Secular Humanism and Religious Humanism: HNN Readers Weigh In

Last month, HNN ran a two-part interview with a practitioner of humanistic Mormonism. (Revisit part one and part two.)

This set off an at times heated discussion on whether or not humanism is inherently secular and can be religious at all. HNN editor Maggie Ardiente asked readers to submit their thoughts on the subject, “Can humanism be both religious and secular?” There were many excellent responses, and we regret that we were not able to publish them all. Here’s a selection:


Yes, Religious Humanism Can Exist

Rob Friedman: “As a Jewish Unitarian, I’ve tried to balance the logical (the concept of God is illogical) versus the unknowable (maybe science cannot tell us all). If one defines religion as a series of structured tenets, then I am an atheist. If the term religion can be broadened to include a connection to more than one precept, I am a religious humanist  … Whether it makes sense or not doesn’t matter. Religious belief makes no sense, but does seem to fill a very human need. And people fed up with traditional religion find a very welcome home with Unitarians, and not much else. Religions don’t evolve; they mutate, just like us. And as such I predict religions will evolve away from the supernatural and embrace the natural.”

Erdman Palmore: “Yes, it can be both. It is secular in the sense that that most humanists are atheists, or at least agnostic. But it also can be religious in the sense that humanists can enjoy rituals, hymns, worship of nature, spiritual exercises such as meditation, devotion to making the world a better place, and the community support of belonging to a congregation. In that sense, I am a religious humanist.”

Dr. Jim McCollum: “Albeit I was born and raised an atheist and still remain one, that term does not define a religion, only an aspect of one. I try to guide my life by humanist principles and, therefore, I define my religion as humanism. I will add that, one does not have to be an atheist to be a humanist, but it helps!”

Greg Miller: “I see a transition in our future from god fearing churches to churches like the Unitarian Universalist church where like-minded congregants who are mostly nonbelievers gather. Religion is also defined as a gathering of people with similar beliefs. People need like-minded communities. Believers will be the minority one day but church communities will survive. This is good. I have been moved many times in the UU church so I understand the power of churches where god is in the past.”


No, There’s No Such Thing as Religious Humanism

Michael Scott: “I have very deep feelings that humanists should be secular and not faith based within the fantastic humanist umbrella of thought, expression and motivation. Someone faith based in identity cannot, for me, be a fully open and imaginative humanist because I feel those ideals of a faith understanding or self-identification are limiting to the greater scope that Humanism brings to life. You can be from a Mormon perspective, a Baptist perspective or any perspective which your intellectual identity has experienced, but to be Humanist to me is to be without faith, without supernatural longings with the expectation to be present in our world and our planet, today and every day.”

Joël Lecoeur: “Religion requires belief. It is a false explanation of the universe. Humanism is not a belief; it is a necessity of life. The humanist is rational. The humanist looks at the humans and the world around them; he does not add a divine element to which he gives priority against the humans and the planet. The gods are elements of disturbances on Earth; they do not lead to serenity in the opposite of what they claim to seek.”

Catherine Monnet: “The problem with religious humanism is that it generally evokes a ‘theistic’ connotation, rather than an ‘ideologically communal, mutually inspiring’ humanism. The term, ‘religious humanism’ is not only confusing and misleading, but undesirable for many humanists in any sense of the term. I do not believe that humanism should be qualified as a religion, nor do I think secular humanists should have to distinguish themselves from religious humanists. I personally believe that humanism is secular and should remain an alternative to religion, not another form of it.”


What Difference Does It Make? Let’s Just Get Along!

Ann Tattersall: “Just as an individual’s ideas evolve (not necessarily in a particular direction) over time, there are many ideas held by many different people. We should relax and try to be more tolerant. Unitarians, generally, have always considered themselves religious humanists. Get used to it.”

JoLynn Gates: “I am an atheist with a deeply spiritual life, and a strong sense of right and wrong. Among the things I hold sacred are truth, compassion, the Earth, and human tights. I have what I consider spiritual experiences in nature, listening to music, dancing, and creating art. As for an afterlife, it does not matter what anyone believes, the only rule is a matter of universal agreement: be good. The only thing that matters, for atheist and believer alike, is how we behave while we are alive. No need to involve a deity.”

Joseth Moore: “In the end, it depends on the individual. Me? I’m an old-fashioned theist. I’m also a humanist in that I think we humans need to grow beyond the need/desire for religion or even ‘spirituality.’ That we need to say–without apology–that humans created the Great Pyramids, the Parthenon, Stonehenge, and our modern skyscrapers and space stations…not some supernatural being or aliens.”

Joseph Cain: “Clearly to me the answer is ‘no.’ However, if it makes those comfortable to consider themselves with some hybrid title I have no opposition.  [For example], there may be traditional activities in which they wish to continue to participate which are more cultural than religious based. I would think that after a few years or so [of] participating the connections would wear thin. Of course the light shining on the future of religion is the statistic that at least a third of young people do not ascribe to be of any sect.  Changes in our society have a time scale of the order of an average lifetime. Fast by the geological time scale!”

Thank you again to everyone who submitted their opinion! Discuss this topic further in our comments section.