October 2013 – Is Humanism a Religion?

churchWhen, at the close of this discussion, each person was asked for a brief answer to the topic question, the answers ranged widely- don’t know, don’t care, potentially yes, definitely no. It’s not a simple question because it’s not always clear what constitutes a ‘religion’ and what ‘humanism’ means.

Humanism was said to share very few of the conventionally defining characteristics of religion, an exception being the use of rituals (humanist events such as weddings and funerals are increasingly common.) Others, including an external power or deity, teachngs of salvation, authoritative scriptural texts interpreted by specialists, supporting stories or myths, and sacred places and icons, are not characteristics of humanism (though a few may be hinted at in the “new atheism” of Dawkins, Harris, and others.)

Much of the discussion focussed on the concept of organization. A sense of community, a common worldview, need for a structure or framework, tendency to form disparate groups within the overall community – all of these are shared by religions and humanism. The danger expressed was in the humanism community adopting the undesireable traits that are often associated with organized religion such as the need for rules or creeds, the unwarranted imposition of political or personal pressure, the rise of leaders or a privileged group, and a tendency to zealousness.

The primary factors differentiating humanism from most religions, as expressed by discussion members, were freedom of thought (rejection of dogma), critical and rational thinking, a willingness to learn and be open to change, rejection of the need for a supernatural source of ethical and moral guidance (though not all humanists reject the concept of a god or universal commonality), and inclusiveness.