Religious Humanism

Finally finished this, sorry it’s so late guys been unwell a lot lately. I’m going to be looking at religious humanism, something that I’ve heard a number of people ask about at West Yorkshire Humanist meetings but hasn’t been covered before by the society itself.

The term religious humanism broadly speaking refers to humanists who attempt to incorporate some aspect of religion in their lives or worldviews. This can be either through the creation of special humanist rituals, ceremonies or services to replace those of traditional religion or through the adoption of ritual and/or philosophical elements from other religions or religious philosophies.

Now many of you will no doubt think that the concept of religious humanism sounds paradoxical or contradictory when one of modern humanism’s key characteristics has been its basis in reason and science and the rejection of religious ethics and philosophy. However those who have religious humanist beliefs and ideas have been part of the humanist movement since the start in the 19th century and many religious humanist ideas have drifted into the mainstream of the movement. For example the idea of humanist chaplains and humanist celebrants is quite clearly an attempt to implement some kind of religious element in humanism.

What is Religious Humanism?

Religious humanists share the same fundamental worldviews and principles as all other humanists: recognizing the importance of science and human reason, the placing of human needs, desires and experiences at the centre of ethics and the rejection of the supernatural or supernatural agency as an explanation for phenomena in the world.

Where they often differ from other humanists is in both their definition of what constitutes a religion and in the attitude they have regarding religions. Religious humanists often define religion by its social and psychological functions. These functions often include providing an ethical education, shared community and family celebrations, marking important life events, helping individuals in their search for personal meaning or purpose and helping them deal with tragedy or loss. It is meeting this needs that religion is all about and when doctrine or ideology prevents them from fulfilling these needs then that religion has failed. Thus they place human needs above religious doctrine.

As such religious humanists  have attempted to meet this needs both individually and as a group through forging a ‘religion’ (by their own definition) that can meet them and puts human needs first. Thus religious humanist groups practice their humanism using rituals, ceremonies, congregations and fellowships much as traditional religions do but without the deference to specific doctrines.

An example of a movement at least in part driven by religious humanist ideas would be the Unitarian Universalist movement who hold church like congregations where they welcome all people, of any faith or none, to join them in a search for meaning in life with no prescribed answers or doctrines. Although it initially emerged from liberal Christianity, the Unitarian Universalists are heavily influenced by humanism and often included as an example of a form of religious humanism.


Others on the religious side of humanism have attempted to synthesize aspects of other religions into Humanism itself as a way of fulfilling the needs that traditional religion has failed to do in the modern world. These fusions of humanism with elements of other religions usually select religions that are deemed more compatible with humanism. Examples of religions or religious philosophies that have been synthesized with humanism include liberal Christianity, liberal Judaism, Quakerism, Buddhism, Taoism, Pantheism and Neopaganism.

Humanistic Buddhism for example combines Buddhist ritual practice and meditation with humanist principles of free thought, rational thinking and atheism. Growing primarily out of Chinese or Mahayana Buddhism it strips more orthodox Buddhism of its more supernatural elements and focuses on the Buddhist mission of relieving human suffering and liberating all sentient beings. It also analyses Buddhist scripture and the life of the Buddha through rational and humanistic scholarship.

Humanistic Paganism/Neopaganism embraces the rituals, the vast rich mythology of paganism and its reverence for nature but cuts out the supernatural elements. For Humanistic Pagans, the gods are not literal entities who can be appealed to but abstract personifications used to illustrate natural or ethical truths and ideas.

What can we learn from religious humanism?

I think religious humanism is interesting because it takes a very pragmatic approach to religion and religious ideas. If an idea is helpful in fulfilling human religious, spiritual or existential needs then it is kept, if it is no longer helpful or indeed harmful then it is discarded. At all times human beings and their needs are placed at the centre, just as they are in more secular forms of humanism. I find this a refreshing attitude to religion, neither negative nor blindly positive. It shows that we can still as humanists, enjoy and incorporate religious elements in our lives, be they rituals or festivals to mark the seasons, ceremonies to mark important life events or just meeting and supporting other people as a community. That we can build what is, functionally at least, a religion, without dogma.

Here are some links to organizations and movements related to religious humanism that I found interesting:

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