Lecture 3: A systematic account of humanism

Third lecture in a class on humanism.

I have said that one problem with religious humanism is that there hasn’t been any systematic account of what it means to be a religious humanist. I should state that more precisely: I want to see a systematic account of religious humanism in a style that is popular enough to capture the attention of a wide audience, while scholarly enough to satisfy scholars. 19th century Unitarianism had William Ellery Channing, a good writer who managed to capture a wide audience; Unitarians can also claim Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose prose and poetry continue to shape Unitarian Universalism today. Now maybe it’s a little bit much to ask for another Emerson, but at least humanism could wish for the equivalent of Hosea Ballou, the early 19th century Universalism whose Treatise on Atonement commanded a wide popular audience in its day.

To take a more recent example, the rapid growth of Neopaganism in the last twenty years has been propelled by popular writers like Margot Adler and Starhawk. Now maybe you haven’t heard of Margot Adler and Starhawk, but hundreds of thousands of people have heard of them, and have read their books, and have become Neopagans as a result. Let me put this another way: I see teenagers reading Starhawk, and I see teenagers reading Emerson, but I don’t see teenagers reading anyone who espouses religious humanism.

But it won’t be enough to have a writer who’s popular. Starhawk has convinced a lot of people to become Neopagans because she has offered a comprehensive and systematic account of what it means to be a Neopagan. She has written about how Neopagans can raise their children, how Neopagans can try to make the world a better place, she has outlined a Neopagan ethics, she has shown how Neopagans can create viable and nurturing religious communities. In a sense, Starhawk is even better than Emerson, who may have given us a lot of inspiration for our individual spiritual lives but who didn’t write much about how to create viable and nurturing religious communities. Starhawk is also enough of a thinker that she can be taken seriously by scholars and intellectuals. The general point here is that we need a writer who is popular, and who can be taken seriously intellectually, and who shows people how to live life as a religious humanist.

The closest that I’ve seen humanism come to this ideal has been Bill Murry’s book A Faith for All Season. Although that book is ostensibly about Unitarian Universalism, it is really about humanist Unitarian Universalism. Bill is both intellectually respectable, and covers how one actually might live out one’s humanist faith. It’s not quite the kind of book a teenager would pick up and peruse with pleasure, but it’s written in a fairly popular style. A Faith for All Season comes closest to the kind of systematic account of humanisms that I want to see — unfortunately, as I said it’s not really about humanism.


Let’s do an imaginative exercise, and think together about what might go into a good systematic account of humanism. I’m not going to write such a book, and maybe none of you will either, but I think it’s worth imagining what we might want to have in such a book.

The first thing I’d want in a systematic account of religious humanism would be a compelling history of humanism. I’d want to see a narrative account of where humanism came from, and who its major figures are — who are its heroes and heroines. (Parenthetically, Starhawk did precisely this for Neopaganism when she claimed to trace Neopaganism back to medieval European witches who were essentially exterminated in what she and others call “The Great Burning,” a period in European history when most of the witches were burned.) So, for example, one possibility is to trace humanism back to Renaissance Europe and the rise of reason and rationality; to claim figures like Erasmus, David Hume, Mark Twain, and other religious skeptics; to move forward to institution builders like john Dietrich and maybe even Bill Murry; and to include recent thinkers like Sharon Welch and Anthony Pinn, thinkers who are not well known but whom every religious humanist should know something about. Along the way, such a history of humanism could mention self-professed humanists who are a little better known like Emma Goldman and Kurt Vonnegut.

There is one historical account of one branch of humanism that could serve as a model for such a history. Back in 2001, humanist theologian Anthony Pinn published the book By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism [New York University Press]. In this anthology, Pinn includes writings by some famous and not-so-famous African Americans whom he claims were humanists. So there’s a letter by Frederick Douglass, there’s a section on African American folk expression including blues songs, there are of course selections by Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. DuBois, Amiri Imamu Baraka, and Alice Walker. I remember the first time I read that book, I was very excited to think that Frederick Douglass came to a humanist position late in his life! While I don’t consider myself a humanist, knowing that Frederick Douglass was a humanist, and that W. E. B. DuBois was a humanist would certainly make me feel very much closer to humanism. So that’s one step towards a systematic account of humanism.


