HUMANISM – RELIGION OR LIFE STANCE? A CRITICAL AND PROVOCATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE OFFICIAL DECLARATIONS
HUMANISM - RELIGION OR LIFE STANCE? A CRITICAL AND PROVOCATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE OFFICIAL DECLARATIONS By Dr Ian Ellis- Jones Vice President, Humanist Society of New South Wales Inc Former President, Council of Australian Humanist Societies Inc A paper presented at the 39th Annual Convention of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS), held at the Pilgrim Theatre, Sydney NSW Australia, on 2 May 20041Is Humanism a religion or a life stance? Almost every Humanist seems to havea view – generally a very strong view – on the matter, but what do the “official”documents really say about the matter? I intend to critically analyse a number ofseminal documents that more-or-less officially purport to define or describeHumanism. The documents that I intend to consider - and they are by no meansan exhaustive compendium of all of the important documents pertaining toHumanism - are the following: 1. Humanist Manifesto I (1933) 2. Humanist Manifesto II (1973) 3. A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980) 4. IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism (1996) 5. Humanist Manifesto 2000 6. Amsterdam Declaration 2002 7. Secular Humanist Values and Beliefs (2002) 8. The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles 9. Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III (2003).1 A copy of this paper was published in Australian Humanist in Spring 2004. 1
Page 2INTRODUCTIONWHAT CONSTITUTES A “RELIGION”?As a working definition, not intended to be used for legal purposes, a “religion”may be defined as any specific system of belief about deity or what is otherwiseconsidered to be of ultimate and inexorable importance or worth, “sacred”,“spiritual” or “divine” (including awe-inspiring) by its members or adherents,often involving rituals, rites of passage, a code of ethics, and a philosophy oflife. (As Sir Julian Huxley pointed out, in Essays of a Humanist, the term “divine”did not originally imply the existence of gods: “on the contrary, gods wereconstructed to interpret [humanity’s] experiences of this quality”, the qualitybeing “not truly supernatural but transnatural”.)WHAT IS MEANT BY THE EXPRESSION “LIFE STANCE”?A “life stance” is a view of life, an outlook upon life, an approach one takes tolife. A life stance may or may not be more formalised as a so-called “philosophyof life” and may or may not be given practical expression in the form and bymeans of rituals, rites of passages, a code of ethics, and so forth.HUMANIST MANIFESTO I (1933)Early in the 20th century Unitarian ministers in various parts of the United Statesof America began calling themselves Humanists. In 1933 a group of 34 liberalHumanists in the USA – mainly Unitarian ministers1 and also philosopher JohnDewey - attempted to enunciate the Humanist principles that seemed to themfundamental.What has since become known as Humanist Manifesto I first appeared simplyas Humanist Manifesto2 in The New Humanist in May/June 1933 (vol VI, No 3).The document was drafted by philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, Unitarian ministerRaymond Bragg, and others. Philosopher Paul Kurtz has referred to HumanistManifesto I as being “for its time … a radical document".Humanism is referred to in Humanist Manifesto I as "religious [H]umanism", aphenomenon which arose out of liberal religion in the early part of the 20 thcentury. The Manifesto was the culmination of a movement among Unitariansthat was already 2 decades old.The Manifesto made no attempt to define what is meant by religion or religiousHumanism per se. What the document sought to elucidate were what wereseen by the authors to be the guiding principles or fundamentals of religiousHumanism.1 In the United States of America the largest number of self-identified Humanists are members of Unitarian Universalistcongregations. Smaller numbers are associated with other bodies such as the American Humanist Association, theAmerican Ethical Union, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.2 “Humanist Manifesto” is a trademark of the American Humanist Association.
