February 2002

The Two Cultures of the Human Race

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

C. P. Snow first articulated a powerful metaphor of human culture four decades ago. This is discussed in an article called “Science and the Nature of Awe” by Rudy Baum in the June 4, 2001, issue of C & E N. Snow said mankind is divided into two cultures, according to their ways of knowing the world: the scientific and the nonscientific. The problem of the difference in their orientations will not be alleviated, he said, by education. It is far deeper and more intractable than that.

Science’s handmaiden, technology, continues to alter the landscape of human existence with its nearly incomprehensible array of inventions and the products that spring from them. At the same time, articulate, thoughtful critics continue to insist that the reductionism that is at the heart of scientific understanding is a cold and heartless intellectual construct that robs nature and humanity of their grandeur- and worse, that understanding life mechanistically amounts to sacrilege. The clash between these world views continues in two recent essays, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by Edward O. Wilson and Life Is a Miracle: an Essay Against Modern Superstition, by Wendell Berry. The latter is largely a highly negative response to Consilience.

Baum says most scientists he talks to in recent years express surprise that the “two cultures” debate continues; they probably generally take for granted the central place their disciplines hold in modern intellectual endeavors. But he suspects Berry’s arguments against reductionism strike a deep chord with many nonscientists. What many scientists bemoan as scientific illiteracy may be something far more disturbing: a distrust and fear of the scientific method and a conscious rejection of scientific understanding.

Snow deplored this state of affairs, maintaining that both the scientific culture and what he called the “traditional” culture were impoverished by their ignorance of each other. His greatest concern was with the lack of scientific understanding by the traditional culture. The unscientific flavor is often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning antiscientific. Members of the traditional culture, he said, “are impoverished too…they like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture,’ as though the natural order didn’t exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity, and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man.”

Advancing scientific knowledge and technological development would, he said, inevitably benefit humanity. He was contemptuous of those members of the traditional culture who pined over the loss of a “preindustrial Eden” that never existed. “The scientific revolution,” he proffered, “is the only method by which most people can gain the primal things (years of life, freedom from hunger, survival for children)…Curiously enough, there are many who would call themselves liberals and yet who are antipathetic to this change. Almost as though sleepwalking they drift into an attitude which, to the poor of the world, is a denial of all human hope.”

He presents demographic evidence about the lives of agricultural laborers in 17th-and 18th-century England and France to argue that the vast majority of such people lived short, brutal lives characterized by hunger, famine, disease, and suffering. Much other evidence from many kinds of provenance all point in the same direction. No one should feel it seriously possible to talk about a preindustrial Eden, from which our ancestors were, by the wicked machinations of applied science, brutally expelled. “Consilience,” according to Wilson, is the unification of all knowledge. Wilson says, “Today the greatest divide within humanity is not between races, or religions, or even, as widely believed, between the literate and the illiterate. It is the chasm that separates scientific from prescientific cultures. Without the instruments and accumulated knowledge of the natural sciences–physics, chemistry, and biology–humans are trapped in a cognitive prison. They are like intelligent fish born in a deep shadowed pool.

“Wondering and restless, longing to reach out, they think about the world outside. They invent ingenious speculations and myths about the origin of the confining waters, of the sun and the sky and the stars above, and the meaning of their own existence. But they are wrong, always wrong, because the world is too remote from the ordinary experience to be merely imagined…

“There is only one way to unite the great branches of learning and end the culture wars. It is to view the boundary between the scientific and literary (nonscientific) cultures not as a territorial line but as a broad and mostly unexplored terrain awaiting cooperative entry from both sides. The misunderstandings arise from ignorance of the terrain, not from a fundamental difference in mentality… The question remaining is how biology and culture interact…and in particular how they interact across all societies to create the commonalities of human nature.”

Baum feels this assertion by Wilson is incorrect because it proposes an endeavor to be conducted entirely on the terms of the scientific culture. It is a program not to bridge the two cultures but, rather, one that demolishes the barriers that separate them and appropriates to the scientific culture all of human knowledge. He states, “The two cultures are not separated by misunderstandings arising from ignorance of the terrain between them. They are separated by a fundamental difference of mentality…that is rooted in how we appreciate beauty and experience awe.”

“What can be explained?” asks Berry. “I don’t think creatures can be explained. I don’t think lives can be explained. What we know about creatures and lives must be pictured or told or sung or danced. And I don’t think pictures or stories or dances can be explained. The arts are indispensable precisely because they are so nearly antithetical to explanation.

“Wilson, in his quest for consilience, wants to know why people tell stories and sing songs and dance dances,” claims Baum. “Berry, in his contempt for reductionist analysis and the social and economic structures he believes it buttresses, tells Wilson to keep his mitts off that which is sacred.”

Baum describes the team of chemists who obtained the first high-resolution crystal structure of the large subunit of the ribosome, the fantastic agglomeration of RNA and proteins that translates messenger RNA into proteins. This wondrous molecular machine assembles the molecules that make up all living organisms. The process is utterly fundamental to life. Analysis of the conserved nucleotides of the ribosome’s active site shows that the structure evolved before life split into phylogenetic kingdoms. “This feat of human understanding isn’t magic,” says Baum. “It doesn’t require a story. It will never inspire a song. It’s just true and at the same time beautiful….Why isn’t the beauty of the structure and function of the ribosome as worthy of awe as the beauty of an orchid or a child’s face or a deep pool in a forest?”

In God We Trust: What Does It Mean?

Representative Richard M. Siddoway, Republican of Bountiful and published author of religious fiction, believes. He believes in the importance of posting the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in the Utah’s public schools.

House Bill 0079 is urgently needed, according to Siddoway. Why? In a letter to the Ogden Standard Examiner on January 6, 2002, Siddoway stated:

“Simply speaking, we are a nation that has deep religious roots and in a time when it appears some are working to remove any acknowledgment of God from our public life, the motto of the United States seems not only appropriate but unifying.”

This clearly sounds as if Mr. Siddoway thinks that there is not enough of God in our public life. Yet, he also claims that, “There may be great differences in the God that I worship and the God that you worship. We may call him by different names-Elohim, Allah, the Great Spirit-or we may choose to not recognize him at all.” Mr. Siddoway is asking that we “acknowledge” but need not “recognize” a deity. What does that mean?

