The Utility of Religion for Humanism

For Humanism to thrive, it must learn to adapt the successful features of religion. Without communities devoted to teaching and practicing the philosophy of Humanism, it will always remain a very small lobbying and advocacy enterprise fundamentally defined by what it rejects. Many of the people who currently identify as Humanists will balk at this assertion and make it known that they want nothing to do with anything that might be evenly remotely similar to a religion. This is not for those people; it is for all the people who might be Humanist if only there were something to replace the functions that their current religions perform. The popularity of religion across cultures and throughout history demonstrates that it provides something that irreligion cannot. It would be foolish and irrational to throw out the baby with the bathwater. When Christianity came to prominence, they did not refuse to do anything that looked pagan. They adapted the pagan rituals and holidays to express Christian doctrine. Jews and Muslims did the same thing, and it is what Humanists must now do if we want our philosophy to actually influence society for the better.

Alain de Botton has argued this position in Religion for Atheists, so I won’t belabor the point by noting all the social functions of religion. This position has also been argued by Humanist Unitarian ministers, Rabbi Sherwin Wine (founder of Humanistic Judaism), and Felix Adler (founder of Ethical Culture). But it is important to focus on the features of religion that are usually overlooked in their analyses. The first issue is the need for a core myth which dramatically and vividly portrays the values and doctrines of the religion. In Judaism, that myth focuses on the patriarchs, the exodus, Sinai, and the wilderness. In Christianity, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the most important story. Humanists also have a central myth, although it is ineffectively utilized. The second task will be to look at the four Cs of religion (creed, code, cult, and community) and figure out how Humanism can be expressed more effectively using this model. And lastly, we will need to look at the psychological elements of religion, in particular the issue of “spirituality” and how Humanism can and must provide a form of spirituality without sliding into supernatural nonsense.

One of the central issues that has plagued Humanism is an overbearing, austere rationalism which has adopted the worst elements of a Protestant iconoclastic aesthetic. This is due in large part to the tendency to equate religion with irrationality. Because Humanism is rational and religion is irrational, Humanists must remove anything that might be perceived as religious and by extension irrational. This leads to group meeting formats stripped of all ritual and art (and usually music) which are nothing more than a lecture or debate. The lecture/debate format is not conducive to facilitating identification with the group or group cohesion, even though lectures are important educational tools. Rituals, however, are highly effective psychological tools which boost an individual’s identification with the group and group cohesion.[i] In order to be effective, the rituals must be connected to the central myth of the religion, e.g. Christian communion is a reminder of the sacrificial death of Jesus.

Most Humanists will claim that there is no central myth for Humanism because Humanism is grounded in science and reason, but this is inaccurate. Like many foundational myths, the Humanist myth focuses on how Humanism came to be. The story usually begins with Socrates and Greek philosophers and then jumps to the Renaissance and Enlightenment when brave and beleaguered philosophers and scientists fought the corrupt and cruel tyranny of the Church for the sake of scientific truth, free inquiry, and human rights. The fight with the Church is usually won by the side of the freethinkers and proto-Humanists, but like all good myths, the story is eternal and is always being played out, e.g. in the American culture wars. Many Americans will also include patriotic stories and quotes about the disbelief of the Founding Fathers as integral parts of this myth, especially regarding the separation of Church and State. The fact that this myth is usually historical and factually correct does not make it any less of a myth, after all Christians believe that their Jesus myth is completely factual and historical as well.[ii]

Acknowledging this myth at the heart of Humanism is important for the development of group rituals which can help to express the core values that it promotes. Cultural forms of Humanism, like Humanistic Judaism, have a built in advantage by already having ritual formats to use which can be adapted to reflect the Humanist philosophy. For example, the Shabbat candles kindled on Friday night can be “symbols of human enlightenment and human compassion”[iii] rather than symbols of the two iterations of the commandment to observe Shabbat found in the Torah.[iv] This process of converting existing rituals to express Humanist beliefs can be easily done for many rituals (such as singing, chanting, or meditating), but it is something that must be done at the grassroots level.

This leads into the analysis of the four Cs: creed, code, cult, and community. Creed refers to the beliefs of the group, and code refers to ethics, taboos, and mores. These two elements are already sufficiently focused on by Humanists. Where Humanists tend to falter is in cult and community. Cult in this instance refers to the public liturgy along with the iconography, artwork, and architecture which enhance or play a part in the liturgy. As noted above, Humanists have abjured the cultic elements of religion as inherently irrational, and this in turn has undermined the efforts at creating communities. In her book Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby notes that the success of religion largely lies in the maintenance of permanent institutions, “Values are handed down more easily and thoroughly by permanent institutions than by marginalized radicals[…] Every brand of religion maintains and is a permanent mechanism for transmitting ideas and values[.]”[v] When we acknowledge this fact, along with the fact that seemingly irrational rituals help to create and strengthen group bonds, it becomes not only irrational and antiscientific, but also counterproductive, to reject these practices out of hand. Catholic ritual is frequently derided as “smells and bells,” but Catholicism is the single largest religious group on the planet. It may be time to take a page from their book and provide Humanist liturgy at a similar level of decorum.

