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Is Humanism a religion?

Some are happy to describe humanism as a religion; others are not. Read about the similarities and differences.

There is an alternative way of looking at the problem of whether one can be religious and a humanist, and that is to ask whether humanism is itself a religion. The majority of humanists would say not, but again it comes down to a question of definition.

Some people adopt a more essentialist definition of religion. They look for the essential attributes of religion and will often highlight the beliefs in supernatural beings, realms, explanations, or influences over our lives. On this definition humanism cannot easily be defined as a religion.

‘Only if an outlook has as its premise the existence of one or more supernatural beings from which flow requirements about how we should live can it claim to be a religion.’
AC Grayling, Handbook of Humanism

They might also draw further distinctions between humanism and religions: scientifically rational, rather than revelatory; evidence-orientated, rather than faith-orientated; promoting a negotiated social order, rather than an ordained social order; valuing human freedom and meaning, rather than the following of some ultimate plan; human-centred ethics, rather than divine will.

Others will adopt a more functional definition of religion and ask what purpose religion plays in somebody’s life, for example, the satisfaction of certain personal and social needs. For them, humanism plays the same role in people’s life as religions do and so there is nothing controversial about defining it as a religion.

Both types of definition have their limitations. Essentialist definitions can be overly simplified and fail to do justice to what religion means to many people. Functional definitions can become so broad that almost any belief or practice can be defined as a religion. Some might prefer to simply ignore the question, claiming that the most satisfactory answer is to say that it merely depends on how you personally define religion: ‘Is humanism a religion? It’s up to you.’

What they might highlight, however, as more interesting is where there lie clear differences between humanism and many of the world’s largest and most well-known religions. Humanism may attempt to answer many of the same questions that religions attempt to – existential questions about identity, reality, meaning, and ethics – and its answers may, like religion, lead to a set of beliefs and values for human beings to live by. However, humanists recognise that the answers to these questions are provisional. Reason and evidence may shed further light on them in the future. Nothing is set in stone.

Unlike many religions, no one invented or founded humanism. Nor is it a tradition in the sense of an unbroken handing on of ideas down the generations. Humanism arose in different societies quite separate from each other in time and space. It picks its wisdom from many diverse sources rather than from a single text or authority figure. For humanists, things are not true or good simply because a particular individual said them; instead, good ideas are those that have stood the test of experience, whomever they come from.

Of course, there are those who will argue that, in reality, many religions share some of these features. But if they do, they less often tend to make a virtue out of them in the manner that humanism does.

Questions: Can, and should, the word religion be expansive enough to include humanism? Is whether humanism is a religion or not merely a question of definition? Does it matter whether we define humanism as a religion or not? (The further reading below may help you to answer these questions.)

This article is from the free online

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

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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