Religion is the Opposite of Humanism

August 31, 2013

The reflections of R. Joseph Hoffmann range widely across intellectual history and issues of broad humanist concern. A recent blog posting, “On the Dignity of Humanism,” makes uplifting observations about humanism’s lasting value, marked occasionally by his characteristic laments about the secular ‘movement’ lately. 
Readers can judge the merits to his acerbic observations about the movement for themselves. I perked up at this passage about humanism and religion:
“Finally, humanism is not the opposite of religion. There are certainly things it opposes—injustice, oppression, poverty, enforced ignorance, the uglification of human life and predations on the environment or the freedoms we enjoy. But it opposes these things because they are attacks on our humanity—on the principle of the dignity of mankind. As a matter of fact, it does not matter too much whether one thinks this dignity comes from God or simply is: Both attributions are metaphors for the best that is in us, images of what we are when viewed in terms of our intelligence and ability. No one should be afraid to call herself a humanist simply because she believes in God, because belief in God is not self-evidently a denial of the dignity of man.”
I have always held that humanism IS an opposite (not the only opposite) to religion. Unless it’s all a matter of semantics, which I doubt, what is essential to humanism cannot be found in what is essential to religion.
Surely some moral goals of religions during certain time periods can overlap with moral principles to humanism. If one even wanted to assert that key humanistic moral ideals emerged from religious cradles, I couldn’t object on historical grounds. Across the world’s civilizations, all of them religious to some degree or another, it becomes a truism that religiosity and noble ethics were found together. One might as well argue that since all the foundations of mathematics originated from religious cultures from Egypt and Babylon to India and China, then mathematics is not opposed to religion. So what?
A liberally religious mind would assert that more than coincidence is involved where noble ethics and religiosity is concerned. Perhaps. Where far-seeing humanist ethics did arise, it never was due to traditional religiosity or established religion. The pioneering proto-humanist was always a heretic, a freethinker, a radical, a schismatic, a blasphemer, or something similarly dangerous. Some of these radicals founded new religious sects, some didn’t, and some were murdered by the faithful. Its hard to see how religion deserves credit for anything but supplying the backdrop resistance to humane charity and universal dignity for all. 
That liberally religious mind would reply by re-defining religion at this point: “No, you’ve got it backwards – the radical humanistic ideals are the religious essence at work!” That’s a philosophical view, not even a theological one, or anything endorsed by cultural anthropology.   
No, humanism is opposed to the essence of religion: humanity’s dependence on something unnaturally transcendent. It’s terribly nice of religions to catch up to the noble ethics of humanism, long after the burnt heretics have smoldered into dust. But humanism will always race ahead of its crucifiers.