Religious vs. Secular Humanism: What's the Difference?

Secular vs. Religious
Secular vs. Religious. Lucy Lambriex/Moment/Getty

The nature of religious humanism and the relationship between humanism and religion is of profound importance for humanists of all types. According to some secular humanists, religious humanism is a contradiction in terms. According to some religious humanists, all humanism is religious — even secular humanism, in its own way. Who is right?

Defining Religion

The answer to that question depends entirely upon how one defines the key terms — in particular, how one defines religion.

Many secular humanists use essentialist definitions of religion; this means that they identify some basic belief or attitude as comprising the "essence" of religion. Everything that has this attribute is religion, and everything that doesn't cannot possibly be a religion.

The most commonly cited "essence" of religion involves supernatural beliefs, whether supernatural beings, supernatural powers, or simply supernatural realms. Because they also define humanism as fundamentally naturalistic, the conclusion follows that humanism itself cannot be religious — it would be a contradiction for a naturalistic philosophy to include the belief supernatural beings.

Under this conception of religion, religious humanism could be thought of as existing in the context of religious believers, like Christians, who incorporate some humanist principles into their world view. It might be better, however, to describe this situation as a humanistic religion (where a pre-existing religion is influenced by humanist philosophy) than as a religious humanism (where humanism is influenced to be religious in nature).

As useful as essentialist definitions of religion are, they are nevertheless very limited and fail to acknowledge the breadth of what religion involves for actual human beings, both in their own lives and in their dealings with others. In effect, essentialist definitions tend to be "idealized" descriptions which are handy in philosophical texts but have limited applicability in real life.

Perhaps because of this, religious humanists tend to opt for functional definitions of religion, which means that they identify what appears to be the purpose of function of religion (usually in a psychological and/or sociological sense) and use that to describe what religion "really" is.

Humanism as a Functional Religion

The functions of religion often used by religious humanists include things like fulfilling the social needs of a group of people and satisfying personal quests to discover meaning and purpose in life. Because their humanism constitutes both the social and personal context in which they seek to reach such goals, they quite naturally and reasonably conclude that their humanism is religious in nature — hence, religious humanism.

Unfortunately, functional definitions of religion are not much better than essentialist definitions. As is pointed out so often by critics, functional definitions are often so vague that they might apply to absolutely any belief system or shared cultural practices. It simply will not work if "religion" comes to be applied to just about everything, because then it won't really be useful for describing anything.

So, who is right — is the definition of religion broad enough to allow for religious humanism, or is this actually just a contradiction in terms?

The problem here lies in the assumption that our definition of religion must be either essentialist or functional. By insisting on one or the other, the positions become unnecessarily polarized. Some religious humanists assume that all humanism is religious (from a functional perspective) while some secular humanists assume that no humanism can be religious in nature (from an essentialist perspective).

I wish I could offer a simple solution, but I cannot — religion itself is much too complex of a subject to lend itself to a simple definition that might produce a resolution here. When simplistic definitions are attempted, we only end up in the morass of disagreement and misunderstanding that we witness above.

All I can offer is the observation that, very often, religion is defined in a highly personal and subjective manner.

There are objectively discernible qualities which are common to religions and which we can describe, but in the end, which of those qualities take precedence will vary from system to system and from person to person.

Because of that, we must allow that what we describe as the basis and essence of our religion cannot necessarily comprise the basis and essence of another's religion — thus, a Christian cannot define "religion" for a Buddhist or a Unitarian. For the exact same reason, those of us who have no religion also cannot insist that one thing or another must necessarily comprise the basis and essence of a religion — thus, secular humanists cannot define "religion" for a Christian or a Religious Humanist. At the same time, though, religious humanists also cannot "define" secular humanism as a religion for others.

If humanism is religious in nature for someone, then that is their religion. We can question whether they are defining things coherently. We can challenge whether their belief system can be adequately described by such terminology. We can critique the specifics of their beliefs and whether they are rational. What we cannot readily do, however, is assert that, whatever they might believe, they cannot really be religious and humanists.