Mr. Siddoway’s contradictions continue throughout his letter when he states, “The posting of the national motto is not an attempt to sway anyone’s thinking toward any particular religion, and certainly is not the establishment of a religion. It is the posting of the motto of the United States of America as adopted by Congress.” In his next paragraph he continues, “This nation is founded on freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

Harumph. First of all, Mr. Siddoway seems eager to conflate all concepts of God. This simply does not reflect reality. Brahma does not equal Jehovah does not equal Coyote, any more than French is the same language as Swahili or Pashtu. To dismiss the uniqueness of religious concepts and traditions is both ignorance and arrogance. So much for a generic “God.”

The “We” of the motto is equally troubling, Again, “we” do not all believe, let alone trust, in the same God. Who speaks for all of us in our beliefs? Why do we not simply speak for ourselves?

To “Trust” God is to invoke an ancient paradox: the problem of the origin of evil. If God is good, why does he create or allow evil? Why should we “trust” the God that either permits or directs the most horrific tragedies on a daily basis. On September 11, whose God was on duty? The God of the victims or the God of the murderers?

If Mr. Siddoway continues his disingenuous claims that IGWT is merely the national motto, he may well shoehorn it into the schools. But what has he accomplished? He has forced an element of religious belief-his religious belief-upon a captive audience.

In order to assess the spiritual needs of our community, consider some numbers for a moment. According to my current telephone directories, there are about 300 public schools in the Salt Lake valley. How many churches are there? At least 1,500. How many bumper stickers, store signs, billboards proclaim “God Bless America”? Thousands! There are religious television stations (broadcast and cable), religious radio stations, religious book stores, and parochial schools. There is release time in the middle of the school day for religious instruction. There are religion books in the public libraries. There is religious language in the legislature, in the courts, in the city council meetings, the Pledge of Allegiance.

In addition to all of this, all U. S. currency bears the motto of “In God We Trust,” an interesting association of worship and money. From a marketing perspective, our money consists of hundreds of millions of advertisements for a deity as they constantly circulate through American society. Not enough statements of belief?

Ironically, the motto of the state of Utah says nothing about God. It is a single word: “Industry.” The first motto of the United States also omitted mention of a deity. That motto is still found on currency and in a few official places: E Pluribus Unum, or, “From Many, One.” In fact, I believe that motto better reflects our America than “In God We Trust.”

If, indeed, Mr. Siddoway is right, we can expect that the most moral and estimable of our citizens are those with the greatest exposure to the national motto. Here, at last, we have a means of verifying the positive effects of IGWT. It should be a simple matter to demonstrate the ethical superiority of:

  • Bank tellers
  • Convenience store clerks
  • U.S. Mint employees
  • Cab drivers
  • Exotic dancers
  • Politicians

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t such a strong argument. Still, in the wake of September 11th, America is turning back to God and traditional values. Right?

Actually, no. From the Associated Press, January 16, 2002:

A November poll by the Pew Forum found 78 percent of Americans–the highest in four decades–believed the role of religion was increasing, more than double the number who said the same thing in March. Yet the same respondents, only a month after the terror attacks, said their church attendance had not changed from four in 10 Americans going once a week.

So, it seems that Representative Siddoway-and the American Family Association, the conservative Christian group promoting the IGWT posters-have no faith in their own faith. They find it necessary to use and abuse government and public education in order to further their belief. This is not about belief or patriotism, but about power. Somehow, the bloody wars and repressions of religious tyranny, which were so fresh in the minds of Jefferson, Madison and Paine, mean nothing to the AFA. The AFA advocates the use of the Bible in establishing social norms. In their zeal, they are simply following the instructions in Psalms 2:8, 9:

I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.

Or, consider the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?

There is enough religion in Utah without having to force it into the schools. Perhaps the religious motto of the United States will find its way into the public schools of Utah, but it will be an empty victory for its proponents. Those who believe will continue to; but those who do not will feel that they do not matter. Rather than a phrase that divides, why not post the phrase that includes us all?

E Pluribus Unum
“From Many, One.”

–Richard Garrard

The Evolution of Religion

“The Evolution of Religion” was first published in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, volume 9, an annual publication of the Humanists of Houston. Robert Finch is the current Chairman of the Board for the American Humanists Association Chapter Assembly.



The central thrust of this essay is the assertion that religions evolve. Furthermore, we will argue that the direction of evolution is towards forms of Humanism. We will point out that Humanism is itself evolving, and that in this case the direction of evolution can be consciously determined by humanists. This guided evolution may be thought of as a series of experiments, whereby, humanists adapt their systems to changes in the world in which they function, and to improvements in human understanding of the natural world. From this viewpoint, we will argue that religions, and their humanist successors, are part of the integrative systems vital to all individuals and societies, and as such will continue to have an important role to play in the future.

1. Introduction

Our purpose here is not to present a survey of religions in all their profusion of wonderful beliefs and practices: a subject covered in extensive literature, and with which it is assumed the reader has some familiarity. Monroe’s (1995) work on comparative religion would provide a useful reference in this regard. However, our first point of focus is the very fact of the diversity of religion. Sources on comparative religion (see for example http://www.adherents.com) commonly list a dozen major religions: Babi and Baha’i faiths, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism. Virtually all of these religions have several branches. For example, in the case of Christianity, the same source lists the following eighteen major denominational families, in order of number of adherents: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, African indigenous sects, Pentecostal, reformed (Presbyterian, Congregational etc), Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, Adventist, Apostolic and New Apostolic, Stone-Campbell (Restoration Movement), New Thought (Unity, Christian Science etc), Brethren (including Plymouth Brethren), Mennonite and Friends (Quakers). This classification omits the many “primitive” religions of Africa, North and South America, Polynesia and Australia. We might also mention the many New Age religions. There are also a number of quasi-religions, and loosely organized cults. The anthropologist Anthony Wallace (1966) has estimated that mankind has produced on the order of one-hundred-thousand religions. In addition, there are the many varieties of “unbelief”: atheism, agnosticism, freethought and humanism. We also have historical evidence for the existence of religions which have passed out of existence: those of Babylon and Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, and the Paganism of Europe. We know from comparative studies that many of these religions, and their branches, share doctrines, beliefs and practises. We know from the historical record that many of them have emerged as a result of schisms and divisions of others. Putting such ideas together, we come up with Figure 1, a rather sketchy and whimsical rendition of the “trees of religion.” Granted, this construction omits many details, and cross-linkages, but will serve to illustrate that the World’s religions are related together in one or more family trees. The questions of interest are why this should be so, and what lessons would the answer to the first question teach us.

