Religious and Secular Humanism: What's the Difference? (Specialist Subsection: Religious vs. Secular Humanism)

Article excerpt

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 super-naturalist 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.


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.


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. …