Humanism and Religion – Discussion Highlights

This is a guest post by Kirsten Waerstad, reporting on last Wednesday’s Harvard Humanist Alumni Discussion concerning Humanism and Religion.


Wednesday evening’s meeting (9/28/11)  of the Harvard Humanist Alumni Boston Discussion Group brought about lively debate on issues of how Humanists engage with religious people on both a personal and  group level.  Should the Humanist community build bridges with religious groups, and if so, how?  Are certain beliefs and practices of religionists fair game for ridicule?  Are some religious practices worth emulating within a humanist context?

The following is a summary of the questions raised, highlights of the group’s input on various themes that arose during the discussion, and my personal thoughts on the issues.  Having grown up in the deep South, my formative years were, not surprisingly, shaped by religion.  My parents were transplants, immigrants from Norway, so I was not a complete insider and fortunately was able to maintain a skeptical eye for most of my thirty years in Alabama.  Though the tie of religion to life is one that I perhaps will never be able to completely untether.

Do you engage personally with religious people about faith issues, and if so how?

On a personal level, I think that religion is a private affair.  I do not go out of my way to confront my religious friends about their faith.  My compulsion to engage someone is largely based on the context in which a religious issue is raised.  If a friend sincerely tells me that she is praying for me, I take that as a wish of good will and leave it at that.  If stronger remarks are made that this or that life event was “meant to be”, then I might feel a prickle on the back of my neck and am likely to engage in a discussion about the nature of life’s tragic events, and how callous it sounds to hear that some one’s misfortune  “was meant to be” .

During the discussion, the point was made that successful engagement is best achieved by first recognizing and respecting the fact that we are all people.  Interacting with religious people first on a human level before launching into a deep discussion will go farther than starting with contention.  Politeness aside, there was a consensus that we should not let silence be misconstrued as condoning or agreeing with a certain belief.  Humanists should feel comfortable openly supporting reason over superstition and declaring that we do not share a belief in the supernatural.

The discussion turned to the topic of our interactions and “actions” within religious settings.  When we attend a religious service such as a marriage or a funeral, can we respectfully not participate?  Is that what you do?  Or do you participate in or mimic the rituals out of courtesy?  There were thoughts on both sides of the aisle.  Comments were made that going through the motions without sharing the belief is disrespectful, while someone who had attended a friend’s funeral felt that his childhood familiarity with the rituals and a wish not to make the moment about his beliefs made him inclined to participate as a gesture of goodwill.

Religious expression within a public context was also brought up.  One of our group had recently attended an environmental event where one of the speakers told the crowd that “God wants us to take care of the planet”.  The attendee pondered this unexpected reference to religion at the rally.  Invoking God’s name was not appropriate in such a setting.  As nonreligious supporters, should we take offense? Certainly most of the people present shared the desire to spread a sense of stewardship for the Earth.  Rather than feeling alienated, should we simply welcome having a common goal with an uncommon ally?  There does exist a progressive religious left, albeit small, that cares about the environment.  Does progress toward a common goal trump voicing indignation over small infractions?  How do we best deal with overt religious expression when working with groups who share our goals on certain issues?
How engaged do you think the Humanist movement should be with organized
religions?  (Building Bridges)

I think Humanists should regularly be involved with organized religions in community projects.  Working on interfaith projects gives us the opportunity to educate the community and religious organizations about what Humanism is. It also reminds people that being a contributing, moral member of society is not dependent upon a person’s religion.

Someone pointed out that, as humanists, it is also important to build bridges with organized religion as a commitment to being inclusive, a quality not shared by many religious groups who by their nature suffer from elitism; if you do not believe in their particular God or brand, then you are excluded.  Humanism embraces a wide range of people: nonbelievers, nonreligious, atheists, agnostics, free thinkers.   Basically, humanism welcomes anyone who does not feel that their morality is derived from a belief in a god.  Even the progressively religious can be humanist, or at least friendly allies, since the basic framework for being a humanist is to seek the best in yourself and others, and to believe in your own ability to make a positive difference in the world.

There was a general consensus  that reaching out to the thousands, millions actually, of individuals who are already free thinkers, are not associated with religion or who have left their faiths for whatever reason is more important than building bridges with religious organizations.   In the U.S. today, 1 out 5 young people polled do not associate themselves with a particular religion.  There is a treasure trove of free-thinkers out there with which to align ourselves.  Reaching out to them should be our top priority.  By raising the visibility of Humanists as a group, we are likely to attract many like-minded people in the community who simply never knew that we existed.