Page 3According to Humanist Manifesto I, "[r]eligion consists of those actions,purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human isalien to the religious." Examples given include labour, art, science, philosophy,love, friendship and recreation.Whilst the expression “religious Humanism” was used throughout the Manifesto,the document was still very much a secular one. It was made clear that religionhad to be freed from doctrines and methods which had lost their significanceand which were powerless to solve the problem of human living in the 20thcentury. The document referred to the "changefulness" of religions throughoutthe centuries. Nevertheless, there were certain "abiding values, an inseparablefeature of human life".Religion must be "vital, fearless and frank" – it must meet the needs of thetimes. "To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present."Humanist Manifesto I was grounded in religious naturalism. The universe wassaid to be "self-existing" and "not created". What was needed was an organicview of life. The document referred to the "naturalness and probability" ofthings. (If there is a deity in all of this, it is nature.)There was an express rejection of the traditional dualism of mind and body aswell as an express rejection of any distinction between the sacred and thesecular. "Belief in the supernatural" was dismissed or, rather, seen asinappropriate and outmoded. An anthropological view of religion was espoused:religion is the product of a gradual development due to humans interaction withthe natural and social environments.There was an express rejection of theism, deism, modernism, and themovement and ideas known as New Thought. There was also an expressrejection of the "old attitudes involved in worship and prayer". The alternative?Religious emotions are expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and ina cooperative effort to promote social well-being.And what of the purpose of religion? "[R]eligion must work increasingly for joy inliving", for ultimately we are concerned with "the fulfillment of human life", thatis, "the quest for the good life".In may ways, the Humanism embodied in Humanist Manifesto I is post-ChristianUnitarianism without a creed or supernaturalism.HUMANIST MANIFESTO II (1973)Humanist Manifesto II was prepared by the philosopher Paul Kurtz andUnitarian minister Edwin H Wilson (the latter being a signatory to the original1933 Manifesto and one of the principal founders of the American HumanistAssociation in 1941). The document was signed by almost 300 distinguished
Page 4leaders of thought and action, including Sir Julian Huxley (a self-styled religiousHumanist, author of Religion Without Revelation, etc), Paul Kurtz, B F Skinner,Corliss Lamont, Betty Friedan, H J Eysenck, H J Blackham, Isaac Asimov,Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (perhaps the most famous and influential Jewishtheologian of the 20th century) and numerous Unitarian Universalist ministers ofreligion.The document first appeared in The Humanist in September/October 1973 (volXXXIII, No 5).In the preface to the Manifesto we read the following: As in 1933, [H]umanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.Unlike the first Humanist Manifesto, Humanism is not referred to in thisdocument as being "religious Humanism". It is secular Humanism; the claim tobeing a religion is dropped. "Many kinds of Humanism" exist in thecontemporary world, we are told. Of "naturalistic Humanism" there are severalvarieties: "scientific", "ethical", "democratic", "religious" and "Marxist"Humanism.(See also Paul Kurtzs preface to the 1973 Prometheus Booksedition of Humanist Manifestos I and II: "Humanism is a philosophical, religious,and moral point of view ... " [emphasis added].)A range of responses all claim to be heir to the Humanist tradition: free thought,atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, deism, rationalism, ethical culture, and liberalreligion. "Many within religions groups, believing in the future of Humanism,now claim [H]umanist credentials."A number of important statements are made about religion in the very first partof the Manifesto, including the following: • in the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals • dogmatism, authoritarianism, creedalism and revelation all do a disservice to humanity • promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are "both illusory and harmful" • there is "insufficient evidence" for belief in the existence of a supernatural order or level of reality: "we can discover no divine purpose or providence
