Religious Humanists and Secular Humanists

December 14, 2009

In my post about Christian humanism, religious humanism, and secular humanism , a distinction between religious humanism and secular humanism was offered. The distinction is real, and operates in the real world, even if humanist organizations wish it weren’t so. Humanist organizations only confuse themselves and their members by ignoring realities. Don’t blame the messenger.

But David Schafer [President, The HUUmanists Association] accuses this messenger of the confusion. He thinks that religious humanism is secular humanism, commenting on my post as follows:

"In fact American Religious Humanism, as defined in HMI and documented in an abundance of subsequent literature, is actually a form of secular humanism, which differs from other secular humanisms only in its explicit recognition of and emphasis on the importance to human beings of the emotional life, the value of community, the utility of symbolism, the inspiration of the arts, and the need for intergenerational continuity.  It is “religious” only in the sociological sense, as it meets many of the same human social and psychological needs as what has traditionally been known as “religion.”  The pseudo-dichotomy between religious and secular humanism has needlessly divided the Humanist family, and the sooner the split is healed the better it will be for all Humanists."

Yet Schafer confusingly tells us that there IS a notable difference — he says that American Religious Humanism "differs from other secular humanisms." And he virtually repeats my own sociological view of the distinction! Secular humanism, as it is actually practiced, prioritizes rational knowledge over a religious focus on the emotional/spiritual life, thus breaking humanism’s reliance on historical religions, symbolism, aesthetics, and communal exercises. Many religious humanists still have churches, sing hymns, read scriptures, celebrate religious holidays, etc. This is a matter of relative emphasis, of course — secular humanists hold meetings and enjoy richly emotional lives — but secular humanism really has distinguished itself from all residual forms of religious conduct and experience. If you don’t believe me, read Tom Flynn’s statement on defining secular humanism as different from religious humanism (Flynn is the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism).

Schafer, like myself, is a student of the history of American humanism, but he also seems to conveniently forget some history. He would teach us that the authors of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto intended to define and promote secular humanism. But that claim is terribly anachronistic, and mis-reads the statement itself, which only refers to "Religious humanism." HM1 declares that humanists should reject God, humanists promote some ethical principles, and humanists agree that to “ establish such a religion is a major necessity.”

Secular humanism has ethical principles but it does NOT try to establish a religion. Secular humanism has successfully distinguished itself in recent decades. Secular humanism’s breakaway towards completely non-religious atheism couldn’t have been a big surprise in hindsight, since telling people to stop believing in God but keep on being religious aroused plenty of confusion (again — not Shook’s fault!).

Schafer is spreading confusion, not me, by oddly claiming that religious humanism is secular humanism, excepting the poorer forms of secular humanism. How convenient. And we’ve heard this sort of thing from other leaders of humanist organizations, such as the American Humanist Association’s Edd Doerr . But the histories of Schafer’s and Doerr’s organizations put the distinction between religious and secular humanism on full display.

Let’s start with Schafer’s HUUmanist Association. Wonder why the HUUmanist in its name has the two UUs? This organization used to be called the Fellowship of Religious Humanists and it was created, as its website states, "to advance humanism within the Unitarian-Universalist denomination." Hmmm… curious. The Unitarian Universalist denomination originally was a humanistic religious church — as the UU website states , "Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion with Jewish-Christian roots" that “affirms the worth of human beings.” So if Schafer is right, then either his secular humanism is a liberal religion (doubtful), or the UUs are all secular humanists (doubtful), or (correct) his organization was involved in a struggle over humanism within the UU church. Why a struggle unless people within the UU perceived some distinction between religious and secular leanings? Evidently some people were viewed as too religious and not humanist enough, or from another perspective, as too secular and not religiously humanist enough. The existence of Schafer’s own organization is predicated on the very distinction that I point out. [UUs must speak for themselves — here is a UU congregation President endorsing the religious humanist/secular humanist distinction.]

What about Edd Doerr’s American Humanist Association ? Its own website supplies a statement on "What is Humanism" by Fred Edwords, who had no trouble distinguishing many kinds of humanisms, including religious humanism and secular humanism. Edwords served for fifteen years as AHA executive director (1984-1999) and twelve years as editor of the Humanist magazine (1994-2006). And the AHA has changed its IRS tax exemption from "educational" (1941) to "religious" (1960s) and then back to "educational" (2003), because of issues over religious vs. secular humanism .

As I have explained, religious and secular humanists agree that no supernatural God exists. After that, all sorts of differences start. They don’t even share the same naturalistic worldview, since some humanists like pantheism/paganism, some prefer a religious naturalism, and others accept strict reductionist materialism. And real sociological differences remain between many religious and secular humanisms on the ground. I am not the one spreading confusion and disorder. The histories of all the splinterings among religious humanisms from the Unitarian Universalists, the Ethical Culture Society, Schafer’s HUUmanists Association, Doerr’s American Humanist Association [etc. etc.], and then the emergence of the Council for Secular Humanism adequately attest to genuine disagreements among real humanists. Wishing people would stop disagreeing is one thing, while having some way to unite them is another. “Just love everybody and play nice” hasn’t been doing the job. Papering over real disagreements in the meantime is unworthy of thoughtful humanists.