What on Earth is Religious Humanism?

David Boulton, editor of SOF magazine, introduced the Conference on Religious Humanism with this overview.

Our theme is "religious humanism". We might have thought of a catchier title - perhaps the line in our advertisements about religion acquiring a taste for secular intercourse. But "religious humanism" it is. So - what on Earth is it? Is it any more than an historical oddity, embedded in the dry bones of 19th-century "ethical societies", religions of humanity and socialist Sunday schools? Is it still alive and well in postmodernity, and if so, where is it hiding? Can it speak to our 21st-century condition? What is religious about it? What is humanist about it? And what can we do with it?

For a start, why are we talking about it now? The pragmatic answer is that this conference is organised by Sea of Faith, and "religious humanism" is one of the ways we have of describing the distinctive Sea of Faith outlook. From its foundation in the 1980s, the Sea of Faith Network formulated its aims and objects as the exploration and promotion of "religious faith as a human creation". That's religious humanism in a nutshell. At the Network's 1991 annual conference, Don Cupitt, debating with Nicolas Walter - sorely missed by the whole humanist movement since his death earlier this year - argued that "the various Enlightenment, liberal and Marxist versions of humanism have broken down" no less dramatically than traditional religious belief. But the business of making meaning, of re-imagining ourselves, our values, our world, has to go on. In the past, it went on communally and unconsciously, "and the result [said Cupitt] was what we call religion". But now we are conscious of what we are up to, and "because we do it consciously, it will be a sort of humanism, but because we know we still need communal myths and rituals, it will also be religion. We shall be religious humanists, making believe."

Two years later, in 1993, Anthony Freeman published his book God in Us, a popular exposition of Sea of Faith thinking which he subtitled The Case for Christian Humanism. I have long suspected that what really scandalised the bishops and led them to cry "Crucify him! Crucify him!" was not Anthony's blunt refusal to pretend that he believed in a celestial Big Brother but his open use of the dreaded H-word. Humanism, to the noble army of mitres, is the antithesis of religion. Christian humanism is to them the ultimate oxymoron. The H-word on the title-page of a book by a licensed priest has, to Church fathers, much the same effect as the F-word would have on the masthead of the Mothers' Union journal.

Two years after the Freeman affair, in 1995, Sea of Faith magazine surveyed the Network membership and found that "religious humanist" or "Christian humanist" was the most popular label members chose to apply to themselves, ahead of such alternatives as "nonrealist" and "radical Christian". Some preferred variants such as "Eco-Humanist", "Quaker Humanist", and (one for Robert Ashby here) just plain non-adjectival "Humanist". Virtually every year since then, Don Cupitt has been telling SoF conferences that "We urgently need... a new this-worldly and democratic religious humanism". At this year's conference he defined this new-style, this-worldly religious humanism as "our human way of first imagining new values and a better world, and then actually working to bring them about."

The same conference also took religious humanism out of the narrow confines of western Christian culture by examining, with the radical Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor, what a desupernaturalised Buddhist humanism might look like. The Network is also building bridges with the two Jewish humanist networks - Reconstruction Judaism and Humanistic Judaism - which have begun to make an impact on Jewish life in the last thirty years, particularly in the United States. Thus "religious humanism" has progressively shed its old, narrow, bloodless, filleted, half-this-half-that image and fought its way back onto a field from which the oddly combined forces of bishops, rabbis, gurus and rationalists had thought they had driven it.

Having said that, I have to admit that by no means all Sea of Faith members share the enthusiasm which some of us have for "religious humanism" as a description of the Network's ideology. The main reason for this is resistance to the idea that the Network has anything resembling an ideology: some members take the commitment to "religious faith as a human creation" as loosely and poetically as they take the creeds, liturgies and other forms of God-talk: its just a picturesque form of words, they seem to suggest, not to be taken literally or seriously. For them, the Network is not primarily an organisation promoting the understanding that religion and its gods are wholly human creations, but an open forum for exploration of religious ideas in general and doctrinal doubts in particular, un-anchored by any commitment to anything. This is a potential fault-line which may one day open up and swallow us whole: the Network as open forum full stop, or the Network as open forum promoting a particular view of religion - the view that, like music, politics, football and summer pudding, religion is a human creation. My own view is simple. If we go down the open-forum-full-stop road and back away from our commitment to promote the understanding that religious faith is a wholly human creation without even a sliver of extra-terrestrial input, we may end up with the need to invent a new network to explore and promote religious faith as a human creation! But this is not the place to pursue apocalyptic Network politics - so I haven't said any of that.