When, if ever, is it appropriate to ridicule religious beliefs?

In general, I don’t believe that ridiculing another person’s beliefs is constructive.  However, there are certainly egregious examples of religious doctrine which call for exceptions.  For instance, practices or beliefs that impinge upon the rights of women or those that single out groups such as gays for ill-treatment, should be met with the same latitude of candor or constructive ridicule that would be evoked by a particularly racist comment or promotion of a racist agenda.

There were strong sentiments within the group that certain religious beliefs that have been foisted into the public sphere should be vigorously contested.  The addition of “under God” in the 1950s to the original text  of our pledge of allegiance is an infringement that should be remedied.  “In God We Trust” on our currency falls into the same realm.  The teaching of intelligent design or any other form of pseudoscience holds no legitimate place in public schools.  Encroachment of religion into the public sphere should be met with indignation and a demand for government that is unencumbered by the overt or subtle promotion of religion, especially a particular brand of religion.

What religious practices or emotions should humanism seek to replicate in a non-theistic context?

I think there are quite a few positive things that can be said for the role that religion plays in the lives of its adherents. Outside of its own particular brand of dogma and spiritual guidance, religious institutions lend a sense of community for their members and provide a common place to discuss matters important to them, to socialize, and to celebrate life’s milestones.  An equivalent resource does not really exist for  nonreligious people.   Certainly, there are societies for free-thinkers, atheist associations and the like; but we lack  institutions that provide a more holistic approach.  I think that emulating religious institutions in ways that address people’s needs on an intellectual, social, and personal level would greatly enhance the Humanist movement.  As Greg Epstein emphasizes  in his book, Good Without God, “being a good person in a vacuum is not a very satisfying experience”.

Someone in the group pointed out that Europe has accomplished a largely secular society without the coalescing of a humanist movement.  Another expressed doubt that such emulation of a “community feel” is even possible among the diverse, individually minded free-thinkers in our society.  Agreeing with the skepticism, someone asked if it was better to have a “small group of people with focus and clarity or a large group with an unfocused view”.  He advocated for the former.  I agreed with the person who sided with the latter.   We risk suffering the same elitism of religion if we dismiss the many new and enthusiastic free-thinking voices that have appeared over the past decade.  It is refreshing to see a more unified movement stir that seeks to simply be good for the sake of being good, to bring awareness of the oppressive side of religion, to ask serious questions about widespread beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, and to provide an alternative, supportive community for people to become involved in.  I’m optimistic about building Humanist communities here in the Boston area and all over the United States.  I think that we are on the verge of a tipping point in which a growing cohesive voice of reason may eventually become louder than that of dogma and fantasy.


1 Response to “Humanism and Religion – Discussion Highlights”

  1. October 6, 2011 at 1:45 am

    While distancing itself from religion the Humanist Movement does not necessarily have to reject religion as an unmitigated evil. Such an approach would be neither factually correct nor practically helpful in achieving the Humanist objective of weaning the great masses of people from their dependence on religious beliefs. As Narsingh Narain (Founder of the Indian Humanist Union) said: “…an analysis is necessary for a proper understanding of the complex phenomena which have been grouped under the name ‘religion’, so that we can build our own organisation on solid foundations and also be able to have a sympathetic understanding of the faiths of other groups.”

    Over the last few years two things have become increasingly clear: the objective of providing an alternative to traditional religions has lost its salience for the Humanist Movement; and, to the extent to which it does engage with traditional religions, it has mainly adopted an attitude of rejection and ridicule. The “sympathetic understanding” is missing; and this is likely to prove counter-productive. The following account of the discussions on Science and Religion held in the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in California could well be true of a Humanist gathering: “By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of ‘a den of vipers.’ “With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?” His response to Mr. Harris and Dr. Dawkins was scathing. “I think that you and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side,” he said, “and that you generate more fear and hatred of science.” (See ‘A Free-for-All on Science and Religion’, George Johnson, New York Times, November 21, 2006.) The follower of a traditional religion whose faith is wavering is likely to be put off, rather than persuaded, by the smug and sneering attitude of some humanists. Almost all traditional religions (Islam is possibly an exception) are losing credibility with the vast masses of their adherents. Rejection and ridicule can only drive some of them them back to their faith. The answer lies in persuasion, not polemics.

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