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Religious and Secular Humanism
What's the difference?

by Robert M. Price


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.


Is humanism an alternative to religion, or an alternative kind of religion? It is easy to find committed humanists who'll give either answer. Those who call it a religion define the word religion broadly, as tantamount to any dedicated philosophy of life. Those who think humanism is not a religion would rather say simply that they embrace humanism as a philosophy instead, since they associate religion with the supernaturalist claims most traditional religions make. This is ultimately a semantic argument, and both usages make sense. But the debate over whether humanism is a religion threatens to obscure a more interesting issue, namely whether there is such a thing as religious humanism alongside and distinguishable from secular humanism. Some would say there is no difference between secular and religious humanism, so long as one practices one's humanism, pardon the expression, "religiously." I would disagree. In fact, there is much to religious humanism that secular humanists do not share—and vice versa.

The Son of Man

Some among the ancient Gnostics, those great spinners of mystical, allegorical mythologies, had a name for the Ultimate Godhead. They called it "Man" (Anthropos, human being). This is a very old idea, rooted in the Upanishads where the world springs into being from the self-sacrifice of the Primal Man, Purusha, whose name is also one of the words for "soul." What a breathtaking myth! What a powerful image! Let me suggest that the Gnostic myth implies something about what distinguishes religious from secular humanism, namely, a belief in the divinity of human nature. Such belief may not be a necessary condition for religious humanism, but it seems to me a sufficient one. That is, if you believe human nature deserves the epithet "divine," you qualify as other (or, if you prefer, more) than a secular humanist.

I think of Ludwig Feuerbach and his relentless hermeneutic of suspicion. Feuerbach held that theologians are correct when they say we can discern the divine attributes. They are right to believe in such things as divine love, justice, mercy, sagacity—even in eternal life and omniscience. Theologians are merely wrong in ascribing these to some divine person beyond humanity. On this argument the grandeur of human nature, of the human race collectively, truly is divine. It is also a terrific burden to bear. Our problem is that we shirk the burden of our own divine greatness. We create the devil as the scapegoat for the evil that we do, both trivial and titanic; and we create God as a paradoxical scapegoat to take the burden of our righteousness—we don't want responsibility for either! Feuerbach said he knew his readers would consider him an atheist for denying the existence of God, but he riposted that he was the genuine believer, because he revered true divinity where it was really to be found—in the human breast, or in humanity as a whole. Feuerbach thought that conventional theists, by contrast, were unbelievers or idolaters, erecting for themselves a false God instead of the real divinity within them.

That, it seems to me, is religious humanism. Of course, secular humanists also point to the surpassing greatness of human nature and human achievements. So what is the real difference? It comes down to two rather technical questions.

Dimensions of the Difference

First, are you a philosophical Idealist? Do you believe there is such a thing as capital D Divinity? Do you think calling human nature "divine" really adds anything to a description of it as "profound" or "impressive" or "venerable"? Or is "divine" just a metaphorical value judgment, as in "That dress looks divine"? If you're an Idealist and you believe there is an extra something beyond great impressiveness, a literal divinity, to human nature, you would certainly qualify as a religious humanist. But if to you "divine" is just a metaphor, then you are a secular humanist.

Second, do you think there is a sort of reverence or veneration that is uniquely religious? Is it specifically "religious"-as opposed to, say, merely aesthetic-to cherish something as sacred? Scholars including Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Otto, and Mircea Eliade thought a unique form of religious experience exists. Schleiermacher called it "the feeling of absolute dependence." Otto called it the "numinous" experience. It is a creature-feeling of ontological humility before the overwhelming greatness of the Holy. A religious humanist might experience the numinous when contemplating the greatness of human nature in a choice piece of music or a painting or a sonnet. It is a deep chill that makes one feel one's own unworthiness—though also perhaps one's own potential.

But what if the feeling of reverence before the great and awesome is not singularly religious, but rather simply part of the aesthetic judgment? One might then feel less inclined to call an awe-experience triggered by a product of human art "religious." The core issue here is not whether one has or lacks aesthetic sensitivity. It is whether one regards the particular thrill of the numinous experience as containing something not encompassed by the idea of the aesthetic. If you think it's all just aesthetics, you are secular. If you think there is something unique in the numinous experience, even when called forth by products of human artistry, you are religious. This religiosity would hinge on nothing supernatural, but solely on the rather technical question of whether a uniquely "religious" kind of appreciation exists.

