Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

My talk: ‘Is Humanism a Religion?’

Embedded here is the video for my talk, ‘Is Humanism a Religion?’, soon to be followed with a transcript to my written lecture.

Some thoughts:

  • This is the last time I ever read a prepared lecture. This method might be appropriate for presenting a paper at an academic conference, but it is boring and overly dense for a public talk;
  • The audience spent way too much time in discussion period on whether or not Humanists have sacred principles and not nearly enough on discussing the implications of identifying as ‘religious’;
    • I am a bit surprised, because I think it’s boringly obvious that Humanists treat the intrinsic value of human wellbeing/flourishing/happiness as sacred: anyone who does not affirm this value, at least through decisions and behaviour, is very unlikely to be part of a Humanist community, and while there is discourse as to what wellbeing looks like, there is no debate over whether or not this value obtains;
    • Several discussions afterwards with audience members suggested that for those who were quite willing to accept that humanists have sacred values, this was insufficient to shift some of them from a definition of ‘religion’ focusing on supernatural beliefs;
    •  I will probably change the way I approach definitions and terms in the future to avoid running afoul of our distaste for the very idea of identifying as ‘religious’;
    • In the future, it might help to have a moderated discussion period, rather than an open one;
  • I should’ve spent more time talking about how the process of interpreting the meaning of that value in practice is analogous to what [other] religious groups such as Christians or Muslims are doing with their holy books, and less about the socio-structural determination of sacred principles. I thought this would illustrate how it is far more salient to talk about social function rather than metaphysics when trying to understand religion, but this just ended up being distracting;
  • Did I mention that reading a dense essay was bad form? Oy. I will definitely restructure this entirely for future iterations.
  • I speak too quickly.

20 responses to “My talk: ‘Is Humanism a Religion?’

  1. Pat O'Brien March 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Unless you are a secret religious apologist you need to stop giving this lecture as you are doing more to upend centuries of progress than any other religious apologist. Your lecture is one big syllogism. Humanism is not s religion, get over it, find some other group to annoy.

    • Said Simon March 4, 2012 at 1:04 am

      I’d be interested in hearing what your particular objections to my thesis are, and some feedback on the particular points I made, if you’re up for it. Also, I don’t think the word ‘syllogism’ means what you think it means.

  2. Pat O'Brien March 4, 2012 at 1:34 am

    Perhaps I used the word syllogism a bit loosely. You said, for instance, that there were many things that we do or say that are mirrored in religions, therefore we should call Humanism a religion. Well, there are similarities between a baseball team and religious groups but no one would say that baseball is a religion (though some fans might disagree). The point is your premise in wrong, so your conclusion is wrong IMHO.

    My biggest concern is that religious people use the “Humanism/ Atheism are religions too” argument. The reason they do this is so when we ask for politics, say, to be secular, they argue that if we are a religion, and we get our way they should too. In other words, you play into their hand, you empower them, and in the example above – They would be right.

    I think secularist and especially Humanists have a hard enough time getting our message across without those in our ranks giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And please don’t try the “not all religions or religious people are bad” argument. I don’t care about them, I care about the minority who are loud, aggressive and seek political power. We can’t give them any ammunition.

    I hope this makes my position more clear.


    • Said Simon March 4, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      To be precise, I said that the similarities between Humanism and other religious communities lie in (1) the organisation around sacred principles and (2) the practice of symbolic rituals and customs designed to reinforce those principles. Then I said that these two things are what anthropologists and psychologists typically consider the defining characteristics of religion. I’m not sure where baseball teams come into the picture, and I think that had you watched my talk in its entirety and paid closer attention to the – admittedly rapidly spoken – arguments I was making, you would be a bit more discerning in what particular features of my arguments you find problematic, and which points in my premises you find ‘wrong’. Please do excuse me if I’m misjudging you, and you have indeed paid attention to what I’m saying; if this is the case, I would appreciate further explication, as my hope has always been to start discussions rather than end them.

      It disturbs me that you, a representative for CFI and a leader of the sceptical community, have suggested that I ‘find some other group to annoy’, and that in the process of my honest attempts at engagement with and presentation of social science research on religion, I am ‘giving aid and comfort to the enemy’. As an academic, my only enemies are those who seek to constrain or suppress discourse. As a member of the humanist community, I think our long-term goals are best served by seeking to better understand ourselves and others at a variety of levels, and not to self-censor out of fear that our words will be taken out of context by political opponents.

      I wonder, just what do you hope to achieve by advocating for my excommunication, or at least my voluntary exit from the community and my silence on this issue?

