Are There Any Religious Humanists Anymore?

September 16, 2009


A simplistic definition of a controversial idea can help win an argument right from the start. The contest for "humanism" is a good example, and numerous definitions of humanism have been promoted. We understand how humanism is supposed to guide life without consulting any commanding god. After that, things look complicated.

Many humanists during the first half of the 20th century were happy with "religious humanism". Its leadership helped to ensure that religious humanism played a large role in humanism’s analogues of denominations, including Unitarianism-Universalism and the American Humanist Association. Mason Olds briefly describes the aspirations of religious humanism in his essay Religious Humanism, Autumn 1995 . For a longer narrative of religious humanism, read Edwin Wilson’s useful narrative on "The Genesis of the Humanist Manifesto"

By the 1970s, humanism had fractured into two main parts: humanists living without god, and humanists living without any lingering vestige of the religious/spiritual life. What it really meant to be "non-religious" became contested territory, and that divided situation prevails today. The UUs have shown some renewed interest in returning to god-talk and the spiritual life, and the American Humanist Association has tried for its part to repudiate its "religious" humanist past.  In 2002 the AHA and its then-President Edd Doerr issued a statement against "hyphenated humanism" in The Humanist [see the AHA website ]. Doerr claims that "the lifestance is by definition naturalistic, scientific, and secular." That’s a too-convenient definition of humanism, especially since secular humanism arose for good reason. It’s just too late to ignore how the meaning of "religion" had already broadened beyond easy definition long before "humanism". Two important definitions of religion were not going to now disappear: religion as dependence on supernaturalism, and religion as engagement with the wonders of nature.

Is Doerr correct to claim that humanism is "by definition" naturalistic, scientific, and secular? Perhaps humanism is like that, if done well. But the religious humanists of by-gone days would have agreed with Doerr, so no clarification has been achieved. Naturalism rejects supernaturalism by preferring scientific knowledge to revelation. Naturalists are naturally secular, by preferring to live without any directives offered by dogmatic churches and without any church-state entanglement. But religious humanists still believed that a holistic grasp of our place in the natural world, special experiences of the biological-natural relationship, and wisdom contained in the world’s religions, all offer valuable inspirations and orientations for intelligently pursuing the good life. And there are still many people today, perhaps more people than ever before (according to demographers), who currently have this kind of lifestance, even if they are unfamilar with the term "religious humanism".

Doerr and the AHA might wish that all religious humanists can be erased from existence with a simple definition. Sounds suspicious, though. We can understand this potent motivation, that others have had too, for assimilating "secular" humanists under a broad "humanist" umbrella. But such a definitional tactic will never work in the long run.  One thing is for sure: humanism is indeed broad territory, and so is religion.  We cannot ignore major disagreements about the meaning of "religion" and about the various ways that people can lead "religious" lives. Evidently some harder thinking is still required for figuring out humanism’s vital contribution to the world. Is there any better definition of "humanism"?