Religion can also be humanistic.
Humanists facing this situation may have to significantly rethink their humanist advocacy if they are to communicate relevantly to a broad democratic body. With a core religious population in America, humanists must be willing to engage in the social atmosphere as it exists--not sit back idly, convinced that religion is an empty subject.
In 1981, conservative Christians objected to a history textbook that described Erasmus as a Christian humanist. They argued that humanists cannot be Christians because they do not believe in God. Unfortunately, this opinion is perhaps equally prevalent among humanists today. Conservative evangelicals seem convinced that humanism is a human-centered religion in competition with their own faith, while humanists often see religion as unnecessary at best, oppressive at worst.
The meanings of the term humanism have changed significantly over the years; the use of the term in its modern sense can be found in the atheistic concept of writers such as Karl Marx and Pierre Joseph Proudhon. To see that Jean-Paul Sartre entitled a 1947 essay "Existentialism Is a Humanism" makes it clear that humanism is not a monolithic entity but, rather, a diverse collection of beliefs with a shared concern for human welfare. Thus, it may well be time to ask if religion can also be humanistic.
As long as humanism is not taken to be a human-centered religion but, rather, a sincere commitment to social progress through the expansion of democracy, devotion to peaceful resolution of conflicts, and compassion for the oppressed and exploited, then certainly religious faith does not disqualify one from being a humanist. This is precisely the point that humanists should consider making an integral part of their social philosophy in the future. The defining issue is not the philosophical validity of theism. Humanists contrast their beliefs with those of religious conservatives by pointing out the tentativeness of their idea of truth, yet the supposed falseness of theism seems to be all but an absolute fact to many.
There is an unfortunate belief that religion is a refuge for the irrational, leading to a condescending assertion that religious faith can (and should) be "educated away." This runs the risk of encouraging humanists to establish an aggressively anti-theistic educational base that tries to hasten a move toward a purely secular society.
Those who think that religion is only for the simple-minded have probably made the mistake of taking fundamentalists at their word when they claim their narrow formulations represent the truest sense of religion. But religious belief can be far more complex and rich than that. Remember, whatever excellent arguments have been put forward in this century by such distinguished atheists as Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, they have not crippled the religious faith of intellectually powerful figures from William James to Harold Bloom.
Nor has a faith in religion always led to authoritarian, oppressive social philosophies. The examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the philosophically challenging writings of Paul Tillich and John Cobb, are ample testimony to the possibility of faith, intelligence, and social progressivity as partners in one conscience.
If we accept that, in the near future, there will be a continuing majority of religious people in America, are we to think of this group as a perpetual enemy? Such a conclusion has sad consequences to those who believe in a pluralist democracy. The general response to fundamentalist activism has been to vigorously oppose any breaches in the separation of church and state. This is understandable, as there is little use in being tolerant pluralists if that means tolerantly watching the dismantling of a pluralistic society by a self-righteous minority.
Unfortunately, in response to this threat, many humanists malign religion in general. They see little need for an alliance with religionists, whom they caricature as narrow-minded absolutists. The adversarial tone that follows from this in much humanist writing no doubt disappoints some readers who might otherwise be sympathetic to the social goals of humanism. Thus, a large group of nonfundamentalist religionists are lost to passivity, even to right-wing causes, because humanism appears so unfriendly to those with any religious faith.
Fundamentalists have managed to forge a coalition with nonreligious conservatives who agree with them on such key issues as abortion, defense spending, the war on drugs, and so on. Humanism and liberal religion cannot afford to stay separate if they are to achieve pragmatic goals in our society.
An expansion of the public discourse by religious humanists can take many forms. It is safe to say that the most useful approaches to a religiously based humanism will not be orthodox but will nonetheless be rooted in traditional theistic or deistic concepts. Three of these approaches are:
* Process theology. As expressed in the works of John B. Cobb,
this theology is intelligently formulated to avoid the tendencies
religion can have toward oppressively static and
authoritarian images that suffer from "culture lag" as social
* Christian socialism. This movement was based upon extrapolations
from the Christian duty to aid the weak and oppressed.
It had its most active expression in continental
Europe, especially in the writings of Paul Tillich. Today it
is perhaps best expressed in the writings of Princeton theologian
* The ecumenical movement. Hans Kung and John Hick are the
most prominent theologians in this attempt to overcome the
exclusionary aspects of many revealed religions. The goal
in this case is not to establish an enforced "world religion"
but, rather, to create an atmosphere of mutual acceptance
and intersubjectivity between differing faiths of the world.
Of course, secular humanists themselves need not adopt a theistic point of view; this, too, would go against the pluralistic precepts of a modern democracy. But they would do well to expand their attention to religious issues from merely criticizing faith healers, debunking the supernatural, and calling for rigid separation of church and state.
It is not a matter of secular humanists sugarcoating their philosophy with cynically employed religious language. Religious humanism must be sincere and intellectually rigorous if it is to be of real use. As in Harvey Cox's Secular City, the secular and the religious can exist side by side with tolerance and respect for one another. Moreover, secular humanists who await the certain demise of religion are waiting for a dream not likely to become a reality anytime soon. As we enter a new millennium, America remains a profoundly religious country. A much more plausible idea (though difficult to achieve) is a society with a majority of socially progressive citizens from a mixture of religious and secular backgrounds. Secular humanists should endeavor to bring such a society about, with the aid of religious humanists.
David Burgin, 23, is currently pursuing an English major and political-science minor at Arizona State University. He wants to study English literature on the graduate level and then make a career in publishing or education.