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. 

James,

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.

Tom