Skip main navigation

Is humanism a product of religion?

Is humanism defined in opposition to religion? Is it something that has grown out of it? Read about how a humanist might argue for its independence.

Is humanism a rejection of religion?

There are those who say that humanism would not exist were it not for religion. Some claim it is a worldview defined in opposition to a religious way of life, rather than an independent body of thought.

Here Andrew Copson addresses the subject:

‘It would be foolish to deny that in many contexts – whether our own present day, the Britain of Hume, or the India of the Charvakas – humanist ideas have arisen in deliberate opposition to religious ideas and religious establishments that advanced these alternative views.
So is it fair to characterize humanism as merely a response to religion, parasitic on religion for its context? It is true that many (though not all) instances of humanism in the historical record lend themselves to being interpreted as reactions to religion. But the key ideas characterized as humanist have developed at different times and in different places not only in reaction to anti‐humanist religious or political ideas but also out of observation and experience, not as reactions but as independent and positive affirmations or commitments. This is especially important to emphasize in the West, where advocates of a living Christian tradition tend to exaggerate the role of their own tradition in the formulation of shared ideas (and even alternative ideas too).’
Andrew Copson, Handbook of Humanism
Many of the written texts about humanism quoted from in this course dedicate as much as half their length to debunking religion. Religion then looms large in any attempt to define humanism. However, many of these texts were written by people raised in a religious society. Andrew Copson says: ‘As humanists become more distant from religion with passing generations, I think they will be less concerned with it.’

Is humanism the fulfillment of religion?

There are others who argue that humanism represents the fulfillment of religion. The theologian Theo Hobson believes secular humanism is ‘firmly rooted in Christianity’. Rather than having a natural and independent origin, it is a tradition that has evolved or mutated out of the Christian tradition. The Enlightenment thinkers, for example, who inspired much modern humanist thinking were mostly religious rationalists. For Hobson, Christianity therefore provides the origin of, and justification for, the shared values, moral equality, and human rights which humanism promotes.
Hobson believes we need to emphasise humanism’s ‘positive affinity with religion’. He argues that Christians should affirm the positives of secular humanism, since much of it is rooted in Christian values. However, he believes they should also criticise it as a limited, ultimately thinner worldview that cannot explain itself on its own.
‘The thin universalism of secular humanism is the proper icing on the thick religious cake.’
Theo Hobson, God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values

Andrew Copson responds by highlighting that Hobson uses a minimal definition of secular humanism to mean, ‘the belief that all human lives matter and should flourish, and that part of such flourishing is the freedom to express one’s core beliefs.’ The definition held by most humanist writers and organisations today would include more than that: ‘a commitment to morality as a prudential enterprise, rooted in human nature and culture; the idea of meaning as something created by humans rather than something discovered; and the sole use of the human faculty of reason applied to evidence as a way to discover truths about external reality.’ It is less easy to see how these ideas find their roots in Christianity.

Copson also argues that Hobson ignores much of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature in his historical account and the influence they had on both humanist and Christian thought. Of course religious thinking will have had some influence on humanism, but the reverse is also true. AC Grayling argues that much of Christian ethics was borrowed from the concurrent humanist philosophy once it became apparent that the morality of the New Testament was unlivable. Instructions to avoid making plans, refuse to marry, and abandon all one’s possessions may have worked for those who believed the world was about to end, but they were untenable in the real world. Instead, therefore, much of classical Greek ethical thought was moulded to fit Christian theology.

Both humanism and religion have fed off each other.

Question: If religions had never existed, would humanism exist?

This article is from the free online

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now