Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Humanism is a religion, atheism is not.

After a long hiatus for which I have no particularly good excuse, I’ve decided to write about something which has bothered me for a while. Namely, that many people – religious and non-religious alike – lump ‘atheism’ into the same category as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, etc. That is, atheism is seen as a religious view.

This is, of course, a mistake: atheism is a physical and metaphysical view. It is a position on the single question of whether a deity of some kind exists.

The above is nothing new for most of those reading, I’m sure. We have many pithy replies available to those who consider atheism a religion: ‘you’re also an atheist about almost every other god, such as Zeus or Ra, and I just go one god further than you’, or ‘atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby’, or perhaps ‘even if there is a god, how would we even know whether it would be the god of your beliefs?’ All of these touch on important differences between atheism and theistic religions. The vast majority of theists have a very particular definition for the God(s) that exist, disbelieve all other proposed deities with as much certainty as any atheist, and their dogma may hinge necessarily upon the condition that their God(s) exist but it goes far beyond that single metaphysical stance. A religion is much more than a belief that a deity exists.

Now let me say something that many of you will find contentious: a theistic position is not only insufficient for something to be a religion, it is also unnecessary. Perhaps even more contentious: Humanism is also a religion.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

There are two ways to understand religions which I think are most productive, analytically. The first is to view it as a cultural system, which according to Margaret Archer’s analytical dualism model – which I have loved since I first encountered it – involves two interacting categories:

  1. A set of propositions about the world, addressing such things as metaphysical or scientific truth, morality, and perhaps aesthetics;
  2. A set of non-propositional practices or behaviours, such as rituals, tastes, and customs.

Under this model, it’s easy to see something like Catholicism or Islam as cultural systems, and something like Judaism even more so. Humanism, on the other hand, doesn’t fit the model as it lacks a meaningful set of non-propositional practices, and perhaps even a consistent ideology.

There is, however, another definition of religion, which I’ve encountered recently, that may lead us to understand humanism differently:

‘Religion is the proposed connection between the order of metaphysical categories that comprise the universe and our own personal order of preferences and values.’

This definition is basically a paraphrase of the one offered by John Finnis (who I must disclose is a practicing Catholic with fairly regressive social views, and primarily a legal philosopher) in an essay on how best to define the good.

This definition is very helpful for me in understanding the philosophical side of religion, as opposed to the sociological side. Basically, it defines a religion as a systematic way of connecting what reality is to how we think it should be. The belief in a deity is thus incidental, and while present in many religions, is not necessary. Indeed, someone could believe that God exists, that God has commandments for us, and yet not believe that there is any reason at all to obey those commandments any more than there is reason to obey the wishes of, I don’t know, Oral Roberts. Conversely, as Humanism by definition requires that one focus on the human condition as the subject of ethical conduct and enquiry, a humanist usually must make certain assumptions about such a focus having metaphysical meaning. Theoretically one could admit that there is no reason to care about the human condition beyond social conditioning, but that kind of nihilism is self-defeating if truly embraced, so I think few people invoke it seriously.

Face it, fellow humanists: we do take it as axiomatic that human beings should be the focus of ethics, rather than the pursuit of some divinely ordained apocolypse or whatever, and we take it as axiomatic that it is good to care about human wellbeing. These are indeed religious views, and they are shared by many theists and atheists alike.


2 responses to “Humanism is a religion, atheism is not.

  1. Naomi Frankel November 27, 2011 at 2:34 am

    It is only a religion if one accepts the definition you propose (which originates from Finnis? or?). And I don’t think that particular definition is sufficiently thorough.

  2. Pingback: We need a more nuanced definition of religion. « Said Simon

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