      • Pat O'Brien March 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm

        A syllogism (Greek: συλλογισμός – syllogismos – “conclusion,” “inference”) is a kind of logical argument in which one proposition (the conclusion) is inferred from two or more others (the premises) of a certain form. (From Wiki) Can we agree on that? If so, then your conclusion (Humanism is a religion) is based on false premises. Your first premise, that Humanists organize around “sacred principles” is incorrect. There are no “sacred” things in Humanism as I see it, we are always open to new information and to changing our minds in the face of new and powerful evidence. Your second premise, that we practice “symbolic rituals” takes that term more out of context than my use of the word syllogism. For instance, I was married by a Humanist, this could be considered a ritual, but for my wife and I it was a public declaration of our commitment to each other, and on an other level a legal contract. To conflate something like that to a religious ritual is to denigrate our marriage and to force your definition on others.

        I also think that if we hold to what anthropologists and psychologist ‘typically” understand we will learn nothing. Times change, people change, definitions change. Science, it is said, is progressive and cumulative, we throw out what does not work and keep what does. So it should with philosophical thought. It seems to me that by adhering to old definitions we take a step back from creating a secular society. We need to create new terms and definitions, we need to frame things the way we think is best, based on evidence, not simply accept what has come before.

        As a freethinker and yes, a representative of CFI Canada, I hold the concept of freedom of speech and the right to voice one’s opinion as close to sacred as a Humanist can come. You may say and write anything you please and I will do nothing to stop you except use the power of argument and persuasion, which is how we like to solve all our problems, by presenting arguments and hoping they find a home.

        You can say what you want and so can I and I say that by framing Humanism as a religion you do more harm than good. I have given you examples of how I see this harm playing out, I would be interested to hear how you see your argument making society better.

        Finally, I apologize if I offended you or gave the impression that I want to silence you. I am simply pointing out the dangers I see in your argument. I am passionate about stemming the new, increasing tide of religious bullying I see and when I am passionate I tell it like I see it.


      • Said Simon March 4, 2012 at 9:50 pm

        As I illustrated with the example of the British Humanist Association, humanist organisations officiate marriages, offer funeral services, and even hold coming-of-age ceremonies and ‘baby namings’ – that last one surprised me. These sorts of things are typically described as rituals by social scientists, because they hold symbolic value when performed. Indeed, a public declaration of mutual commitment in the form of a marriage ceremony is among the most foundational and ubiquitous rituals of human society. While I understand why you may not want to attach the term ‘ritual’ to your own marriage, it certainly sounds to me by the way you’ve described it to fit the definition. If you would like to argue that the definitions of social scientists are inappropriate for referring to the phenomena of your life, I’m certainly willing to hear your thoughts.

        One weakness to my talk was that I did not properly explain what I meant by ‘sacred principle’. The term, as I use it, refers to a principle which serves as the foundation around which a community is organised, and which that community is unwilling to question. The sacred principle for humanists appears to be that all human beings deserve to be happy, free, to flourish, or to otherwise experience some state of well-being. While many humanists, including myself, are likely to take an intellectual position that nihilism is true, and that moral truths are an absurd notion, the humanist community nevertheless would not welcome or entertain actual scepticism of the principle. What do you think would happen if I suggested that there is nothing humanist about treating genocide or female genital mutilation as bad things? What do you think the response of the humanist community would be if I said with all earnesty, ‘honestly, I don’t really care if people starve to death in Somalia; I don’t know them personally’? There are moral principles within the humanist community that would be beyond the pale to honestly doubt, or even seriously question. I call them sacred; again, this is a term common in the social sciences for referring to values or beliefs that occupy a foundational social and semantic place forbidden from legitimate questioning within a given community.

        I certainly agree with your characterisation of science as progressive, but I don’t think that there are many problems to definitions used by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and a great many philosophers currently engaged in studying religion. They seem to me to work very well in facilitating the study of human morality, tradition, and social organisation. If you object to them on political grounds, or would prefer that they remain within academia where they will be understood with proper nuance, I can certainly imagine already why this might be the case.

        I do appreciate your apology. Telling me to ‘annoy some other group’ and suggesting that merely by raising this question and offering my thoughts I was undoing ‘centuries of progress’ was surely an impolitic moment for you.

