What Is Religious Humanism—Really?

August 23, 2012

There's been a flurry of interest in the idea of "Atheism-Plus" or "A+" -- atheism that incorporates a strong values component. Essentially it's secular humanism by another name, except that some advocates broaden it to include a specific, usually left-progressive, ideological agenda that secular humanism welcomes but does not demand. As such ideas often do, the A+ debate has spawned a spin-off debate over the meaning of other terms, including that perennial puzzler "What is Humanism?" At his "Temple of the Future" blog, James Croft of Harvard's humanist chaplaincy offers a definition of humanism that in many ways is quite good. This post is sure to be widely quoted, so I think it's important to note the one thing Croft got, in my view, spectacularly wrong.

He defines religious humanism as follows:

“Religious Humanists” might express their Humanism in ways more common to traditionally religious individuals, for example meeting together to discuss values and celebrate certain ceremonies. Some like to maintain a connection to the cultural elements of a religious tradition they have experience of, and continue to participate in religious culture while maintaining strictly Humanist beliefs and values. 

Nothing he says in inaccurate, but he's left out one of the two types of religious humanists. Ironically, the folks he omitted are the ones who genuinely are religious! I reproduce below my reply to his post, which describes my objection in detail. 


I think your definition of religious humanism is deficient, ironically in that it omits the (I think) minority among declared religious humanists who truly are religious. As you define it, religious humanism encompasses only nontheists who find value in the rituals historically associated with congregational life (in contrast to secular humanists, who generally welcome emancipation from such rites).

But there's another, perhaps smaller group of religious humanists: those whose humanist practice involves assent to one or more propositions not supported by the available facts. Such religious humanists may not be theists, but they can genuinely be termed "religious" because their humanism depends on their accepting one or more unprovable claims, that is, on the exercise of faith. 

Who are these people, you ask? Humanists who believe that the success and future grandeur of the human species is inevitable (a claim prominent in AHA membership solicitation mailings a decade or so ago). The best-known exemplar of this view may be William Faulkner, whose 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech included the famous line "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail." Taken seriously, such a claim demands the support of faith.

There are other "real" religious humanist types. They include humanists who define the human "spark" as something spiritual or who find humanity so wondrous as to be a legitimate object of worship. Techno-utopians of the transhumanist sort, or of the Teilhardian-Tiplerian kind who believe that humanity will inevitably spread throughout the cosmos and develop technologies necessary to preserve our species into the next cosmic cycle (whatever they think THAT is). For good measure I think you can include political, social, and economic utopians who out of sincere humane conviction posit absurd and arbitrary schemes are pursue them with unjustified vigor: this group includes everything from the Fourierists of old to 20th century Marxists and modern-day libertarians and Objectivists who really believe that limited government and/or the rejection of altruism maximally promote human welfare. (If Objectivism isn't really a religion, damned if I can understand WTF it is!)

In my "Secular Humanism Defined" I note the irony here. It is only religious humanists of this second type who truly qualify as religious, by virtue of the faith commitment their view requires. The first group of religious humanists -- the only ones your definition encompasses -- aren't really religious at all. Nontheists with a taste for ritual, they are less religious than simply, well, "churchy."

In my view this is a big part of the reason why so many in the movement find "religious humanism" such a difficult term. There's a genuine squishiness in there, in that for historical reasons it has come to label two groups that are actually quite different: the churchy, ritual-loving nontheists and the gaggle of extreme humanophiles and utopians for whom humanism serves as a genuine, if nontraditional, religion.



#1 Ian (Guest) on Thursday August 23, 2012 at 12:46pm

That’s a nice argument Tom, except it’s not based on evidence, it’s based on empty claims. Point me to actual, self-identifying humanist groups that are actually theistic. I don’t want 50 year old examples of what Humanism used to be, I want things relevant to 2012 and the next generations of Humanism.

#2 Jason (Guest) on Thursday August 23, 2012 at 2:18pm

Those who put faith in a supernatural/higher power aren’t humanists, so that kind of religious “humanist” is a misnomer. It’s appropriate for Croft to omit such non-categories from his list.

As for those who have “faith” in humanity, that’s the hope/optimism/trust type of “faith” that doesn’t disregard evidence but merely presses on in spite of potential disaster.

