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Ruminations on Western Humanism: Secular vs. Religious, or Complementary?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-02-03 08:59:28
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The label "secular humanist" doesn't typically come with the same negative baggage as "atheist," but it has been used by the Christian Right as an epithet for everything they dislike about the modern world. Because of that, there is more than a bit of confusion about what secular humanism really is and what secular humanists really believe.

Humanism as we understand it dates to the Italian the Renaissance. It did not, however, spring fully formed from the writings of a few Italian scholars. These early humanists, principally Petrarch, created a philosophical movement based upon what they discovered in ancient Roman and Greek manuscripts. It includes law, literature, philosophy, politics, science, and more.  But humanist thought can also be found in ancient China, India, and other cultures. Humanism as a spirit of inquiry and thinking has an ancient pedigree and a widespread influence on human culture.

It is worth noting that secular humanists share with other humanists an overriding concern with humanity, with the needs and desires of human beings, and with the importance of human experiences. For secular humanists, it is the human and the humane which must be the focus of our ethical attention. Like other forms of humanism which place man at the center of the universe, secular humanism traces its roots back to the 14th century Italian Renaissance Humanism.

Humanism involves any concern with humans (including human needs, human desires, and human experiences) first and foremost. This often means giving human beings a special place in the universe on account of their abilities and faculties. Humanism is less a philosophical system, a set of doctrines, or even a specific system of beliefs, than it is an attitude or perspective on life and humanity. What differentiates secular humanists from other sorts of humanists can be found in the nature of the concept of secularism. This term can be used in more than one way, but two of the most important are found in secular humanism.

In the first place, secular humanism is necessarily non-religious. This doesn’t mean that secular humanists are anti-religious because there is a difference between non-religion and anti-religion. Although, secular humanists are almost always atheists, it's arguably possible to be a theist and a secular humanist since you don't have to have a religion in order to believe in a god. The “secular” of secular humanism also means that, as a philosophy, it does not give any place to the veneration of things holy and inviolable. Acceptance of humanist principles lies in a purely rational consideration of their value and appropriateness, not in any sense of their having a divine origin or of their being worthy of some form of worship or veneration.

Secular humanism also commonly makes advocacy of secularism a defining principle. What this means is that secular humanists argue for a separation of church and state, for a secular government that gives no special consideration to any theological or religious systems, and for a secular culture that values diversity in religious viewpoints. In a secular culture, religious beliefs are not privileged above any other beliefs (political, economic, philosophical, etc.) and thus protected from public critique. Secularism in this sense becomes a close companion of the humanist principles which value free thinking and free inquiry, no matter what the subject.


Giambattista Vico, considered the culmination of Italian Humanism

While Humanism is critical of traditional religions and religious ideologies, it is sometimes portrayed as a modern, philosophical replacement for religion. Some forms of humanism are explicitly religious. Thus, humanism can stands as both critic of and replacement for religion. Does that make humanism anti-religion because of its criticism, or pro-religion because it acknowledges the role religion has played in human culture and seeks to offer an improved version?  Hard to tell.

Furthermore, the question arises: what sort of metaphysical beliefs do humanists have? Secular Humanists in general  don't have what would be considered a typical metaphysical outlook because they don't normally accept the existence of anything which isn't a part of nature (or, if they do, they don't believe that it is 'more real' than our own existence). So, they are essentially naturalists, explaining the nature of reality in naturalistic and materialistic terms. 

The name Modern Humanism is perhaps the most generic of them all, being used to refer to almost any non-Christian humanistic movement, whether religious or secular. Modern Humanism is often described as Naturalistic, Ethical, Democratic, or Scientific Humanism, each adjective emphasizing a different aspect or concern which has been the focus of humanistic efforts during the 20th century. As a philosophy, Modern Humanism is typically naturalistic, eschewing belief in anything supernatural and relying upon the scientific method for determining what does and does not exist. Logical positivists are usually fond of it. As a political force, Modern Humanism is democratic rather than totalitarian, but there is quite a lot of debate between humanists who are more libertarian in their perspective and those who are more socialistic.

On the other hand, sometimes, religious humanists treat humanism in a religious manner. This means defining religion from a functional perspective which identifies psychological or social functions as distinguishing religion from other belief systems. The functions of religion cited by religious humanists include fulfilling the social needs of a group of people and satisfying the personal needs of individuals. For religious humanists, meeting these needs is what religion is all about. In some way, this derives from a misguided notion of the function of religion, religion devoid of the transcendent.

Humanism as a philosophy today can be as little as a perspective on life or as much as an entire way of life; the common feature is that it is always focused primarily on human needs and interests. Philosophic Humanism can be distinguished from other forms of humanism precisely by the fact that it constitutes some sort of philosophy, whether minimalist or far-reaching, that helps define how a person lives and how a person interacts with other humans.


Botticelli’s Primavera, a humanistic work testifying to the synthesis of the classical and the Christian

Because of the modern conflicts between fundamentalist Christianity and secular humanism, it might seem like a contradiction in terms to have Christian Humanism and indeed, fundamentalists of all stripes argue just that, or even that it represents an attempt by humanists to undermine Christianity from the inside. Nevertheless, there does exist a long tradition of Christian humanism which actually predates modern secular humanism; indeed, its origins are Christian. This is what creates the confusion. Let’s attempt a clarification.


Francesco Petrarca, father of European Humanism

When one speaks of Christian Humanism, one should have in mind the historical movement more commonly referred to as Renaissance Humanism. Let us not forget that Petrarch, while being a humanist was also a deacon of the Church. Indeed, the whole humanistic movement of the 14th century was dominated by Christian thinkers, most of whom were interested in reviving ancient humanistic ideals in conjunction with their own Christian beliefs. Christian Humanism as it exists today does not mean exactly the same thing, but it does involve many of the same basic principles. Perhaps the simplest definition of modern Christian Humanism is the attempt to develop a human-centered philosophy of ethics and social action within a framework of Christian principles. Here a Theilard de Chardin of The Phenomenon of Man fame jumps to mind; also Thomas More and Erasmus. Christian Humanism is thus a product of Renaissance Humanism and is originally an expression of the religious rather than the secular aspects of that European movement. It is what permitted the synthesis of the Greco-Roman and the Christian. Botticelli’s Primavera testifies to such a synthesis.


Thomas More, a foremost Renaissance Christian Humanist

One common complaint about Christian Humanism is that in attempting to place humans as the central focus, it necessarily contradicts the fundamental Christian principle that God must be at the center of one’s thoughts and attitudes. This however represents a misunderstanding of Christianity, for the center of Christianity is not God per se but Jesus Christ; Jesus, in turn, was a union between the divine and the human who continually emphasized the importance and worthiness of individual human beings. As a consequence, putting humans (who were created in the image of God) in the central place of concern is not incompatible with Christianity, but rather should be the point of Christianity, its logos. Christmas within Christianity is much more than a celebration of good will and an exchange of gifts; it is the celebration of the fact that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”


Desiderius Erasmus, perhaps the greatest of the European Christian Humanists

Authentic Christian Humanists reject the anti-humanistic strands of Christian tradition which neglect or even attack our basic human needs and desires while devaluing humanity and human experiences. Here St. Francis of Assisi and his appreciation for the natural as a way to God comes to mind. Thus Christian Humanism does not automatically oppose other, even secular, forms of humanism because it recognizes that they all have many common principles, concerns, and roots. If these clarifications are kept well in mind perhaps humanism can be seen not as the enemy of religion but as a needed bridge between the secular and the sacred, and a proper enlightening dialogue can finally begin.


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