Tom Flynn

The world of religious Humanism can move with stately slowness. In FREE INQUIRY’s premier issue (1980), Paul Beattie, then president of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, wrote:

Secular and religious Humanists . . . differ on the definition of the word “religion”; they differ on the worth of a particular institutional form; and they assign a different value to the study of religious traditions. Their initial disagreement is semantic: what does the word “religion” mean and can it be a part of the humanist orientation?

Twenty-two years later, when I penned a feature probing the divide between secular and religious humanisms, not much had changed—though I addressed one of Beattie’s questions by offering a rough-and-ready definition of religion:

. . . Common—that is, pre-Deweyan—usage holds that the genuinely religious necessarily involves the supernatural or transcendent. Common usage has its advantages, not least that it sustains discrete meanings for terms like philosophy and ethics. I still stand by [this] definition of religion . . . : Religion is a “life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.”

. . . It follows that in order to be a genuine religious humanist, one must believe in something that is unprovable in this world. One needn’t believe in a deity or a spiritual substance (though some religious humanists do)—one might simply cling to some historical or social proposition in which one’s faith outruns the available evidence . . . optimists who believe in the inevitable perfectibility or triumph of humankind would qualify as religious humanists. So would dedicated Marxists, ironically enough. And of course, there are human-centered thinkers who nonetheless believe in a fairly literal kind of spirit, in the human soul or elan vital, or in a disembodied system of karma: their claim to the term religious humanist is uncontroversial.

“If my definition of religion is correct,” I concluded, “then a great many self-declared religious humanists . . . just aren’t ” truly religious, making religious Humanism “seem a more popular option than it actually is.”

Eleven years later, the semantic argument that Beattie decried may be nearing resolution in a surprising way. Just a couple of years ago, an objective observer might be forgiven for concluding that religious Humanism was dying—or at least that it was in a very bad way. Today, we can see that the humanist movement’s religious wing was actually busy bifurcating. In their essay in this feature section, James Croft and Greg Epstein assert that “We are one movement, reaching toward one humanism,” but I suspect it’s more accurate to recognize that the larger movement now comprises not two major strands—secular and religious—but rather three:

  • Secular humanists reject supernaturalism and spirituality of any type. They tend to be strong individualists animated by Enlightenment principles. Often, they disdain traditional congregational practices, cherishing their emancipation from any former faith community.
  • Religious Humanists—humanists whose views embrace a metaphysical or transcendent element—form a distinct subgroup, if one less influential than in the salad days of pioneers including William James, F. C. S. Schiller, John Dewey, and Felix Adler.
  • Congregational humanists are the newcomers. Following the usage of activists James Croft and Jennifer Kalmanson (both of whom contributed to this special feature section), I define “congregational humanists” as persons who unconditionally reject supernaturalism, yet enthusiastically embrace forms and rituals drawn from the community life of the church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

It’s easy to dismiss congregational humanism as just a fancy name for giving up religion without giving up church. But as I will argue in this essay—and as I think all of the articles in this section demonstrate—congregational humanism is more than the new kid on the block. For one thing, it has a long history: many past naturalists with a taste for ritual who called themselves religious Humanists were really congregational humanists all along. Perhaps more important, congregational humanism is growing strongly; in future years it seems likely to outgrow or even eclipse religious Humanism as we have known it.

Arguably, religious Humanism and the newer congregational humanism represent competing ways to satisfy the same body of preferences. They center similarly on community life and on one’s local life-stance association as a primary vehicle for meeting social needs and channeling service commitments. On that basis, congregational humanism’s growth can be seen as taking place partly at the expense of the older religious Humanist tradition.

Secular humanism, meanwhile, satisfies a different body of preferences. It takes a more atomistic view of the individual, who interfaces directly with the larger society and relies only minimally on local, intermediary institutions. It rejects religion not only in the sense of supernaturalism but in the sense of the word’s Latin root (religare: to tie back or tie fast). Secular humanism is emancipatory; where religion would tie us back, secular humanism seeks explicitly to disentangle, to de-bundle many things traditional Western religions have tended to tie together, from supernatural concepts to a local community’s glutinous hold over the free individual.Secular humanists tend to see no necessary connection between their life-stance affiliation and the social, economic, political, or charitable aspects of their lives, which they regard as private; in addition, many find ritual and ceremony inherently objectionable.

The Nature of the ‘Preference Gap’

When C. P. Snow famously (or tiresomely) introduced the concept of the “two cultures,” he meant the gap between scientific and artistic ways of looking at the world. I submit that a similarly fundamental “preference gap” exists within humanism, namely, the gap between secular humanism on one side and religious/congregational humanism on the other.

