The Difference between Religious and Secular Humanism in Its Essence

December 30, 2013

In a Guardian blog, New Humanist commentator Suzanne Moore has — if inadvertently — defined the key difference between religious humanists and secular humanists in a very few words.

Bewailing the poverty of atheist (particularly, New Atheist) argot when it comes to offering a supporting matrix for meaningful secular ceremonies, Moore writes: “We may find the fuzziness of new age thinking with its emphasis on ‘nature’ and ‘spirit’ impure, but to dismiss the human need to express transcendence and connection with others as stupid is itself stupid.”

There’s the difference between religious and secular humanism in its essence — in a nutshell, if you will. Religious humanists yearn to “express transcendence and connection with others.” Secular humanists are fine with expressing connection with others, but inasmuch as they are secular, they attach great importance to the recognition that … hang on now … there is no such thing as “transcendence” or “the transcendent.”

Essential to the secular view is the insight, rooted in science, that reality is mundane. It’s the domain of matter, energy, and their interactions — and nothing else.

On that view, words like divine, spirit, and transcendent share one essential quality: they have no referents in the real world. There is nothing to transcend, because the domain of everyday experience is — so far as we can see, and the range of our seeing has gotten pretty good in recent decades — the whole of what exists. Being all that is, it cannot be transcended. There is nothing “above” it, nothing “beyond” it … there’s just reality.

Secular humanists recognize that “the transcendent” is an empty set. We say to those who yearn for a  realm beyond that can never be, “Just deal with it.”

That’s not to say that an authentic secular ritual cannot be designed, though I suspect this may be the case (see below). But it is to say that when religious and congregational humanists craft rituals that speak to “spirituality” and “the universal human quest for the transcendent,” they shouldn’t be surprised when secular humanists decline to join in.

The yearning for the transcendent may or may not be a human universal. But even if it is, secular humanists can always be recognized as the folks who’ve come to terms with the disillusioning insight that much as every human being may share this yearning, its target is an illusion. And why should that be so surprising? Arguably, everyone on some level wants life eternal, yet almost all humanists agree that this yearning, universal or not, can never be satisfied. What’s so difficult in recognizing that the “quest for the transcendent” might just be more of the same?

Here’s a suggestion for my religious- and congregational-humanist colleagues. Cobble up a humanist ritual that focuses solely on connection with others — without playing the transcendence card — and maybe secular folks will join in.

I wouldn’t count on it, though. Not because secular humanists are obtuse, but because I suspect that the empty notion of transcendence is indispensable to constructing any ritual and ceremony that “works” psychologically. Absent some imagined anchor in the beyond, ritual and ceremonial tend to seem empty and contrived, and to collapse amid their contradictions. Why bother with the mumbo jumbo — the robes, the incense, the choral music, the laser show, or whatever — if there’s no beyond out there for it all to point to?

Lots of people today have realized there’s no god. A smaller number have realized that there simply isn’t a transcendent realm, even a shadowy and impersonal one. They are the secular humanists, who — let’s admit it — find the religious humanist impulse to play in the cracks of a world-picture that gives no support for the hope for transcendence somewhat sad and ridiculous. In a nutshell, yes, we find it stupid.