Humanism: Is It a Religion?
The following is a summary of a presentation given by University of Utah Professor, Peter C. Appleby, Ph.D., Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, at the April meeting of the Humanists of Utah
What’s in a name, and does it make any difference if Humanism is a religion or not? Religion is difficult to define because it is an “open-textured” concept. Everyone knows what it means, but defining it is much like trying to define the word “game.” It has many definitions, and is a broad-ranged phenomenon. When we say “religion,” most people think of God, or a supernatural being. Humanists eschew the concept. The philosopher, Alfred Whitehead, said “Usually if you have a theology, you believe in a God, ritual, a holy book, revered leaders, sacred objects, a sense of awe, guilt, adoration, and a moral code sanctioned by deity. These are the central features of religion.
It is recognized that religion does not require a belief in God because there are religions which do not, such as Zen Buddhism. However, all do have some of the same features of religion. We can also use the word “religion” metaphorically, such as when we say “he makes a religion out of playing golf.” Religion, then is that which concerns us most.
The Humanist Manifestos I and II are much like a creed, and are clear efforts in that direction. But humanists fear creeds, dogma, and exclusiveness. They feel creeds can become obnoxious because they can and have become absurdities that every one is demanded to submit to, and that the function of a creed is to separate the good guys from the bad guys. This results in mindless intolerance. We can have suggestions of a creed with a shared philosophical perspective which is open to change.
A good thing about the Humanist Manifestos is that they are under constant revision: the feminists are claiming gender bias; there is an “eco-spirituality” which ties human life to all kinds of non-human life; and a “world view” philosophy in which there is a natural order to life, and a belief that we are all made from the same fabric. The latter is a loving perspective where we realize we can’t live without our interconnectedness.
Should Humanism become a religion? There are privileges and liabilities in becoming a religion. People have a universal need for a spiritual home where they can express their beliefs and commitment in a community of faith. We all experience “turning points,” and need “rites of passage” in our lives, wherein we seem naturally to turn to something like religion. The turning points arise especially during birth, marriage, and death when we tend to look for a representative of a religion for some type of ceremony. Many of us look for a Faith Community during those moments in our lives. In the last Utah Humanist, Arthur Jackson said, “We must have religion because we need social bonding in order to be effective.”
The Community of Faith
I see a need for faith in a “temple of humanity,” but we cannot invent the liturgy and religious symbols to go with it. These types of things must evolve naturally as a result of the needs of the “community of faith.” We just cannot think up a set of symbols and liturgy to use, because it will fail as a result of its artificiality.
The Unitarian Church is a non-dogmatic religious group. Perhaps this is the “community of faith” of humanism. We have no choice but to wait and see. Innovative forms of expression will take root much like Christianity took root. It is a natural growth phenomenon.
There is a need for a community of faith where we can celebrate the rites of passage and life’s turning points. People need it most intensely, however, it can be offensive to get unknowingly involved in religious rites. We don’t need pious platitudes such as “returning to our Father in Heaven.” Maybe the non-dogmatic things can work.
Our social needs are connected to our personal identity. We have spiritual needs that require us to discuss the meaning of life with others, and talk about the things that are of value which transcend us. We need to have faith that somehow or other life means something; that life is worthwhile in and of itself. And the fight for humanism is worth it. Faith enriches our life, here and now. Ordinary folk need to hope that the more decent things that they do really matter, not necessarily eternally, but at least in this life.
Without a community of faith, we run the risk of impoverishment. Spirituality is a dimension of the “soul” which unites our emotional functions, making it possible to appreciate beauty. It also develops our sensitivity to the personal qualities of human beings and helps us gain a sense of the depth of our passage through life. There is no such thing as the “soul,” but we are “soulish” and becoming soulish heightens our sensibilities, and means that we can discover what inspire people to think of human beings as having a soul. It is both intellectual and emotional in nature. Human beings are capable of many dimensions. A good deal is known about mysticism, and we have levels of awareness that only some people achieve.
The New Religion
Perhaps a new religion will grow out of humanistic discourses where there will be a new sense of the sacred with rituals that have meaning. There are trade-offs either way, whether humanism becomes a religion or not. One risks the problem of dogmatic exclusivism, where there are “in groups” and “out groups.” But there is a spiritual loss in not becoming a religion also, because the spirituality that we find in vibrant religions where the celebrations of great occasions can be very meaningful. (Somehow the Wendover wedding doesn’t quite do it.)
I believe it will be a win-win situation for the community if humanism does become a religion. Religious qualities are possible within a secular and materialistic setting. Religious qualities are possible within a secular and materialistic setting. Religion gives us personal identity and values, and it helps us express that which is ultimately important to us. We can have a depth of commitment and have the sacred without the superstitious. We do not want to get caught in a situation where we declare, “Not believing in God is the God I believe in.” If we allow ourselves to do this then we are on the same par as creationism.