To understand the evolution of religion we must first understand its nature. We can begin by considering the meanings of the word “religion” in modern English. Most frequently religion is taken to be a belief in the existence of a supernatural power, or powers, which should be worshipped as the creator[s] of the universe. It is also used as a name for the conduct and ritual associated with this belief. Specific systems of belief, worship, and conduct are termed religions, as for example the Christian, Buddhist or Muslim religions. We may also apply the word to the state of mind, or way of life, of an individual follower of a particular religion. The derivation of the word “religion” from the Latin religare, to bind back, probably arises from the sense that the beliefs are that which binds the individual to his way of life. The dictionary tells us that the word can also be used to designate any set of principles or practices which govern an individual’s life, (as in cleanliness was a religion to him. The word in this usage is no longer connected with the supernatural or the superhuman. This use of the word could be extended to cover cosmology, a theory of the existence of the universe, and our place in it. In this sense, we might argue that Humanism could be classified as a religion. There is other useful vocabulary which we might clarify this point. A “cult” is a loosely organized religion, and a “church” refers to an independent religious organization, particularly a Christian church. The word “cult” has a somewhat pejorative connotation. A “denomination” refers to a sub-division of a religion, which can be distinguished by doctrine, or in some other way, from its peers, as in a protestant denomination. A “sect” refers to a small denomination, usually one which has broken away from an established church. Sects, religions, churches, cults, and denominations are all examples of what may be called “complex adaptive human activity systems.”

2. Religious Systems

A system is an entity which has some constant character which we are able to recognize. The constancy can be associated with some underlying schema, or governing law, which can often be stated in mathematically precise terms. A system might be as simple as a mass vibrating on a spring, in which case the underlying schema is stated by Newton’s Law of Motion. A human being is a system whose constancy is governed by the genome. We can recognize that a human being is made up of many sub-systems, the bodily organs, each of which is determined by the action of the genes in building up particular proteins. We can also recognize constancy in the way a person behaves, termed human activity systems; and there is constancy in the behavior of groups of humans, which we term social systems. We can still recognize the continuity of a system with a slowly changing, or even an adaptive, schema. An adaptive system has the ability to change its “output” in response to changes in its environment. The central thesis of an earlier essay was that evolution is nothing other than the slowly changing expression of an adaptive system. The present purpose is to point out that there is evidence that evolution has occurred in the case of a particular complex system, namely, religion. The irony is that religion has been the very home of the most intransigent opposition to evolutionary theory. But since Darwin’s time, the evidence has been steadily mounting that such an evolutionary process has indeed been going on in the area of biology, with its great variety of forms, living and dead. We now have a variety of methods, ranging from studying the fossil record, to changes in DNA, which enable us to construct “trees” of life tracing the lineage of these evolutionary changes. There are similar “trees” to be found in connection with the development of other types of complex systems, notably languages and artifacts.

One religious system can be distinguished from others through its characteristic beliefs, practices and forms, and these same essentials (with perhaps slight changes) allow us to recognize a religion’s persistence from one generation to the next. But in any system analysis, a key question is, “Why does the system persist?” As an example, we might ask how it is that the Catholic Church is able to live on through the centuries as its individual members pass away? Sets of beliefs are held by individual people. Obviously the mechanism of persistence involves the addition of new adherents to the membership. Many of these may have been born into, and educated in, the ways of the religion, while others came by way of conversion in later life. The experiences of these children and adult converts, which cause them to adhere to the religious society, must be in some sense satisfactory, or they would not stay. Comfort may be derived from the familiarity of rituals, especially in extreme and life changing situations. Religions may offer “glad tidings,” extending hope to those whose lives are otherwise poor and dreary. Religion may be an important part of providing a sense of identity, which is of enormous importance where a country has ethnic divisions. Religion may offer a world-view, not only of the physical universe, but also of human society, and a justification of the individual’s place within it. Although there is a cognitive element in religion (a theory of everything), it is clear that the ties that bind most individuals to their faiths are emotional, and are the subject of psychology, (a study famously associated with James, and his work “The Varieties of Religious Experience”).

It was E.O. Wilson who pointed out that there is a strong biological influence on the psychology and behavior of individuals, including the behavior of individuals in groups, and an argument that many cultural, moral and religious behaviors could have developed under the tutelage of Darwinian evolution. The subject is termed sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology. Wilson argues that we have an underlying Human Nature developed over hundreds of thousands of years, encoded in our genes, and regulated by hormones and neural transmitters which predispose our behavior in certain directions. All religions are associated with morality, a basic set of rules for human behavior which carry with us in the form of powerful emotional reactions which we call values. Taking care of our children, refraining from murder and mayhem, and even telling the truth are all policies which have obvious benefits for the survival of our species. Various forms of altruistic behavior which are difficult to explain on the basis of the evolutionary benefit alone, can be understood much more readily if we consider the survival of the genes of the group, or the species as a whole. Thus after hundreds of thousands of years we find these behaviors “hard-wired” into our human natures. Wilson asserts that: the predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind, and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature. He looks to scientific naturalism to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. He does not profess to have all the details of such an explanation marshalled at this time, but believes that the outlines of an explanation lie in the ability of the human genes to “program the functioning of the nervous, sensory, and hormonal systems of the body, and thereby almost certainly influence the learning process. They constrain the maturation of some behaviors, and the learning rules of other behaviors. Incest taboos, taboos in general, xenophobia, the dichotomization of objects into the sacred and profane, nosism, hierarchical dominance systems, intense attention towards leaders, charisma, trophyism, and trance induction are among the elements of religious behavior most likely to be shaped by developmental programs and learning rules. All of these processes act to circumscribe a social group, and bind its members together in unquestioning allegiance”.

It seems to this author that there is a very straightforward explanation of the importance of religion to the individual, in the sense of its being a cosmology and regulator of the way of life. Once animals evolved to a level of conscious awareness, then it would be only a small incremental step to wonder how the individual might fit into the overall scheme of things. If the “theory” of one’s place in the Universe led to a realistic model of the world and an optimistic assessment of one’s chances of success then the incipient “religion” would have survival value. There is no evidence that pre-human animals had religion, but it seems to have first appeared with the Neanderthals. This explanation of the importance of religion in our lives also explains why it is so closely tied in with our sense of identity. If the lesson of the value of a theory of our place in the universe were genetically encoded, as Wilson suggests, then religion might indeed have a biological basis. These “theories” could also be easily encoded in the form of myths and thus be societally reinforced into the bargain. Gods and magic would certainly provide ready explanations for the vagaries of the natural world, and would engender confidence in the votaries of the religions which portrayed the gods as on our side. Even though today many of us have ceased to invoke magic and the supernatural in explaining the universe, there remains a legitimate yearning for an understanding of who we are and where we are going.

