The Difference between Religious and Secular Humanism in Its Essence

December 30, 2013

In a Guardian blog, New Humanist commentator Suzanne Moore has -- if inadvertently -- defined the key difference between religious humanists and secular humanists in a very few words.

Bewailing the poverty of atheist (particularly, New Atheist) argot when it comes to offering a supporting matrix for meaningful secular ceremonies, Moore writes: "We may find the fuzziness of new age thinking with its emphasis on 'nature' and 'spirit' impure, but to dismiss the human need to express transcendence and connection with others as stupid is itself stupid."

There's the difference between religious and secular humanism in its essence -- in a nutshell, if you will. Religious humanists yearn to "express transcendence and connection with others." Secular humanists are fine with expressing connection with others, but inasmuch as they are secular, they attach great importance to the recognition that ... hang on now ... there is no such thing as "transcendence" or "the transcendent."

Essential to the secular view is the insight, rooted in science, that reality is mundane. It's the domain of matter, energy, and their interactions -- and nothing else.

On that view, words like divine, spirit, and transcendent share one essential quality: they have no referents in the real world. There is nothing to transcend, because the domain of everyday experience is -- so far as we can see, and the range of our seeing has gotten pretty good in recent decades -- the whole of what exists. Being all that is, it cannot be transcended. There is nothing "above" it, nothing "beyond" it ... there's just reality.

Secular humanists recognize that "the transcendent" is an empty set. We say to those who yearn for a  realm beyond that can never be, "Just deal with it."

That's not to say that an authentic secular ritual cannot be designed, though I suspect this may be the case (see below). But it is to say that when religious and congregational humanists craft rituals that speak to "spirituality" and "the universal human quest for the transcendent," they shouldn't be surprised when secular humanists decline to join in.

The yearning for the transcendent may or may not be a human universal. But even if it is, secular humanists can always be recognized as the folks who've come to terms with the disillusioning insight that much as every human being may share this yearning, its target is an illusion. And why should that be so surprising? Arguably, everyone on some level wants life eternal, yet almost all humanists agree that this yearning, universal or not, can never be satisfied. What's so difficult in recognizing that the "quest for the transcendent" might just be more of the same?

Here's a suggestion for my religious- and congregational-humanist colleagues. Cobble up a humanist ritual that focuses solely on connection with others -- without playing the transcendence card -- and maybe secular folks will join in.

I wouldn't count on it, though. Not because secular humanists are obtuse, but because I suspect that the empty notion of transcendence is indispensable to constructing any ritual and ceremony that "works" psychologically. Absent some imagined anchor in the beyond, ritual and ceremonial tend to seem empty and contrived, and to collapse amid their contradictions. Why bother with the mumbo jumbo -- the robes, the incense, the choral music, the laser show, or whatever -- if there's no beyond out there for it all to point to?

Lots of people today have realized there's no god. A smaller number have realized that there simply isn't a transcendent realm, even a shadowy and impersonal one. They are the secular humanists, who -- let's admit it -- find the religious humanist impulse to play in the cracks of a world-picture that gives no support for the hope for transcendence somewhat sad and ridiculous. In a nutshell, yes, we find it stupid.


#1 Paul Chiariello (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 10:22am

Not “rooted in science”??  Transcendence IS used in modern science.

At the VIA Institute, founded by leading Positive Psychologists Meyerson and Seligman, Transcendence is the title of one of the 6 key families of their Classification of Strengths:

#2 Paul Chiariello (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 10:24am

Is there a character cut off I didn’t see?  the rest of my comment is missing.

#3 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 10:59am

Paul, guests aren’t permitted to post URLs. (I don’t make those rules.) As soon as you enter a URL it cuts you off. Solutions: register, or work around the URL prohibition, for instance giving keywords that will Google to the paper in question.—Tom

#4 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 11:14am

Paul, in any case I wouldn’t be too fast to characterize the Via Institute’s work on character as any rigorous kind of science. At the very least, the fact that its speculative taxonomy of character strengths includes “transcendence” (used somewhat metaphorically) falls well short of a scientific claim for actual transcendence, much less an example of actual transcendence being “used in modern science.”

#5 Paul Chiariello (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 11:24am

Ahh, I got it.  Here are the two references sans url’s.