There are other reasons why "religious humanism" as a term descriptive of SoF's position is embraced with only modified rapture by some members. At the last survey, fractionally over half of the Networks membership had no church or institutional religious allegiance whatever, and fractionally under half did, either as professionals (our famous "godless vicars" tendency), or as committed but questioning church-goers, or just hanging on by the skin of their clenched teeth. In both tendencies there are those who find reason to avoid the term "religious humanism". In the church tendency there are those who dislike the baggage which the word "humanism" brings with it: the old association with militant atheism, strident secularism, anti-clericalism, and a somewhat bloodless high-mindedness devoid of the warmth, protection and rich community spirit which churches, chapels, meetinghouses, synagogues and temples have aimed at providing.

In the non-church tendency, on the other hand, it is the baggage which comes with the word "religious" which is the problem: baggage to do with dogmatism, authoritarianism, holy war, patriarchy, dressing up in silly clothes, vicar's voices, bad reproductions of sentimental paintings of earnest men in robes and langorous women in very little, "washed in the blood" choruses, misty mysticisms, life after death, gaseous spiritualities and money-spinning new age quackery.

So for some the word "religious" is ok, "humanism" not: for others, "religious" is the dodgy word, "humanism" the ok one. For these, the hyper-sensitively baggage-conscious on both sides, "religious humanism" doesn't so much build bridges as erect road-blocks.

And there's another reason why "religious humanism" has yet to convince everyone that it's the right label for our particular bottle. It's called history. "Religious humanism" has meant different things in different times and different places. What it would have meant to Erasmus, or Winstanley, or Spinoza, had they heard the term, would not be what it means to us. We tend to see modern religious humanism as a 19th century phenomenon, emerging from such developments as the growth of Unitarianism (which reduced the three persons of the divinity into one, and then began to wonder whether that wasn't one too many), and, philosophically, from Ludwig Feuerbach's revolutionary book, translated by George Eliot as The Essence of Christianity, which argued that God had been imagined into being by humanity, not the other way round. For a while this kind of religious humanism flourished in organisations like August Comte's Church of Humanity, where deity was replaced by Man, the Pope by August Comte, and church ritual by naff ceremonies which retained priestly vestments, smells and flowery language but struggled, rather like Basil Fawlty and the war, to avoid any mention of God.

Comte's Religion of Humanity was, as Churchill remarked of a minor politician named Bossom, neither one thing nor the other, and something of the same instability marked the Unitarian strand of religious humanism. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself a former Unitarian lay-preacher, noted this instability as early as 1812, when he wrote that a Unitarian is "a man who has passed from orthodoxy to the loosest Arminianism and thence to Arianism, and thence to direct Humanism." The final step in this downward escalator, said Coleridge, is "to fall off into the hopeless abyss of atheism". Coleridge was right to predict that the centre of this kind of religious humanism would not hold. Nicolas Walter writes entertainingly, though you may think somewhat cruelly if you happen to be a Unitarian, of the way in which American Unitarianism in particular became consumed by the struggle between "God-men" and "No-God-men" (Unitarian women were presumably making the tea at the time): "There was a danger of schism...but first the Humanists began to leave, and then the God-men began to adopt Humanism as well".

This inherent instability was seen in the decline during the 20th century of the ethical societies which had looked so promising in the19th. South Place, itself Unitarian in origin, which had proclaimed as one of its objectives the "cultivation of a rational religious sentiment", found that facing both ways only produced a chronic crick in the neck. Religious members tended to slip back into the churches and those who couldn't work out what a rational religious sentiment might look like when the lights were switched on turned the Society into a non-religious or anti-religious humanist body with nothing stronger than nostalgia to connect it to religious humanism. The story was much the same in other once religious-humanist organisations.