Ian makes a good point that humanism today is relevant, and talking about humanism of the olden days isn’t strictly relevant except as a point of departure to make progress. The swipe at AHA is particularly unjustified since you know perfectly well that that “god-is-ok” regime was ousted from leadership.

I would say that you’re argument is based on evidence, but you’re presenting evidence not relevant to modern humanism that has rejected the supernatural and is now trying to move on to overcome it’s unjustified allergy to religious terminology and rituals. We should also be evidence-based about the psychological and sociological benefits of rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations.

#3 Andrew (Guest) on Thursday August 23, 2012 at 2:38pm

It may help to propose a definition for “religion” here. What characterizes religion, is it the organization of people around an ethical philosophy? a sacred and authoritative text? a set of rituals? an existential philosophy? a Modernist philosophy? faith? belief in deities/ a deity?

Must all of these things be present in order to qualify as religious/ a religion?

As far as I am aware, there has never been an ultimate definition for “religion,” therefore I think statements about who or what “truly qualifies as religious” are unwarranted.

#4 Randy on Thursday August 23, 2012 at 5:43pm

Might there be a third type, of people who believe somewhat, mostly, or even completely in a particular religion’s claims, but nevertheless do not side with any of the supernatural beings claimed to exist?

#5 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday August 23, 2012 at 8:59pm

Andrew, here’s the definition of religion I proposed in my “Secular Humanism Defined” (link in my blog post):

” ... religion is ‘a life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.’”

Any definition of “religion” is fraught with difficulty; mine has the advantage of defining it broadly enough to include, say, nontheistic Buddhists. It also includes zealous ideologues and those whose optimism for the human prospect exceeds what rationality can justify. Read “Secular Humanism Defined” for more details on all this.

Ian, note that my definition of religion does not require theism, just a belief diametrically opposed to naturalism. Of course I can’t point to any humanist groups that are theistic! Humanist groups that believe in and attach fundamental importance to a realm transcending ordinary experience? That’s another matter. Objectivists and transhumanists come immediately to mind, and they have some conspicuous organizations. I don’t know if Faulknerian (humanity will inevitably prevail) optimists or Teilhardian optimists have groups, but there are plenty of individual adherents.

Jason, it’s a nice trick to try restricting the discussion to “modern humanism,” but the history can’t be jettisoned. Part of the problem with “humanism” as a label is that it carries literally centuries of baggage (remember Renaissance humanism?). The humanist movement we know emerged (in the US, at least) with the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 which made no bones about its intent to found a new religion. Religious humanism (in both of its types) is alive and well alongside secular humanism; I was in the room when the Secular Coalition for America voted to admit Huumanists, the organization formerly (and better) known as the Fellowship of Religious Humanists. If we’re talking about “humanism” in its broad sense, we don’t get to be choosy about which streams of its history we claim and which we set aside. That’s why humanists who are explicitly nontheistic, individualistic, and opposed to the illicit authority exerted by ritual make clear that they are *secular* humanists.


#6 James Croft on Friday August 24, 2012 at 10:51am

Well if you define “religion” like that then of course “Religious Humanism” has to include some “squishy” element to it! But your definition of religion is not one supported by the majority of scholars in the field today, especially since Durkheim.

Durkheim defined religion as follows:

“A religion is 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.”

And scholars following him have further redefined it so that it doesn’t even need anything strictly “forbidden” - just values which are seen as primary, of great importance above others (Paul Tillich is an example). And this is perfectly compatible with a non-supernaturalist Humanism.

Others have taken an anthropological or sociological view which moves away from religion as a set of “beliefs” and instead views religion as a set of social practices. Under such a view Humanists can clearly be seen to be “religious” without being “squishy”. One of the major problems with your proposed definition (and it’s a huge problem) is that it leaves out religious practice entirely, reducing religion to merely a “life stance” and ignoring the clear fact that religions are practiced, and that the practice is often as important as (or even more important than) the beliefs.

