Wanted: Better Understanding of Humanism

June 1, 2015

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Molly Worthen’s Sunday New York Times op-ed on the Sunday Assembly phenomenon (“Wanted: A Theology of Atheism,” May 30) demonstrates, if nothing else, how badly we need to educate the media about the humanist movement — and about atheism, for that matter.

Let’s begin with the headline. What on earth is a “theology of atheism”? Atheists — you know, people who hold no belief in God — would seem to be the last people in need of a “theology,” which dictionary.com defines as “the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes.” In Ms. Worthen’s defense, some headline writer is probably responsible for this faux pas. Presumably the next facepalm moment is Ms. Worthen’s responsibility alone.

Profiling the Sunday Assmblies, that congregational-humanist project that arose in the U.K. and whose light-hearted pseudo-church services are springing up in various U.S. cities, Worthen writes, “Is this what secular humanism — the naturalist worldview that many nonbelievers embrace and religious conservatives fear — looks like in practice?”

The answer to that is no. The Sunday Assemblies are what congregational humanism — maybe even religious Humanism — look like in practice. Unfortunately, Worthen presumes the affirmative and goes on: “In one sense, secular humanism is a style of fellowship intended to fill the church-shaped void …” Later still she mentions the Society for Ethical Culture — an explicitly, even proudly, religious-Humanist organization — and associates even that with secular humanism.

Secular humanism is the variety of humanism that, among many other things, prefers to avoid communal exercises that borrow too many of the trappings of church or synagogue. Some secular humanists distrust all group ceremony, finding it authoritarian and in tension with individual self-determination. Others prefer not to be reminded of the religious traditions they grew up in and take such pride in having outgrown. You’re not going to find too many secular humanists at a Sunday assembly, much less at an Ethical Culture service. (For a vivid discussion of the “flavors” of humanism, Free Inquiry subscribers can read more by meJames Croft and Greg EpsteinWilliam R. Murry, and Jennifer Kalmanson, all of which appeared in FREE INQUIRY’s October/November 2013 issue.)

Inside the movement we sometimes think the distinctions among secular humanism, congregational humanism, and religious Humanism have been done to death. Obviously those outside the movement need to hear a good deal more about it.