1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Religious vs. Secular Humanism

What's the Difference?


The nature of religious humanism and the relationship between humanism and religion is of profound importance for humanists of all types. According to some secular humanists, religious humanism is a contradiction in terms. According to some religious humanists, all humanism is religious — even secular humanism, in its own way. Who is right?

The answer to that question depends entirely upon how one defines the key terms. Many secular humanists use essentialist definitions of religion; this means that they identify some basic belief or attitude as comprising the “essence” of religion. Everything that has this attribute is religion, and everything that doesn’t cannot possibly be a religion.

The most commonly cited “essence” of religion involves supernatural beliefs, whether supernatural beings, supernatural powers, or simply supernatural realms. Because they also define humanism as fundamentally naturalistic, the conclusion follows that humanism itself cannot be religious — it would be a contradiction for a naturalistic philosophy to include the belief supernatural beings.

Under this conception of religion, religious humanism could be thought of as existing in the context of religious believers, like Christians, who incorporate some humanist principles into their world view. It might be better, however, to describe this situation as a humanistic religion (where a pre-existing religion is influenced by humanist philosophy) than as a religious humanism (where humanism is influenced to be religious in nature).

As useful as essentialist definitions of religion are, they are nevertheless very limited and fail to acknowledge the breadth of what religion involves for actual human beings, both in their own lives and in their dealings with others. In effect, essentialist definitions tend to be “idealized” descriptions which are handy in philosophical texts, but have limited applicability in real life.

Perhaps because of this, religious humanists tend to opt for functional definitions of religion, which means that they identify what appears to be the purpose of function of religion (usually in a psychological and/or sociological sense) and use that to describe what religion “really” is.


Keep Reading: Humanism as a Functional Religion

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.