Will Humanism End or Save Religion?

Here are excerpts from Sunday’s address, “Will Humanism End or Save Religion?” This is a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time–as well as wondering if it’s the right question, as you’ll see below. I’m curious to know what you think, as well as your opinion of Adler’s 3 spiritual pains and what religious humanism might do to help the ongoing process of the naturalization of religion.

For over a hundred years the mission of Ethical Humanism has focused on ethical action, on building communities in which people can support each other and inspire and organize good works.

But lately it has occurred to me that Ethical Humanism’s mission might be wider than that. Our mission, should we chose to accept it, may be to save religion itself.

Now that may sound bizarre, or even infuriating, if you agree with many secular humanists that religion is an overall negative force that should be destroyed.

But there are competing definitions of religion. For some people, religion means only supernatural belief, dogmatism, hierarchy, anti-scientific attitudes.

For me, religions are simply systems of beliefs and practices that people create to address the peculiar problems that we human beings face, due to our having evolved self-consciousness.

Different people have described these peculiar problems in their unique ways, and I think Ethical Culture’s founder Felix Adler did as good a job as any in his description of what he called the three spiritual pains of being human:

  1. The need for meaningfulness. Each of us wants to feel that our life matters, that we have some importance.
  2. The fact that there is suffering in the world—because there is suffering and by definition we don’t like suffering, we want there to be a reason or a compensation for suffering.
  3. The need for ethical guidelines—how are we to act in order to maximize meaningfulness and minimize suffering?

At least in Western religion, the answers the major religions traditionally gave to these pains were based on supernatural beliefs. People continue to drift away from traditional religions as the old answers are undermined by lack of evidence, by competing supernatural claims, or just by practically not working very well to improve people’s lives.

America is considered the most religious nation in the developed world, yet the fastest-growing religious group here is “unaffiliated.”

Some of my best friends are unaffiliated. But I don’t think it would be a good thing for America to become the land of the unaffiliated. We all need to affiliate with a community, we all need an extended family of support and comfort, and I believe we have a duty to support and comfort others, because as long as humans continue to be self-aware we will likely continue to have the peculiar problems of the three spiritual pains.

If the old answers to those pains are satisfactory to less and less people, what answers do Ethical Humanism offer? Here are some Ethical Humanist answers as I understand them:

  1. Meaningfulness is not provided for us. We have to create meaningfulness in our lives by acting as if life has meaning, by caring for others and ourselves with kindness and fairness. When people talk about “spirituality” I interpret it as a longing for meaningfulness, which for social creatures like us comes through connection—to other people, to nature, and back to ourselves.
  2. Suffering is often the result of randomness or complicated forces beyond our control. We can use our intelligence and compassion and work together to reduce suffering, but there will likely always be some suffering in human life. We can at least learn from suffering to be more compassionate toward the suffering of others.
  3. What is ethical is enhancing meaningfulness and reducing suffering by acting in such as way as to elicit the best in others and thereby in ourselves.

Finally, to the 64-million-person question: What does religious humanism need to do to attract people who otherwise will remain unaffiliated? I have three suggestions:

  1. Speak more clearly to people’s spiritual pains and share our answers to them.
  2. Include more stories, art, dance, poetry, myth as myth. Magical stories are fine and good as art, inspiration, entertainment, ways of working out ideas . . . just not as practical answers to real problems.
  3. Try more ways of embracing sensuality. The reason why so many so-called members of traditional religions only practice or show up for services on holidays is because those are generally the services with the most strongly sensual rituals. So far organized humanism tends toward rather a sparse aesthetic. But a majority of people like sensual stuff–bells and smells, statues, beautiful objects, music, words with special significance, dance and movement—all manner of natural things that can be used in an entirely reality-based way.

We often celebrate seasonal changes and other life events with stories and songs and symbols and food and drink. But what more could we do to acknowledge the sensual nature of human life? And how might we encourage more variety among Ethical Societies and other forms of religious humanism to serve the needs of different kinds of people?

I used to think that religion was overall a force for superstition and divisive, unprovable beliefs, and I looked forward to its demise. But now that I look at religions as uniquely useful communities organized to address human problems, I see their potential, and I no longer think about the future of religion as either continuing to promote supernatural belief or disappearing. Rather, perhaps the humanist worldview will both end and save religion, by being a part of religion’s rebirth as it sheds old unhelpful and divisive notions and practices, and becomes hopeful and motivating, yet wholly natural and reality-based.

This transition will take a long time, with some bursts of activity and some fallow periods; that’s how nature works. We see that in miniature in the winter and spring, and in the long-term in evolution. Ethical Humanism is our little part in that great shift. All we can do, is to do our part as well as we can to be a welcoming home for unaffiliated humanists.