What do humanists think about religion?
Drawing a distinction between the people who identify with a religion (eg Catholics), the religion itself (Catholicism), and the associated institutions (the Catholic Church) can help us when considering this question.
‘We are not anti religion. Anti threats to freedom, personal autonomy, equality, etc, and therefore those aspects of religion that promote that. The rest of religion we have no quarrel with.’
Humanists are sometimes accused of being anti-theist or anti-religion. Some undoubtedly are and some treat religion with anger or ridicule. They might be described as ‘militant atheists’. (It is of course open to question whether the word ‘militant’ is appropriate to describe those who do not commit or encourage violence.)
However, their anti-theism is often directed against those aspects of religion that are the basis for discrimination, oppression, and the abuse of human rights, or against those claims that are an affront to reason. They may also direct their hostility towards the power and influence of the organised churches and other religious institutions that have been responsible for violence and human suffering throughout human history – some anti-theists may have experienced such suffering themselves. It is less common that animosity is directed towards individuals in the general religious population - not all believers can be held responsible for the worst aspects of their religion.
Many humanists, however, are less hostile towards religion. Some may feel a cultural affinity towards it, or a fondness for its art, music, rituals, or its sense of community. Others may find it of historical and anthropological interest. Many will, while believing religious beliefs are mistaken, accept that there are many good people who are religious and many who can be motivated by their faith to do good things.
We have already learned about the importance to humanists of tolerance of other people’s ways of life. There’s no inconsistency between being tolerant towards people whilst also disagreeing with their beliefs or institutions.
Perhaps, however, tolerance has its limits:
‘Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.’
Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies
Blowing up tube trains, or murdering MPs, for your religious or political beliefs is not OK.
Some argue that ‘tolerance’ is not enough, as it implies putting up with something you think is bad. They say we should respect those who are religious and respect the importance of faith in those people’s lives. However, respecting the person doesn’t necessarily require a respect for the religion itself.
Tolerance and respect also do not mean one cannot challenge and criticise opposing beliefs:
‘Toleration is the disposition to fight opinion only with opinion: in other words, to protect freedom of speech, and to confront divergence of opinion with open critical reflection rather than suppression or force.’
Simon Blackburn, Does Relativism Matter?
Many humanists will recognise that religion is not something that is going to disappear; differences in answers to life’s big questions are likely to be with us for a long time. They will therefore see the value in engaging in dialogue. Here Humanists UK’s Dialogue Officer, Jeremy Rodell, provides a humanist perspective.
As well as making a positive humanist contribution to building a peaceful, plural, secular society, participation in dialogue plays an important part in promoting understanding of humanism.
Dialogue is not the same as debate. Debate is adversarial, with each side trying to persuade an audience to adopt one rival view and ultimately to win. It has its place, but it is not the only way to engage. Dialogue is not about winners and losers. The aim isn’t to convince anyone that you’re right and they’re wrong, but to listen, question, and understand their position and help them understand yours. Black-and-white simplifications and false generalisations are often used as weapons in debate. In dialogue, they are enemies.
But dialogue does not mean avoiding areas of disagreement. Mutual understanding means understanding differences as well as common ground. If dialogue achieves no more than box-ticking, photo opportunities, or mutual admiration, it is of limited value. Equally, there’s a big difference between ‘bad disagreement’ – characterised by black-and-white thinking, polarization and conflict – and ‘good disagreement’, which opens contention up in way that enriches understanding and enhances relationships.
One of the outcomes of dialogue is often the recognition that, despite differences in belief, identity, and practice, core humanist values of kindness, freedom, and human rights are widely shared among liberal thinkers from most religious backgrounds. The bigger challenge is between liberals and fundamentalists on all sides.