JR'S Free Thought Pages
Humanism and Religion by A. C. Grayling (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century, 2007, pp. 121-24)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
A rose might indeed smell as sweet by any other name, but names matter nevertheless, and it especially matters that the terms 'humanism' and 'religion' should have clear definitions so that the temptation to describe the former as a species of the latter can be scrupulously avoided. Some succumb to this badly mistaken temptation because they wish humanism would be a movement with a credo that would sustain the formation of communities of like-minded folk, who can hold mutually supportive meetings and the like - making it a substitute for membership of a congregation of the faithful in one or another faith. But humanism is not such a thing, and religion is a quite different thing.
Humanism is a general outlook based on two allied premises, which allow considerable latitude to what follows from them. The premises are, first, that there are no supernatural entities or agencies in the universe, and second, that our individual and social ethics must be drawn from, and responsive to, facts about the nature and circumstances of human beings. Humanism, in other words, starts from the fact that human beings exist in an entirely natural universe, and that the human good must be shaped accordingly. There can be much debate about what the human good can and should be, ranging from philosophical abstractions to the politics of the hustings; but it is distinctively humanist only if it eschews efforts to decide these matters by expressly invoking the idea that there are supernatural powers in the world whose purposes and desires dictate what the human good is to be.
Religion, by contrast, is expressly premised on belief in the existence of supernatural agencies, and moreover ones that in some way matter to the human good. In typical cases of religion it is supposed that the supernatural agencies have a personal interest in the obedience or conformity of human beings to their purposes; and such religions further suppose that human petition or blandishment can alter the supernatural purposes in question, chiefly in the form of prayer and sacrifice, the latter ranging from lit candles and novenas to the slit throats of sacrificial victims. But unless an outlook premises the existence and (usually) interest of supernatural beings, and demands belief in and a response to their existence, it is not a religion and should not be called one.
Neither Buddhism in its original Theravada form, nor Confucianism, are therefore religions; they are atheistic in the quite literal sense of this term. (Do not be misled by the Chinese use of the notion of 'tian' into trying to interpret it otherwise.) They are philosophies. This applies also to Stoicism, for half a millennium before Constantine the outlook of most educated people in the classical world. The Stoics had a notion of reason (the 'logos') as the ordering principle of the world, which those anxious to impute theistic leanings to them interpret as a deity in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic sense. But it was no such thing; it was a principle of rational structure, of Tightness and fittingness in the natural order, to which ethical endeavor - so they argued - should fit itself. The Stoics did not 'worship' it, petition it or expect it to change its mind about something in response to a lit candle - in short, they did not think of it as a person or as conscious or purposive in any way. And these things it would have had to be to qualify as a deity, and the service of it as a religion.
The theatre and ritual of religion - the Mass, communal prayer, weddings, funerals and the like - answer a need many people have for communal celebrations of significant moments in life and death. Humanist groups can offer non-religious versions of some of these observances for those who do not construct their own way of joining with friends and family to affect them. But it is a failure of imagination not to see that when people go to art galleries or concerts, or enjoy gardening or country walks, or get together in the pub or round the dinner table with friends, that they are in different ways expressing themselves aesthetically and socially in the same (and arguably better) way as people who band together in congregations. When illiterate peasants gathered from their dispersed farms in church every Sunday they had a dose of communality, theatre, and art (in the form of graphic and highly-colored murals relating the New Testament story and the punishment they would receive if they disobeyed their priest's injunctions) art. Human resources have expanded since, and people can choose their own ways of satisfying the needs once met by that strict and propagandistic ration.
Humanism, though, is not even a philosophy, for it has no teachings beyond its two minimal premises, and obliges us to do nothing other than think for ourselves. Since it does not constitute a body of doctrine, a sequence of arguments, an adumbration of principles, or a code of living, and requires no belief in anything beyond what empirical evidence defeasibly and revisably requires, it is as far from being a religion as anything could be, for a religion is all these things and more.
Religious folk try to turn the tables on people of a naturalistic and humanistic outlook by charging them with 'faith' in science or 'faith' in reason. Faith, they seem to have forgotten, is what you have in the face of facts and reason; the point of the Doubting Thomas story, remember, is that it is more blessed to believe without evidence than with it, and Kierkegaard was not the first to welcome the very absurdity of what faith requires in the way of belief, since it thereby makes faith all the more a leap of will.
No such thing is required to 'believe in' science or reason. Science is always open to challenge and refutation, faith is not; reason must be rigorously tested by its own lights, faith rejoices in unreason. Once again, a humanistic outlook is as far from sharing the characteristics of religion as it can be. By definition, in short, humanism is not religion, any more than religion is or can be a form of humanism.
A C Grayling Bio
Anthony Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. For several years he wrote the "Last Word" column for the Guardian newspaper and is a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and the Financial Times. He also often writes for the Observer, Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Independent on Sunday and New Statesman, and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He is the Editor of Online Review London, Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine. In addition he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British Philosophical Association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and has been involved in UN human rights initiative. Anthony Grayling is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, and a member of its C-100 group on relations between the West and the Islamic world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 2003 was a Booker Prize judge.
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