Is a Humanistic Reform of Religion Possible?

In his 2004 book The End of Faith, Sam Harris wrote, “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.” Eleven years later, Harris has released a new book called Islam and the Future of Tolerance, co-authored with former radical Islamist Maajid Nawaz, about how Islam needs to reform in order to end radical Islam. While the two do not always agree—Harris believes Islam is inherently violent, while Nawaz argues Islam is open to reform—they concur that Islamic violence is tied to Islamic doctrine, and Islam must adopt a modern worldview that promotes justice. Without this challenge, according to Harris and Nawaz, “the underlying problems of religious literalism, dogmatism, and pious intolerance are left untreated and continue to spread.” In other words, Islam needs a humanistic makeover.

Harris and Nawaz aren’t the only ones calling for humanistic reform. Earlier this year, ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali released the book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, where she outlines five Islamic doctrines that need to be questioned. Her list:

1. Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Koran particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina;
2. The investment in life after death instead of life before death;
3. Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Koran, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;
4. The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;
5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

The end result is a more humanistic version of Islam that emphasizes “the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear,” which, according to Hirsi Ali, “is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.”

For Harris and Hirsi Ali, preaching a message of reform contradicts many of their past statements about Islam. In 2004, for example, Harris wrote that the United States is “at war with Islam.” Likewise, Hirsi Ali told Reason magazine in 2007 that Islam itself needs to be “defeated.” With their most recent books, however, it seems like Harris and Hirsi Ali are preaching a message more in line with religious humanism than antitheism. While the reason for this sudden change isn’t clear, it does bring up an interesting question: Is a humanistic reform of not just Islam, but religion itself, possible?

There has been some progress in this area. Unitarian Universalism began as two liberal Christian sects that discarded the Trinity and hell but were still theistic. With the advent of humanism in the 1800s, though, many Unitarians and Universalists adopted a humanistic theology that rejected supernatural intervention and instead focused on “a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.” (In fact, many Unitarians signed the first Humanist Manifesto.) Today, many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves to be humanists.

Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong is another voice that has called for a humanist reform in Christianity. In his 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, he proposed a nontheistic view of God, one in which God is not a personal and intervening being but, to quote Paul Tilich, is “the Ground of Being.” The result is a radical reinterpretation of Christianity whereby Spong portrays Jesus as “a picture of what each of us might look like in our fulfilled spirit state”  and finds ethical values “not outside of life for some external and objective authenticating authority, but rather at the very center and core of our humanity.”  Spong’s message helped shaped today’s progressive Christianity, and even Richard Dawkins mentioned his admiration for Spong in his book The God Delusion.

Despite these radical reinterpretations of religion, studies show more young people are leaving religion than rediscovering it. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of those unaffiliated with any religion rose from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014, making the “nones” the fastest growing religious demographic in the US. Meanwhile mainline Christianity, which is the more progressive form of Protestantism in America, fell from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent in seven years. Evolving theology does not automatically equal church growth. In fact, many former progressive Christians (including myself) now identify as atheists after deconstructing traditional doctrines.

When I discovered the Emergent Christian movement in 2010, I found a fresh and new way to practice Christianity. This was a form of Christianity that didn’t rely on biblical literalism, so evolution, homosexuality, and the ordination of women were no longer controversies. However, the more I explored liberal theology and the more I deconstructed traditional Christian doctrines, the fewer reasons I had to believe in God. Finally, I realized there was no reason for me to remain a Christian; secular humanism had the better answers.

While a humanistic reformation of religion may result in a more peaceful world, there’s no guarantee that religion itself can survive secularization. Nevertheless, to end religious violence, we need to push reform for religion, especially Islam and Christianity. Whether or not these religions can survive without dogma and literalism, though, is for the future to decide.

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