Skip main navigation

Can you be religious and a humanist?

Read about the different senses in which one might describe oneself as ‘religious’ and whether that leaves room to also describe oneself as ‘humanist'

The short answer to the question above is that it depends upon what you mean by ‘religion’ and ‘humanism’. Many modern definitions of humanism would appear to preclude one from being religious and a humanist. Many people argue that humanism is by definition ‘non-religious’. Nonetheless there are people who will describe themselves as ‘religious humanists’, and we can find examples of people who have used that description in the past. Here Andrew Copson asks ‘Is being a religious humanist an option today?’.

In asking this question, we run quickly into the knotty problem of what ‘religion’ is and what it is about a person that allows us to describe them as ‘religious’. Let us take the example of saying that someone is ‘Jewish’. We may mean one of at least four things:
  1. that they believe in the God of Moses, God’s special regard for the Jewish people, and the wrongness of certain actions because of the prohibition against them by God – ie we mean that they have religious beliefs;
  2. that they attend a synagogue, and engage in Jewish rituals there and in the home – ie we mean that they participate in religious practices;
  3. that when asked if they are religious, they say they are, and they say that their religion is the Jewish religion – ie we mean they have a religious identity;
  4. that they say they are Jewish, but do not mean by this that they are in any way ‘religious’ – ie we mean they have a cultural identity associated with a particular religious heritage.
These four dimensions – belief, practice, religious identity, and cultural heritage – apply to almost all religions in real life. Some people are ‘religious’ in all four dimensions, others in one or more.
Immediately we can see that those in category 2 or 4, if they are not also ‘religious’ in one or more of the other senses, could easily be humanists.
Categories 1 and 3 are trickier. It would be difficult to hold religious beliefs about the nature of the world and morality and simultaneously hold humanist beliefs. Of course, people’s beliefs can be messy and not everyone’s worldview is coherent.
There are some, however, who feel the need to qualify the humanism we have described in the course by prefixing it with the adjective ‘secular’ to distinguish it from an alternative ‘religious humanism’ in which one can hold religious beliefs and and can describe oneself as a ‘humanist’. This use of a qualifier is popular in the United States. However, many British humanists, including Andrew Copson, object to the use of this qualification:
The hybrid term ‘Christian humanism’, which some from a Christian background have been attempting to put into currency as a way of co‐opting the (to them) amenable aspects of humanism for their religion, has led to a raft of claims from those identifying with other religious traditions – whether culturally or in convictions – that they too can claim a ‘humanism’. The suggestion that has followed – that ‘humanism’ is something of which there are two types, ‘religious humanism’ and ‘secular humanism’, has begun to seriously muddy the conceptual water…
Language, of course, is mutable over time, but there are good reasons to try to retain coherence and integrity in the use of the nouns ‘humanist’ and ‘humanism’ unqualified. Subsequent to their earlier usage to describe an academic discipline or curriculum (whose followers, obviously, might well be religious), ‘humanism’ and ‘humanist’ have been used relatively consistently as describing an attitude that is at least quite separate from religion and that in many respects contrasts and conflicts with religion(s). Of course, many of the values associated with this humanism can be held and are held by people as part of a wider assortment of beliefs and values, some of which beliefs and values may be religious (people are complicated and inconsistent)… These vagaries of human behaviour and self‐description are a poor reason for dismembering such a useful single conceptual category as ‘humanism’ is in practice, especially when there are words more suitable to combine with the religious qualifiers that would lead to no such verbal confusion. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper used ‘humanitarianism’ for this purpose, urging co‐operation between ‘humanists’ and religious ‘humanitarians’. The use of ‘humanistic’ in front of the religious noun in question is also preferable (eg ‘humanistic Islam’ or ‘humanistic Judaism’). It performs the necessary modification but also conveys the accurate sense that what is primary is the religion at hand and that the qualification is secondary.

Question: Read the further reading. Is the description ‘Christian humanist’ a helpful term today or would a different description, such as ‘humanitarian Christian’ work better for religious people who share a human-centred approach to morality?

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