At the VIA Institute, founded by leading Positive Psychologists Meyerson and Seligman, Transcendence is the title of one of the 6 key families of their Classification of Strengths

Self-Transcendence is also one of 7 character traits in Cloninger’s well known Tempermanent and Character Inventory used in Personality Psychology

I think the question is more about naturalism.  There are certain phenomena of transcendence, peak experiences, the sacred, or whatever term you’d like to use that are very real and readily observed.  Positive Psych has concluded they’re unquestioningly, well, positive.  Now, do they have supernatural or naturalistic explanations?  A variety of classic (Dewey, Maslow, Durkheim) and contemporary (Haidt and others above) psychologists and philosophers argue that they do have naturalistic explanations.

#6 Paul Chiariello (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 11:31am

Also, to address your comment, I think there might be some talking past each other.  No humanist is seeking to transcend the physical world, reality, this plane, or whatever else. Naturalism is basically part of humanism by definition.

Instead it refers to a type of experience in which one’s self or ego, not the world, is transcended and a sense of identity with others felt. Andrew Newberg has written on the neuro sci behind such and has identified two “orientation association areas” which measure, to put it crudely, the limits to our body and position in space.  When these two areas are inhibited during certain experiences we experience this type of transcendence.

#7 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 11:53am

Hi Paul,
Yes, we’re talking past each other. Using “transcendence” to mean just an illsory sense of ego-transcendence is similar using “spirituality” to mean that one has warm feelings about flowers and sunsets. It’s a deceptive use of language, though it often doesn’t feel that way when we’re doing it. That’s why I’ve long urged secular humanists to avoid using “spirit” and “spiritual” in their speech and writing altogether—we may mean it in a sophisticated way but many of our hearers are bound to come away thinking we just confessed to a belief in ghosts. “Transcendence” apparently has the same problems. I wish I shared your confidence that all humanists shared a naturalism that precludes any thought of literal transcendence. Secular humanists are naturalistic in that way, that’s one of the thing that makes us secular. But sadly, I know plenty of religious humanists and congregational humanists who not only speak uncritically, but genuinely seem to think uncritically about the role “transcendence” may play in their lives.—Tom

#8 Paul Chiariello (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 12:02pm

I agree, it’s a semantic issue.  Of course very important, but mainly about the words we use and the baggage they have and not whether “transcendence” is used in sci lit or, within such use, it has a naturalistic explanation.  I personally like to use Maslow’s “Peak Experiences” and have given talks on such, but I also see the accurate use of the term “transcendence” given it’s about transcending the ego/self - or at least about such for some.

I mainly wanted to point out that there is a frequent naturalistic use of the term and that it references transcendence of a different kind that you seem to be referring to.  Many humanists may be of the more non-naturalistic kind that you (and I!) are worried about.  But the majority of those that I’ve met use the term in the way that the personality and positive psychologists I’ve read and talked with use it.

What I’m worried about with fighting against the old instead of adopting a new def of transcendence is that so many scientists already have adopted it.

#9 Randy (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 1:07pm

Thank you.

#10 Doug Allen (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 1:18pm

Who owns humanism?  With antecedents going back to the renaissance and well before, humanists have opposed religious and scientific authoritarianism- scriptural, royal, papal, cast, and scientific fundamentalisms.
The opposition to scientific authoritarianism requires explanation. Science is open ended and tentative. Its methodology leads toward “truth,” but not to truth.  A relevant example- humanistic psychology opposes the authoritarian and reductionist Freudian and behavioral psychologies.  Humanist psychologists believe human consciousness is a level of complexity that can not be reduced to stimulus/response; drives; biological tropisms; chemical reactions, etc.  From biology, humanist psychologists took the idea that different organized levels of complexity have emergent properties.  One of those emergent properties may be peak or transcendent experiences which are not supernatural, but can not be described with the tools of the physical sciences. Religious humanists may overvalue this way of understanding and secular humanists may undervalue it.

#11 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 1:21pm

Again, Paul, I wouldn’t be too quick to concede the title “scientist” to many of the positive psychologists—especially in this work on character as done by the Via Institute and others, which has always struck me as more an effort to gratify center-right funders than anything deeply rooted in the data. And I wouldn’t be too quick to embrace this new usage of “transcendence” with all its power to mislead just because some trendy researchers just on this side of the woo line (at least sometimes) have made it their own.

#12 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 2:10pm

Doug, you hit the nail on the head. Nobody owns “humanism,” which is precisely why modifiers like the “secular” in “secular humanism” matter so much. Literary humanism—and for that matter, the humanism or humanistic psychology—have little clear connection to what we in the secular humanist movement are up to. That said, I’d characterize the clash between Freudianism, behaviorism, and behavioral psychology not as a clash between truth and untruth but as a conflict between three systems that are flawed in different ways. There is much in humanistic psychology, too, that does not live up to the standards of scientific rigor that most secular humanists have in mind when they speak about science.