The Power of Myth (and Ritual)

If the Gnostic myth of the Primordial Cosmic Man stands for religious humanism, is there a myth that would equally sum up secular humanism? There's the Prometheus myth, of course. Then I think of the Klingon creation myth as revealed in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The gods created the first Klingon male and female, who then turned on their gods and slaughtered them-now there's a powerful myth! But then, it is doubtful whether secular humanists would care whether there is a myth for them. My second criterion has to do with the importance one accords to mythology as a source of wisdom and a metaphorical frame of reference. My impression is that secular humanists in general don't think myth is worth their time. To them, myth means bunk.

By contrast, Joseph Campbell seems to exemplify the religious humanist apprehension of myth. Following his mentor Carl Jung, Campbell thought all myths were about the human life cycle—scripts for rites of life-passage. And so they are for religious humanists. But some secular humanists, too, are open to celebrating rites of passage. It is not this that separates them from religious humanists. Some rites of passage have no connection to the ancient myths: birthday parties, bachelor parties, college graduations, and retirement dinners are true rites of passage yet bear no mythological cargo.

Religious humanists such as Don Cupitt's Sea of Faith movement in the United Kingdom continue to perform religious rites although they don't believe in the supernatural or in any metaphysically real deity. They know full well that the motions they are going through are human creations from start to finish. But they think that is no reason not to perform them! William Taylor Coleridge spoke of a "poetic faith," the "temporary, willing suspension of disbelief" we permit ourselves while watching drama or reading a novel. We know the characters and action are not real, but we put this awareness on the back burner for a while in order to enter the fictive world and discover experiences there that do not occur in our mundane realities. To get something out of a Shakespeare play, you by no means need actually believe in Hamlet or Polonius. Only a fool would think you do. And, I suggest, no Christian need believe in a historical Jesus or his resurrection to have a powerful Easter; no Jew need believe in the miracles of Charlton Heston to have a profound Passover. Few of them seem to realize this, however—or if they do, they know better than to admit it. But religious humanists admit it . . . or could.

Secular humanists could, too—but what makes them secular humanists is that they just aren't interested. I guess it's like having a friend who's engrossed in Creative Anachronism or Civil War reenactment or attending Star Trek fan conventions. More power to them, but it's not for me. And why should it be?

God Is Lobe

One of the most intriguing areas of recent research in brain science, and one that bears directly on our question, is that of the physical, organo-chemical character of religious experiences. As discussed in books like Matthew Alper's The God Part of the Brain, studies indicate that the mystical experience of God, the transcendent Satori of the Buddhist, the Moksha enlightenment of the Hindu, and so on, are all functions of the temporal parietal lobe of the brain. Meditation, to say nothing of epileptic seizures, seems to bring about temporary erasure of the self-other distinction. When that carefully maintained barrier between self and world breaks down, one returns for a few moments to the oceanic experience of pure consciousness. In his laboratory Michael Persinger has stimulated, not merely simulated, God-experiences with the use of a magnetic helmet that fires up the requisite portion of the brain.

I suspect that this is the final reduction, the ultimate demystification of religion's metaphysical claims. But that isn't the point. The point is this: suppose you can show that the mystical experience of nondual Pure Consciousness is available, quite real as an experience, and that it is desirable and wholesome. Here is another dividing line between secular and religious humanists, perhaps the most important one. Simply put, religious humanists seek the religious experience simply as an experience. Though not believing in a God, they nonetheless seek a "God-experience." Secular humanists prefer to give it a miss. They just aren't interested. And chances are, they think religious humanists too much the navel-gazers, too little occupied with serious business. They should be out doing political canvassing or some such stuff.

Is It Better to Be a Religious Humanist or a Secular Humanist?

I don't know if that's even a proper question. These are coordinates, like "liberal" and "conservative." Which are you? I suspect you are liberal on some issues, conservative on others. This doesn't invalidate the two categories. They are helpful precisely in that they allow you to plot yourself on a chart, as it were, to understand yourself better. It's the same with religious and secular humanism: maybe you're a hybrid. Maybe you're an unstable mix, shifting and changing in your inclinations. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.


Robert M. Price is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute and editor of The Journal of Higher Criticism.


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