What I think is going on here is that you wish to see “religion” as an entirely negative phenomenon, and so you craft an obscure definition to ensure that you can object to every form of “religion” and differentiate yourself from it. I am more comfortable in seeing religion as a mixed bag of good and bad elements, recognizing that religion is a sort of social technology (see Dewey) which has developed to fulfill certain needs and serve certain purposes. Humanists can intelligently weed the good from the bad without having this very strong need to differentiate ourselves from this core part of human history.

To play a definitional game which misrepresents the phenomenon under discussion in order to achieve essentially political ends seems unreasonable to me.

#7 jasontorpy on Friday August 24, 2012 at 10:56am

I was in the room when HUUmanists were admitted as well. I think there is value in recognizing the distinction between individualistic humanists and community humanists, known to humanists as “secular” and “religious” humanists respectively. But I’ll stand with you in opposing those who try to imply that humanism allows for theistic or supernatural beliefs because of the ‘religious’ humanist model.

A foundational text I recently reviewed is here - http://militaryatheists.org/news/2012/08/review-becoming-more-fully-human/ - and you can see that the HUUs use all the religious terms but make strong distinctions between themselves and theistic or dogmatic beliefs.

I think we do have a relevant point of debate: Is the “illicit authority” of rituals a worthwhile risk/cost to gain the psychological and sociological benefits of rituals/ceremonies/celebrations?

The best option now is to make a safe space both for the individualistic humanists like yourself and the community humanists who see value in the trappings and terminology of religion, so long as we all agree not to lie to ourselves with supernaturalism or to be dogmatically or irrationally optimistic about human prospects.

* this is the same Jason from above. I just had to wait for profile approval.

#8 James Croft on Friday August 24, 2012 at 11:01am

Another concern with this definition is that it doesn’t seem to fit how the term “Religious Humanism” has been used historically or by Religious Humanists themselves. You might make a case that Felix Adler fitted this mode with his transcendental idealism fits this mold, but he didn’t identify as a Humanist, and Ethical Culturists today don’t fit the description. It doesn’t fit Humanistic Jews or Mormons or Christians. And the Marxists would tell you that their political ideology is based on reason. So it’s difficult for me to see this as a fair definition.

#9 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday August 24, 2012 at 3:02pm

@ Tom and James Respectfully, I think you both miss the mark.

James, I will not dispute that you can point to a number of scholars who would support your position, but there have also been some scholars who support what I consider the criterion that best serves to distinguish religion from other systems of belief, namely belief in a transcendent reality, that is, an order of existence beyond the observable universe. See Louis Dupre, The Other Dimension 20 (1972) (religion has “one universal objective trait … a relation to some sort of transcendent reality”). Note one need not believe in a deity to believe in a transcendent reality. This is why Buddhists and so-called “spirituals” are religious, even though they may not be theistic.

Use of this criterion comports with common sense and safely excludes (most) humanists from the sphere of the religious.

The principal problem with Tom’s definition is that it is overly inclusive. As Jason points out in comment #2, under Tom’s definition anyone who is unduly optimistic is religious. That’s not a helpful or precise definition. Believing that humanity will “ultimately prevail” (prevail against what?) may be wishful thinking, but it doesn’t commit one to a belief in a transcendent reality.

The proof that Tom’s definition is overly inclusive is that, as he says, it includes Marxists. I would think this is a flaw, not a virtue. Admittedly, people have often referred to Marxism as a religion because of the unwavering commitment of its adherents, but this is best understood as metaphor. Marxism claimed to be fact-based and scientifically grounded; indeed, Marx heaped scorn on idealistic socialists. He was advocating “scientific socialism” and he had a theory and mountains of facts to back up his claim. As it turned out Marx’s theory was seriously flawed, and people continued to adhere to his theory long after they should have abandoned it, but that doesn’t make 20th or 21st century Marxists religious, any more than someone who clings to the Ptolemaic view of the solar system is necessarily religious (or, to cite a more contemporary example, someone who maintains there is a link between vaccines and autism). Sometimes it’s difficult for people to give up beliefs which are important to them, but that doesn’t make them religious; otherwise, all those in love would have religion—literally, and not just as a figure of speech.

