Humanism and the Faith that Unites

January 2, 2009

Many of this symposium’s postings are so thought-provoking that no quick comment of reaction could be possible. But I do want to draw special attention to a terrific posting about humanism and faith. Mansur Ahmed’s contribution, titled “   The Great Religious Divide ” struck a chord with me. If I read him correctly, he is mainly pointing to the divide between the different religions’ faiths (so divisive!) and the simplicity of humanism’s promotion of universal love. And that is a huge divide. Lots of religions claim to be the one true faith that promotes love. But isn’t there something paradoxical about a claim that “only our true religion knows this universal truth of love?” If it’s a universal truth, how could it be tied down to a single religious perspective?

That makes a huge contrast with humanism, which in Ahmed’s view does not require any blind faith in a religious dogma. He writes, “at first glance you may think the idea of humanism to be a pretentious, cultlike system looking to gain your veneration. It’s not that at all, nor does it disregard any of the great religions of our world. Humanism is simply an ethical approach to life that seeks to find human solutions to human arguments without recourse to supernatural or spiritual elements that involve god, gods, sacred texts, or religious creeds. I’m not saying that religion is a bad thing. Faith is very powerful. It can motivate people to achieve noble dreams and ideals. But it can also be a kind of translucent barricade that keeps us divided, ultimately making some of us feel superior to others because we place our beliefs on a higher platform. In that sense, religion can be negative. But there is a lot of positive I think humanism percolates from all the great belief systems. It gets to the bone and reminds us the fundamental obligations we have towards one another.”

Ahmed is quite right that humanism does not require dogmatic faith about transcendent matters. That sort of faith does create divides. On the other hand, faithfulness towards our ethical ideals is exactly what is needed to make humanism effective and practical. Do religions share in that sort of faithfulness? Ahmed concludes his essay in this way: “The best way to do this is to consider a more abstract meaning of religion: love for our fellow man. A concept that with an open mind, good will, and tolerance can enhance human well-being and ultimately create a better world for us all.” Perhaps there is something crucial here that religions and humanisms can agree on. If we stop treating faith as a noun, as a substantial thing connecting us to a transcendent world, and start treating faith as an adverb, as meaning “faithfully”, then faith is about what we do and how we do it. Being faithful towards our ethical ideals, even when our ample evidence of a world in trouble and a humanity lost in strife makes such faith seem foolish, is what can make humanism the most powerful thing in the world. As Ahmad suggests, the faithfulness of humanism might bridge the world’s religious divides without simply becoming just another religion itself.