#13 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 30, 2013 at 2:11pm

Naturally, in line 4 of my comment #12 that’s supposed to be “the humanism OF humanistic psychology.”

#14 Ophelia Benson on Monday December 30, 2013 at 6:29pm

And another thing about “the transcendent” - it’s a bad idea, in the sense that it motivates people to give short shrift to the mundane.

#15 lawrencerifkin on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 9:26am

My article “Transcendence Without the Bull:  Stripping the Supernatural out of Peak Experiences”:

To my mind, there is nothing about my use and understanding of the word transcendence here that, by definition, conflicts with secular humanism, a secular society, or naturalism. There is no referent to something beyond the real world, no anchor in the beyond, no ceremony. So it becomes a tactical decision of whether it best to avoid the word at all costs (to create explicit sharp boundaries and prevent any possible misunderstanding), or to potentially broaden secular humanism’s appeal by including a place for those who are stirred by a sense of transcendence in the naturalistic, non-religious manner conveyed in my article.

#16 John Dickinson (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 10:14am

The Difference between Religious and Secular Humanism in Its Essence? Secular Humanism is not an oxymoron.

#17 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 12:25pm

Larry, in your article you made a noble effort to carve out a wholly naturalistic meaning for “transcendent,” but IMHO it’s like “spiritual” all over again; the word’s supernaturalistic connotations are simply so vivid among average people that a naturalist can’t use the word without a near-certainty about being misunderstood ... and misunderstood in a way that will call one’s naturalism into question. Most humanists who are “stirred by a sense of transcendence”—at least as most people understand that word—aren’t secular humanists at all, they’re religious humanists. And they’re religious humanists precisely because they’re stirred by a sense of transcendence. It’s that openness to a literal, not-naturalistic transcendence that makes them religious. Looks like in a future editorial, I’ll be adding “transcendence” to my list of words that seriously secular people need to avoid, like “spirit.” Come to think of it, “reverent” and its cognates probably merit avoidance as well. Radical thought, if we feel, say, awe toward the universe, why not just say “I feel awe”? Unlike “I feel reverence” or “I am stirred by transcendence”, “I feel awe” won’t strike most hearers as a marker of religious experience.

#18 Linda L (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 1:22pm

I am a secular (not religious) humanist and I love incense and choral music and “mumbo jumbo”—preferably if it’s in Latin. That combination of delights was invented by humans (like everything else) to be used in religious ceremonies. It’s also very beautiful, in my opinion, in its own right.

#19 Paul Chiariello (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 1:26pm

There are a number of points to be made about this.

Is it really the case that “the word’s supernaturalistic connotations are simply so vivid… a naturalist can’t use the word without a near-certainty about being misunderstood”?  It is not only hard to gauge how most ppl understand a term, but also hard to gauge how easy it is to change its use (which often happens quite quickly).

I believe we could “carve out a wholly naturalistic meaning” for “transcendence” for a few reasons.

1) It is already in popular use already among prominent academics who have already “carved out” such a meaning.

2) It refers to a very visceral and widely experienced phenomenon.  So it is easy to reference and point to in the world.

3) We already are beginning to understand the neuroscience behind this phenomena (e.g. Newberg).  Similarly, there are very plausible well discussed evo psych explanations for it.

4) It already has a common use when referring to “transcending” one’s ego or the one’s narrow perspective for a much wider one.

Given mission that Dewey, Maslow, and others have set forth, there are few words as ripe for taking back.

#20 Paul Chiariello (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 1:41pm

(lol, sorry for all of the typos)

#21 Doug Allen (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 1:43pm

Perhaps those opposed to using the word “transcending” with a perfectly good naturalistic meaning as Paul Chiarello, describes above, are being literalists with all that implies in a figurative way!  My philosophy professor, Paul Kurtz, was a big tent humanist.  I think we need more of them!

#22 Beth Clarkson (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 3:17pm

You say there is no transcendent realm? 

Where then do numbers live if not in realm of eternal unchanging truth? And where do the transcendent numbers exist if not in a transcendent realm?

I know, this is probably not the ‘transcendent realm’ you were thinking of.  That’s my point.  There are many different ways to interpret such a concept.  Words cannot adequately express it - my understanding is that’s defined to be one of it’s properties.

We can only seek to understand it through our own experiences and it is different for every human.  While I don’t believe in the ‘transcendent realm’ in the meaning I think most likely you were not believing in, I would not be so quick to reject the concept altogether.

#23 Linda L (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 4:15pm

“Supernatural” is where I draw the line.  If you believe in the supernatural, you’re not a humanist.

but the words “transcendent” and even “spiritual” can be used to describe feelings that are totally part of nature.