#10 James Croft on Friday August 24, 2012 at 3:24pm

So perhaps there’s some reasonable middle ground between our positions! But if there needs to be some transcendent belief to define a group as “religious”, then I don’t see how you 1) account for religions which don’t include that (Ethical Culture), and what do you do about those beliefs which involve a transcendent reality which are not religions (spiritualism)?

And I just don’t see much evidence that a transcendent reality is at all compatible with any of the Humanist Manifestos. They are so explicitly naturalistic - even the first!

#11 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday August 24, 2012 at 5:31pm

Belief in a transcendent reality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for religious belief. As you point out, one could believe in immortality and not be religious. That’s where Durkheim’s unified system of beliefs and practices comes in. Religion must satisfy both criteria.

Ethical Culture would not be a religion under my definition. Of course, adherents of Ethical Culture would dispute this, but that doesn’t make them right. When Ethical Culture was founded, religion had a positive connotation, and it’s not surprising that a naturalistic system that hoped to attract a popular following would describe itself as a religion. Same thing with Dewey’s redefinition of religion.

So I have a response to your counter-examples but … the reality is that “religion” is a vague concept. Or as Wittgenstein might put it, there’s simply a family resemblance among the different things that we call religion in ordinary language. There is no set of features common to every belief system we might justifiably call religious.

In most contexts we can tolerate this vagueness. It’s principally in the legal context that one needs to aim at precision. There I think the definition I favor may be preferable to any alternative.

#12 jasontorpy on Saturday August 25, 2012 at 10:57am

What is more useful? Insisting that religion requires supernatural belief no matter what UUs, Ethical Culture, naturalistic Buddhists, and James say? Or maybe it makes more sense to recognize that there are two definitions - the traditional god-only definition and the modern and progressive definition of personal identity, core values and ethics, and making meaning (TM)?
It sounds a bit dogmatic to insist that a social construct like religion can’t change.

#13 C.Carl Pegels (Guest) on Monday August 27, 2012 at 10:55am

Your notion of Humanism and Religion raises the issue of Secular Christians now making up the majority of the American population according to the 2007 Pew Center survey. Since only about 20 percent of Christians are observant ones, the remaining 60 percent are essentially humanists, but not necessarily religious.
In my book SECULAR CHRISTIANITY—THE NEW MAJORITY these issues are brought out. The book is available from Amazon for free during three days in the next few weeks.
Not many people are aware that close to 80 percent of Americans identify their religion as Christian, but only about 20 percent, a quarter of all Christians are active in a Church. The remaining ones are Secular Christians. Or for every active Christian there are three Secular Christians. Read about these Christians and gain an understanding of what is happening today. The book will be available for free on September 14, October 5 and 19, 2012.

Sincerely, C. Carl Pegels

#14 jasontorpy on Monday August 27, 2012 at 11:33am

Carl, I appreciate your favorable opinion of “secular” Christians, but they’re still Christians. They believe in Jesus and have a fundamentally different understanding of and approach to the world than humanists. Humanists have no old books or god-concept to inspire them to reject Christians so long as they are doing all the right things - so good for those humanistic Christians. But nothing about “non-practicing” Christians makes them humanist.

#15 C.Carl Pegels (Guest) on Monday August 27, 2012 at 7:15pm

Jason: You assume that Secular Christians all believe in Jesus Christ. There is no evidence of that at all. Some may think of Jesus the man as a great humanist, and a great person when he was alive. To most Secular Christians, Jesus is dead, and just a historic figure, not anyone to believe in.
Based on the Pew Center survey, 80 percent of us are Christians, but only about 20 percent of us subscribe to old time Christianity where Jesus was equal to a god.
In other words I do not see how Secular Christians, now 60 percent of the American population, are different from Humanists. Carl Pegels

#16 jasontorpy on Monday August 27, 2012 at 7:45pm

I do. Yes. If someone is Christian, they believe in the divinity of Jesus. If they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, they’re not really Christian, are they? It’s like a humanist that does believe in the divinity of Jesus. Not really humanist are they?
And you’re conflating church attendance with believing in God or in the divinity of Jesus. All those are different things. Some of those church-attending people believe in the divinity of Jesus and some don’t. Some of those non-practicing people are Bible-beating, praise-Jesus, end-times fundamentalists. They just don’t go to church.
I’m with you if you want to identify humanists ‘in the pews’ who are really humanist but afraid to say so, but I think you should reconsider your analysis of the Pew survey.