Becoming a religion can be a serious and dangerous undertaking, as well as a vibrant solution to our spirituality. In essence, we need to do all the things that churches do, but in our own way.
Humanists Offer Alternative To Religion-Based Spirituality
In January, the Salt Lake Tribune featured a story on our chapter in its Religion section. This month, on April 4, 1992, the Deseret News in its Metro section also had a story about the chapter. This time the story told about Mr. Anne Zeilstra’s efforts to organize the chapter, and gave essential information about our activities. Of special interest was the information about our President, Flo Wineriter, and his activities as a Humanist Counselor. The article included a photo of Flo and a client, Joann Lewis, in a counseling session.
The article is printed in this issue for those who haven’t read it, or for those who might like to have others see it.
When Anne Zeilstra moved to Utah from West Lafayette, Ind., he was advised to “find your own circle of friends, because if you are not a member of a church, you get pretty lonely out there.”
The Salt Lake man, who was born and reared in The Netherlands, and who lived seven years in Indiana before moving to Utah, says that is why he helped start a local chapter of the American Humanist Association.
“I have not been lonely. Through the chapter I have gotten in touch with people who I normally would not meet so easily,” said Zeilstra, past president and now secretary of the Humanists of Utah.
Chartered in the spring of 1991, the organization has about 50 dues paying members. But Zeilstra says about 150 more people have expressed interest n the group and receive a monthly journal.
Humanism, first organized in 1933 in the East by Edwin H. Wilson (he is now 94 and lives in Salt Lake City) and a group of Unitarian ministers, provides an alternative to organized religion and church-focused social life. “You find a surprising number of non-churchgoing people in Utah,” Zeilstra said.
One of the people Zeilstra met and became friends with is Florien Wineriter who was recently elected chapter president, and has been a humanist counselor for about a year. Other officers are Robert H. Green, Vice Chairman; Anna Hoagland, Treasurer; Richard C. Layton, Martha Stewart, and Edwin H. Wilson.
Wineriter, a former broadcast journalist for radio stations KALL and KSL, says he has espoused a humanist philosophy for at least 40 years, and has been a Unitarian for about the same period of time. Unitarianism is a religion without a creed or dogma, and encourages people to develop their own beliefs.
Humanist counselors perform weddings, conduct memorials, or funerals, and other ceremonial functions, and provide ethical and moral counseling upon request.
“I have conducted several weddings, and I do counseling for people in the process of bereavement. I have conducted several bereavement groups as a spiritual counselor for IHC Home Health Care Hospice program,” said Wineriter.
Wineriter said he doesn’t believe there is much public awareness that someone other than judges and clergy can perform non-religious wedding ceremonies. There is no charge for this or other services, including a “welcome to life” type ceremony for infants.
During the past year, Wineriter has officiated at about a dozen funerals and weddings. He counsels couples, helping them plan their wedding ceremonies. Also, he will meet with families or individuals to help them make arrangements for funeral or memorial services.
Wineriter defines humanism as a “joyous alternative to supernatural religion, a rational approach to human needs, responsibilities and values. We find there are people who for one reason or another have disaffiliated themselves from organized religions, but who find the need for belonging to a group that promotes ethical and moral values.” Joann Lewis says she has known and appreciated Wineriter for about 25 years.
Wineriter conducted, and spoke to, a graveside service last August for Lewis’s husband, William A. Lewis. She said Wineriter and his wife, Connie, A Hospice nurse and director of the Hospice program for IHC Home Health, came to her home after her husband’s death.
“He took all the things (letters and other materials loaned to him) and put it all together in such a wonderful, poetic way. It was so amazing how he was able to show the value and beauty of Bill’s life. His presentation at the cemetery was as perfect as something like this can be,” she said.
–Douglas D. Palmer
Atheist Adds Brick to Wall Between Church and State
Chris Allen, a charter member of our Chapter, was featured in a March 22, 1992 story in the Salt Lake Tribune. The accompanying photo was captioned, “The Pledge of Allegiance statue near Salt Lake City-County Building is better without ‘under God’,” according to separatist Chris Allen. This is the article:
Chris Allen’s mission in Utah has not been easy.
The 45-year-old director of Utah’s Society of Separationists is a devout atheist who wants every reference to God erased from public view.
The “one nation under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance, and court oath of “so help me God,” get under his skin. Even the “In God We Trust” slogan on money gives him fits.
Mr. Allen used to stamp his own counter-slogans on currency, such as “Stop religious advertising on money.” He stopped after a warning from U.S. Treasure agents.
The former Californian’s conquests in Utah have been few. But he recently carved the first big notch in his belt.
Third District Judge J. Dennis Frederick issued a ruling March 4 that breathed new life into the Society of Separationists’ efforts to build a wall between church and state.
The decision in the lawsuit filed by the society outlaws prayers before Salt Lake City Council meetings, and could result in abolishment of praying at the Utah Legislature, and scores of local government bodies.
