humanism is a religion. Here the crux of the problem seems to stem from from the question itself using fuzzy terms. Instead, we need to ask:
- What makes something a “religion”?
- What makes someone a “Humanist”?
What Makes Something a “Religion”?
Religion may be impossible to define, whether we ask ourselves what the word means or what specific things count as “religious.” In his classic text The Sociology of Religion, the famous sociologist Max Weber argued that “Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study” of religion. However, as Nicholas Wade points out, and does in his own book, The Faith Instinct, Weber never defines religion – even at the end!
Personal vs. Social Definitions
One reason for the slipperiness of the term may be the uniquely personal nature of religion. Weber himself wrote:
An understanding of [religious] behavior can only be achieved from the viewpoint of the subjective experiences, ideas, and purposes of the individuals concerned–in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behavior’s ‘meaning’.
William James more to the point states in The Varieties of Religious Experiences that religion:
Shall mean for us the feeling, acts and experience of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider to be divine… Out of religion… theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow.
But what should we make of religion’s overwhelmingly social function? To say that religion grows out of an individual’s experience is to ignore how its beliefs, narratives, and rituals are communally constructed and passed down through generations. Focusing more on the social aspect, Emile Durkheim, the founder of sociology, defined religion as:
A unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
Natural vs Supernatural Definitions
Whether religion is a social or personal phenomenon, Durkheim and James both introduce questions of the supernatural when defining religion, e.g. “the divine” or “the sacred”. Philosopher’s opinions vary widely as to whether such terms should be understood only in a supernatural sense or whether they can also have naturalistic uses.
Many dictionaries include explicit references to ‘god’ or the supernatural. Merriam Webster 2013 in part defines religion as:
The belief in a god or in a group of gods; Or an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.
In the same direction, the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis argues that:
To be religious is to have one’s attention fixed on God and on one’s neighbour in relation to God.
However, many religious scholars and sociologists equally include naturalistic definitions of religious objects, like the “sacred” or “divine.” Durkheim himself defines “sacred” as:
Collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects… they are only collective forces hypostasized, that is to say, moral forces; they are made up of the ideas and sentiments awakened in us by the spectacle of society.
Abraham Maslow, in his book Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences, makes his case very explicit when he argues
spiritual values have naturalistic meanings… [in] that they do not need supernatural concepts to validate them, that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged sciences, and that, therefore, they are the general responsibility of all mankind.
Maslow would certainly agree with John Dewey, founder of the philosophic school of Pragmatism, who argued in A Common Faith that Humanism should take back ‘the religious’, e.g. things like morality, meaning, and the sacred, from the monopoly of current supernatural religions. Similarly, there are a variety of atheistic and agnostic worldviews that are often categorized as religions that have made good use of these too often supernatural concepts. Buddhism is atheistic, rejecting any creator deity or omnipotent moral authority. Other religions – like Confucianism, Taoism, and a number of pagan faiths – remain agnostic or even apathetic to the question of God.
So, is there any consensus on the definition of religion? No. “Religion” is, for better or worse, defined both by individuals, as James argues, and social groups, as Durkheim emphasizes. The word “religion” currently has a range of uses which often contradict each other. Some argue that God or the supernatural must play a role for a worldview to be considered a religion. Because of this, they might label Buddhism or Humanism as a ‘philosophy’. But naturalistic definitions are also used and Buddhism or other non-theistic, naturalistic worldviews, like Humanism, are included as religions.
All in all the meaning of the word “religion” varies tremendously. Whether Humanism is a religion or not depends on who is asking and what they mean by “religion.”
What Makes Someone a “Humanist”?
Just as the definition of “religion” varies greatly, there is a lot of variety in the content and form of Humanism. Humanism focuses mostly on a method, namely naturalism and reasoned experience, instead of a set of dogmas from holy books or prophets. So, given the fact that we all have different personal experiences and capacities to reason, the conclusions we come to can be expected to vary.
This has two effects. First, different groups use different definitions of religion. Second, different groups often have widely divergent Humanist worldviews. So even on inclusive definitions many Humanist groups simply are not religious. Historically, different Humanist groups have self-identified as religious and non-religious.