      • Pat O'Brien March 4, 2012 at 11:39 pm

        I’ll be brief here by using another analogy. Those who oppose same sex marriage claim that marriage has always been defined as a union between a man and a woman and that to change the definition is dangerous. That, it seems to me, is absurd. If we are going to progress in society we need to be willing to change definitions to suit the times and changing societal norms. Perhaps we need to re-define “sacred” or “ritual”. Unfortunately I don’t think this would work because the word comes with so much baggage. We don’t need more baggage attached to the word Humanism.

        I still have not heard a real-world example of how calling Humanism a religion helps or benefits or in any way advances the cause of secularism. I still maintain that it takes us back, re-hashing arguments I hoped were won long ago.

        Instead of “religion” to describe Humanism, how about “worldview”?

    • Said Simon March 4, 2012 at 11:56 pm

      I’ve been focusing on the similarities between Humanist communities and other religious groups, and on the appropriate terminology for discussing those similarities, over strategic arguments for identifying as ‘religious’ for two reasons. The first is that it is an area in which I am most comfortable, as a social scientist. I am most comfortable saying ‘here is what seems to be the case’ in this situation than I am offering arguments as to the practical benefits of doing so, and I therefore feel that a discussion of those benefits is best had only with active and diverse input from other activists. The second is that I do not believe that there are many within the humanist community who would be willing to identify as ‘religious’ even if it did have strategic benefits if they did not first believe that it was true, or at least true enough not to be a lie.

      I think the term ‘world-view’ is inappropriate for describing Humanism and Humanist communities. This is because the implication of ‘world-view’ is, to me, a sort of paradigm. It implies a set of beliefs as to what makes up the world and how the world should be best understood. I’m not denying that such a thing is present in Humanism, particularly in the status of science and naturalism as a method of knowledge acquisition, but I don’t think it captures the subject of my discussion here. That subject is the interaction between sacred principles, as previously defined, and symbolic practices to establish and re-establish those principles within our community in the form of rituals, celebrations, or regular gatherings of the sort. Furthermore this subject is typically considered ‘religion’ by social scientists, and so while I would be willing to entertain the notion that we should introduce new terms to replace that one, I would first like to achieve an acknowledgement that the old one, ‘religion’, could be truthfully used to refer to Humanism. Only then can we talk about its strategic merit, since we could view it as one honest option amongst many.

  3. Ian March 5, 2012 at 12:30 am

    I see merits to both sides of the argument.

    To rephrase Simon’s original argument: Religion (in academic circles) can be considered a communal action centred around a belief system that holds several axioms self-evident (aka something sacred). Humanism considers the advancement of human flourishing to be a moral good. Since this claim cannot be skeptically tested (without a leap of logic to define the word good), Humanism shares the major distinguishing feature of religion. Furthermore, religions invoke shared experiences around these axioms (aka rituals), which Humanism also does. Therefore, Humanism may be considered a religion.

    Pat’s original comment that the argument is a syllogism can be seen by breaking Simon’s into propositions:
    a) Religion is…
    b) Humanism…
    From which the conclusion follows. I don’t believe that this invalidates the argument (as any logical argument generally follows from its propositions) but Pat’s point is that the definition of religion is made to force the desired conclusion.

    I recognize and share Pat’s concerns about the religious right, especially since they hold a formidable amount of political power in this continent. I also wonder though if we may be able to sideline them from the debate – although the media loves pitting extreme views against one another.

    So I see the remaining questions:
    a) What do “real” people consider religious?
    b) What are the political advantages/disadvantages to calling Humanism a religion?
    c) How do we change the definition?

    The first question hasn’t been addressed yet, and I’m not sure if there’s any research into this. It may be that the public perception of religion is closer to the academic version than Pat thinks, but it may also be that people’s view of religion is very coloured, giving rise to the “spiritual, not religious” and people who “don’t do religion” but still believe Jesus is magic (there are obviously other options here). If the overall view of religion is negative, we may simply want to avoid the label for that reason.

    On the second question, Pat raises an important objection, but I disagree with his claim that there are no advantages to calling Humanism a religion. Just off the top of my head we can consider all of the current advantages of established religions: easy charitable status, the right to perform marriages (without jumping through hoops), chaplains on campuses (which means better established campus groups), and space at interfaith tables. Some of these may be possible by other means, but the easy way (so to speak) would be Simon’s.

    Additionally, by continuing to act as a counter-culture movement (i.e. maintaining the non-religious denial) we necessarily attract certain people and turn away others. We often lament that our numbers aren’t bigger and that we have difficulty attracting a more mainstream non-church going audience (recall that 40% of Vancouver is non-religious by the census). Perhaps our insistence on semantics bores some people who may view our groups as anti-religious. We also gain allies in liberal religions, who can aid our promotion of social justice and fighting the dangerous influence of the religious right.