Page 5 for the human species" • the idea of a "separable soul" discredited by modern science • the rejection of anything and everything that inhibits humans from helping themselves or experiencing their full potentialities, including the notion of “solace” • the emphasis must be on independence, not dependence, on affirmation, not obedience, on courage, not fear.Humanists are described as being "non-theists": "... we begin with humans notGod, nature not deity."The document notes that some Humanists believe that traditional religionsshould be reinterpreted and reinvested with new meanings. However, "[s]uchredefinitions ... often perpetuate old dependencies and escapisms ... ."Nevertheless, it is expressly stated that traditional religions are "surely not theonly obstacles to human progress". "Other ideologies also impede humanadvance."Humanist Manifesto II is much more specific than the first Humanist Manifestoin defining the goals of Humanism.A SECULAR HUMANIST DECLARATION (1980)This declaration was issued and published by the Council for SecularHumanism (then called the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism[CODESH], formed in 1980). It was drafted by Paul Kurtz and endorsed by 58prominent scholars and writers, and was first published in Free Inquiry in 1980.Humanism is referred to throughout this document as "secular [H]umanism". AsHumanist Manifesto 2000 points out, the 1980 declaration was issued becauseHumanism had come under heavy attack from religious fundamentalists andright-wing political forces in the US who maintained that secular Humanism wasa "religion". The declaration makes it clear that secular Humanism cannot beequated with religious faith. It is a very "reactionary" document.The emphasis is on Humanism as a set of moral values and a nontheisticphilosophical and scientific viewpoint. The very first paragraph recordsopposition to “all varieties of belief that seek supernatural sanction or espouserule by dictatorship."The emphasis is placed on the "variety of anti-secularist trends" of today,including but not limited to Christian fundamentalism and Moslem clericalism inthe Middle East and Asia. There are also, among many other “disturbingdevelopments”, the “[n]ew cults of unreason as well as bizarre paranormal and
Page 6occult beliefs”.The importance of free inquiry is made abundantly clear, as is the fundamentalimportance of the need for the separation of church and state.Religious skepticism is a “must”: one must be "generally skeptical aboutsupernatural claims". However, "[w]e recognise the importance of religiousexperience: that experience that redirects and gives meaning to the lives ofhuman beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to dowith the supernatural.""Doubt" is expressed as to traditional views of God and divinity. “[T]raditionalviews of the existence of God either are meaningless, have not yet beendemonstrated to be true, or are tyrannically exploitative." There is “insufficientevidence" for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe. Theuniverse is a dynamic scene of natural forces that are most effectivelyunderstood by scientific inquiry.The declaration notes that secular Humanists may be agnostics, atheists,rationalists or skeptics.There is an express rejection of the divinity of Jesus, the divine mission ofMoses, Mohammed, and "other latter-day prophets and saints of the varioussects and denominations". So-called “Holy books” such as the Bible and theKoran, etc - not literally true. There is no convincing evidence that there is aseparable "soul".The Declaration observes that "[r]eligions have made negative as well aspositive contributions toward the development of human civilization."The section entitled “Religious Skepticism” ends as follows: "We must thereforeconclude that the ethical life can be lived without the illusions of immortality orreincarnation. Human beings can develop the self-confidence necessary toameliorate the human condition and to lead meaningful, productive lives."IHEU MINIMUM STATEMENT ON HUMANISM (1996)At its meeting (held in Mexico City, in November 1996) the Board of theInternational Humanist and Ethical Union approved the followed “minimumstatement” of Humanism: Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.
Page 7This is, perhaps of necessity, a very brief "omnibus" document.Humanism - referred to as such – is said to be a "democratic and ethical lifestance". The document refers to "human and other natural values" and the"spirit of reason and free inquiry." Humanism is officially declared to be “nottheistic” – note, “not theistic”, not necessarily if at all atheistic. Be that as itmay, it is nevertheless expressly stated that Humanism “does not acceptsupernatural views of reality." In other words, one order or level of reality – thenatural world.HUMANIST MANIFESTO 2000This Manifesto was drafted by Paul Kurtz (once again) and issued by theCouncil for Secular Humanism in 1999. The document was endorsed by adistinguished list of Humanist intellectuals, including Arthur C Clarke, RichardDawkins and 10 Nobel Laureates.The Manifesto is very long and rambling and, with the greatest respect toProfessor Kurtz, the document is at times textually incoherent.The preamble states that "[h]umanism is an ethical, scientific, and philosophicaloutlook ... ." There is no reference to Humanism being a "religious" outlook orpoint of view. This is a very secular document.Humanism is presented as "Planetary Humanism", expressed to be "post-postmodernist in its outlook". There are few references to religion as such.Religion is seen as largely, if not entirely, irrelevant. However, the documentmakes it clear that it is "inadmissible" to introduce "occult causes" or"transcendental explanations". The emphasis is fairly and squarely on scientificnaturalism and free inquiry. Further, there are references to fundamentalistreligions contesting the "principles of Humanism and secularism" anddemanding a return to the "religiosity of a premodern era". Religion, andreligiosity, are largely dismissed as irrelevant and divisive.This Manifesto embodies an entirely secular code of ethics free from religion."Humanist ethics ... does not require agreement about theological or religiouspremises ... ."AMSTERDAM DECLARATION 2002In 1952, at the first and founding IHEU congress, a declaration with IHEUsprinciples about Humanism was formulated and accepted. In 2002, at the 50thanniversary IHEU congress, a revised version was adopted.Humanism is described rather than defined. Humanism is not depicted as
