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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  • JohnnyLaird

    “we need to push reform for religion” – How do you do this, who does it, and what shape does such reform have?

    • Good questions, Johnny. I would say explore the history behind the scriptures to find their origins, for starters. (Hint: God didn’t write them!)

      • JohnnyLaird

        Fair comment, although that’s been fairly standard stuff for theologians and historians and lots of folks in between for generations.

  • This transition is already happening. The most progressive edge of liberal religious traditions is Humanism in sacred garb. This month and next a series is being hosted by Union Theological Seminary in New York in which Robert Wright speaks with people like Steven Pinker and Lawrence Krauss. Recently an article came out in the nytimes (I think) about secular people attending seminary. It’s just a matter of time.

    Then again, the conservatives and fundamentalists are fighting to hold their ground, and I doubt will ever go away entirely.

  • Marcos Reis

    I can not conceive a date in the next few centuries when Islam would be less intolerant and radical.
    Can you imagine the millions of people that need to be educated, to avoid the brain washing of all these children?
    I see professionals with MD degrees preaching beheading of infidels because the drew a picture of the leader..
    So, do you really see an in sight time for Islam to reform? They are stuck on the seventh century. Still killing each other, when do believe they will change, when even among themselves there is no union and tolerance to a diverse view. I have seen local people call the other side animals, and these are highly educated people I am talking about.
    They are a danger because of their agenda. I know of muslins who have became American citizens, and hate everything about the USA. They got the citizenship, to get more rights. It is extremely smart and a major danger to American society and country. Amazes that nobody wants to offend them and do not bring these issues to the front.
    When G Bush said that Islam is a religion of love and peace just after 9/11, I knew this country is in deep trouble.
    The history of Islam was and is made with blood. Since, even before it was established it was with wars among Medina and Mecca tribes. They remain tribal.
    Just a few thoughts.

    • Bob

      The history of Christianity is written in the blood of “witches”, “apostates”, and anyone silly enough to believe that thinking is a good thing. To paraphrase Jacob Bronowski: “The 11th commandment is: ‘Thou shalt not question.'” All religions, over the centuries, have accumulated incredibly bloody baggage and should long ago have been recognized for what they are, Humanity’s deadliest inventions.

      • Marcos Reis

        Agree Bob, but in the present there is nothing more evil than Islam..I despise any religion all of them are basically the same.Being an atheist in the USA is painful, every day you are bombarded with religious  TV, newspaper, radio etc.. and you say something critical, be careful…

  • Bob

    Many people who embrace the supernatural will claim that they do not embrace an earth centered universe, but their words, actions and prayers say otherwise. People can’t reform anything until they leave the dark ages.

  • Don Yeske

    Trav, perhaps a better question to ask might be, what is it that is good by any definition of the human condition, that we lose, when we lose religion — and, how do we preserve those good things?

    Religions have formed a key piece of the core of human society, for as long as there have been human societies. More than mysticism, religions seem to be, fundamentally, a social construct. They afford identity. Structure. Order. Protection. Purpose.

    We cannot do the same thing – achieve the same effect – by finding fault with religions. At some point, complaining about religion stops being enough. People raise children, find spouses, live lives, in religions – and, increasingly, people choose not to do that. It seems to me that the reason I feel empty outside of a church is that I lack those things that religion provides.

    Whether or not it’s possible to give any religion a humanist makeover is, to me, a secondary question. The main question is whether or not there’s a viable alternative to religion, measured as what it is — primarily a social construct. People might be leaving religions (or at least congregations) in droves, but what are they finding? How does humanism fill the void left behind religion?

    Identity. Structure. Order. Protection. Purpose.

  • Jean Michelle

    Nope, not possible. The Unitarian church may be some people’s idea of reform, but I find the substitution of idiotic new age mumbo-jumbo for religion to be just as infantilizing of the human mind.

    • Ralph1Waldo

      Not an accurate characterization. Unitarians largely invented Humanism. The modern UU principles share language with the Humanist manifestos. You might be thinking of Unity, which is a church built more on so-called “New Thought.”

      • Jean Michelle

        Hi Ralph,
        Nope, it is a UU church – Port Townsend, WA. Every type of “spiritual”, irrational thought is respected and included. Lots of Wiccans, belief in goddesses, astrologists, palm-readers, you name it – anything goes. UU draws its ideas from religions as well as humanism. I think of humanism as a more materialistic, critical thinking, pro-science movement, maybe I’m wrong.

  • Hanrod

    I think it useful just to imagine for a moment that there had never been, in human history, any supernatural beliefs (including belief in afterlife), but only a gradual and growing respect for observing and attempting to understand nature and the world in which we found ourselves. It is reasonable to conclude that we would still not have avoided competition (for food, mates, land, etc.), tribalism (the extended family), conflict, combat, war and even attempted genocide, all of which grow from competition. We have evolved, of course, and may eventually evolve beyond competition, but there is reason for doubt, and we still have a very long way to go.