Humanism as a 'Quasi-religion.'(Defining Humanism: The Battle Continues)

By Smith, John E. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Humanism as a 'Quasi-religion.'(Defining Humanism: The Battle Continues)


Smith, John E., Free Inquiry


It is essential at the outset to pose and try to resolve a problem which has led to considerable fruitless discussion in the past, namely, whether such movements as Humanism, Marxism, and Nationalism are to be regarded as forms of "religion." Corliss Lamont, for example, in his learned and well thought out description of a Humanism that has gained wide acceptance, develops naturalistic Humanism as a philosophy and he clearly does not want to have it taken as a religion; for him, religion is inextricably tied to a belief in the supernatural which his Humanism excludes. In fact, he criticizes those religious Humanists, largely Unitarian ministers, who signed the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 written by Roy Wood Sellars which opposed supernaturalism; Lamont writes, "I feel that they need to justify more adequately than they have yet done their retention of the ancient and hallowed word religion." Further testimony in the same direction is to be found in the theme of a conference sponsored by FREE INQUIRY, "Living Without Religion; The Ethics of Humanism." It seems clear that these Humanists are strongly opposed to any identification of their position as a religion.

"Quasi-religion" is not a term of opprobrium nor does it imply any sort of negative judgment about these movements; it is meant to be as close to the purely descriptive as one may hope to get. I reject the expression that has sometimes been used in this connection - "pseudo-religion" - because I believe it is both unfair and misleading. It suggests something counterfeit and implies that there is nothing of value in these substitute visions of human life. There are at least two closely related reasons for speaking of quasi-religions as movements having similarities in structure and function with the recognized religions; first, is the fact that many quasi-religions have been born out of the failures of the established religions to adjust to change and to recognize the need to reinterpret their traditions anew in each generation, it they are to retain the devotion of their adherents, and, second, the strong sense present among the followers of these secular movements that they are meant to provide a source of significance and purpose in human life and a general pattern of behavior as a guide. The latter point is acknowledged quite explicitly by Lamont when he writes, referring to "traditional religion": "At its best it has given to [people] the opportunity of losing themselves in something greater than any individual and of finding themselves thereby in consecration to an ideal. This historic function of religion any present philosophy worthy of the name must fulfill." And since he is presenting Humanism as a philosophy it must be understood as intending to perform this religious function. Hence, in view of this admission, Humanism, even when set forth as a philosophy, is justifiably to be called a quasi-religion.

There is no doubt that the existence of evils rightly attributed to religious institutions and the clergy - suppression of free thought, acquiescence in the face of injustice, intolerance, and fanaticism - has been a powerful factor behind the formation of quasi-religions, and explains their tendency to take an anti-religious stance. To maintain the self-criticism necessary if one is to avoid ideology and the absolutizing of one's own position is very difficult in any situation, but especially in the case of the positive religions where a message believed to have a divine sanction is involved. It is important to notice that the exposure of these evils associated with religions and the protest against them has has not always come from hostile critics standing outside these religions. Biblical religion has a prophetic as well as a priestly side and some of the most severe criticism of religious beliefs and practices has come from men and women whose faith in the traditions they would purify is unquestioned. Paul Tillich understood the problem very well when he set forth what he called the "Protestant Principle" according to which religious institutions must see themselves not only as dispensers of divine judgment but as subject to and not exempt from the same judgment. …

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