    On the last question, we know that the definitions of words are fluid (like marriage, gay, etc.) so if we decide to push our definition, we need a strategy to bring this version of religion to the collective consciousness. When I asked this of Simon at the event (I didn’t post the Q&A because it got sidetracked on the word “sacred” and the is-ought divide), he responded that we don’t need to actively change the word – or even adopt it – by just doing things that religions do (performing marriages, getting chaplains, etc.) we will move the definition in our favour. I think the wisdom in this approach is to not needlessly divide our movement along one of its (many) fault-lines, but rather to move us toward doing things instead of simply talking about them (which is only entertaining for so long).

    Finally, because this is the longest comment I may have written without breaking it off into my own blog post, I might recommend (but not necessarily endorse) UofC Complexity Theorist Stuart Kauffman’s 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred for further discussion on the secular/scientific approach adopting what has been traditionally religious language.

  4. Marilee Welch March 5, 2012 at 3:08 am

    I forget who said it during the question period, but someone mentioned that maybe instead of calling ourselves a religion, we should focus instead on attempting to phase out the use of the world religion (as applied to other belief systems and world views) entirely. In the field of Religious Studies, when one is speaking of “religions” in general, we often use the term “world view” as it is much more inclusive. Is Humanism a world view? Absolutely? Is it a religion? That word has too many definitions and has too much baggage attached to it to be able to use it loosely without heavily qualifying each statement you make that uses the world “religion”. I believe that labeling Humanism a religion is confusing (for the general public) and would just lead to the same sorts of arguments that already happen when anyone attempts to argue that Buddhism, Confucianism, or Marxism are or are not religions… the consensus you get will depend entirely on the group you are with, as there is really no academic or popular agreement. There is especially a lack of popular agreement on the definition of the word religion, and so if we are attempting to appeal to the general public, then maybe using a phrase like “world view” would be the most useful and the safest bet.

    In terms of the implications, the reason I focused my questions on sacredness, is because I believe that there are implications when one implies that I find something or anything sacred, or when one implies that anyone should find something or anything sacred. But… moving on from that, since you feel we already spent too much time on that subject…

    During your talk, you mentioned that if we called ourselves a religion, then we could work with other religions on humanitarian goals. We could align ourselves with other religious groups in order to do charity and activism. I wonder, though, if that is something we would even want to do? Personally, I would not want to do that. Missionaries and other religious charity workers often employ the tactic of metaphysical blackmail. Metaphysical blackmail is something that I find absolutely disgusting and reprehensible. There are VERY few religious charities who do charity work without employing metaphysical blackmail to some degree. I actually cannot think of a single religious organization or charity that does not resort to metaphysical blackmail, although if anyone knows of any, then please do correct me. I, personally, would want no part in doing any charity work with such people, as such work is usually misguided and often does much more harm than good.

    • Said Simon March 5, 2012 at 4:27 am

      Regarding your fears on an alliance with religious groups for the purposes of activism, I think that your strong objections to missionary charity are both entirely right – and I share them – and also perhaps a bit pre-emptive. I think that it would be possible to create alliances that do not involve such things; indeed, it may be that our presence in such coalitions would enable us to decrease the prevalence of the phenomenon, as it would allow us to offer the benefits of cooperation at the price of secularism in a given campaign. I am not able to tell you of a particular religious charity that does not do such things, though I’m very uninformed on that front. However, even simply joining a coalition of religious groups calling for more, and more intelligent, aid initiatives for the developing world would be a benefit. To name one example off the top of my head. In any case, this is exactly the kind of discussion where diverse input and the addition of some expert knowledge would be valuable.

      Regarding your sense that the very term ‘religion’ has become too contentious to use, I can definitely see your point. I mean, I study terrorism, and that word is certainly among the most contentious around. Yet, like terrorism, the term ‘religion’ shows up in many different places, and is used frequently within many difference discourses. It is everywhere in common language. To suggest that ‘worldview’ should gain in currency may be true, but I’m sceptical of the potential for it to actually happen. Conversely, in existing social science scholarship that does explicitly study and discuss religion, there are typically less contentiously termed phenomena that we can identify as, if not wholly constitutive of religion, essential components of it. ‘Sacred values’ are one such thing. Incidentally, a good definition from Scott Atran in his article on ‘sacred barriers’ to conflict resolution simply treats them as principles that are inviolable and hold moral imperative within a community. The conclusion I draw is that while there might not be one single ‘proper’ definition for religion, according to which Humanists may or may not be a religious group, there are several definitions with solid scholarship and thought behind them, such that we can say with far more certainty: ‘there are ways in which Humanism can be legitimately understood as a religion, without at all being esoteric about terminology.’