One of the primary characteristics of religions is their component cultural systems, i.e. their creeds, tenets and literature: the beliefs which are more or less shared by the membership. In primitive religions the culture is populated by spirits, demons, and gods. Childbirth, puberty, growing old and death are all the subject of legends and magical practises. The weather, other natural phenomena and warfare are all springboards of emotion and belief expressed in invocations, incantations and myths. This culture permeates the whole of daily life, including the practises of hunting and fishing. For an account of the myths and legends which grew up based on these beliefs one can refer to “The Golden Bough” by Frazer (1922).

One important development was the emergence of monotheism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So important is the almighty to these religions that the entire culture is termed theology. This can be argued to be an improvement in religious theory in that it replaced the arbitrary caprice of a pantheon of petty gods with the wishes and demands of a single theistic authority. Over the passage of time theologians have refined the accounts of how this omnipotent God acts, and the nature of the morality he calls for. It is the variations in these beliefs, and the practices of his followers, that show up as the branches of the trees in Fig. 1. God however remains supernatural, over and above the forces of nature, and as such as much beyond nature as his magical predecessors. For an account of how religious adherents have seen change take place, one might refer to Ann Armstrong’s “A History of God” (1993).

Religion has a sociological aspect. The religions which are usually of the greatest interest and concern are those that are shared by large communities, sometimes numbering in the millions. We quickly recognize that such sharing does not come about fortuitously: there is teaching, reading, meetings and other communal activities which are the instrumentalities whereby the beliefs get shared. Furthermore these actions of belief transmission are not mere transient events, but rather the result of more or less permanent organization with specialist agents devoted to the ongoing process of socialization of the religious culture. These are the priests, preachers, missionaries and bishops who dedicate their lives to the purpose and whose livelihoods frequently depend upon it. There may be substantial economic resources devoted to the service of a religion: buildings, land, monetary and financial investments. Religion in the past has at times permeated the economic sphere and the polity. There are still countries where interest payments are forbidden. Kings have risen or fallen depending on the wishes of the churches. Class divisions and civil wars have paralleled religious distinctions.

Social evolution was first proposed in the nineteenth century by Herbert Spencer (1852) as a part of his wide-ranging theory, predating Darwin, that the whole universe evolves. Many theologians claim that the study of evolutionary change in religion is of little interest, and brush the topic aside. The pioneers in the sociology of religion were Spencer, Durkheim and Weber. The aim of their enquiries was to understand the nature of change in the chosen field. One way to understand change in religion is by tracing the necessary adaptations to the emotional and cognitive supports it offers to the individual. Weber was particularly motivated to explain the rise of capitalism in Europe. His theory came about as a consequence of the protestant ethic, the idea that every individual is responsible for his own conduct. This contrasted with the medieval attitude that the church and its priests would intercede with God on the individual’s behalf. Another sociologist of some influence in the field was Talcott Parsons (1975) who propounded a general theory of sociological evolution which can be applied to the case of religious development. Parsons maintained that our human actions can be thought of as being driven by four main systems: the cultural, the personality, the social and the behavioral organism. These correspond to the influences we have outlined in the preceeding paragraphs. Parson explained evolution as a growth of adaptive capacity arising from the differentiation of these sub-systems. Parsons also proposed a similar theory for the evolution of society as a whole, to which we shall return in a later section. Martin (1978) was one of the first sociologists to categorize these and certain other changes as a trend to secularization, but the theory has been most extensively developed by Bruce (1996).

Let us now examine some of the major tendencies in religious evolution resting heavily on Bruce’s work.

3. The Decline of Magic and the Supernatural

It appears that the family trees of religion arose from various magical beliefs invented by our ancient forbears in contemplating the innumerable strange and often frightening phenomena of their lives, from wild beasts to meteorological and geophysical events which they explained in terms of spirits and anthropomorphic gods. These beliefs are represented by the bramble patch in Fig. 1, from which the modern religions have grown. As science and philosophy have provided an increasingly successful naturalistic account of the world so has the role of magic and superstition receded in religion. Bruce (1996) has recently presented an updated summary of the decline of the supernatural in the period since the time of the reformation. The trend is most clearly seen in Europe, and Bruce cites evidence gathered in Britain on which to base the case. Before the reformation, nine out of ten of the rural population were members of the Church of England. Everyone wanted protection against evil, with blessing for their houses, fields, food and weapons. During the middle ages belief in the Devil and hell-fire was widespread, but is no longer a tenet of mainstream Christianity. The ritual churching of women after childbirth has completely disappeared. Membership of the Church of England had declined to about 18 percent of the total population in 1800, and although it rose somewhat during the nineteenth century to about 26 percent in 1900 it had declined to 14 percent by 1990. Bruce cites figures for the town of Cheltenham in 1882, when some 47 percent of the population was found to attend some kind of Christian church on a wet Sunday, increasing to 61 percent in fine weather. The figure nowadays is 12 percent. In 1947 six percent of the population were found not to believe in any sort of spirit/God or life force. By 1968 this number was 11 percent. By 1981 4 percent were reported to be atheist and by 1991 10 and 13 percent respectively claimed to be atheist and agnostic. Nowadays, 25 percent claim “no religion”. Although 72 percent claimed to believe in some sort of supernatural power, in the same survey only 50 percent said they believed in God. Only 24 percent said they believed in the Devil or in hell.

There are other evidences of decline of religious belief in Britain. In 1900, 65 percent of births were baptized in the Church of England, while this had declined to 27 percent by 1993. In 1900, 70 percent of weddings were white, i.e. carried out in church, a number which had fallen to 53 percent by 1990. Religious radio broadcasts have been losing their audiences, and sales of religious books are down. In the Middle Ages there was wide acceptance of the doctrine of trans-substantiation, i.e. that the bread and wine of the mass actually became Christ’s sacrificed flesh and blood. Many of the famous Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England would embarrass most contemporary Anglican clergymen. Major elements of the Christian faith have been quietly dropped: e.g. miracles, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the expectation of his return and the reality of eternal damnation. The faith has been relativized: a tenet is judged by how useful its effects are on adherents. Now competing convictions are seen as equally valid. No longer is the world divided into the saved and the damned: we are all God’s children now. Bruce notes that this pattern is common to most industrial countries, except the USA.