“We are not trying to infringe on an individual’s right to pray,” said Mr. Allen, a soft-spoken computer programmer who describes himself as a science nerd. “We’re against the government interfering in that right.”
The City Council had gone to a lot of trouble to make the opening prayers as inoffensive as possible. Apparently too far. One city employee was paid to hunt for people of diverse religions to offer the prayers.
“That clearly violated the state constitution’s prohibition against spending state money to promote religion,” said Mr. Allen.
Many people, including most City Council members, resent a group representing a minority view telling them when they can and can’t pray. The council voted 5-2 to appeal the district court-ruling to the Utah Supreme Court.
Other politicians side with Mr. Allen.
“People have plenty of opportunities to pray during the day,” said Salt Lake County Commissioner Jim Bradley. “I don’t think we have to make a public demonstration of prayer.”
The 700-member society hopes its initial victory on the public-prayer front will be followed by another in a suit against the Alpine School District involving prayer at high school graduations.
“Religion stirs a lot of resentment in Utah,” Mr. Allen said. “And public prayer has a lot to do with it. No matter how hard you try, it leaves some people out.
Prayer Objectionable in City Council Meetings
The following is a letter to the Salt Lake City Council, by our chapter President, Florien Wineriter.
March 18, 1992
Salt Lake City
451 South State Room 304
Salt Lake City, UT 84111
Dear Council Members:
I want to register my opposition to your decision to appeal the courts ruling against opening a government meeting with prayer. When you took the oath of office you agreed to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Utah. May I remind you of Article 12, Section 4 of the Utah Constitution:
“There shall be no union of church and State, nor shall any church dominate the State nor interfere with its functions. No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical establishment.”
There certainly can be no doubt in your mind that the city council chambers are “Public Property” and you certainly must recognize that the act of “praying” is a form of “religious worship,” therefore praying in the city council chambers must be applying public property to religious worship, a clear violation of the Utah Constitution.
So why are you appealing the 3rd District Court ruling?
Florien J. Wineriter, President, Humanists of Utah
Chapter of the American Humanist Association
CC: Utah Supreme Court
January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992
Isaac Asimov, president of the American Humanist Association, died April 6, 1992. A short memorial service was dedicated to him at the April 9th meeting of the Humanists of Utah. Flo Wineriter, Ed Wilson, Martha Stewart, and Lorille Miller participated in the service. President Wineriter read the following statement:
The Humanists of Utah are saddened with the death of Isaac Asimov, president of the American Humanist Association since 1985. He has served for many years on the board of directors of AHA,. making millions of people aware of the humanistic philosophy of concern for the world, compassion for people, and dedication to liberty, justice and reason. During his seven years of leadership, the American Humanist Association and the Humanists of Utah have taken an uncompromising stand in support of women’s rights, maintaining the wall of separation between church and state, and stood firm against the spread of violence in our society. We will miss his dynamic leadership but will continue to build a strong humanist structure on the solid foundation he established.
Edwin H. Wilson, one of the incorporators of the American Humanist Association and current board member of the Humanists of Utah, spoke of his meetings with Asimov and read quotes from the Bill Moyers historian. Lorille Miller presented a beautiful scrolled tribute to Asimov prepared by Humanists of Utah board member Martha Steward and invited the more than 50 people present to sign the scroll. It was later mailed to AHA headquarters to be forwarded to the Asimov family
Gary Wills, writing in Under God, makes some surprising conclusions following 380 pages of fascinating anecdotes about the competition between politics and religion for leadership, and power in the United States. He builds a strong case for complete separation of church and state on the basis that such a separation makes both institutions stronger. He says one of the American paradoxes of which we can be most proud is the increased influence of religion because churches are independent of government. That, more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth … disestablishment, the complete separation of church and state was and is a unique U.S. creation, according to Willis. He cites examples of diminished religious influence in nations where the ties of church and state are strongest.
Another conclusion I found interesting is his though that the several incidences of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism in U.S. history indicates that we do not have a “Judeo Christian Heritage,” but rather a “Protestant” heritage.
The author attributes a “representation of stability” as the appeal of Ronald Reagan, his “clinging uncritically to notions that reassured people, despite their lack of practical impact.” He says, “Reagan made it possible to live with change while not accepting it.” Willis explains Reagan’s religion without denomination as a vital part of his mass public appeal. “President Reagan was constantly praised as ‘a great communicator’ without giving enough emphasis to what he was communicating. He communicated religious attitudes (despite his absences from church on Sunday); he communicated appreciation of the conventional family (despite his own family’s messy interrelationships.”
On the subjects of pornography, abortion and censorship Wills cites a variety of religious attitudes and supports persuasion rather than coercion. “We should have some freedom to do so.”
If you need a mental jolt on how far we humanists are from the mainstream of religious Protestantism I suggest you read “Under God,” and encounter the subjects of creationism, evangelism, fundamentalism, millennialism, and rapturism.
A Liberal Decalogue
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worth-while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your spouse or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than be latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness