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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:;

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.;–and-New-Humanism-


Discussion Group Protocol

Harvard Humanist Alumni

Humanist Discussion Group

Working Protocol

Organizer: Rekha Vemireddy


The Humanist Discussion Group (the “HDG”) is a twice monthly discussion group for people who identify with, or wish to investigate, Humanism, as defined by the American Humanist Association:

“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.”#

The HDG emphasizes critical thinking, fact-based presentations, and articulate marshalling of evidence and coherent reasoning to support one’s position.  Accordingly, the HDG is open to discussion about the basic tenets of Humanism itself.

Although most attendees are atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists, the HDG is open to people who believe in the supernatural.  The term members refers to regular attendees of HDG sessions.

The HDG includes all types of Humanists, religious and secular, militant and conciliatory.  Accordingly, members need not have an interest in congregational life.

The HDG is sponsored by Harvard Humanist Alumni.  Although many members are Harvard affiliates, the HDG is open to all.  Newcomers are welcome to all the regular meetings.  The HDG is normally held on weekends.
Group Procedures

Regular meetings will officially start with all attendees introducing themselves, with an emphasis on their religious/spiritual, philosophical, political and/or ethics interests and background, Harvard or Boston affiliation, and social organizing activities.  The facilitator will then briefly review the other group procedures.

Regular meetings will officially start no later than 15 minutes after the posted time.  A discussion circle will be no more than 10 people; accordingly, a given meeting may generate multiple discussion circles.

We strongly urge firm RSVP responses to meetings from all members and attendees.

We strive for an inclusive, considerate discussion culture.  Each attendee should avoid chronically interrupting others, and should address others’ positions respectfully.  The HDG is not an appropriate forum for expressions of misanthropy, unreasoning hostility, or hate speech, including racism and sexism, and any such behavior will be addressed initially at the check-in following the meeting.

Each meeting will conclude with an opportunity for each attendee to briefly evaluate what went well and what could have been improved about the meeting (a “check-in”).

At the end of each meeting, the facilitator will invite announcements from the attendees.

Discussion Topics

Topics discussed range from the abstract–religion, philosophy, ethics, epistemology, history, ancient culture, politics, the relationship between science and culture, geopolitics, to the personal–marriage, romantic relationships, parenting, friendship, social associations, and communication.

Most meetings will have a specific topic, often based on a reading or current event, which topic will be announced at least 5 days in advance through its Facebook site.  Most meetings will have a facilitator.

Any member or attendee may suggest a topic, whether on the HDG’s Facebook site or at a meeting.

Confidentiality Policy

The intellectual topics of discussion may be summarized on the New Humanism’s community blog.

Personal topics will NOT be so recorded, and attendees are not to discuss an attendee’s personal disclosures with people outside the HDG.  The facilitator will introduce the HDG’s confidentiality policy.

In no event will the HDG record or publish a list of attendees.

On occasion, discussion circles may be taped by the media, researchers, or the organizer(s).  Any such taping will be announced in advance of the meeting, and only attendees who wish to opt-in to the taping will be so recorded.

Democratic Governance

We value input from all the members of the HDG; we encourage all members to assist in organization, including with suggestions of topics, introductory presentation of topics, and moderating meetings.

Facilitators will generally be members who are familiar with this protocol and who are knowledgeable about Humanism.



At the late November Humanist Small Group session, we discussed Charity (and Selfishness).  We touched on both financial giving and volunteering one’s time and assistance, though some felt that those two types of giving were very different.  We talked about both giving to the people in our lives and giving to large organizations.

One recurring theme was that giving and receiving often went together.  When we give to others, that act makes us happy, so we are really serving our own interests as well.  In another formulation, when we give to others, we are supporting a norm of giving that we expect will also benefit ourselves when others observe the norm.  In yet another version, when we volunteer our time to help others, we learn new things, meet interesting people, find fulfillment in the effect that we have on others, experience entertainment, and so forth.  I am a strong believer that most charitable impulses function along these lines.

We did touch on how charity may harm others by promoting dependency or denying the recipients their own agency.  The dependency issue is certainly acute for charitable endeavors in developing countries, where foreign aid may severely disrupt traditional patterns.  The cultural distance between the donor(s) and the recipients in development aid is particularly problematic in this regard, i.e., the donors often have little idea how to help the recipients in a sustainable way.

The issue of denying recipients their own agency is a complicated one.  We mentioned both that structuring charity with appropriate restrictions and incentives could be necessary to prevent the recipient from using the resources in a harmful way, and the idea that such restrictions are an affront to the dignity of the recipient. 

I tend to favor the paternalistic view.  I never give money to panhandlers, but I will give them tokens for transportation or food.

In terms of Humanist community and charity, some felt that service projects for the needy were a first priority, while others emphasized the importance of caring for the members of the community itself before embarking on such endeavors.  I tend to favor the latter view.


Pluralism and Humanism

Apparently many non-religious people think that Humanist organizations are unnecessary because most culture and organizations are secular after all. 

 I think the point that we as Humanists are trying to make is that the vast majority of secular organizations or communities are pluralistic.  They include people with religious beliefs. 

 Accordingly, Humanist institutions would be the only place where the atheist’s basic worldview, one that lacks supernatural beings and animation, would be explicitly shared by all or nearly all the other members.  Some people need to spend part of their time in such a social, intellectual, and emotional space.

 I don’t think we can frame ourselves as a mere general social outlet for people who can’t join a traditional religious organization because they do not believe in gods.  Such a “generalist” could join a new-in-town group, and I believe Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalist congregations are open to such people.

Nor can we frame Humanist community as a secular space for discussing existential issues.  Such a function could be performed by, for example, an “Existential Discussion Meetup.”  The problem with such a group is that it can include people talking about their relationship with God and still be considered secular because it lacks a religious focus.

 In the end, Humanist community and culture refers to the specific marginalization or exclusion of believers and their perspectives.  Why can’t we just say that?


Goodness and the Contemplative Life

An interesting question came up at one of our Humanist Small Group sessions regarding the moral worth of the inner life.  Would we as Humanists consider a hermit, monk, sanyasi, mystic, or other person devoted to a contemplative life with little interaction with other human beings, a good person?  Apparently some thought such a person was an ethically neutral being, basing assessment of his goodness purely on his interactions with others or the lack thereof, with no points for truth-seeking and right belief.

 I mentioned that Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism all provide high esteem for monasticism, including material and institutional support.  I wasn’t too sure about Judaism and Islam. 

As it turns out, Judaism does have Haredim in Israel who function like monks, except that they marry and have large families.  The men, however, do not work and do not help the women with child-rearing, devoting themselves instead to religious study and prayer.  The state of Israel exempts the Haredim from the military service demanded of other Jews and allows them to ask others for money at Israel’s holy sites, in the fashion of mendicants in other religious traditions.  The Haredim claim that their relentless prayer enhances Israel’s security. 

Islam does have Sufi mystics and dervishes, although they too marry and have families because of the Koranic injunction against celibacy.  I’m not sure what the status of Sufism would be under Islam, as I’m not aware of any official approval of it as the Haredim have from the state of Israel.

 Another participant brought up the idea that many university researchers in impractical areas constitute a type of secular monk, devoted to the pursuit of truth and knowledge with as little concern for improving the human condition materially or in terms of social justice as the medieval monks who wondered how many angels could fit on a pinhead.

 I’m not sure how these various types of monks could be viewed as neutral when they do take up resources.  Churches and monasteries collected food and money from peasants to support such monks.  The monks’ time, the religious institutions’ money, or ordinary people’s money could have been applied to alleviate poverty and so forth.

 My own opinion is that the monk or contemplative person could be a good person because truth-seeking, right beliefs, self-awareness, control and moderation of desires, maintaining good physical and mental health, and the full development of personality possible only through a break from reactions to others, are moral virtues.

 If the leaders of a society cannot emphasize these virtues, the leaders become disconnected from reality.  Their good intentions of helping others are less likely to have the intended effects, because they lack the passion to see things as they are, preferring instead to connect emotionally to other people and by implication some quotidian sense of reality.


On Death

I recently attended an atheist/nonreligious parenting seminar in which the speaker (Dale McGowan) raised the topic of how to depict death to nonreligious children.  His approach was to describe it as returning to nonexistence, as before one’s birth; a few seminar participants agreed with this construct.

I found this depiction far too materialist.  In the atheistic fervor to deny the existence of a soul that transmigrates after death, the approach reduces an individual or the Self more or less to a physical person.  

For me, the Self is mostly a combination of experiences and interactions with an outside world, including other people, with the acknowledgment that my physical body is the venue through which those reactions take place.  A similar type or tone of experience or interaction with an outer world would presumably continue for other individuals after I die.  While those individuals may be very different from me because the world/environment that they inhabit is quite different from the one I lived through and left, I myself in the same physical body have become a very different person than I was in the past, partly because the world has changed and partly due to new experiences of existing realities.

 Returning to the commentary at the parenting seminar, one participant objected to the depiction of death as returning to non-existence, by pointing out that those individuals who have children continue their physiological existence through their offspring, who would not have existed “but-for” the existence of their parents. 

 Certainly our ability to reproduce does appear to be Nature’s answer to our physical mortality, but I found this construct far too materialist and simplistic also.  Again the Self is reduced to a physical person, just adding acknowledgement of our physiological reproductive functions. 

 The idea raises more questions than it answers.  Do we continue our own existence through a child because that person is our physical offspring, or do we continue our own existence through a child because we have raised that person consistent with our own values?  If the latter, why aren’t we continuing our own existence every time we impart our values, e.g., as teachers, peers, and so forth?