Is Humanism a Religion?

Image: Natalia Figueredo
A frequent claim that religious people make is that humanism is just another religion. But is this true?

The answer depends on the definition of "religion" that is being used.

Religion is defined as:

1) The belief in a superhuman or supernatural controlling power, especially a god or gods;
2) An institutionalized or formal expression of this belief;
3) A pursuit or interest to which one ascribes supreme importance. 

In light of the first two definitions, humanism is not at all a religion. In humanism there is no god and therefore no institutionalized expression of belief or worship in a god or any kind of deity. 

In light of the third definition, however, humanism could be considered a religion of sorts. But the third definition is usually taken to be a colloquial or idiomatic use of the term religion, as in, "I love ice cream so much, my religion is ice cream!" 

We all have beloved areas of interest -- topics or activities -- that could be called "religion" if we were using the word in the third sense. For example, since I value the written word and write every day, I could say that writing is my religion, but only in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Certainly writing as religion is not the same thing as forming a set of all-encompassing beliefs and forms of worship around a figure named Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha or Brahma or any other kind of otherworldly figure. I don't gather in a group to worship Pens or Paper or pray to the almighty Keyboard. 

Image: Larm Rmah

So What Is Humanism Then?

According to Understanding Humanism, a humanist "trusts the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic); makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals; believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same." 

Perhaps my favourite definition of humanism comes from The Humanist magazine:

"Affirming the dignity of each human being, [humanism] supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values -- be they religious, ethical, social, or political -- have their source in human experience and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.

Adding to the joyful quality of humanism, The Humanist Society of Western New York says that humanism is:

"A belief that when people are free to think for themselves, using reason and knowledge as their tools, they are best able to solve this world's problems. An appreciation for the art, literature, music, and crafts that are our heritage from the past and of the creativity that, if nourished, can continuously enrich our lives. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy of those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.

And if any faith exists in the humanist's life, according to Bette Chambers, former president of the American Humanist Association, "it is the deep-felt conviction [...] that human love is a power far transcending the relentless, onward rush of our largely deterministic cosmos." This love, "coupled with empathy, democracy, and a commitment to selfless service," undergirds the faith of a humanist.