In order to build up the cultic elements of Humanism, and by extension strengthen community ties, Humanists will need permanent spaces for gatherings, i.e. buildings. They will need holidays to celebrate, and they will need to mark major life cycle events in a ceremonial way (birth, maturation, graduations, marriage, death). And of course, they will need to identify and regularly celebrate the lives and accomplishments of Humanist heroes and role models.[vi] In short, there needs to be a liturgical calendar, including regular non-holiday meetings whether that be once per month or every week. To accompany this liturgical calendar, groups should develop uniform ritual practices to provide a sense of stability, comfort, and predictability at meetings. It is also important that there be a paid class of leaders to function in a similar way to clergy in terms of communal and liturgical planning and pastoral care. Groups that are run on a strictly volunteer basis are subject to falling apart due to member burn out; paid staff are vitally important for continuity.

In developing liturgy, the question will naturally arise as to why bother doing it, which brings us to the final issue: “spirituality.” In addition to the points raised above regarding group bonding and more effectively passing on values, spirituality will provide the immediate gratification and motivation missing from the more abstract reasons for liturgy and ritual. Indeed, without a focus on spirituality, it is likely that any attempt to create a more liturgical form of Humanism will fall apart. Spirituality is of course an ambiguous term, almost too ambiguous to be useful, but here the term refers to feelings of transcendence (of the mundane), connection (to other people or something abstract like nature), and inner peace. Religions use a variety of techniques to induce these feelings, including chanting, praying, singing, mantras, meditating, reading scripture, eating, fasting, and so on. Some of these are adaptable for Humanist use, others are not, but the important thing is to encourage these practices in both communal and individual settings.

Using techniques to cultivate spirituality is important because they help to internalize the message of Humanism, and they provide the transcendent, or “sacred,” element to Humanist practice (as opposed to theory). Without a sense of transcendent purpose, people are far less likely to sacrifice their time and energy advocating for the Humanist philosophy. Talk of transcendent or sacred purposes may strike many Humanists as getting far too close to advocating beliefs in gods and the supernatural. But this is not an attempt to sneak God through the back door. Rather, this is acknowledging that Felix Adler had a point when he focused on ethical ideals as the ultimate concern of his religion of ethics, a sentiment that is even reflected in the third Humanist Manifesto. For example, the Manifesto states, “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals;” “the joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives;” and “Humanism […] affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”[vii] [Emphasis added] The feeling of transcendence need not refer to anything supernatural; it can just as easily refer to ethical ideals, solidarity with humanity, and a sense of the greater good. This view of spirituality was advocated by J.S. Mill (although he referred to it as religion): “The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal object[…] the sense of unity with mankind, and a deep feeling for the general good, may be cultivated into a sentiment and a principle capable of fulfilling every important function of  religion[.]”[viii]

The fundamental failure of Humanism has been its irrational and antiscientific aversion to all forms of ceremony and ritual, which in turn has largely precluded the formation of stable Humanist communities that can pass on Humanist values from generation to generation. In order for Humanism to thrive and effectively influence our society for the better, Humanists must be willing to incorporate the socially functional elements of religion into their practice of Humanism. We must either adapt existing cultural rituals and holidays or create them from scratch so that the central myth and values of Humanism can be dramatically expressed. We must focus extensively on cult and community along with our already existing focus on our creed and code. And we must learn to cultivate spiritual practices that align with our philosophy in order to help internalize the message of Humanism while also providing for the emotional well-being of individual Humanists. By embracing these elements of religion, Humanism will be far more capable of achieving its goal of providing for the greater good of humanity.

[i] Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind, chapter 11, 2012.

[ii] Daniel Quinn illustrates this understanding of the myth as a “just-so” story in his novel Ishmael.

[iii] The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Shabbat Service, 2017

[iv] Exodus 20:8 says to remember the Sabbath, Deuteronomy 5:12 says to observe the Sabbath.

[v] Jacoby, Susan, Freethinkers, 2004

[vi] A popular example of this are Darwin Day celebrations which take place on the birthday of Charles Darwin to celebrate his contribution to science: the theory of evolution by natural selection.

[vii] Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III

[viii] Mill, John Stuart, Three Essays on Religion, “The Utility of Religion,” 1998.

1 thought on “The Utility of Religion for Humanism

  1. You raise really good points about humanism and ritual/spirituality here. I hear similar ideas from atheistic satanists like the Satanic Temple. I am not a member but I agree that ritual and community building go together, and it may be a mistake to completely abandon rituals with the god belief.


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