Christian humanism, religious humanism, and secular humanism
December 8, 2009
Humanism has been so popular over the past 200 years that religions try to claim it for themselves. The term "humanism" gained wide use in mid-1800s, and liberal religious scholars then applied it to early Christian theologians and Renaissance thinkers. In the early 20th century, religious and atheist thinkers banded together to brand "Humanism" as a philosophical stance, setting some agendas for Unitarian Universalism and the American Humanist Association. At present, prominent humanists have gone so far as to declare that a humanist must be an agnostic or an atheist.
Humanism is evidently under considerable strain, perhaps a victim of its success. Atheists frequently describe their lifestance and ethics as "humanist". Many humanists retain a high regard for Christianity, and many Christians agree with the essentials of humanism. Where can we still find "humanism"?
Christian humanism respects the dignity and mind of humans because God made us and loves us. Christian humanism was essential to the rise of democracy in Europe, as thinkers from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson argued for liberty of body and spirit by appealing to our status as divinely created beings. Christians championed human rights during the formative era for modern democracy. While a few atheists such as Hobbes, Voltaire, and Paine cheered on the fight, the reformers who wielded political power were Christians. Even a Pope or two have proudly worn the mantle of humanism, along with many 20th century advocates for peace and civil rights leaders who were Christians. Christian humanists have well-placed pride in their humanist work.
Unlike Christian humanism, religious humanism does not appeal to God's relationship to humans to justify our inherent dignity and liberty. Religious humanism puts humanism first and religion second. Humanism in general emphasizes our moral responsibilities in this life and finds human intelligence up to the challenge of figuring out how to live ethical lives. Christians believe that we can be good humanists only because God helps us learn morality and guides ethical thinking. Religious humanists turn this dependence on God around -- it is only because humans have the responsibility and capacity for figuring out ethics that we deserve to judge what is good in society, politics, and even religion. We aren't worthy because of God -- if we should be religious, it is because religion is worthy of us . Religious humanists gain inspiration and wisdom from religious traditions, spiritual leaders, nature's wonders, and extraordinary personal experiences. Ultimately, however, religious humanists take responsibility for judging what is worthy to adopt and adapt from these sources.
Standing apart from Christian humanism and religious humanism is secular humanism. Secular humanism leaves all divinity and religion out of humanism entirely. Judging that religions are unworthy , and uninterested in spiritual enlightenment, this secular humanism grounds the humanist life and its ethical principles on reason alone. Whether secular humanism will succeed in this effort remains an open question, as it has only just begun to formulate its stances on the great questions of life and living.
Let's summarize. Humanism emphasizes our moral responsibilities in this life and applies human intelligence for forming ethical lives. Christian humanism credits God for morality, for our right to take ethical responsibility, and for our possession of reason. Religious humanism puts our ethical responsibilities first, and then asks intelligence to judge religion/spirituality for its potential guidance. Secular humanism judges everything religious/spiritual as worthless and starts over from just reason.
These three varieties of humanism can share a great deal. Christian humanists can cooperate with religious humanists to explore religion's wisdom and apply this wisdom to improve human life today. Religious humanists can admire a Jesus or Buddha, and apply Jesus's example of love or Buddha's example of tranquility in their secular lives. Secular humanists can cooperate with any other sort of humanist when shared ethical values are at stake.
Which humanism should prevail? By humanism's own standard, we await to see which variety of humanism continues to make the greatest practical difference to the welfare of all life. Our ability to sustain life on this planet is now under serious question. One genetic strain of humanism might not be enough. Humanism may need all its varieties to provide a positive answer.
#1 Check your facts (Guest) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 at 11:46am
Get your facts straight - Paine was NOT an atheist nor was Voltaire! They were DEISTS.
#2 John Shook on Tuesday December 08, 2009 at 1:22pm
Indeed I meant to say “freethinkers” for them and the wrong word slipped in. Thanks for the correction.
#3 Randy on Tuesday December 08, 2009 at 5:29pm
I remain confused on humanism. Is it a method, or is it a belief system?
