Some years ago Paul Kurtz made the mistake of offering decaffeinated coffee to a roomful of humanist visitors from Europe. Few Europeans share the American passion for denatured food-stuffs; "Paul!" chided one Scandinavian. "Decaffeinated coffee? That's like religious humanism." As a secular humanist I am sometimes tempted to view religious humanism that way, as little more (or less) than an oxymoron. Mason Olds reminds us that this is a temptation worth resisting.
On first reading his "What Is Religious Humanism?" I was surprised how often Olds and I agreed. His comments on the reality of the natural world, the vacuity of religious paradigms, and humans' responsibility for their own welfare in an uncaring universe are as lucid and powerful as anything I have read on these topics. I would be proud to hand those passages to any inquirer as succinct expressions of the secular humanist outlook. I finished his essay wondering, "With all his monism, naturalism, materialism, and nontheism, what is there about Olds's life stance that in any meaningful way merits the label 'religious'?"
Yet the difference between religious and secular humanism is genuine and substantial. I have argued elsewhere that we should openly acknowledge the gap as a dividing line between two already-distinct and more or less immiscible species of thought.(*) A careful reading of Olds's essay helps show some of the reasons why.
Not surprisingly, religious humanism over-emphasizes the connection between the humanist movement and liberal Christianity. In his "first stanza," Olds presents an idiosyncratic history in which humanism unfolds entirely within the churches. That's hardly fair to the thinkers who comprise humanism's equally vivid freethought heritage: the philosophes, Paine, Ingersoll, Bennett, Bradlaugh, the early Annie Besant, J. M. Robertson, Joseph McCabe, and many others. A thorough historical treatment of humanism must encompass both the religious liberal and freethought strands of its development, along with the way they have converged in the United States, Britain, India, and elsewhere in the years since World War II.
Moreover, there is ample evidence that mixing humanism and religion benefits neither humanism nor religion. Certainly humanism has not been healthy for religion: the liberal Christian churches that most thoroughly humanized their doctrines are now in sharp decline. Believers flock to more demanding conservative and fundamentalist denominations, seemingly because those groups make fewer compromises with the world. Apparently opening up to the humanist worldview forces religions to give up elements so essential to their functioning that they no longer work as religions - at least, not for long.
Such accommodation has also borne bitter fruit for humanism. When Olds calls for poets and artists to craft "a new religion for the living of these days," when he casually announces that the universe is eternal (how does he know?), when he joins Max Otto in valuing "the life of the spirit," and, most important, when he denigrates the power and scope of scientific inquiry, his essay reflects the thread of obscurantism that has always dogged religious humanism. The religious humanist heritage includes the muddleheadedness of Emerson and James. It includes John Dewey's unfortunate waffling about the words religion and religious, of which more later. Most seriously, religious humanism includes all too much of the trendy relativism Olds indulges when he denies the possibility of "a privileged position from which a human being can determine which construct is correct . . . a metanarrative by which to determine the validity of one narrative over another." At best, such postmodern intemperances muddy thinking; at worst, they pave the way for humanism to be hijacked by mystics, anti-intellectuals, and opponents of science.
That Ol' Devil Semantics
When religious and secular humanists clash, semantics is often the bog in which discussion founders. …