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Humanism & Religion

Philosophy of Religion in Humanism


Much of the time, the humanistic perspective on religion is critical: humanists critique religious dogmas, religious violence, religious history, and the belief in the supernatural common to so many religious systems. It is easy, then, to regard the relationship between religion and humanism as fundamentally antagonistic. But is that really all there is?

Quite often, religion returns this antagonism. Fundamentalists in America regard humanism as a belief system spawned by Satan for the purpose of leading Christians astray and corrupting the morals of good people across the nation. All social ills from teen pregnancy to divorce are blamed upon the machinations of a cabal of secularists working to promote a “humanist agenda” designed to wipe out all traces of God and Christianity.

Why are humanists critical of religion? Fundamentally speaking, humanists are skeptical of religious claims, especially — but not solely — those involving the supernatural. Humanists are also doubtful about other doctrines, for example that religion is necessary for morality, that religion is necessary for an orderly society, and that religion is necessary for people to have meaning and purpose in their lives.

Humanists don’t normally deny that religion can help provide people with a basis for things like morality and meaning; rather, they deny that religion is a prerequisite for such things. It is an obvious fact that religion can play an important role for people when it comes to constructing meaning and purpose in their lives, the expression of creativity in art, and the structuring of morality and social relationships. Religion has many social and psychological functions which are key to who we are as human beings.

But that doesn’t mean that those social and psychological functions can only be filled by religion. In fact, it is arguable that religion doesn’t even fill those needs very well much of the time and that something better is not only possible, but is actually quite necessary for long-term psychological and social well-being.

One of the Affirmations of Humanism reads:

    ”We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.”

Not all religious theologies and beliefs focus upon despair and violence; humanism has much less to complain about when it comes to them. Nevertheless, it is a fact that despair plays an important role in many popular religious belief systems. Humanism argues that a more positive and optimistic perspective should replace that despair: the good that has come out of religion simply isn’t sufficient to ignore the bad that has also been done. As it states in the Second Humanist Manifesto:

Religions are pervasive sociological phenomena, and religious myths have long persisted in human history. In spite of the fact that human beings have found religions to be uplifting and a source of solace, we do not find their theological claims to be true. Religions have made negative as well as positive contributions toward the development of human civilization. Although they have helped to build hospitals and schools and, at their best, have encouraged the spirit of love and charity, many have also caused human suffering by being intolerant of those who did not accept their dogmas or creeds. Some religions have been fanatical and repressive, narrowing human hopes, limiting aspirations, and precipitating religious wars and violence. While religions have no doubt offered comfort to the bereaved and dying by holding forth the promise of an immortal life, they have also aroused morbid fear and dread.” Perhaps the most fundamental thing that can be said about the humanist relationship to religion is that humanists are skeptics. Humanists are skeptical of theological claims, skeptical of miracle stories, skeptical of religious dogmas, and skeptical of just how valuable or necessary religion really is for humanity. Skepticism is not denial: humanists are willing to entertain the possibility of a religion being good, containing some truth, and having value. They will not, however accept those things without putting a religion under close questioning and scrutiny.

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