Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are you a religious humanist? Take my brief/awesome quiz!

(This is part 3 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

There is such a thing as religious humanism (is there?), aka humanism with a theology. In my last post I discussed institutional religious humanism, and in this one I will present an account of individual religious humanism.

My account of individual religious humanism is more problematic, but I will attempt it anyhow, if only to get the attention of those individual religious humanists. It’s important to target these people, as there are many Jews that do believe in God (however loosely or vaguely) but do not identify strongly with a Jewish denomination, and I think it could be valuable to the growth of humanism as a movement to point out to them ways in which they are ‘closet humanists’ (or to steal a phrase from Karl Rahner ‘anonymous humanists’). So, to my targets: my goal is to convince you to identify as a “religious humanist.”

First of all, go read the third Humanist Manifesto. Does it speak to you? Does it reflect a lot of your core principles? What is missing? Even if it’s not the most inspiring document to you, do you find yourself assenting to most or all of its statements?

Second of all, take this short quiz (I apologize that it is geared towards Jews, or at least those involved with western religion):

1)      Do you and your God share the same ethical values and priorities?
2)     A core Jewish value is that each person has inherent dignity because they are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. Without b’tzelem Elohim, would you still believe in the basic dignity of each person?
3)     Do religious rituals (esp. prayer) primarily bring you closer to God or closer to other people?

How’d you do? Here is some of my reasoning behind these questions:

1)      I’ve always found it a bit suspect when a person’s God is in total agreement with that person’s moral judgments. Frankly, it smacks of idolatry—posing a God as a complete affirmation of one’s own moral compass. Many people on both sides of the political spectrum will hand-pick the religious laws they prefer and ignore others. I’m not calling this hypocritical; I’m just calling it the natural human response to receiving a tradition that is not entirely humane. Thus my particular Jewish community reads the Bible and find a God who always commands social justice, and never commands genocide. I respect this kind of reading, but I want the inherent secularism in it to be acknowledged.

2)     A non-secularist would answer ‘no’ to this question. They truly see God as the foundation of value and worth in the world, without which there is no foundation of value and worth.

3)     Only in liberal religion will you find people who pray regularly, but not as a way to feel close to God. These people are focused on the human world. If you don’t like the term “religious humanist” then at least use “culturally religious,” as it appears that you are drawn towards religious ritual as a matter of cultural gathering, and not as a means of communication with God. (My apologies to God2-niks who think this question sets up a false dichotomy, but face it, if you find God “in-between” people, then expect me to peg you as a kind of religious humanist.)

So? Have I convinced you to call yourself a religious humanist (or at least, ‘culturally religious’)?

The only question remaining is, so what? So what if I (hopefully) cornered you into taking on this label?

I don’t know. This is as far as I’ve gotten in this line of thinking. You tell me what it means to persuade liberals to call themselves ‘religious humanists.’


  1. Thanks for writing! I'd like to push back a little on question 1, and perhaps 2 a bit because they're related. Some religious traditions hold that humans can discern the good through conscience/natural law (see Thomas Aquinas for one example)- and conscience is still God-given in these traditions. Granted, in the tradition following Aquinas you still have the duty to inform your conscience through tradition, teaching, scripture, etc., but I think it would be fair to say that believing in the ability of humans to discern the good does not necessarily put someone in the humanist category, unless you are making a much bigger argument about not just liberal religion, but larger religious traditions as well.

  2. Yes, thank you for raising this conscience-AND-tradition issue. I suppose I would say that, at some point, conscience (intellectual or moral) and tradition WILL conflict... and then the question becomes, which is given priority? If you believe in the ability of humans to discern the good... but only up to a point, beyond which we have to give way before the superiority of scripture, then you are not passing my 'humanist test.' Does that answer your concern?

  3. Not quite. From what I can tell, the "primacy of conscience" in Catholic tradition holds that you need to follow your conscience no matter what. This certainly becomes more complicated/controversial when it conflicts with a traditional scriptural interpretation or teaching (maybe then someone would suggest your conscience is ill-formed), but I can still see how someone could believe in God and yet hold to individual conscience as the final say in making ethical decisions--in other words, recognizing a God and religious wisdom/teaching but, as you take that into account, ultimately relying on individual conscience to interpret that in specific instances. Would that count as humanist?

    Someone more well-versed in Catholic moral theology than me could perhaps give a better explanation of the nuances of the primacy of conscience teaching. But even if I'm wrong about that, I still think the point applies in a hypothetical sense.

  4. If we are using "humanist" to mean "secular ethicist" (as indeed I am attempting to do in these initial posts), then yes, it sounds like this Catholic tradition has some kind of strong secular ethics in it. Of course, who is to say if one's ethics are ill-formed? If my deeply held values are somehow hurtful to the individual/collective, then perhaps they are ill-formed. If they are fine and healthy, but negate scripture, then what makes them ill-formed?