A second step towards a systematic account of religious humanism must be a compelling account of what a religious humanist community looks like. I’d define the difference between religion and spirituality this way: spirituality is what you do by yourself, and religion is what you do with other people. In a Christian context, solo prayer is spiritual; going to church is religious. Thus, we need a compelling account of the social side of humanism. When you are part of a humanist group, what does that mean? What are the religious practices of humanist groups?

Another way to frame this issues is like this:– So much of humanism revolves around criticizing other religious traditions, particularly saying how stupid Christian practices are. But I don’t want to know why not to follow other religions — I can figure that out on my own — I want to know why I should be a part of a religious humanist community. What do religious humanists do when they’re together? What organizational principles do they use? How is the way they organize their communities rooted in their philosophical and theological notions? I want to know what a community of religious humanists looks like.


A third step towards a systematic account of religious humanism must be a serious ethics. One of the most important religious questions is, “What ought I do?” and one of the most important tasks of a religious community is to give communal ethical guidance to individuals. Sharon Welch, whom we will discuss later in this class, is one example of what a humanist ethics might look like. I especially like that she links aesthetics and ethics. I once saw her give a lecture on ethics, and she was accompanied by a jazz musician — this was surprising, creative, and compelling. She does not write in a popular style, which is unfortunate for religious humanism, but she has some interesting things to say about ethics.

Ideally, though, what I’d like to see is not a stand-alone book on ethics, as written from a religious humanist point of view. What I’d really like to see is someone who integrates a religious humanist ethics with a vision for religious humanist community, and with a history of religious humanists. So, for example, if we’re going to claim Frederick Douglass for religious humanism, why not take the next step and show how Douglass can serve as an ethical inspiration for all of us — and then go one to show how a religious humanist community can help me act more like Frederick Douglass, and less like the weak-willed schlump I actually am.


Along with a religious humanist ethics, I also want to see a religious humanist politics. Some years ago, two liberal Christian theologians, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, wrote a book called Resident Aliens, in which they argued that Christian ethics are going to keep Christians somewhat separate from contemporary U.S. political culture. Their reasoning was that Christians had to adhere to an ethical standard that was at odds with today’s U.S. politics — so, for example, Christians are called upon to help the poor, but the U.S. political system does not exactly make helping the poor a top priority. Now humanism’s political strategy has mostly been to convince us that politics should be run along humanist lines. But what I take away from Hauerwas and Willimon’s book is that religion is always going to be in tension with U.S. politics. How is religious humanism in tension with U.S. politics? How is religious humanism holding politics accountable to a higher standard? Those are the questions I want answered.


A fifth element of a systematic account of religious humanism will have to be an acknowledgement that religious humanism is essentially a Western tradition. Yes, I know about so-called Buddhist humanists, but I seriously wonder if calling someone a Buddhis humanist is merely imposing a category from Western theology onto a religious system that is neither humanist nor theist. My point here is that humanists have to acknowledge that their roots are Western. Once they acknolwedge that religious humanism is a Western tradition, they can move forward towards figuring out their true place in a globalized world.

So those are some of my ideas of what might have to go into a systematic account of religious humanism. I’d like to see a compelling history of humanism; I’d like to see a serious discussion of what it means to be in a religious humanist community; I’d like to see an account of religious humanist ethics, and of religious humanist politics; and I’d like to see some exploration of the relationship of religious humanism to the Western tradition and to other world religious traditions.

Link to first lecture.

This lecture is copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper. This lecture may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes only, provided this copyright notice accompanies all copies.

9 thoughts on “Lecture 3: A systematic account of humanism

  1. Dad

    There also is Epstein’s book “Good Without God” Although he does use the term non-religious humanism.

  2. Dad

    Continuing from my previous comment: I am confused by the insistence by some humanists that they are NOT religious. Could you explain the difference between religious humanism and secular humanism?

  3. Bill Baar

    Yes Humanism is a product of the West and Liberalism, and yes we like an exponent on par with Channing and Emerson but I find reading the Liberal opposition to Islam offers a voice for Humanism that’s lacking today in the West.

    I’m thinking of people like Akbar Ganji in Iran or the late Dr. Muhammad Farooq Khan in Pakistan: “I am humanist, Muslim, Pakistani and a Pakhtun. To strive for the well being of the whole humanity, to uphold the cause of Muslim Ummah and to exalt the dignity of Pakistan and Pukhtoons is my mission. There is no contradiction between their interests, provided every issue is seen with justice and fair play.”

    Khan’s an explicit Humanist vision seldom heard in the West anymore, which may explain why we ignore them so in the West.

