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.