Of course, the two-cultures metaphor is imperfect. One can appreciate both the arts and the sciences; Snow was complaining about an artificial division that didn’t need to exist. In contrast, the gap between secular and religious/congregational humanism appears to be genuine, necessary, and mutually exclusive. To offer a lighthearted example, imagine prodding a roomful of humanists to sing “Amazing Grace” in unison. Those who lean religious or congregational will have a grand old time; those who lean secular will feel sullied. It’s hard to imagine anyone having both reactions at once.*

The preference gap extends beyond humanism or even unbelief generally; it also appears among the religious. Consider the former evangelical-turned-wistful New York Times columnist T. M. Luhrmann. In a May 29, 2013, essay titled “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith,” Luhrmann offered a myopic view of small-c congregationalism among evangelical Christians:

. . . Secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first. . . . [T]hat was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it.

In suggesting that belief is the least part of everyone’s faith, Luhrmann overreached. While that is clearly true for some religionists, for others belief remains stubbornly primary—the same preference gap in a new guise. Luhrmann overlooked the many believers for whom beliefs about God and his alleged commandments genuinely undergird their faith—to say nothing of countless unbelievers who left their churches precisely because they could no longer assent to outmoded doctrines, discovering only later that for them, no vestige of congregational practice still held the power to compel.

Who Are the Congregational Humanists?

For the first time, we have numbers. Among the “nones,” those who tell pollsters they have no preferred religious identity, only 28 percent responding to a July 2012 Pew Research Center survey said that “belonging to a community of people who share your values and beliefs” was very important to them. No group surveyed answered this question with less enthusiasm. Of course, the “nones” are a broad group of which atheists and humanists compose only a minority. An online survey of atheists by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga revealed an unexpected subgroup that researchers Christopher F. Silver and Thomas J. Coleman III dubbed the “ritual atheists.” Members of this subgroup rejected supernaturalism while embracing rituals borrowed from congregational life. If Silver and Coleman’s ritual atheists are equivalent to my congregational humanists, they’re a fairly select fellowship (just 12.5 percent of survey respondents).

Varied evidence suggests that congregational humanism appeals strongly to younger unbelievers. First, as Greg Epstein and James Croft describe in this special feature section, interest in on-campus humanist chaplaincies has mushroomed. (Secular humanists find the very idea of humanist chaplains absurd—the preference gap again.) As Croft and Epstein document in their article, there’s robust interest in new humanist congregations with little connection to the existing movement, most of which borrow freely from the “Sunday meetinghouse” playbook. Then there’s the hypothesis advanced by Atheist Nexus founder and former evangelical preacher Richard Haynes. In a June 2013 blog post, Haynes argued that the “newer atheists”—young people abandoning today’s churches and moving toward atheism—differ markedly from the youth our movement recruited in the past.

While their predecessors may have attended churches or synagogues associated with a traditional denomination … these “newer atheists” were … involved in nontraditional evangelical churches. … It was at their church’s rock-and-roll youth group, that these “newer atheists” walked down the aisle (or raised their hands) to accept Jesus into their heart. … It was at these churches where they felt love and acceptance in a very powerful way.

Haynes has counseled no small number of these young people whose background so parallels his own. He reports that they complain of

feelings of great loss associated with leaving their church families. They speak of the vacuum created when the feelings of love and acceptance were lost (regardless of the many strings attached) . . . someone from church was always there prepared to provide arms to hug, a shoulder to cry on, and an ear to listen.

If Haynes is correct, these individuals have higher expectations regarding community support than those who fled more traditional churches.** Congregational humanism should benefit from their numbers.

Three Humanisms, One Narrative

Given these developments—and the articles comprising this special feature section—can we construct a coherent narrative of humanism’s secular, religious, and congregational threads? I think we can.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an approach we would recognize today as religious Humanism was clearly ascendant. Those were heady times when no lesser light than Ralph Waldo Emerson could proclaim:

There will be a new church founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church of men [sic] to come … but it will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters; science for symbol and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry.

In this section, Hugh McDonald profiles the German-British philosopher F. C. S. Schiller. As early as 1903, Schiller presented Humanism (so named) as an alternative to both supernaturalism and a naturalism he considered sterile. He rejected gods and dogmas but held that human consciousness possessed an immaterial essence that raised it above the realm of the merely material. This position is clearly transcendentalist and hence genuinely religious despite its rejection of traditional supernaturalism.

On a more popular level, reformists on the liberal frontiers of Christian and Jewish tradition had long been blending theological skepticism with congregational practice. Exemplars include the Transcendentalist Unitarian Theodore Parker, Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler, and “freethought preacher” John Emerson Roberts.