      I found in surveying standard dictionaries that a surprisingly large number of definitions omitted reference to the supernatural or to scripture, and I’ve noted that Durkheimian definitions seem particularly popular in academic literature. I have no idea if either of these findings are more broadly representative and if it would matter if they were.

      • Pat O'Brien March 5, 2012 at 6:05 am

        Simon, you seem to be doing mental gymnastics worthy of Cirque Du Soleil to try and shoehorn the term religion into Humanism. I’m sorry to be such a non-nuanced person but I do have some experience with just the sort of thing you are talking about.

        Several years ago BCHA organized a group, the name of which escapes me, to examine areas of cooperation between Humanism and various religions. It was to be a group of representatives from all the major religions and Humanism. BCHA underwrote virtually the entire set of meetings which were poorly and sporadically attended by all but the Humanists. Those religions with much deeper pockets than BCHA barely covered the cost of the coffee for one meeting. I am afraid that outside academia, reality paints a different ecumenical picture. The fact is you can get all the warring religions of the world to meet and be polite, but suggest that a Humanist group join them and suddenly they find a common cause.That is the reality of the world I see.

        As for dictionary definitions or definitions by relatively unknown authors (I would bet a substantial amount of money that on any random street corner in Vancouver you would be lucky to find one or two people out of ten who have even heard the name Durkheimian) they do hold much currency in the public’s mind. Everyone has their own version of religion, and for the religious, I don’t see any who give Humanism more than lip service as a legitimate group to associate with.


    • Mclean Edwards March 5, 2012 at 5:03 am

      I was the one to bring up that perhaps we should avoid the term religion.
      As it is appropriate, I’m copying here some text I emailed to Simon about his talk:

      “””I believe we already have a word which gets at how religions and
      humanism are similar: world view/world outlook, and I like for
      instance the metaphor of operating system. However, there are so few
      religions to which the average person is familiar with, that calling
      Humanism a religion would have an effect of implying merely that
      “Humanism is like Christianity” or “Humanism is like Islam” as from
      reading definitions of religion, they often seem tailor made to try
      and group together mainly the Abrahamic religions. Remember that in
      the Peace of Westphalia, freedom to practice religion meant freedom to
      practice one of only three sanctioned religions: Catholicism,
      Lutherism, and Calvinism. The words “world view” are better, since it
      instead compares an element rather than the whole.”””

      “”The downside is that more words are needed: “humanist world view”,
      “humanist community”, “humanist moral outlook”, but using the word
      religion does imply “humanist ritual”, “humanist sacred texts”,
      “humanist authority”, “humanist supernatural metaphysics”, which
      simply don’t exist. Now, there are definitions of religion that you
      can use and modify to try and get around this, however for a movement
      to adopt a category rather than a philosophy paper is a different
      matter: the philosophy paper can easily state which definition to use
      and modify it, the movement has to work in the messy and ill-defined
      semantics of the real world. If the word religion were to be used, it
      would be preferable in my view to be modified into a two-word thing to
      specify how it is different from Abrahamic religions, and to avoid the
      “Oh, so it’s just like Christianity” issues we already have in
      communicating our ideas of a non-supernatural world view. In
      practice, the modification is usually a negation or close to it:
      “nonreligion”, “religious alternative”, “replacement of religion”.”””

    • Ian March 5, 2012 at 9:00 pm

      There are numerous interfaith examples of Humanists/Atheists working together with religious groups for social justice with no proselytizing from either group. I think the argument that the religious only do good work because they get a change to “employ metaphysical blackmail” is a strawman at best and poisoning the well at worst. Just think of your own charity work: Do you do it to promote your own worldview, to make yourself feel good, or out of a desire to help those less fortunate? These feelings are generally universal, and dogmatic religions have been intelligent enough to abuse people’s compassion for their own advertising.

      Here’s a direct example (since we’ve only been talking theory and these claims are better debunked by real evidence) of an atheist group working with one of the most evangelical Christian groups of all – Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) to rebuild homes in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.

      • Pat O'Brien March 5, 2012 at 9:10 pm

        I am persuaded that Humanist groups can work together with religious groups. Although it seems it is student groups who do the getting along. The only openly religious person I know who works with Humanist and atheist groups is Barry Lynn (not sure of the spelling) who is head of a group that supports separation of church and state. These people are the small exceptions, not the rule.