#24 Timothy F Travis (Guest) on Tuesday December 31, 2013 at 6:58pm

Atheists / secular humanists are big fans of exploring fantastical ideas, they just confine it to its proper place, the arts; which is why the arts are so important. -Science fiction, the ghosts in Hamlet, Swain Lake, Gulliver’s Travels, The Sixth Sense, etc.

#25 T Miller (Guest) on Wednesday January 01, 2014 at 10:44am

I’m not sure why you need to say that the need for transcendence may or may not be universal.  It obviously isn’t universal.  Any desires we feel must be biologically-based, and we have a lot of biological variation so you wouldn’t expect it to be universal.  Further, you can verify this empirically by asking a bunch of people whether they yearn for the transcendent.  I for one do not identify with any experience that I’ve ever heard described as “transcendent”.

#26 Linda L (Guest) on Wednesday January 01, 2014 at 10:59am

I’ve had experiences that religious people would describe as transcendent but I describe as “Wow - that felt good!”

They seemingly come out of nowhere but happen when I’m feeling extraordinarily relaxed or when faced with an extraordinary, possibly unexpected, positive event—like a sunset or a beautiful piece of music or architecture.  It never occurred to me, even when I was a believer, that God sent these feelings, but I can see how a believer might take it that way—they feel so good as to be heaven-sent.

#27 Alysion on Wednesday January 01, 2014 at 11:05am

The difference between religious and secular humans, whether calling themselves ‘humanist’ or not, is that some suspect that amid the vast ocean of religious bathwater there may be a baby adrift in the abyss. The ‘secular’ regard such humans as ‘religious’; as imperfectly evolved beings. I don’t want to take sides (I fear thee Tom), but the secular sans-religion position is obvious. The challenge is to consider whether the word ‘religion’ and cognates have any real world meaning.

The putatively religious whose brains have not fallen out have to grasp at words, and ‘transcendence’ is a low-hanging fruit. Perhaps there are two worlds after all: life, the universe and everything, and our view of it. We create and live in (as best we can) our concept-forming minds, our inner and outer chatter going on and on, rounded by sleep. Then there is the unknown, the Thing-In-Itself (PBTK—praise be the Kant). To transcend the concept-forming mind, the egoic state, to blur the boundary between This and That, is to transcend one world and experience, in a radically empirical way, the undiscovered country. The One is none other than the All.

To avoid going on at book-length, allow me to note that the breathtakingly cogent (Sam Harris) can harbor religious interests of a personal nature (he’s a closet Buddhist sympathizer—it takes one to know one). The more secular than thou should not be too quick to dismiss their religious brethren. Enough said.

#28 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 7:45am

Wow, a lot of comments!

Doug, I’m curious why you describe Paul Kurtz as a “big tent” humanist. Paul was a strong defender of the distinction between religious and secular humanism; in drafting Humanist Manifesto II (1973) he made a point of describing humanism as wholly secular and explicitly disclaimed the religious humanism of the original Manifesto of 1933.

Beth, numbers are human creations, which is to say that they are abstractions; Platonist objections notwithstanding, I don’t think they “live” anywhere, much less in a realm that justifies a label like “transcendent.”

Linda L, while words like “transcendent” and “spiritual” can be used in a naturalistic way, that only works when speaker and hearer agree to use them that way, disregarding their literal (and still overhwelmingly popular) meanings which are essentially synonymous with “supernatural.” To be transcendent in this sense is quite literally to be super-natural.

Thanks to T Miller and Linda L, thanks for weighing in with your varying experiences with “transcendent” sensations. I’m with T Miller; I have never had any experience that struck me as transcendent, OR spiritual, OR religious. Those who have had such experiences, like Linda, and who wish to be clear that they are still naturalists, have many good words available for describing these sensations (“awe” comes to mind) without courting the very real risk of convincing their hearers that this experience has caused them to discount their naturalism.

Alysion, no need to fear me. At least I don’t think so! I’m leery even of citing Kant’s Thing-in-Itself as a separate realm requiring some dualistic approach. While there probably remains a great deal about reality that science has yet to discover, I’m not convinced there’s any sound reason why humans can’t discover it all if we manage not to destroy ourselves. Re Sam Harris, old-timers will recall that I criticized him for the backdoor Buddhism is his breakthough book THE END OF FAITH when it came out in 2004. I’m told he survived the experience. 