Page 8being a religion, or philosophy, or philosophical outlook or point of view, but, atleast in one part of the declaration, as a "lifestance". For the most part, thedocument is content to simply allow Humanism to be.Humanism is explicitly "ethical" and "rational". Insofar as religion is concerned,the declaration states that Humanism is a response to the “widespread demandfor an alternative to dogmatic religion”. The declaration relevantly states: The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their worldviews on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.Problems are to be solved by means of "human thought and action", rather thandivine intervention. Humanism is described as being "undogmatic", imposing nocreed upon its adherents. However, the declaration contains no expressrejections or denials of supernaturalism and theism.SECULAR HUMANIST VALUES AND BELIEFS (2002)The Council of Australian Humanist Societies, at its 37th Annual Conventionendorsed a document entitled “Secular Humanist Values and Beliefs”. Thedocument refers to Humanism as being “contemporary Humanism”, which isdescribed as a “distinctive system of belief” having 5 “essential features”,namely, Humanism is naturalistic, ethical, rational, universalist, and holistic.Humanism is referred to in the document as being a “philosophical life stance”,that, of necessity, “excludes any supernatural act of creation by any kind ofspirit creator”. Further, it is stated that: Humanism has no place for ideas about spirits, souls or other transcendent beings, forces or supernatural processes, including life after death.The Humanism embodied in the document is very sceptical. A negative, almostpolemic, view is expressed toward what are referred to as “unsupported claimsof special knowledge, power or authority (e.g. miracles, psychic surgery,channelling spirit messages, divine revelations, etc.)”. A thoroughly secularstate is hoped for, “without the trappings of religion (symbols, sacred books andhymns, references to gods and saints, etc.)”.The “no nonsense” document is very similar to the documents that haveemanated over the years from Paul Kurtz and his team.THE AFFIRMATIONS OF HUMANISM: A STATEMENT OFPRINCIPLESThis is another Council for Secular Humanism / Free Inquiry document.
Page 9Humanism is presented as a "realistic alternative" to, among other things,"theologies of despair". Dogma, blind faith and irrationality are all rejected. It isexpressly stated that Humanism "deplores" efforts to seek to explain the worldin supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation. Religion is seenas "divisive".This is another thoroughly secular document from the Kurtz stables.HUMANISM AND ITS ASPIRATIONS: HUMANIST MANIFESTO III(2003)This Manifesto is expressed to be a “successor to the Humanist Manifesto of1933”. Interestingly, the introduction to the Manifesto doesn’t even mentionHumanist Manifesto II, only the first Manifesto of 1933. This document has beenseen by many as an attempt to tone down the rather polemic rhetoric ofHumanist Manifest II.The Manifesto was released by the American Humanist Association in April2003. At last count the 2003 Manifesto already had at least 20 signers who areNobel Laureates.The document is stated to be a part of an “ongoing effort to manifest in clearand positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we mustbelieve but a consensus of what we do believe”.Humanism is referred to in the Manifesto as a “progressive philosophy of life” aswell as a “lifestance”. Consistent with previous Manifestos and similardocuments, the emphasis is on the use of reason, rational analysis andscience. (Science is boldly declared to be the “best method” for determiningknowledge of the world.) The aim is for our “fullest possible development” and a“deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties ofhuman existence”. Values are derived from human need and interest as testedby experience.Supernaturalism is expressly declared to form no part of Humanism, although,interestingly, there is no actual express denial or rejection of supernaturalismper se. Humanism operates “without supernaturalism”. Also of interest is that,unlike many previous documents, there are no express references toHumanism being nontheistic, although that would appear to be the necessaryimplication in any event. Otherwise, the document makes little reference toreligion, except to affirm certain propositions that are not otherwise inconsistentwith religious naturalism.The Manifesto, which is quite oblique in parts, is rather remarkable for its failureor refusal to acknowledge human limitations, weaknesses, and capacity for evil.Rather, the focus is on such topics as evolution and environmentalism.
