Religion is one of man’s first attempts at a coherent narrative about the human condition—all that is sublime, all that is wretched, and all the tedium in between. It’s a methodology for making a revered completeness from a fragmented and bewildering sensory experience. As such, it is a branch of the larger topic of humanism—“any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.”¹
Over the past 400 years, during and since the Enlightenment movement, the definition of humanism, as an philosophical worldview has been narrowed. It had never been worded into a doctrinal format until 1933, when a group of 30-odd academic scientists, sociologists, ministers, and philosophers agreed on the tenants to be penned in the first Humanist Manifesto, which “was designed to represent a developing point of view….representative of a large number who are forging a new philosophy out of the materials of the modern world.” The document listed 15 points, and included the words “religion” or “religious” about 10 times, and the term “religious humanism” five times. Forty years later, a second, lengthier manifesto was compiled; and in 2003 Humanism and Its Aspirations, subtitled Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 was published. It did not use “religion” or any of its derivations. It is not likely that this refinement of the language excluding religion and religious humanism was an indication that the framers of the document believed the connotations of religion would create a misrepresentation of their message, allying it by word association with traditional theological thought, as their message was unequivocal in the first document: “There is great danger of a final, and we believe fatal, identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which have lost their significance and which are powerless to solve the problem of humans living in the Twentieth Century.” Rather, it could have been a symbolic expungement, reinforcing their idea that traditional religions had passed their expiration dates as positive and effective social constructions to improve on the human condition.
Cemented as the base of the ethical foundation of humanism, as well as today’s major religions is the school of Utilitarianism, developed to its modern formulation by Jeremy Bentham near the beginning of the 19th Century. Simply put, humans seek pleasure and avoid pain; on a grander scale it is defined as the greatest amount good for the greatest number of people. As a end point, it appears that the religious faithful and secular humanists are on the same page. After that—how to get there—is where the differences begin. Secular humanists see the following shared major tenants of Western religions (the last is specific to Christianity, but parallels could be found in the others) as obstacles to progress.
The Afterlife and Procrastination
The Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam foretell of another life, in or of some nebulous realm, that succeeds our earthly biological experience. The ultimate utility is culminated in that afterlife; and though we may seek and find well-being during our worldly existence, it eventually is not to be prioritized. Rather, it is only that second life we really need to be concerned with. Humanists think that in placing high hopes on having “a second chance” the utilitarian goal of the greatest good is set up with an excuse for failure. No use to work on alleviating poverty and hunger in the world. To the humanist, “the poor you will always have with you,…” (Mark 14:7) is not a good reason to for the Son of God, the People’s Prophet to indulge in lavish toiletries rather than exchange the oil for assistance to the needy. The here and now, represented by the oil-to-alms possibility, becomes secondary to a glimpse of the afterlife, symbolized in the fleeting worldly presence of the godhead.
The Unaccountable Sovereign
The idea of trusting any belief system, be it religious, ideological, or political to a single, omnipotent authoritarian figure, seems inimical to insure a balanced, just, and merciful administration of human proceedings. The Biblical accounts of the jealous, domineering and punishing Yahweh of the Old Testament do not depict a ruler with the well-being of his subjects as his primary concern, but rather speaks to his obsession with their submission to his single-minded will and whim. This type of power structure is exactly what progressive political theorists have been disclaiming as flawed for real world applications for the last 400 years. Humanists reject the proposition of an unknown, unseen, authoritarian power as unfounded; and a dangerous model favoring a master/slave form of governance.
Solutions through Our Strengths
Nietzsche called Christianity the religion of pity. Its continual image of reference is a bleeding, tortured soul stretched and spiked to a lofty cross. The philosopher thought “A man loses power when he pities. By means of pity the drain on strength which suffering itself already introduces into the world is multiplied a thousandfold.” Also involved in the emotion of pity, Nietzsche claims, is a contempt toward the subject of one’s pity, bringing out an attitude of superiority. The energy expended on pity would better be spent encouraging the suffering to face up to their difficulties and struggle against them as best they could. This is the lesson taught in humanism–rather than wallow in a self-perpetuating misery, use the power of rationality and approach the problem of the sorrowful with empathy and compassion to rise above the pain and travail.
From these three—there are others—conceptual differences, many more, smaller distinctions can be inferred. Are the disagreements too numerous or complex to overcome? Humanists are by definition an optimistic lot, presupposing, as did the Enlightenment thinkers, that a widening understanding of our world and ourselves can only lead to increasing well-being and improvement of the human condition. We also understand, through the disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, that religion has served to fill a need with its explanatory value during man’s early times, and as a fulfillment of an unexplained psychological desire for the enchanting aura of mystery. Not lost on us either is the reality that the ideals of The Enlightenment, though not failed, have yet to be fulfilled. The most brutal reminder being that we are only 7 decades past the nearly complete nihilistic collapse of social sanity.
Our endgame remains the same. Progressive believers and secular humanists can and must set aside theoretical disagreements and work together toward the goal of the betterment of all people, taking on each difference as a new opportunity to compromise. We must serve as a voices of moderation within our own domains. Fanatical fundamentalism is showing the dark side of religion. Disrespect and intolerance is a problem with some individuals in the movement away from religiosity. We are living in a world recovering from insanity, but the indicators of schizophrenia remain.
We are in survival mode. It can create strange bedfellows.