No doubt individual psychologies played a major part in all this. Some members were reluctant to abandon the psychological and sociological support of their religious background, while others found it a psychological and sociological necessity to break with their religious past. That was the inherent instability. One result was that some big names who still called themselves religious humanists, like Julian Huxley and Albert Einstein, were wholly cut off from the heritage of religion, while others who also owned the religious humanist label, like Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich and Martin Buber, made no connection whatever with the wider humanist movement.

So that's another reason, I suspect, why some Sea of Faith members have been a bit leery about waving the "religious humanism" flag. It has a faded look about it, like an old trade union banner which has seen one too many demos. It's a bit threadbare in places, and the colours have faded. Along with Horlicks and the BBC Third Programme, it belongs to a warmly-remembered past, but it doesn't seem cool these days to wave it about.

Well, I want to say that I'm not interested in trying to revive 19th and early

20th-century religious humanism, and my hope for this conference is that we can start a process which builds a radical new religious humanism fit for the 21st century. I would be both abusing my position in the chair and running far beyond my abilities if I were to try to offer a detailed blueprint of the radical religious humanism I have in mind. But I can toss out some headline-thoughts which others may (or may not) follow up. First, some negative ones: ideas of what radical religious humanism is not, rather than what it might be.

First, it is not a half-way house between religion and humanism, a refuge for those who simply can't make up their minds. Radical religious humanism must be more than a safe house for those who want to have their theistic cake and eat it. It may provide for some a useful staging-post in a personal journey from one kind of commitment to another, but if that is all it is, it's no big deal.

Secondly, it's not a new church or a new religion, not even an embryonic one. That's one of the routes they tried in the 19th century, and it got them nowhere. Some religious humanists will want to express their humanism within an existing religious tradition, others will want to separate themselves from traditional religious institutions. Some will want to devise non-theistic liturgies, some will be happy with liturgies in traditional God-language taken with lashings of metaphor and poetic licence, some won't want any liturgies or rituals at all, thank you very much. Radical religious humanists will remain a diverse lot, but they won't be creating yet another denomination, with yet more appeals for the roof fund and yet another clerical caste.

Thirdly, it's not the binary opposite of secular humanism. Radical religious humanism is wholly secular in the root-meaning of the word: it is of this world and for this age, the only world we can know and the only age of which we can have any direct experience. As the title of a Quaker Universalist pamphlet puts it, "There is another world, but it is this one". Radical religious humanism, having taken leave of God for God's sake, has taken leave of any notion of an after-life, of the supernatural, of any mystical realm beyond the bounds of our universe. Radical religious humanists are as much aware as any secular, rationalist or scientific humanist that we are on our own, "no Saviour from on high delivers", and whatever gods and goddesses, spirits and demons, angels and devils we share our lives with, they are of our own making, imagined into being by human communities, within human culture.

So what is religious about modern religious humanism? Let me take you back to that 1991 debate between Don Cupitt and Nicolas Walter. This is Nicolas, in full flow:

"We [that is non-religious humanists] reject the whole of religion, not just the difficult bits. We reject the whole of the Bible, not just the supernatural bits. We reject Jesus the man just as much as Jesus the God. We reject the doctrines of all the scriptures, and the deeds of all the churches. We see religion not as a necessary stage in the evolution of humanity, but as a long mistake - rather as Communism and Fascism were short mistakes. We see the shift from religion to non-religion as a process not of progressive revelation of changing truths but of progressive realisation of changing lies. We see not so much the loss of faith as the recovery of sanity. Whether we prefer a Hegelian or Marxist or Darwinian or Freudian or some other interpretation of religion, we think not just that it is wrong now but that it was always wrong."

