Religious and Secular Humanisms

From Jim Farmelant:

At this past Sunday’s Humanist Discussion Group meeting, we discussed religious humanism versus secular humanism.

I, very briefly, outlined the history of religious humanism in the United States, emphasizing the role of the Ethical Culture Society, and the development of a humanist wing within the Unitarian Church as central factors. I pointed out that at a philosophical level, both religious humanism and secular humanism share a great deal in common. Both religious and secular humanists subscribe to a naturalistic world view. They are both nontheists. Both reject dualism, which would divide the world into natural and supernatural realms. Both emphasize science as our most reliable
method for understanding the world. both value reason and democracy and both tend to emphasize the importance of human rights.

On the other hand, religious and secular humanists, tend to differ in that religious humanists are inclined to see humanism as being either itself a religion or, at the very least, an alternative way of being religious. While this is to some extent a matter of semantics, there are some real differences here in terms of emphasis and nuance. Humanist Unitarians, for instance, are members of a church, and they generally adhere to a clerical model, with a professional clergy (many UU ministers are avowed atheists or agnostics). They hold Sunday services where they do many of the things that one might find in a Sunday service at a liberal Protestant church. The Ethical Culture Society is much less
churchy, but nevertheless, the Society has, from its founding by Felix Adler in 1876, alway defined itself as a religion.

It follows a congregational model. Most Societies have professional Leaders, who are very often ex-clergymen (for instance, Tom Ferrick, an ex-Catholic priest, at one time, served as Leader for the Boston Ethical Society). Both humanist Unitarians and Ethical Cultaralists played leading roles in the drafting of the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933 which the authors described their philosophy as one of religious humanism.

In contrast, secular humanists tend to define humanism as philosophy or a life stance. For most avowed secular humanists, humanism is emphatically not a religion. Secular humanists tend to see themselves as the successors to the freethought movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. They tend to look back to people like Voltaire and Diderot, Holbach, Hume, Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Colonel Robert Ingersoll, as role models and sources of inspiration.

Secular humanists are often, to varying degrees, overtly anti-religious. Other areas of difference, include attitudes towards ritual and myth. Religious humanists are often partial to taking rituals, derived from traditional religious faiths, and redefining them in non-supernaturalistic terms. Secular humanists, while not necessarily rejecting all rituals, seem much less interested in that sort of thing. Religious humanists tend to have a more positive attitude towards myth. They tend to the Joseph Campbell view of myth, which while viewing myths as not being literally true, see them as sources of wisdom concerning the human condition. Secular humanists tend towards a more debunking view of myth. Connected with this are differences in attitudes towards religious language. Some religious humanists while clearly rejecting belief in the existence of God as a being or entity, are willing to hold on to the term “God”, which they seek to redefine in non-supernaturalist terms. The philosopher John Dewey, in his book, A Common Faith, was a noted proponent of this approach. There he wrote:

“The idea of God, or, to avoid misleading conceptions, the idea of the divine, is one of ideal possibilities unified through imaginative realization and projection. But this idea of God, or of the divine, is also connected with all the natural forces and conditions — including man and human association — that promote the growth of the ideal and that further its realization. We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God.’ I would not insist that the name must be given.”

“One reason why personally I think it fitting to use the word ‘God’ to denote that uniting of the ideal and actual which has been spoken of, lies in the fact that aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism. . . . What I have in mind especially is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation. For in spite of supernaturalism’s reference to something beyond nature, it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man as the apex of the whole scheme of things. It regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance. Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible. Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural piety. The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly. The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance. A religious attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe. Use of the words ‘God’ or ‘divine’ to convey the union of actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance.”

Secular humanists, in contrast, are likely to agree with two of Dewey’s students, Sidney Hook and Corliss Lamont, both of whom objected that this attempt at retaining God-talk was likely to create confusion among both humanists and more conventional religious believers. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this positive attitude towards religious language language constitutes a point of convergence between religious humanism and liberal Protestantism. For instance within the Anglican and Episcopal churches, there has for some time existed an extreme liberal tendency, which

drawing upon the work of theologians like Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rejects traditional theism, while still talking about God. In the 1960s, the Anglican bishop John A. T. Robinson presented this outlook in a bestselling book, Honest to God. Later on, similar views were promoted by the Cambridge University theologian Don Cupitt, who founded what he called the Sea of Faith movement. In the US, the retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has popularized similar views in a number of books. Bishop Spong in fact identifies himself as a humanist and was even given a Humanist of the Year award by the American Humanist Association some years ago.

Some readings:




For a more sophisticated presentation, please review:

Religious and Secular Humanism–What’s the difference?
by Robert M. Price
from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.


Also check out, the AHA presentation, written by Fred Edwords:

For a secular humanist on the New Humanism, check out the third review of Good Without God listed on its Amazon sales page: http://www.facebook.com/l/5a497;www.amazon.com/Good-Without-God-Billion-Nonreligious/dp/0061670111

Also see:

“Six Prominent American Freethinkers” byJames Farmelant & Mark Lindley
(See especially the discussions of Felix Adler,
George Santayana and John Dewey as examples of religious humanists. Ingersoll, Rand, and Harrington perhaps qualify more as examples of secular humanists.

“The New Atheism (and New Humanism)”, published in Religious Humanism, Fall 2008, by James Farmelant.  Primarily about the famous Four Horsemen (i.e. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens), but also includes a brief discussion of the New Humanism as represented by, who else, Greg Epstein. Note that this was written before Greg did his book. So obviously, there would now be much more to say about Greg as a humanist, and how his New Humanism relates to the older varieties of both religious and secular humanism.



5 Responses to “Religious and Secular Humanisms”

  1. June 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm


    Nice write up, thanks. Seems to me that what’s often described as the secular humanist opposition to religion is more properly described as opposition to supernaturalism and other types of fuzzy thinking. Use of god language is perceived, often (but not always) rightly, as an indicator of lax epistemic practice, so raises hackles among those whose highest value is cognitive probity. Whether such folks can relax enough to let their emotional side carry them away in a completely naturalistic religious ritual is an open question. This suggests there might be personality variables measurable by various psychometric tests that distinguish religious from secular humanists. But religion itself can certainly be naturalized, see for instance http://www.religiousnaturalism.org/

    Btw, a good read on religious humanism that has a chapter on the historical background of religious humanism is William R. Murry’s Reason and Reverence, reviewed at http://www.naturalism.org/murry.htm

  2. June 18, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    An interesting piece written from a religious humanist perspective on the New Atheists:

    “We’re All Born Atheists”: A Religious Person Defends Non-Belief


  3. 3 Jim Farmelant
    June 18, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    An interesting piece written from a religious humanist perspective on the New Atheists:

    “We’re All Born Atheists”: A Religious Person Defends Non-Belief


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