    Also, you’ve been silent on the confrontation between Humanism and Marxism. I’d wager it was Marxism that did in Humanism in the 20th century more than anything else.

  4. Dan

    Dad @ 2 — That’s one of the things that confuses the heck out of me, and one of the reasons I don’t want to call myself a humanist.

    Bill @ 3 — You know, I’ll bet you’re right, and there is a long tradition of Muslim humanism. That would be a really interesting thing to learn about.

    As for humanism and Marxism, what was the confrontation? This is something I haven’t run into. I know the liberal Christians have had difficult encounters with Marxism, but my sense of the humanists was that they pretty much stuck to Western-style democracy.

  5. Bill Baar

    Re Humanism and Marxism…

    Yes, your right, it wasn’t a confrontation. It was more like a subversion of Humanism by Marxism. I’m thinking Corliss Lamont here, and the Corliss Lamont fan was a frequently found type of UU in the Churches I knew in Chicago in the 60s. As one became disillusioned with Communisim, Humanism sort of sunk along with the Soviet Union in ones mind. If Humanism had taken a stronger stand against the inhumanity of Marxism, perhaps it wouldn’t be in the sad shape it is today.

  6. Dan

    Bill @ 6 — Got it. Though maybe there are regional differences here. As a leftist myself, I always thought of the humanists as being at best moderate — the humanists I knew in New England were moderate- to vaguely-liberal Democrats, with a healthy mix of Republicans (you know, the New England Republicans, who were fiscal conservatives but social libertarians). Yes, there was Community Church in Boston, and there was the Charles Street Meeting House, both of which had leftists, but not many people took them seriously. And when you realize that probably half of all Unitarian Universalists in New England have been humanists at least for the past half century, the Community Church folks and the Charles Street Meeting House folks were a tiny minority — never more than 60 people in each of those congregations, compared to thousand of UU humanists in the rest of New England.

    Let me put it another way: I’m a leftist partly out of my religious conviction that we have to take care of the poor. Yet all the humanists I’ve known have been staunch supporters of upper-middle-class liberal values — somewhat regulated capitalism, social programs that support the middle class (e.g., Medicare), etc. If I want real leftists, I would look to the liberal Christians and the Neopagans — two groups with theologies that are not dependent on upper-middle-class values. Interestingly, if your acid test is helping the poor, many so-called conservative politicians with strong Christian ethics are bigger supporters of the poor than so-called liberals — Rick Santorum, for instance, who is reviled by the left, but who did more for the poor than most liberal politicians.

    Come to think of it, I also know more than a few political conservatives who are humanists — and when I say “political conservative,” I’m thinking of people who admire Sarah Palin and would vote for her.

    So while I believe that the Midwestern humanists of the 1960s were leftists, that was not true everywhere, and today humanists do not strike me as at all leftist. I guess I’d look elsewhere for the reasons behind the ongoing decline of humanism.

  7. bstr

    Dan and Dad, i was informed by two of the Humanist that my claim to be a religioust humanist was nothing less than an oxymoron.The apparent reason for their crankiness is insistence that religion, must be, has to be, can only be, in connection to a faith in the Supernatural. In their deep anti-theism they will not see Religion as a social structure having multiple venues. The connection they make with the Supernatural always places religion in some context that raises the status of Reason. Given the errors of the historical process of religion they have a point. But for a religious humanism to mean something of value, this would be the time. Dan refers to Dorien and his discriptive label “Post-Christian”: Today we have another label which being well-understood opens the door to the agency of meaninful religious humanism. Habermas is describing this as a Post-secular age tells us that people continue, despite intellectual and material progress, to hold belief and desires that are described as “religious.” In addition, the Moral Landscape by Sam Harris points towards the discovery of a morality constructed around neurology. There is a place for a sprituality of religious humanism, and we have yet to define it for many Humanist. bstr

  8. Dan

    bstr @ 8 — You write: “The apparent reason for their crankiness is insistence that religion, must be, has to be, can only be, in connection to a faith in the Supernatural.”

    Take that, you non-theistic Buddhists! Take that, you rationalist Confucians! We will impose our Western value systems and our Western insistence that everything is a dichotomy on you, whether you like it or not!

    Now that I’ve gotten my snark out of the way, thank you for a thoughtful comment, bstr. I really like this statement of yours: “Religion as a social structure having multiple venues.” Very nicely put.

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