4. Religion and the Growth of Social Complexity

What then is the explanation of this decline in belief in the supernatural as detailed in the preceding section? Bruce first attempts to eliminate what he believes to be a misleading explanation, namely that religion has declined because people have become better educated and less credulous. He continues “committed atheists–the sort of people who join rationalist and humanist associations–and some very liberal Christians believe that religion has lost its medieval dominance because modern people are too clever to believe in old superstitions.” Bruce dismisses this by pointing to the dreadful nonsense that people do believe. Whether something is true, and whether it becomes widely accepted, are two very different questions. Now despite the fact that this author is one of those who join rationalist and humanist associations, and finds the arguments for atheism unassailable as presented by Smith (1989) and Flew (1984). I am inclined to agree with Bruce that such direct cognitive appeals probably do not completely explain the decline of the supernatural in the religion of the majority of people. It seems to me that Bruce’s contention that such evolution is driven by “social forces” is quite likely.

What are these “social forces”? Bruce reasons that the whole process of modernization, of which the religious changes are a part is an economic one. One obvious feature of modernization is the division of social institutions into smaller, more specialized units, a process Bruce terms fragmentation. The family was once the sole locus of economic production, of education and of socialization. Now we have factories and schools. Religious institutions have been pushed out of many spheres: firstly the economy, then from education and then from social welfare. The pre-reformation church was often the government bureaucracy and keeper of national records. The church was frequently an arbiter of legal disputes, including claims to thrones. The church was also involved in ‘health care’, many of the first hospitals being religious foundations. In education both religious schools and universities are now indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. People increasingly move out of their ‘class’ or ‘station’ in life. Serfdom has collapsed and has been gradually replaced by democracy.

Different churches have become attached to different religious world-views which made sense of the lives of their adherents in different ways. The Church of England is episcopalian: God at the top talks to the archbishop who talks to the bishop, who talks to the dean, who talks to the clergy, who talk to the lay people in regard of what to believe and to do. The upper classes stayed with it after the reformation. James I understood the situation well when he said “No bishop, no king”. In England the Church of England is strongest among the gentry and their farm servants. Independent farmers and the middle classes became Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists. The churches with the strongest belief in the responsibilities of the individual in finding religious salvation adopted democratic procedures in their governance with policy and doctrine being subject to majority voting in local congregations and national assemblies. These same “liberal” denominations were the first to open the ministry to women. The polity in many churches has become so complex as to justify the establishment of institutions of church law.

Another important trend to influence religion was the emergence of the nation state and the reorganization of life away from the local community toward the larger society of industrial and commercial enterprise, a process Bruce calls ‘societalization’. We quote from Bruce: “When every birth, marriage and death in generation after generation was celebrated and marked with the same rituals in the same building, then the religion that legitimated those rituals was powerful and persuasive because it was woven into the life of the village. When the total, all-embracing community, working and playing together, gives way to the dormitory town or suburb, there is less held in common to celebrate. Anything approaching the innocence of the tribe by the lagoon with its shared single world-view is no longer possible”. Diversity has been created by migration of people. In other settings it has resulted from the creation of new nation states by mergers of smaller political units. A third source of cultural pluralism has been the internal fragmentation of the dominant culture. In Bruce’s opinion the latter presents the greatest psychological threat. “The nineteenth century Scot, as well as knowing that, somewhere out there, were African pagans and Arab muslims, and, closer to home, Irish Catholics and English Episcopalians, had to come to terms with the presence among his own people of divisions into Kirk, free Church, Free Presbyterian Kirk, Old Seceders, United Seceders, Brethren and Baptists. In rural France, modern Catholicism has been pushed towards a transcendent humanism, according to Bruce. While dominant religious traditions have tried to enforce conformity the social costs of coercion have usually become too high and the state has had to give up.

The final major trend which Bruce maintains as an explanation for secularization is ‘rationalization’, by which he means a concern with routines and procedures, predictability and order, improvement and ever-increasing efficiency. We live in a world of timetables and calendars. We do not expect invasions of the supernatural. Science showed the earth to be round and not flat. It proved that the Earth moves round the Sun and not vice-versa. The Earth and life are much older than the Bible suggests. And Darwin’s theory of evolution is a better explanation of the origin of species than the account of divine creation. Nevertheless Bruce argues that the overthrow of some of the early Christian beliefs was not the primary reason for the loss of plausibility of the supernatural. There are many ways in which people can get around unpalatable specifics, as indeed the fundamentalists manage to avoid the evidence for evolution. But it is far less easy to avoid being influenced by the general climate of the scientific and technological world. We believe, for example, that complex entities can be broken down into components. We believe that complex actions can be broken down into simple acts which are reproducible; that a given cause has a given unvarying effect. We look for natural causal explanations and there is little space for the eruption of the divine or supernatural. There are fewer disagreements among scientists than among the clergy. The secular professions enjoy the sort of respect that the Church commanded in the Middle Ages. Technology has been very successful in delivering the goods and we no longer need the supernatural in ever wider spheres of public life. Another way in which science and technology reduce the place for traditional religion is through the social power of their institutions. For example, life and death are now mostly administered for us by doctors and medical technicians in hospitals.

The shamans’ use of magic in prehistoric religion was the beginning of the praxis of the various engineering professions and the priests deserve much credit for starting the systematic acquisition of knowledge which has since grown into science. The universities by the time of the Middle Ages were for the most part, organs of the church. It was not until the nineteenth century that the universities finally overthrew the authority of the church on the academic campus. The academic disciplines are now fiercely independent and feel no obligation to contribute to, or to fit into any overarching cosmology. It takes an outstanding figure such as E.O.Wilson in his book “Consilience” (1998) to remind the academic world of the importance of the unification of knowledge in various disciplines to build up a single coherent picture of everything.

5. Religion and Ethnicity

There are a number of examples where religion has become inextricably entwined with the ethnicity of some group. Bruce (1996) gives an interesting account of this phenomenom. Perhaps the leading example of such a situation is that of the Jews and Judaism. Judaism has long been the religion of the “chosen race” who are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. They do not believe in universal salvation. But of course there are other examples. The Scots who were settled in Northern Ireland by William of Orange retained their protestant faiths and thus made religion into an identifying factor to differentiate themselves from the indigenous Catholics. There have been periods in the history of Northern Ireland when recriminations and counter recriminations became the order of the day leading eventually to endless provocation and civil strife, which is the situation at this day. Similarly in the Balkans the contending parties were Catholics and Orthodox with the admixture of followers of Islam since the time of Turkish occupation. In the Indian sub-continent we have the apparently unresolvable conflict between the Hindus and Muslims. The conflict between the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East is assuming religious dimensions. During times of oppression such as experienced by the Irish before the creation of the Irish Free State the Catholic Church was the only organization able to oppose the oppressors and thus the Church grew in strength as the defender of Irish ethnicity. The situation was similar in Poland under communist rule where again it was the Catholic Church that provided the only shelter for Polish nationalism. In the case of the Afrikaners and the Ulster Protestants we have examples of Protestantism serving as a legitimator and guarantor of ethnic identity.