Organized religious Humanism budded from religious liberalism near the turn of the twentieth century. It crystallized with the first Humanist Manifesto (1933), signed by thirty-three humanist ministers and the philosopher John Dewey, which explicitly characterized humanism as a “new religion.”

But Dewey had a dark side, at least from the secular humanist point of view. In his 1934 book, A Common Faith, he regrettably split the meanings of religion and religious. He continued to associate religion with the transcendent or supernatural, while religious was held to subsume any commitment of deep significance. (John Shook’s essay in this section views Dewey’s stratagem with approval. Yet it ably captures the tensions between Dewey’s stated naturalism and the idealism implicit in his view of “religious” moral energy as a force in human affairs.) Again, from the secular humanist viewpoint, Dewey’s definition of religious sowed confusion, leading many twentieth-century humanists who weren’t religious at all to go on claiming the label religious humanist.

In this connection, it’s worth remembering that much as he is admired in the movement today, Dewey was at best a reluctant humanist. Corresponding with activist Corliss Lamont seven years after he signed the Humanist Manifesto, Dewey confided that he signed because “the humanistic manifesto … had a religious context, and my signature was a sign of sympathy on that score, and not a commitment to every clause in it.” He then explained why he described himself as a naturalist and not as a humanist, objecting specifically to Schiller’s treatment of humanism, which he viewed as “unduly subjective.”***

In the mid-twentieth century, some initiatives we would now recognize as congregational were instead pursued under religious auspices. In 1968, the American Humanist Association (AHA), formerly an educational organization for tax purposes, obtained a religious tax-exemption from the Internal Revenue Service. This made AHA legally a church, so that counselors it credentialed could enjoy privileges of clergy, including the right to solemnize binding marriages in all fifty states. (More on that later.) Today, of course, the quest to expand opportunities for congregational humanist leaders to officiate at weddings, memorials, and other rites of passage is a centerpiece of congregational humanist activism.

Religious Humanism has arguably lost much of its former influence, yet it speaks eloquently to some. In his essay in this section, retired Unitarian Universalist minister William R. Murry presents religious Humanism as a “third way” between religion and cold atheism. Some will find this approach inspiring; some will challenge its casually assumed Left-liberal social-justice agenda (see my editorial in this issue); and some will wonder whether the religious Humanism Murry champions truly believes anything “unprovable in this world.” If not, we are left to ask whether Dr. Murry’s religious Humanism might not already be more accurately described as congregational humanism.

In contrast, the article by AHA Vice President Jennifer Kalmanson describes a vigorous effort to retool a “legacy” religious-Humanist organization along congregational lines. Some readers will object to her emphasis on weaving charitable work into the life of the humanist congregation, something many secular humanists prefer to approach as individuals—just one more example of the preference gap.

Historically, congregational humanism grew from the same soil as religious Humanism before it. Its history is sometimes difficult to tease out because many early adherents, eager not to be seen as atheists, mislabeled their commitment as “religious.” Still, by the turn of the twenty-first century, individuals had emerged who advocated an unmistakably non-supernatural, post-religious, “congregational” approach. Today, as noted, congregational humanism burgeons.

As for secular humanism, it arose as the hybrid offspring of religious Humanism and the long-established atheist/freethought movement. The term appeared in writings as early as the 1950s; in 1961, Justice Hugo Black misdescribed secular humanism as a religion in a footnote to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Torcaso v. Watkins. Throughout the 1970s, secular humanism served as the mute “whipping boy” of fundamentalist critics such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. No organization existed specifically to defend and advocate secular humanism until the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) was launched in 1980. Its founding document, A Secular Humanist Declaration, received front-page coverage in The New York Times and was printed in full in the premier issue of FREE INQUIRY.

A dynamic emerged in which CODESH and the AHA focused on serving opposite sides of the preference gap. CODESH (after 1996 the Council for Secular Humanism) became the organizational home for humanists who viewed their life stance as explicitly nonreligious, as more individualistic than communal, and as more secular in the sense of maintaining firm boundaries between one’s life-stance commitment and one’s private life. Officially politically agnostic, the Council became an organizational home for nontheists hailing from a variety of political perspectives, from anarchist to Left-liberal, libertarian to conservative. (As noted in my editorial, this diversity was explored in our October/November 2012 cover feature, “Does Secular Humanism Have a Political Agenda?”)