Origins of Freethought & Humanism
In its earliest roots the Freethought movement explicitly organized itself as anti-church, or more specifically anti-dogma and anti-hierarchy. “Free” “Thought” simply referred to thought free of the control religious institutions.
The modern Freethought movement began in 1600 with the execution, or martyrdom to some, of Giordano Bruno for heresy by the Inquisition. Since then Freethought, with a capital F, has been alive and well. One of the oldest still running Freethought publications is The Freethinker, was founded in 1881. In line with the reactionary origins of the movement, it’s founder, G. W. Foote, wrote of its purpose: “The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against superstition in general.”
However, the earliest roots of the Humanist movement identified itself as a religion. Like other secular movements, for instance Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, historic Humanism in the US, with a capital ‘H’, was designed as a brand new naturalistic religion. This is clearly seen in a document created by many of the first leading Humanist thinkers, scientists and activists: the First Humanist Manifesto 1933. It states that:
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.
The focus was on a broader definition of religion that included naturalistic and non-theistic worldviews. Religion was something to be re-thought and updated instead of countered.
New Definitions & Old Bastions
This more classic use of the term religion has been changing and there is a recent shift away from broader naturalistic definitions. In the 1990s the American Humanist Association changed it’s religious status and is now a 501c3 educational organization.
More broadly, many Humanist and related organizations and individuals have come to explicitly identify as non-religious, alternatives to religion, or even anti-religious. So called Secular Humanism has become an alternative to Religious Humanism and is described a lifestance, philosophy, or worldview. The Council for Secular Humanism, for instance, describes its missions to “advocate and defend a nonreligious lifestance.”
Still, there are a number of Humanist groups that continue to explicitly identify as religious. The Ethical Culture Movement and Humanist Unitarian Universalist churches are the best examples of robust Humanist religious congregations.
The American Ethical Union currently describes itself as “a humanistic religious and educational movement.” The Movement was started by Felix Adler, a former Rabbi, in 1851-1933 who hoped to form a religion of “Deed before Creed”. As he says in his own words
Believe or disbelieve as ye list — we shall at all times respect every honest conviction. But be one with us where there is nothing to divide — in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed! This is that practical religion from which none dissents. This is that platform broad enough and solid enough to receive the worshipper and the “infidel.”
Similarly, the Humanist movement in the US and the First Manifesto grew out of Unitarian Universalism. Since then there has been a strong contingency of Humanism within the UU Church – most clearly seen in the founding of the UU Humanist Association in 1962. Similar to Ethical Culture, the UUHA website identifies with Religious Humanism, clarifying their position as:
“Religious” in that we share with most Unitarian Universalists the natural human desires for a beloved and accepting community; a purpose greater than ourselves; rituals and practices that resonate with our common humanity and shared mortality; and opportunities to work with other tough-minded, warm- hearted people to do good in the world and to help one another attain the greatest possible fulfillment in life.
So is Humanism a “religion”?
Well, sometimes and to some people Humanism is in fact a religion, but with for others it’s not.
What matters is who you ask. There are a variety of different definitions of religion whose popularity changes over time. Under some of these definitions Humanism is a religion. Under others it’s clearly not – for instance those that require a god or supernatural world. Further, even when you fix the definition, there are a variety of Humanist worldviews. While some look like classic religions in most every respect, others are explicitly organized in contrast to religion. Most importantly, however, at the end of the day we need to respect how people self-identify.
EDIT Nov 03, 2014:
A Federal district court in Oregon rules that Secular Humanism is a religion, the first such ruling of its kind. The court stated, quote, “The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.”
Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University) Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philo Curriculum for Camp Quest. Paul has a MSc in Sociology of Edu from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on religious identity conflict. He also spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship. He has worked with research organizations and schools DC, the UN, Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.
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Religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. That’s a universally accepted definition. Humanism specifically stresses the impetus on human importance over and supernatural or divine intervening power. This is the same silly argument as religious people trying to define atheism as a religion. Hogwash.
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