Page 10CONCLUDING REMARKSThe way in which secular Humanists have seen and described Humanism hasclearly changed over time:Humanist Manifesto I (1933) : This was a distinctly "religious" document ina "naturalistic" sense.Humanist Manifesto II (1973) : This document left room for both naturalisticHumanism and liberal religious Humanism.A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980) : This declaration made it clearthat Humanism is secular and could not be equated with religious faith.Humanist Manifesto 2000 : This Manifesto, as well as The Affirmationsof Humanism: A Statement of Principles , carried that theme even further.Humanism is said to be secular and essentially nonreligious in character.Amsterdam Declaration 2002 : Although the declaration contains noexpress rejections or denials of supernaturalism and theism (cf the morestrident Secular Humanist Values and Beliefs (2002)), the Humanismthat is described in the declaration is distinctly secular and rational andessentially nonreligious in character. If read in conjunction with the IHEUMinimum Statement on Humanism (1996), Humanism is officiallynontheistic and does not accept the notion that there can be more than oneorder or level of reality.Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III (2003): ThisManifesto seeks to remove any confusion as to what Humanism is and is not.Humanism, which operates “without supernaturalism”, is referred to as a“philosophy of life” and “lifestance”. The Humanism described in the documentis essentially nonreligious, but the tone is much less strident than that of thedecidedly secular Humanist Manifesto II.The more recent official declarations and statements on Humanism are to alarge extent "coloured" and "reactionary" documents insofar as what is saidabout religion is concerned, the primary purpose being to resist the attempts bysome - primarily but not exclusively opponents of Humanism - to categoriseHumanism as a religion.Despite what our High Court has said in Church of the New Faith vCommissioner of Payroll Tax (Vic) (1983) 154 CLR 120 ("the Scientologycase"), in which the majority of the court postulated a belief in the existence of asupernatural being and/or a belief in the supernatural in order for there to be a"religion" for certain legal purposes, the plain and objective truth is that religionin a sociological, anthropological and theological sense does not requiresupernaturalism or a god or gods of any kind. Art Jackson in “Humanism: A
Page 11Religion?”3 had this to say about the matter: To me it seems clear that the issue isn’t whether or not some choose to define Humanism as a religion. Rather, Humanism is a religion b[e]cause it is a unified and unifying way of seeing the world. It is congruent with the modern world, congruent with the knowledge of science and the striving of the poets, the desire for adventure of the astronauts, the need for love/physical affection of all human beings.I suspect that Jackson is right if religion is defined in the wider naturalistic andanthropological sense, although I think he has somewhat overstated theposition. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, as regards Humanism, whilst, todate, there have been over the years several explicitly clear and unambiguousrejections or denials of supernaturalism and theism, and some very strongstatements about the negative aspects of religion together with an increasinglysecular flavour to the official pronouncements, there has been no officialrejection or denial of religious Humanism or naturalistic Humanism.In addition, nothing has been officially written, to date, that would prevent aparticular Humanist organisation from labelling itself, for whatever reason, as areligious Humanist organisation (cf the American Humanist Association) norprevent individual Humanists from regarding their Humanism as a nontheisticstatement of religious naturalism and engaging, in good conscience, in religiousactivities that are not inconsistent with the fundamentals of Humanism asexpressed in the various official declarations and statements.In the final analysis, Humanism is not so much a case of what but rather howone believes. 3 International Humanist, 1986, No. 4, p.2.