#17 C.Carl Pegels (Guest) on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 9:31am

Jason: The Pew Survey revealed that not all Christians have the same belief. There is a need for a modifier. The simple one is to divide them into Trinitarian and Secular Christians. The former believe in Christ’s divinity, the latter don’t. Also I suspect that the latter outnumber the former by at least 3 and possibly 5 to 1.

Secular Christians basically state that they are part of a civilization or culture that has evolved from a Trinitarian to a Secular Christianity. Keep in mind nearly 80 percent of the population make that statement. Your argument that they believe in Christ’s divinity is unheard of. Give our fellow neighbors a break, they are educated and rational, and that is why Christianity has and is still involving.

Separately Humanists claim that they all are atheists or agnostics. False. Again a modifier is necessary. There are Atheistic, Secular and Christian Humanists. Again the vast majority are Secular Humanist, and a Secular Humanist is probably also a Secular Christian, at least as a self-report.  Nice exchange, Carl Pegels

#18 jasontorpy on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 9:39am

You started with - “The Pew Survey revealed that not all Christians have the same belief”
The rest seems to be your conjecture and opinion without anything cited. I’d just encourage you to make strong distinctions among science like the Pew survey, ARIS, or other studies, your conjecture about what might be found from more detailed surveys, and then your opinions about what humanism should or should not be. I think this Christian Humanist idea is something your advocating for. It’s not totally ludicrous, but it also isn’t well-accepted by any humanist I’ve ever bumped into, so you should say it as if it’s common knowledge.

#19 C.Carl Pegels (Guest) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 at 6:22pm

Jason: The point I am trying to make is that a group of people, or individuals, have the right to claim that they are part of a group. Close to 80 percent of the U.S. has stated that they are Christians.

The small group of Trinitarian Christians claims that only they are Christians. I have designated the non-Trinitarian Christians as Secular Christians. What the Secular Christians believe or not believe I have no knowledge, but I suspect that they are all over the place, from believers in Jesus’s divinity to agnostics and yes to atheists.

They are essentially saying that they enjoy the customs of celebrating the historic Christian religious holidays as secular holidays, and enjoy the Christian religious holidays.

Those of us who claim to be Humanists have the same right as the Christians. I can claim to be a Christian Humanist and a Secular Christian. No Humanist can deny me that privilege although you hint that they may object.

To get around the above problem the notion of using modifiers to describe a large group makes sense. In a heterogeneous society you can not put everybody in the same group. By using such modifiers as Trinitarian and Secular in case of the Christians, and Secular and Christian in the case of Humanists may resolve that dilemma. Carl Pegels

#20 jasontorpy on Wednesday August 29, 2012 at 6:53pm

“The small group of Trinitarian Christians” - what survey data leads you to believe only a small group of those who self-identify as Christians also hold Trinitarian beliefs? If you’re referencing church attendance, I think you are misrepresenting the data.

You can call yourself what you like, but words have meaning, and you’ll do nothing but cause confusion if you subjectively define words. Humanists are atheist. Christians believe in Jesus. A Christian Humanist might revere some of the Biblical teachings of Jesus while holding highest the principles of human-based rational ethics. But to insert literal god-belief, you will have strayed too far from the understood meaning of humanism. In that case, you might as well call yourself a Muslim or a Rasta. People will be equally confused.

#21 C.Carl Pegels (Guest) on Friday August 31, 2012 at 4:26pm

Jason: I agree that there is no accurate measure of the number of Trinitarian Christians. My estimate is about 20 percent, and dropping, of the American population. Critics of their belief, notably Hitchens when he was alive, overestimate their number.

The remaining 60 percent, and the world’s Muslims, generally still view Jesus as a great prophet, similar to a Moses of the Old Testament.

The movement away from viewing Jesus as a divinity began shortly after he was so anointed through the adoption of the Nicene Creed in 325. It has gathered enormous steam during the recent century, especially in Europe, but also in the U.S.

So much for my contribution to the debate. But it is time that the world recognize that not all self-identified Christians are Trinitarian Christians. They are a diminishing part of Christianity.

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