Rules Are for Schmucks: The Rodney Dangerfield of Religions

This month’s Atlantic features an article about the failure of any religion outside the “Big Four” (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) to gain substantial traction over the last thousand years.

As usual, humanism gets no respect—not even an acknowledgment of its existence. Arguably, that’s in part because humanism, at least as defined in the current Humanist Manifesto III, doesn’t call itself a “religion.” But it wasn’t always thus. The original manifesto, published in 1933, proudly embraced the “religion” label, in its sense as a “means for realizing the highest values of life.” Even today, courts treat humanism as a religion in cases of prisoners’ religious rights and treat other belief systems that do not include a god the same way. The Atlantic article itself mentions Scientology as a new religion, and it has no god either.

I find the debate about whether humanism is a religion or not to be one of tedious semantics, hinging on how one chooses to define “religion.” Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and the most widespread varieties of Buddhism all derive from an alleged revelation from a spirit in the sky, and each demands trust in supernatural magic. Humanism does not. As a belief system “for realizing the highest values of life,” however, humanism is indistinguishable from a religion.

The humanism proclaimed as a new religion in 1933 is undoubtedly “new,” and fits within at least a broad definition of “religion.” So how big is it? Big enough to warrant mention in the Atlantic article and to justify anger at its omission?

It all depends on how you pose the question. If you survey the world’s population and ask, “What religion are you?” the number who reply “humanist” will be minuscule. If you try again and ask, “Are you a humanist?” the number still won’t grow much. Then again, if you ask people “Are you presbyopic?” you’ll probably get an even smaller number. But if respondents ask, “What do you mean by presbyopic?” and you reply it means you need to wear reading glasses, you’ll get a much higher response.

In our imaginary world survey, let’s pretend people respond to the “Are you a humanist?” question with, “What do you mean by that?” You whip out your handy copy of the Humanist Manifesto III (“Humanism and Its Aspirations”)  and show them the first sentence: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

In round numbers, around 6.3 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people would shake their heads and say, “No, I can’t buy the ‘without supernaturalism’ part. I’m a Christian/Muslim/Hindu/whatever, and we do believe in ghosts.” But most of that other 1.2 billion, who aren’t affiliated with any religion, would not be thrown by the “without supernaturalism” phrase.

In fairness, some of those 1.2 billion are in what’s sometimes called the “spiritual but not religious” category. They think there may be magic out there and just don’t trust that any of the organized religions understand it very well. On the other hand, quite a few of the 6.3 billion who claim affiliation with an organized religion do so simply for cultural or social pressure reasons; they don’t really buy all the hocus-pocus. In America, for example, roughly 80 percent of the people claim to belong to a religion, but only half of them regularly attend church, raising a serious question about the strength of their belief. A lot of these folks could accept the manifesto’s opening sentence without batting an eye.

I’m going to venture out on a limb and estimate that out of the world’s 7.5 billion people, at least a billion would identify with our manifesto’s opening sentence (or be the young children of parents who do). That’s a number larger than either the Hindus or the Buddhists included in the Atlantic’s Big Four. If you then get them to delve further into the text, I don’t think you’ll lose too many:

  • “The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully.”
  • “Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.”
  • “Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence.”

Or, if you want just the bumper sticker version: “Good without a god.”

I don’t think any of that would turn off many of my billion non-supernatural believers. Maybe there are a handful of MS-13 types who don’t believe in a god and don’t want to think of themselves as “good,” but that’s a fringe. There are at least a billion of us fellow humanists out there, even if they don’t use that word any more often than those of us who rely on reading glasses use the word “presbyopic.”

The lifestance described in the Humanist Manifesto, a “religion” without a god, is new, huge, and growing rapidly in Europe and North America. It already claims a major proportion of the population in east Asia, and the world be a heck of a lot better off if it could gain more traction in places like the Middle East, south Asia, and Africa where organized supernaturalism wreaks daily havoc. Why, then, does the Atlantic give us no respect? Why do we shrug so docilely, with an “Oh, well, that’s just the way things are”? The late Rodney Dangerfield (himself an atheist) described our predicament well: “I told my psychiatrist everyone hates me. He said that was ridiculous—everyone hasn’t even met me yet.”