Religion - humanity's long mistake? The immense, age-long accumulation of religious writing, music, art, dance, architecture; the infinitely complex system of imaginative symbols by which human beings explored their own humanity in a mysterious, awesome, wonderful world; the long search for values which transcend the needs and desires of individual egos; the myths and legends, stories, songs, parables, poems, proverbs, visions, exhortations of the Hebrew Bible, the Mahabaratha, Rumi and Hafiz, native Americans and native Australians, John Donne, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T S Eliot, R S Thomas; Bach's music,

Mozart's masses, Mahler's Resurrection - one long mistake?

I don't think so. And if that's where non-religious humanism stands, it's just too thin and undernourished for me: anorexic humanism. For a humanism to cut itself off from some of the crowning achievements of wholly human culture seems to me both tragic and absurd. It's like drinking non-alcoholic wine, or making love without taking your clothes off: nice up to a point, but there's definitely something missing. So long as mainstream humanism persists in cutting itself off from mainstream humanity in this way, for just so long will it remain a minority interest.

Radical religious humanism does not take the view that humanity's religious heritage is a long mistake. It does not suppose that homo sapiens has just been liberated from a darkness which lasted from the year dot to the dawn of the Rationalist Press Association.

Radical religious humanism is a secular humanism, a rational humanism, an ethical humanism which feels free to draw on, to feast on, the best of our long, complex, diverse heritage of religious expression. It knows all too well the madness, brutality, hypocrisy and repressiveness of religion at its worst, as indeed of humanity itself at its most inhumane. But this does not blind it to the glories it glimpses of religious inspiration at its best. There are bad people, but we are not anti-people; bad politics, but we are not anti-politics; bad art, but we are not philistine; bad science, but we are not anti-scientific. And there is wretched religion, but that is no good reason for basing one's entire life-stance on an undiscriminating war on all religious expression.

Radical religious humanism is a humanism which makes free with the resources of religion in its richly diverse forms, as with the resources of the whole of human culture. We know that we made it all, so we can unmake it and remake it. If we call on God to help us, we know we are using a powerful figure of speech. If we seek God's will, we know that we are simply looking for the best course, in the best interest of all. If we pray, we know we are talking to ourselves - and who doesn't do that, and gain benefit from it? If we ask forgiveness, and for the strength to follow the light of our conscience, we know we are expressing our desire to be better people. If we say we are working for the republic of heaven (even if we can't get out of the habit of calling it the Kingdom, can we, Don?), we know we are talking about taking action to make the world a better place for the whole of humankind.

The binary opposition is not between religion and humanism. Nor, as I have said, is it between secular humanism and religious humanism. There are differences, of course - Nicolas Walter spelt them out - between religious and non-religious or anti-religious humanism. But I believe these differences, or at least the tensions arising from them, are diminishing. Writing in 1997, six years after his SoF debate with Don Cupitt, Nicolas Walter acknowledged that "many... see themselves as both humanist and religious... The progressive elements in the Christian churches in Britain who have been abandoning theism and joining in the Sea of Faith movement call their position 'Christian Humanism'... It is wrong to call these positions 'contradictions in terms' or to call their adherents hypocrites". In the last three years of his life, Nicolas included Sea of Faith magazine among the humanist journals he wrote for, and today you'll find Sea of Faith by-lines in the RPAs New Humanist, and the BHA glitterati on SoF platforms and in SoF anthologies. We have come to recognise that we have a lot in common.

Modern radical religious humanism is not the last relic of Victorian doubt, or progressive Christianity's last desperate kick. It is something new. It rationalises religion and enriches humanism. It dissolves the old differences between the sacred and the secular, the human and the divine, the natural and the supernatural. It does not deify humanity, but it understands that our values are human values, and could be no other. It offers change, growth, renewal. It's for those who can face a life on the ocean wave rather than those who prefer a safe harbour. It's for the seeker rather than the finder, for those who would make their own meaning and purpose rather than buy them off the peg. It demands faith, hope, charity, determination - and a well-developed sense of humour.

To explore and promote religious faith as a human creation, a human recreation, a human responsibility to ourselves and to all living creatures, and as a source of delight: this is our challenge, and our adventure.

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