The Ethical Dilemma: Is Humanism Secular?

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Humanism = Secular? We often see the word “humanism” accompanied by the word “secular.” Does humanist automatically mean secular, no belief in God or gods, or in the supernatural more broadly? I’m particularly interested because my humanist group is making an amendment to our bylaws to add the words “secular” and “without superstition.” This sounds redundant to me. Please advise.

—Godless Atheist

Dear Godless,

Good, straightforward question, convoluted answer.

From an AHA organizational perspective, here’s what Executive Director Roy Speckhardt has to say (and talks about further in his book Creating Change Through Humanism):

The addition of “secular” to humanism doesn’t make it any more nontheistic than it already is because the term secular doesn’t say anything about whether one believes in gods or not. There are millions of Americans who are nonreligious and secular but also believe in gods and supernatural concepts, just as there are many religious humanists in Ethical Culture and Humanistic Judaism who also happen to be atheists.

Humanism doesn’t include a belief in gods or the supernatural, but some define their god in such nontraditional ways that they may also be humanists. Pantheists like Bernie Sanders, who see “God” as the network of life itself, and deists like Albert Einstein, who think a creator god may have sparked the big bang but otherwise isn’t involved in the world today, can be humanists because they don’t believe in an intervening personal god. Believing that things and events in the real world are influenced by a supernatural being doesn’t work because humanists get their knowledge from science and reason, not divine revelation or ancient texts.

Like you and your group, I have a little difficulty processing this, but I think Sanders is a good example. He identifies as Jewish but in words that are about as humanist as it gets. (This may be disappointing to those who want to claim him as the first Jewish candidate for president who has won a primary of a major party.) Perhaps a better example is a man I know—an earth science professor who threatens to flunk students if they don’t accept evolution—who calls himself an Orthodox Jewish atheist (not just a Jewish atheist, but specifically an Orthodox one). Although he doesn’t believe in any of the god stuff, he cherishes the traditions and culture that he was raised in, has no intention of dropping his religious identity despite his godlessness, and gets great pleasure from attending religious services. To him—a scientist and a scholar—that’s perfectly reasonable.

Another way to look at it: The humanist/religious duality is akin to dual citizenship: Even as a US citizen (or humanist) with an additional national (or religious) affiliation, we are full-fledged US citizens (humanists). Unlike regular arithmetic, equality can be preserved with an addition, without a corresponding subtraction.

One more analogy: Some people who no longer believe in a god may not want to throw out the baby (their connection with their religious background, which may be cultural and social) with the bathwater (the supernatural beliefs associated with that religion). I have never felt that way myself—quite the opposite—but I accept that others do, and try (not so successfully) to be non-judgmental about it. To me, hanging on to your religious identity after rejecting its dictates is a bit like proudly enjoying tradition for traditions’ sake, no matter their outdated, prejudiced, or inaccurate implications.

As regular readers of this column may have noticed, I tend to use the terms humanist, atheist, secular, nonbeliever, nonreligious, godless, and freethinker pretty much interchangeably, with nary a nod to the humanist/fill-in-a-religion contingent. When writing for a primarily humanist audience, I assume most readers not only don’t believe in supernatural beings, but that they also don’t adhere to the doctrines of any religion and are relatively rational, reasonable, evidence-based thinkers. Although there may be exceptions, I suspect they are a minority, and they may (or may not) be here because they’re in the process of transitioning away from religious roots and toward unfettered humanism. In any case, my focus is on the core humanist values we share rather than the myriad other traits on which we may diverge.

So although it may seem belabored (like this answer), it’s not a bad idea for your group to clarify exactly what it means by “humanist” in terms of supernatural powers (nope) and secular vs. religious (up to the individual). With humanism, less is more—as a philosophy it won’t tell you what you should and shouldn’t wear, eat, read, watch, feel, or think, or who you should vote for, or exclude, and so on. I believe secular is a default property of a humanist identity and therefore need not be spelled out. But I also accept that while some humanists retain a religious identity along with the humanist one, we are all equally humanist, and welcome.