Another example is the case of religion in America. As waves of immigrants settled in the new world they brought their cultures with them and religious affiliations are primary among these. The pilgrims sought refuge from persecution in Britain and established the puritan tradition in New England. Martin (1996) traces the rise of the modern “religious right” all the way back to these early settlers. The Irish brought Catholicism to the USA. For the blacks, imported as slaves, and living under conditions often calculated to destroy their culture, the Christian religion provided the only sociality permissible. Their identity grew from spirituals through jazz to black consciousness. Immigrants from Germany, Sweden, Norway and Finland each brought their own native language varieties of Lutheranism. With the Russians came Orthodoxy. The separation of church and state under the US constitution meant that all churches were equal and had to compete for membership. So it is small wonder that the situation in the USA was and is different from that in Britain and Europe. Church membership especially among fundamentalists flourishes in the USA.

Nevertheless, even in America Bruce reports evidence that secularization is in progress. Although Americans claim a high degree of church involvement the churches themselves find their denominations are shrinking. Evangelical churches are growing but not sufficiently to offset the observed overall membership declines. It was de Toqueville who first suggested that the success of American Christianity was due to the need to appeal to the people directly in the absence of state financing. De Toqueville’s experience in France led him to believe that a close association of church and state alienates people from religion if they become disenchanted with the old social order. In the Catholic countries, Spain, Italy and France there is a polarization between the church and the secular block comprising the communists and socialists. However, as Bruce points out, in protestant countries where the idea is well established that any individual can discern the will of God, and that bishops and priests are not necessary then one can form one’s own religious organization. The British did just that as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, and numerous other denominations. De Toqueville believed that the American clergy worked hard from economic necessity, but others have suggested that pioneering clergy (especially the uneducated Methodists and Baptists) had such zeal that they could sustain congregations anywhere. Religious communities have tended to take root and grow in certain localities in the US: Congregationalists and Episcopalians in New England, Baptists in the South, Mormons in Utah, Lutherans in the Mid-West etc. The churches tend to play the same role of legitimator and guarantor of ethnic identity as they do in some parts of the old world. Bruce maintains that this is the reason for the strength of religion in America. Bruce does not mention another striking piece of evidence for this thesis: the rapid growth of Islamic and Buddhist communities in many American cities in support of the many Asian immigrants of recent years.

6. Counter-trends

There are a number of reactionary counter trends to the processes of rationalization and growth of complexity in religion. In the first place there are the fundamentalists who simply demand that the processes of modernization and secularization should be reversed and that the clock should be turned back to the olden times of the pure religion. In America we have the puritanical moralizing religious right who have entered the political arena in an attempt to force their agenda on the whole country. This movement has been described by Martin (1996) in his book “With God on our Side”. From crusading against the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution the effort has expanded to opposing birth control, sex education, and abortion. But the reaction in the West pales by comparison with that in the Islamic nations. There women are to be returned to subjugation, veiled and without education. Primitive barbaric concepts of justice with flogging and maiming for punishment are being brought back in Allah’s name. Boys are sent to die in holy wars in the belief that they will earn eternal glory in exchange for martyrdom. In both East and West the most egregious manifestations of fundamentalism are being contested by the secular world and in addition, forces of moderation are growing within the religions themselves. Thus in the West the internal inconsistencies of the creationist movement may yet prove its undoing, and in the East the moderate mullahs may wrest away the leadership of Islam. Some of the Christian fundamentalists, as we have noted already, are heavily committed politically, whereas others completely eschew politics, seeking instead the “kingdom of God”. Followers of the Socinian tradition, as recounted by Hillar (199X) believed in the importance of men using their individual reason, and proceeded to strip the traditional Christian theology of its Greek appendages (the Trinity, for example) and returned to the beliefs of the early church. Perhaps eventually these denominations will ask themselves why they should wish to model their lives on 2000 year old religious myths and prejudices.

A number of new religions arose in the 1970’s. How do we understand these occurrences in terms of the secularization thesis? Bruce points out that that these new religions were of two principle varieties: world affirming or world rejecting. The world rejecting new religions include the Rev Moon’s Unification Church (the Moonies), the Hare Krishna, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Guyana and Charles Manson’s “Family” in California. According to Bruce, the world affirming new religions include the Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking, Scientology, Transcendental Meditation (TM), Rajneeshism, as it appeared in Antelope, Oregon and Insight Weekends. The world rejectors renounce secular society and are typically puritan and totalitarian. On the other hand the world affirmers, for the most part are quite happy with the world, are mainly concerned with freeing the inner self (perhaps as a take-off from humanistic psychology), and are only vaguely theistic but may use drug induced experience to achieve their purposes. Bruce points out that typical adherents of the new religions are upper or middle class, with few members from the working class. Stark and Bainbridge (1985, 1987) have argued that the occurrence of these new religions is proof that the secularization thesis is incorrect, and that religion is inevitable since however much we have, we always need more. In support of this we are reminded that Durkheim explained the rise in suicide rates in times of prosperity in just such a way. To counter the argument Bruce points out that it is the world affirming new religions which have been successful and that the world denying ones have either self destructed or mutated into conventional forms.

Another counter-trend is found in the “New Age”. Bruce describes this as a term used loosely to describe a wide range of beliefs and practises, many with roots in the esoteric culture of the late nineteenth century and others which are extensions of the new religions of the 1970’s. Most elements of New Age are cultic and organized around commercial enterprises and magazines. A typical advertisement is for tarot, crystals, oils, lava lamps, jewelry, incense, cards etc. A typical magazine could be “Wicca Brief”, a newsletter for Wiccans and pagans in German. The popularity of the New Age cannot be measured from memberships. It is hard to estimate the popularity of UFO-ology, Ouija, Astrology, Tarot, Hypnosis, Crystals, Reflexology, Channelling and I-Ching but they are obviously attractive to many people. The volume of New Age books sold is one gage of this. Magic lives on. Channellers hear voices, including that of the Almighty. New Age practitioners believe they are developing new science, liberated from ‘Newtonian’ thinking, i.e. rationality. Conventional scientists work in specialized disciplines but New Agers feel free to connect ideas from different fields on an Ad-hoc basis. New Agers are greens who believe in Gaia and that small is beautiful. Human potential movements tend to become increasingly spiritual. New Agers are typically quite tolerant except when they begin to approach medicine, when demands for standards arise, as in the case of the accreditation of aromatherapists. The Protestant notion that we can all discern God’s will is amplified in the New Age. But even some astrologers are trying to institute professional organization. One problem with the widespread tolerance in the New Age movement is that there are no widely accepted grounds for disagreeing with any idea. Once again it is to be observed that there are no working class New Agers. There are many more women involved than men, a phenomenon also discussed by Bruce at some length. There are some aspects of the New Age which are progressive, the holism of New Science for example. However the rejection of the technological as opposed to the natural does not seem to be humanistic. Finally we note that the New Agers are not very effective at the promotion of radical or specific change because they lack they lack the cohesion and discipline of a sect.

