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What is Religious Humanism?

Humanist Philosophy as a Religious Position

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Because Modern Humanism is so often associated with secularism, it is sometimes easy to forget that humanism also has a very strong and very influential religious tradition associated with it. Early on, especially during the Renaissance, this religious tradition was primarily Christian in nature; today, however, it has become much more diverse.

Any religious belief system which incorporates humanistic beliefs and principles might be described as religious humanism — thus, Christian Humanism could be thought of us as a type of religious humanism. It might be better, however, to describe this situation as a humanistic religion (where a pre-existing religion is influenced by humanist philosophy) rather than as a religious humanism (where humanism is influenced to be religious in nature).

Regardless, that is not the type of religious humanism being considered here. Religious humanism shares with other types of humanism the basic principles of an overriding concern with humanity — the needs of human beings, the desires of human beings, and the importance of human experiences. For religious humanists, it is the human and the humane which must be the focus of our ethical attention.

People who have described themselves as religious humanists have existed from the beginning of the modern humanist movement. Of the thirty-four original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto, thirteen were Unitarian ministers, one was a liberal rabbi, and two were Ethical Culture leaders. Indeed, the very creation of the document was initiated by three of the Unitarian ministers. The presence of a religious strain in modern humanism is both undeniable and essential.

What differentiates religious from other types of humanism involves basic attitudes and perspectives on what humanism should mean. Religious humanists treat their humanism in a religious manner. This requires defining religion from a functional perspective, which means identifying certain psychological or social functions of religion as distinguishing a religion from other belief systems.

The functions of religion often cited by religious humanists include things like fulfilling the social needs of a group of people (such as moral education, shared holiday and commemorative celebrations, and the creation of a community) and satisfying the personal needs of individuals (such as the quest to discover meaning and purpose in life, means for dealing with tragedy and loss, and ideals to sustain us).

For religious humanists, meeting these needs is what religion is all about; when doctrine interferes with meeting those needs, then religion fails. This attitude which places action and results above doctrine and tradition meshes quite well with the more basic humanist principle that salvation and aid can only be sought in other human beings. Whatever our problems might be, we will only find the solution in our own efforts and should not wait for any gods or spirits to come and save us from our mistakes.

Because religious humanism is treated as both the social and personal context in which one might seek to reach such goals, their humanism is practiced in a religious setting with fellowship and rituals — for example as with Ethical Culture Societies, or with congregations associated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism or the Unitarian-Universalist Association. These groups and many others explicitly describe themselves as humanistic in the modern, religious sense.

Some religious humanists go further than simply arguing that their humanism is religious in nature. According to them, meeting the aforementioned social and personal needs can only occur in the context of religion. The late Paul H. Beattie, one-time president of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, wrote: “There is no better way to spread a set of ideas about how best to live, or to intensify commitment to such ideas, than by means of religious community.”

Thus, he and those like him have argued that a person has the choice of either not meeting those needs or of being part of a religion (though not necessarily through traditional, supernatural religious systems). Any means by which a person seeks to fulfill such needs is, by definition, religious in nature — even including secular humanism, although that would appear to be a contradiction in terms.

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