#4 Martinus on Wednesday December 09, 2009 at 7:57am
It’s heartening to read your comments on inclusive Humanism. Surely it makes sense not to exclude people for their private religious beliefs, when the world begs for more contructive attitudes and actions.
If you take your line of thought one step further, we can consider recycling what we have built for 2000 years into a refurbished church,with professionals in the wheelhouse. Put all that brick and mortar back into service?
Keep up the good work, John. Can I link to your blog?
#5 John Shook on Friday December 11, 2009 at 9:35am
Randi—my definition of humanism is a statement of both moral orientation and ethical method:
“Humanism in general emphasizes our moral responsibilities in this life and finds human intelligence up to the challenge of figuring out how to live ethical lives.”
See for example-
Typical moral principles of humanism are found in Affirmations of Humanism (such as those of the Council for Secular Humanism). But don’t take them as dogma—humanists must improve them.
The ethical method of humanism is rational inquiry into morality’s improvement (in politics, this method is public democracy).
Dwight—no one needs my permission. Link all you want, please.
#6 dglas on Friday December 11, 2009 at 2:26pm
“Christian humanism” is an oxymoron. Like “progressive conservative” or “parched rain.” What’s it going to be, primacy of god over humanity, or primacy of humanity over god? Adopting “humanism” words is just a way of trying to derail the conversation. Like christian charity, “christian humanism” comes with a cost - your humanity. If you are going to do something to benefit humanity, do it for humanity, not for god.
When philosophies become truths, instead of tools, humans become mere chaff in a dogmatic meat grinder.
#7 Martinus on Friday December 11, 2009 at 2:35pm
dglas sed: “..What’s it going to be, primacy of god over humanity, or primacy of humanity over god?”
How about the primacy of Humanism over religious acrimony? http://tinyurl.com/ybf5m57
“Adopting “humanism” words is just a way of trying to derail the conversation.”
..from your insistence on railroading it into religion?
#8 David Schafer (Guest) on Friday December 11, 2009 at 8:00pm
In your eagerness to contrast secular humanism with religious humanism, as the latter term has been used since Humanist Manifesto I, you have confused your readers. In fact American Religious Humanism, as defined in HMI and documented in an abundance of subsequent literature, is actually a form of secular humanism, which differs from other secular humanisms only in its explicit recognition of and emphasis on the importance to human beings of the emotional life, the value of community, the utility of symbolism, the inspiration of the arts, and the need for intergenerational continuity. It is “religious” only in the sociological sense, as it meets many of the same human social and psychological needs as what has traditionally been known as “religion.” The pseudo-dichotomy between religious and secular humanism has needlessly divided the Humanist family, and the sooner the split is healed the better it will be for all Humanists.
President, The HUUmanists Association
(formerly the Fellowship of Religious Humanists)
#9 Martinus on Friday December 11, 2009 at 9:26pm
David Schafer said: ” It is “religious” only in the sociological sense, as it meets many of the same human social and psychological needs as what has traditionally been known as “religion.” The pseudo-dichotomy between religious and secular humanism has needlessly divided the Humanist family, and the sooner the split is healed the better it will be for all Humanists.”
I agree wholeheartedly, religion should be a private matter and we must get to work on anti-species activities such as militarism and corruption. I want to see Humanists champion referendum democracy, e.g. and become respected as governance critics. Guardians of human rights.
#10 Charlie (Guest) on Friday December 11, 2009 at 11:06pm
Religious humanism is a humanism, not a religion. It is religious—very much in the original sense of the word—again, not a religion. It binds people together is common belief, practice, and ritual.
As a religious humanism, I can experience enchantment and reverence (enchantment and reverence in the face of overwhelming mystery) and I can practice faith, hope, and charity (faith in the face of absurdity, hope in the face of futility, and charity in the face of alienation).
If that were all there was, it would be enough. In addition, however, this religious humanism is an antidote for the misconception that humanism is based only a cold, dispassionate rationality.