The New Age is closely akin to Postmodernism. This is a movement within academic departments of Philosophy and Sociology which formally tries to reverse the pre-eminence given to rationality since the time of the Enlightenment. It almost appears as if some sociologists have fallen into the trap of accepting the New Age beliefs of their subjects. This sorry state of affairs is described by Gross and Levitt (1994) in their volume “Higher Superstitution: the Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science”. In “The Golem” Collins and Pinch bring their sociological biases to bear on Einstein. They attempt to dismiss the Theory of Relativity as a product of purely social influences. This gross failure to comprehend the nature of the hard sciences and mathematics unfortunately detracts from some observations about the adequacy of Science in the overall scheme of things. The first major point in this respect is that many scientists themselves fail to understand the distinction between the technological and the observational sciences. Sociologists themselves cannot decide if Sociology is a science or a member of the humanities. Religion was thrown off the campus, and rightly so at the time, but has not been replaced by any other integrative discipline. Even if academics understand the work of their colleagues in other departments (which they rarely do), there is almost no attempt these days to offer any overview of the state of the total academic enterprise. The philosophers who in past times produced cosmologies and systems are no longer to be found and the discipline of philosophy is used only for the analysis of truths proposed by others. Religion, banished from the campus, struggles to satisfy many needs science overlooks. It continues to be the principle vehicle for instruction in ethics and morality. The academy has only just come to the realization, through the writings of E.O. Wilson that much morality is instinctive. The campus offers no department of glad tidings, although futurology may help in the future. Economics ignores the integrative system. Emotions and the aesthetic are vital parts of the lives of ordinary people but which are not properly integrated into the scientific worldview.

7. Religion in the World

We may speculate that the family was the prototypical human social system. We can imagine that the polity, the economy, religious and educational institutions might have begun as parts of family life. As social evolution progresses the tendency is for subsystems to become more specialized, as we have already mentioned, and for these units eventually to achieve greater and greater autonomy. Parsons presents us with a picture of the evolution of the social system which is similar to his view of the systems encompassing the individual. He portrays the principal divisions of the social system as the maintenance of institutionalized cultural patterns, the societal community, the polity and the economy. Parsons saw cultural evolution as the growth in complexity of these divisions. A similar but more detailed exposition again along systems-theoretical lines has been presented by Boulding (1978). Both Parsons and Boulding see religion as a part of the integrative system which is in turn a part of the cultural system. Over the years the religious system has had extensive responsibility in education, health care, economics and even political and civic administration. In Europe and America these functions have been largely stripped away from the churches although in Islamic countries the fundamentalists have at least temporarily reversed the situation. What remains in Europe and America are those functions by which people take cognizance of their lives and determine the cultural basis of future trends. Bruce discusses the internal structures of certain churches whereby these functions are fulfilled. The Catholics have a hierarchical system with pope, cardinals, bishops and parish priests. They also have a staff, the Curia, located in the Vatican which includes not only the offices required to interact with the secular world in political (foreign) affairs and church investments, publications and education but also an office for correct belief. Other denominations are much less structured and may include deliberative councils of lay members. Many Christian denominations have governance that is complex enough to require institutions of church law. I have not found a comparative study of the internal structure of various church institutions.

One problem for all religions and for their free-thinking successors is that educational levels vary considerably throughout the membership. Christ said “in my father’s house are many mansions”, a delightful mis-translation in the King James version, which should have been rendered “in my father’s house are many rooms”, meaning that there must be tolerance for people at varying levels of understanding. One solution is to establish a priesthood who are well educated and respected by the laity who will then permit them to speak for the community. But where every member considers himself a spokesman the religion will remain a cult. The problem is particularly acute among non-believers (i.e. freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and humanists) where the difficulties of organization have been compared to trying to herd cats. As Bruce points out the structure adopted by a particular religion will reflect its beliefs. If we believe in democracy the laity must certainly have a voice in church affairs but we need to be sufficiently disciplined to arrange matters that decisions can be made and adhered to long enough to assess their validity. Another problem which can arise is when the membership suspends its critical judgement allowing itself to be swayed by emotional appeals and simplistic reasoning. Such ideological demagoguery was common in the fascist and communist movements giving rise to fanaticism among the membership but can be found in religion as well, as described in Hoffer’s (1951) “The True Believer”.

8. The Future of Religion

The secularization thesis, as propounded by Martin (1975) and Bruce (1996) proposes that there are three major changes going on in religious evolution: 1) a decline in popular involvement in religion; 2) a decline in the scope and influence of religious institutions; and, 3) a decline in the popularity and impact of religious beliefs. The evidence for these trends has been summarized in preceding sections. The measures of religiosity in which Bruce finds the greatest decline are those involving the supernatural. The decline in scope and influence of religious institutions involves the growing complexity of social life and the partition of various sub-systems away from the religious. I would like to suggest that what is happening could equally well be described as Humanization, i.e. a tendency for the various religions to evolve towards forms of Humanism. In one instance at least (the Catholic church in France) Bruce actually states that this is so. We would find certain other groups, such as the Unitarians, much further along the road than the French Catholics. In the USA the Humanist Movement was instigated by Unitarians and continues to have a close association with them. On this basis we would expect the future of religion to continue the ongoing trends. We would expect the various ramifications of the tree of religion to persist in the future, but with all branches becoming increasingly humanistic.

