by Robert M. Price
Religious and Secular Humanism
What's the difference?
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.
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 supernaturalist 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.
The Son of Man
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
Dimensions of the Difference
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.
Second, do you think there is a sort of reverence or veneration that is uniquely
religious? Is it specifically "religious"-as opposed to, say,
merely aesthetic-to cherish something as sacred? Scholars including Friedrich
Schleiermacher, Rudolf Otto, and Mircea Eliade thought a unique form of
religious experience exists. Schleiermacher called it "the feeling of
absolute dependence." Otto called it the "numinous" experience.
It is a creature-feeling of ontological humility before the overwhelming
greatness of the Holy. A religious humanist might experience the numinous when
contemplating the greatness of human nature in a choice piece of music or a
painting or a sonnet. It is a deep chill that makes one feel one's own
unworthiness—though also perhaps one's own potential.
But what if the feeling of reverence before the great and awesome is not
singularly religious, but rather simply part of the aesthetic judgment? One
might then feel less inclined to call an awe-experience triggered by a product
of human art "religious." The core issue here is not whether one has
or lacks aesthetic sensitivity. It is whether one regards the particular thrill
of the numinous experience as containing something not encompassed by the idea
of the aesthetic. If you think it's all just aesthetics, you are secular. If you
think there is something unique in the numinous experience, even when called
forth by products of human artistry, you are religious. This religiosity would
hinge on nothing supernatural, but solely on the rather technical question of
whether a uniquely "religious" kind of appreciation exists.
The Power of Myth (and Ritual)
If the Gnostic myth of the Primordial Cosmic Man stands for religious
humanism, is there a myth that would equally sum up secular humanism? There's
the Prometheus myth, of course. Then I think of the Klingon creation myth as
revealed in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The gods
created the first Klingon male and female, who then turned on their gods and
slaughtered them-now there's a powerful myth! But then, it is doubtful whether
secular humanists would care whether there is a myth for them. My second
criterion has to do with the importance one accords to mythology as a source of
wisdom and a metaphorical frame of reference. My impression is that secular
humanists in general don't think myth is worth their time. To them, myth
By contrast, Joseph Campbell seems to exemplify the religious humanist
apprehension of myth. Following his mentor Carl Jung, Campbell thought all myths
were about the human life cycle—scripts for rites of life-passage. And so they
are for religious humanists. But some secular humanists, too, are open to
celebrating rites of passage. It is not this that separates them from religious
humanists. Some rites of passage have no connection to the ancient myths:
birthday parties, bachelor parties, college graduations, and retirement dinners
are true rites of passage yet bear no mythological cargo.
Religious humanists such as Don Cupitt's Sea of Faith movement in the United
Kingdom continue to perform religious rites although they don't believe in the
supernatural or in any metaphysically real deity. They know full well that the
motions they are going through are human creations from start to finish. But
they think that is no reason not to perform them! William Taylor Coleridge spoke
of a "poetic faith," the "temporary, willing suspension of
disbelief" we permit ourselves while watching drama or reading a novel. We
know the characters and action are not real, but we put this awareness on the
back burner for a while in order to enter the fictive world and discover
experiences there that do not occur in our mundane realities. To get something
out of a Shakespeare play, you by no means need actually believe in Hamlet or
Polonius. Only a fool would think you do. And, I suggest, no Christian need
believe in a historical Jesus or his resurrection to have a powerful Easter; no
Jew need believe in the miracles of Charlton Heston to have a profound Passover.
Few of them seem to realize this, however—or if they do, they know better than
to admit it. But religious humanists admit it . . . or could.
Secular humanists could, too—but what makes them secular humanists
is that they just aren't interested. I guess it's like having a friend who's
engrossed in Creative Anachronism or Civil War reenactment or attending Star
Trek fan conventions. More power to them, but it's not for me. And why
should it be?
God Is Lobe
One of the most intriguing areas of recent research in brain
science, and one that bears directly on our question, is that of the physical,
organo-chemical character of religious experiences. As discussed in books like
Matthew Alper's The God Part of the Brain, studies indicate that the
mystical experience of God, the transcendent Satori of the Buddhist, the Moksha
enlightenment of the Hindu, and so on, are all functions of the temporal
parietal lobe of the brain. Meditation, to say nothing of epileptic seizures,
seems to bring about temporary erasure of the self-other distinction.
When that carefully maintained barrier between self and world breaks down, one
returns for a few moments to the oceanic experience of pure consciousness. In
his laboratory Michael Persinger has stimulated, not merely simulated,
God-experiences with the use of a magnetic helmet that fires up the requisite
portion of the brain.
I suspect that this is the final reduction, the ultimate demystification of
religion's metaphysical claims. But that isn't the point. The point is this:
suppose you can show that the mystical experience of nondual Pure Consciousness
is available, quite real as an experience, and that it is desirable
and wholesome. Here is another dividing line between secular and religious
humanists, perhaps the most important one. Simply put, religious humanists seek
the religious experience simply as an experience. Though not believing in a God,
they nonetheless seek a "God-experience." Secular humanists prefer to
give it a miss. They just aren't interested. And chances are, they think
religious humanists too much the navel-gazers, too little occupied with serious
business. They should be out doing political canvassing or some such stuff.
Is It Better to Be a Religious Humanist or a Secular Humanist?
I don't know if that's even a proper question. These are coordinates, like
"liberal" and "conservative." Which are you? I suspect you
are liberal on some issues, conservative on others. This doesn't invalidate the
two categories. They are helpful precisely in that they allow you to plot
yourself on a chart, as it were, to understand yourself better. It's the same
with religious and secular humanism: maybe you're a hybrid. Maybe you're an
unstable mix, shifting and changing in your inclinations. That wouldn't
necessarily be a bad thing.
Robert M. Price is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute
and editor of The Journal of Higher Criticism.