        I have still not seen a convincing argument that Humanism should be called a religion.


  5. Marilee Welch March 5, 2012 at 3:11 am

    (wow. i should i have proof read that. for some reason i typed “world” instead of “word” like a billion times.)

  6. Mclean Edwards March 5, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Re: Sacred Principles
    I think the discussion on sacred principles was important: it was a central tenet to your thesis, and an aspect that many of us had trouble understanding the full definition of, and suspected it might not be entirely correct to label Humanism as having these.

    In particular, is thedesire for the happiness of others really on the same level as an article of sacredness? We talk about how this desire may be a result of evolution, the chemistry of why it feels good, and so on. We don’t talk or question it often since a) it is hard and finicky for non-philosophers to discuss fundamentals b) we generally assume we are comfortable with this assumption. Yes, in some ways this is like a sacred principle, but I’d argue that it is a robust principle: one partially supported by evidence and reason and stable given perturbations to one’s ethic.

    Although it can be taken as an axiom, desiring the happiness (or well-being, or fulfillilment) of others can also be derived as a conclusion to other value-based axioms, sometimes using evidence. I’ll ennumerate some (in the format ” -> “):

    1. Feeling good -> it feels good to help other people
    2. Attaining goals/self-interest properly understood -> by social contract, yet get benefit from helping others
    3. Power attainment -> you get political/emotional capital by helping others
    4. Efficiency/Progress -> happy people can be more efficient
    5. Noble projects -> Happy people are more creative
    6. Peace -> Happy people are less violent
    7. Information increase (~ negative entropy) -> Happy people acheive new information more efficiently, and have more power to do so
    8. Virtue ethics -> happy people are more able to self-fulfill and be virtuous (depending somewhat on virtue choice)

    As being compassionate can be a conclusion rather than an axiom, I’d considered it closer to adopting the principle that it is logical to be logical, than an arbitrary matter of sacred faith. While ultimately reduceable to a matter of belief without evidence, I believe that the reason we don’t discuss or question it more often is more akin to the reason we don’t question using basic logic rather than some sacredness inherent to the axiom/conclusion of compassion. As such, compassion is an ethical perspective, a worldview we share, rather than a sacred notion driven by authority or dogma, and taboo to question. While it could still be called a sacred principle in a way, doing so makes it lose these important distinguishing aspects.

    • Said Simon March 5, 2012 at 6:26 am

      Regardless of the way that one reaches or justifies the principle that all human beings deserve to be happy/well/flourishing/etc, I would say that, from my observations, it is a principle that one must hold in order for one to be accepted within the Humanist community. In other words, it is sacred not because it must be asserted as a foundational, ethical axiom – you have done an excellent job of showing that it need not be treated as axiomatic, and have offered the same set of justifications that I use for reaching it – but because it has a special, imperative status. Not only must all Humanists believe in the rightness of this principle, but they socially enforce and reinforce it, and it serves as the core around which the humanist community is built in identity and practice.

      Again, the reason why it is sacred is because it is the focus for both thought and action. It is the centre of gravity that binds the semantic and social spheres together. Were it only the former, and were we only to treat it as something that we have reached through philosophical enquiry, then I’d be far more comfortable calling it a world-view. But because the Humanist community does not countenance serious doubt of it, and because the Humanist community includes rituals meant to symbolise and institionalise it, I think ‘world-view’ is insufficient. It isn’t only a kind of meta-ethical and normative paradigm.

      All this could certainly be used to justify the argument that we should avoid performing marriages, establishing chaplaincies, or otherwise presiding over ritual activities because we should not become a religion.

    • Ian March 5, 2012 at 9:11 pm

      I agree that we can derive compassion and most of the “rules” about making life better, but that doesn’t eliminate the (sacred) axioms, it just moves the goalposts. So rather than “be good to people” we have a slightly deeper set of axioms. Even arguing along the lines that certain beliefs/values could be preferentially selected by evolution (i.e. a compassionate society is more successful than a deceptive one) still doesn’t argue whether that should be the case and merely invokes the naturalistic fallacy instead.

      I think I have to agree with Simon that Humanism requires some sacred principles (call them axioms or principles if it’s less uncomfortable to) but I also recognize and agree that the public perception of the word religion will not necessarily match some of the academic versions. I would be very interested to see some polling research on how the broader public defines religion and what variations (location, age, gender, religious background, etc.) affect the definitions.

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