Religious Humanism

April 1996

What is Religious Humanism? I can offer here only the sketchiest outline of the most salient features of this distinctive approach to religion, which originated in the U.S. among Unitarians at about the time of the First World War. The movement eventually embraced two groups: one consisted of some Unitarians, Universalists, and Ethical Culturalists; the other was a group of academics. Notable among them were Roy Wood Sellars, a member of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan, A. Eustace Hayden, professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and John Dewey, a member of the philosophy department at Columbia University. All three signed a very controversial document in 1933 entitled A Humanist Manifesto and all three wrote books contributing to the literary canon of religious humanism.

The development, of course, was far more complex and less progressive than I have suggested, but the early religious humanists were historicists and nominalists. Sellars, for instance, said, "Once we have cut the supposed bonds with the supernatural world, we see that religion is, and always has been a social product." They also thought that the metaphors of past religions were dead, and that the new metaphors created by the religious humanists provided an appropriate direction for religion in their time.

The religious humanists were convinced that religion was created by humans, not gods, who always speak the words of humans. These humanists provided a functional interpretation of religion: it was created by humans to serve certain purposes. Hayden spoke of religion as "the mother of dreams." The task is to impose human purpose upon the cosmic process, to shape the course of the flowing stream of life with its millions of conflicting drives, so that it will converge toward the practical expression of creative idealism. Sellars maintained the function of religion was to preserve and further human values. Generally, humanists thought of religion as intelligent participation in the human quest for the good life in a shared world.

Theirs was a religion without God. True, Dewey employed the word God to designate the process whereby the actual is transformed into the ideal, but his friend and colleague Corliss Lamont maintained that Dewey used the term to avoid offending the sensitivities of friends who were theists. However, the word caused such controversy that he repented of having used it. Several statements in A Common Faith about religion require no concept of God, for instance, "Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring values is religious in quality." Hayden used the pragmatic test to judge claims about the helpfulness of the gods: What the gods have been expected to do, and have failed to do through the ages, man must find the courage and intelligence to do for himself. More needful than faith in God is faith that man can give love, justice, peace and all his beloved moral values embodiment in human relations. Denial of this faith is the only real atheism. According to the religious humanists, people can be moral without belief in God. Sellars said, "Morality is primarily a group affair. It is a term for the customs which have grown up through the generations and which are absorbed by each new born individual in his term, much as he takes in the air he breaths." Conscience, rather than being the voice of God in the soul of the believer, was viewed by the religious humanists as a reproduction of tribal morality. To be moral, people do not need the supernatural sanction of a heavenly policeman. Morality must justify itself by its actual working in human life. It is primarily a social product, a historical achievement.

By repudiating the notion of a brain/mind dualism, the religious humanists also repudiated belief in personal immortality. According to Sellars, the new naturalism has realized that personality is in large measure a social product rooted in the social history of the group. The humanists were convinced that consciousness was totally dependent upon the brain; if the brain is dead, so are the mind and consciousness. Sellars maintained, "True religion and the spiritual are within you. They are the only Kingdom of Heaven." But beyond these considerations, the concept of personal immortality had become a dead metaphor. The goal of religion is to promote the spiritual in humans, understanding that spiritual has relevance only between birth and death. In this broad and general sense, the spiritual emerges when there is intelligence of a fairly high order, a sense of right and wrong, an ability to set standards, a drive for creation in art and in social relations, a wealth of imagination. In summary, religious humanists viewed religion as a human creation to contribute to both personal and social well-being. Unlike the traditional understandings of religion, even the more liberal ones, it repudiated belief in God, the belief that humans could not be moral without the concept of God to support morality, and the belief that humans were immortal in any personal sense.

--Mason Olds
Religious Humanism, Autumn 1995

Editor's Note: The AHA issued a statement against "hyphenated humanism" in The Humanist magazine Novenmber/December 2002. President Ed Dorr concluded the announcement with the words, "The American Humanist Association therefore stands for Humanism without modification and without reservation." The entire text of this proclamation can be read here on the AHA website.