#29 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 7:47am

BTW, check out the revised introductory text on the Council homepage. It now reads (in part), “It’s liberating to recognize that supernatural beings are human creations … that there are no such things as “spirit” or “transcendence”... that people are undesigned, unintended, and responsible for themselves.”

#30 Linda L (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 9:09am

Tom—have you ever had an experience that seemingly came out of nowhere that caused you to think “Wow - that felt good!”?

By the way—regarding being very clear about the origin of the feelings, I have been in discussions with spiritual people who insist that I must be spiritual without realizing it or that I didn’t really have an authentic experience because atheists are incapable of having them.  I don’t let those notions stand, making it clear that not being me, they are not in a position to rate my experience or to place it in a particular realm.

#31 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 9:16am

Linda, in a word, no. I’ve had some wonderful experiences in my time, but without exception, every one of them had a known—and mundane—referent. FWIW back when I was making my slow transition from conservative Catholic to atheist (1970-1979 or thereabouts), the fact that I had never had a “religious experience” was one of the factors that pushed me toward conceding that atheism might be correct.

#32 Doug Allen (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 11:48am

Tom referred to the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II

#33 Doug Allen (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 11:56am

SORRY- the dreaded URL truncated my post…. so again…
Tom referred to the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II (google it) that Paul Kurtz and others composed.  I just reread it and continue to be impressed!  Kurtz became even more of a big tent humanist in the following decades as I’ll try to show in a subsequent post.  My point is this. Humanism has historically emphasized, following Erasmus, that “man is the measure of all things” and opposed the authoritarianism of any and all institutions, especially those that claim “truths” that violate the always tentative findings of scientific method.  I see no benefit to purifying humanism by rejecting the language of metaphor and poetry which are a part of our culture or suggesting any litmus tests for secular, religious, or hybrid humanism.

#34 Doug Allen (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 12:16pm

Here’s a start to identifying the “big tent” humanist that I knew Paul Kurtz to be.  Like John Dewey and other signers of Humanist Manifesto I (1933), Kutz, a generation+ later, was a pragmatist.  He wrote the following, “Because we must share the Earth, no entity can any longer be allowed to attempt to impose an exclusive, doctrinaire religious creed on every man and woman. We live in a multicultural world in which multi-secularism needs to be developed—in which different forms of secularism need to be adapted to the diverse cultural traditions and contexts of specific societies. Thus, we need secularized Christianity, secularized Judaism, secularized Hinduism, and even secularized Islam; all are requisite for societies to be able to cope with their problems.” (from Free Inquiry May 2004)
A fair question is this.  Do the religious cultural traditions become more secular by the direct opposition (and often ridicule) of secular humanism or by the more pragmatic and accommodating stance of Paul Kurtz?

#35 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday January 02, 2014 at 2:18pm

A fair question indeed, Doug. I’d say that the answer is “both.” We need for religious cultural traditions to become more secular; we need for others to reject religious traditions altogether. As Kurtz said, “different forms of secularism” are required to fulfill these disparate goals, and if the approaches are to be different and to fulfill different strategies, then they need to make clear the grounds upon which they differ.

Certainly among these different forms of secularism there’s a space for a resolutely secular humanism that embraces the full burden of naturalism in all of its sometime starkness—that accepts a world without spirit, without transcendence, without cosmic design, without any hint of the mystical, and in so doing demonstrates that it is really possible for human beings—some of them, at least—to live that way. Of course for that demonstration to have value, it needs to be unmistakable that those hardy humanists who have chosen that way *have* chosen that way. If poor language choices enable religious observers to console themselves that “oh, those so-called secular people can’t really make it through the night without some hint of the otherworldly,” then much of the power of the secular example is lost.

#36 Tim Smith (Guest) on Monday January 06, 2014 at 11:57am

I tend to think of a ritual as a tool to alter mental states. I may have a ritual I use to alter my own mental state, when alone; perhaps lighting a candle and sitting quietly with it. Perhaps burning some fragrance. Perhaps looking at a beautiful piece of art. Perhaps beating a drum for a few minutes. All of these activities are natural, and I don’t ascribe any supernatural agent to the effects they cause.

Similar activities can be performed in a group setting. It’s possible for fairly large changes in mental function to be effected through rituals. This may engender emotions, feelings of peace or love or sadness, etc. These feelings, too, don’t refer to anything supernatural. Having tools to create these mental states and feelings in a group can be useful to encourage participation, heighten emotional experience or just to feel good, relaxed and peaceful for a while.

The first dictionary definition of “ritual” I have is “the prescribed order of a religious ceremony.” Under that definition, obviously no secular ritual is possible. But I’m not sure there’s a better word for the kinds of activities I’m describing.

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