For its part, the AHA catered to a broader range of humanists, including religious Humanists. At the same time (is there a connection?) AHA came to be identified with a rather straitened Left-liberal agenda. In the 2000s this situation began to shift; AHA shed its religious identity effective in 2003, spinning off its religious celebrant program to an adjunct called “The Humanist Society” (Kalmanson’s article provides more background on this). At the same time, AHA’s leadership has striven with varying success to foster wider political inclusiveness and has reached out to young atheists, notably through a “Good without God” billboard campaign whose thrust seems as much atheist as humanist.

For its part, the Council for Secular Humanism remains committed to (surprise!) secular humanism, a comprehensive, nonreligious life stance incorporating (1) a naturalistic philosophy, (2) a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and (3) a consequentialist ethical system—all in a matrix of Enlightenment individualism and an exuberant appetite for living.

Croft and Epstein observe that “religious congregations frequently offer much of value to their members, and . . . the needs those congregations meet are often not met by existing secular organizations.” A quick way to distinguish the triple strands of today’s humanist movement might be to say that congregational humanism and religious Humanism both accept that statement unreservedly (though one seeks to implement it without—and the other with—transcendentalist content). Secular humanists are those who, by contrast, feel no unmet need for experiences their former religious community provided that their present secular organization does not. They know (in the words of—of all people—Ross Douthat) that “community can imprison as well as sustain.” For them, the need for “congregational” experiences—much like the need to, say, believe that their souls will survive into etenity—is just another facet of all they gladly left behind when they left behind religion.

Summing Up

Religious Humanism is not dead. But it has lent much of its energy to an emerging congregational humanist movement that revels in shared ritual and community service without diverting energy into semantic arguments over the meaning of religious. Of course, that’s not for everyone. In the Chattanooga survey, the group apparently equivalent to congregational humanism claimed fewer than 13 percent of respondents. Given congregational humanism’s apparent appeal to the young, that number will increase. It remains to be seen whether congregational humanists will ever outnumber secular humanists, most of whom threw out the bathwater of communalism and congregational life when they jettisoned the baby of religious dogma.

I expect that religious, congregational, and secular humanism will continue to evolve and to coexist. But religious and congregational humanism will likely go on appealing to an audience significantly different from that most drawn to secular humanism. That preference gap seems no likelier to disappear from humanism than from the domain of religion.

Still, from my admittedly secular humanist perspective, there is something tragic in the rising popularity of congregational humanism among the young. If Richard Haynes is right, we are seeing the human cost of Christian literalism’s late-twentieth-century ghost dance. Young atheists escaping from the mega-churches and other pillowy evangelical settings have been victimized by infantilizing institutions. Consider that many in the generation of these youngsters’ great-grandparents strode free from demanding Protestant and Catholic churches, moving confidently into life stances that rejected both religion and the authoritarian trappings of congregational life. (For example, among German freidenkers who streamed to America following Europe’s failed revolutions of 1848, it was common to direct that one’s death be marked by no ceremony or memorial of any sort.) For today’s young atheists, damaged as they were by their evangelical upbringings, such a radical redefinition seems to lie outside their range. How sad that the most energetic sects of Christianity’s last few decades are now disgorging refugees so wounded that real secularism is more than many of them can grasp for.

A Note on Capitalization

Because humanismgenerically and secular humanism specifically are not religions, and because that distinction has considerable importance, FREE INQUIRY does not capitalize those terms. At least on its own authority, religious Humanism is a religious life-stance, and so we capitalize the H there only.—The Editors

*At a 2010 symposium at the Center for Inquiry–Transnational, psychiatrist James Thomson invited a diverse roomful of seculars to sing “Amazing Grace.” I was there; I felt sullied. I wrote about it in “Why Seculars Don’t Sing,” FI, April/May 2012.

**Admittedly, in all of this I am giving short shrift to humanists who did not break from some faith tradition in the course of their own lives. In defense, I can only offer that the distinction between religious and secular humanists seems to matter more to individuals concerned with how far to distance themselves from their own previous faith traditions.

***Corliss Lamont, “New Light on Dewey’s Common Faith,” Journal of Philosophy 1, 1961.


Beattie, Paul. “Humanism: Secular or Religious?” FREE INQUIRY, Winter 1980/81.

Douthat, Ross. “All the Lonely People.” The New York Times, May 19, 2013.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Worship,” from The Conduct of Life. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860.

Ferguson, David. “Atheism Study Authors: Congratulations, Non-believers, You’re Just Like Everybody Else.” The Raw Story, July 2, 2013.

Flynn, Tom. “A Secular Humanist Definition Setting the Record Straight.” FREE INQUIRY, Summer 2002.

Haynes, Richard. “Understanding Newer Atheists.” Brother Richard’s Life without Faith blog, June 19, 2013.


Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).