The Humanist Movement fulfills a function in the lives of humanists, namely as an integrating system which provides a cosmological explanation of the Universe and helps in the definition of desirable behavior. But this is much the same as the role that religions have settled upon, or are at least approaching in this modern age. Every complex adaptive system needs a defining module in its structure: a theory for its existence. The Humanist worldview is naturalistic, explicitly repudiating the supernatural, whereas most religions still retain some traces of the supernatural, usually in the form of some vague belief in divinity. One ventures to predict therefore that the last remnants of the supernatural will eventually be dropped from religion. Perhaps the search for God will be replaced by the search for Humanity. The promise of Humanism must surely be extended to everyone in so far as each individual can comprehend the attainment of a humane world.

9. The Evolution of Humanism

Humanistic thinking has arisen in different parts of the world apparently quite independantly. Buddha and Confucius first brought a philosophical approach to the human condition in the East. Humanism first appeared in the West through the thinking of the Greek philosophers and we tend to look to Thales, Democritus, Protagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, and Epicurus, as early Humanists. Among the Romans we had Lucretius, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. Classical thought was revived with the renaissance and flourished with the growth of science and the universities. The period of the Enlightenment saw the growth of confidence in human reason and an expansion of the sphere of classical thought through the work of such thinkers as Erasmus, Moore, Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal, Bacon, Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Condorcet and Kant. Although Humanistic thought flourished within certain of the churches, philosophers who wished to completely discard the old beliefs in the supernatural worked largely as isolated individuals. It was not until the nineteenth century that substantial numbers of people began to declare themselves “freethinkers” or “non-believers” and began to associate together independent of the religious world. For the most part they listened to lectures, or held discussions. Compte’s Religion of Humanity was an early attempt to reinvent traditional Christianity. In his early beliefs Marx was quite humanistic, but the present day humanist movement is strongly democratic following the leads of Russell and Dewey. In the nineteenth century the important contributors included Darwin, Ingersoll and Spencer. The knee-jerk left wing ideology has been left behind in favor of an engineering approach based on a knowledge of political systems. The term “Humanism” came to be widely adopted in the early years of the twentieth century. For more detailed accounts of the history and philosophy of Humanism the reader is referred to works by Dewey (1934), Lamont (1949), Kurtz (1983) van Praag (1982), Erickson (1988) and the Morains (1998). Ayn Rand is close to the humanist position but not completely there.

There are Humanist organizations now in over 100 countries and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) represents over four million members world-wide. Humanism does not have organizational continuity with any religion or, for that matter, with any other institution. However, most of its members came from other organizations bringing ideas on structure with them. These ideas constitute the base from which Humanism will evolve. Huxley’s book “Religion without Revelation” (1957) is a source for “religious” humanists. Some humanist organizations have put an emphasis on growing as secular institutions, and indeed the humanist movement could learn much from the academic world and professional organizations. The Humanist Movement has similarities to, for instance the ISSS (International Society for the System Sciences) or the AAAS (Association for the Advancement of American Science). One problem here is that these societies are elitist in their membership whereas Humanism, like religion, has to accommodate members of all educational levels. Rather than be torn apart by the religious – secular dichototmy we should try to learn from Dewey (1934) who observed that there is a continuum from the religious to the secular. We should recognize that what we are building is neither religious nor secular in any traditional sense, but something new which draws on the best of both worlds. Activities were limited at first by lack of resources, but now many humanist groups have buildings, and full or part-time employees. We aim to teach through conferences and publications, through courses, discussion groups, book clubs, film clubs and with whatever other media come to hand, how people can better themselves and the society in which they live. As other religions or social movements become more humanistic in their outlook, and approaches, we should be able to find common causes for improvements in the social world, for charities and specific causes or political programs. The Humanist life-stance (see Finch [1998]) rests heavily on the humanist psychology of Fromm and Maslow and should emphasize learning from experience.

Socrates’ aphorism: Good people in a Good Society, is still an apt summary of Humanism and its objectives. To express a similar thought in the language of Immanuel Kant, our search is for humanity both in ourselves and in society. But Humanism, unlike many religions, regards change as inevitable and if handled correctly, beneficial. The reason for this is that our understanding of what constitutes a good person, or a good society changes with time. Evolution is therefore, more than a matter of static doctrine for the Humanist Movement. Every so often the Humanist movement puts out a new Manifesto to reflect our improving understanding. The major discovery that Humanists have to show the world is evolution itself. We hope that Humanism will evolve, taking the lessons of history to heart, so that it will adapt more readily than has been the case with religion. The evolution of Humanism is however, self-conscious and self-directed. Humanism will benefit from academic knowledge in all areas, starting with mathematics and the natural sciences but extending into the social sciences, medicine, engineering, law and business. As already mentioned some earlier humanists were beguiled into accepting Marxist theories. Surely the failure of communism should show us that capitalist economic systems are superior. This is not to say that the capitalist system cannot itself evolve and improve. But surely the Humanist Movement will benefit from adopting business-like methods and building endowment to finance its work. Similarly it could learn from studying political systems. Some separation of powers among the institutions of the Humanist Movement seems to have evolved and to be of benefit to the health of the total system. However there does seem to be a problem of resolving conflicts between these bodies and for this the author suggests the establishment of a judicial system, similar in function to the legal system in the body politic. Another problem that the Humanist Movement has in trying to operate a democratic governance is in adopting suitable procedures for operating the various Boards it has set up at national and local levels. As various procedures are tried we need to describe the results and pass the information on to other groups instead of repeating past mistakes. One of the problems of the past has been the difficulty of communication for a community widely scattered over vast areas such as the USA. Electronic “meetings” present unique challenges and we need an electronic version of Roberts Rules of Order to keep matters under control.

The American Humanist Association was incorporated in 1941 and the IHEU was founded in 1952 and thus we see that organized Humanism in comparison with most religions is a recent development. What is the justification for starting a new movement as opposed to remaining within the existing religions to accelerate their evolution? The hope is that as a new venture without the old supernaturalistic and magical encumbrances, Humanism can offer not only a rational life-stance for the present, as mentioned above, but also unclouded visions for the future (see Humanist Futures by Finch [1999]. As opposed to the “glad tidings” offered by Christianity, namely, the false promise of immortality in a mythical heaven, Humanism projects attainable possibilities in this real world. There are many options with our evolutionary approach for the development of our destinies. In other words there may be many different Humanisms. But Humanism suffers from some of the same problems as mainstream Christianity, as detailed in this essay, in its inability to compete with fundamentalism and the New Age. How can we Humanists be possessed of the most subtle truths the world has ever known, or contemplate the most profound changes in technology and biology but be unable to persuade our fellow humans to give up superstition and the rituals of millenia long passed? The Humanist message is not simple or calculated to appeal to the emotions that governed our Stone Age ancestors. We need substitutes for the myths of religion, the beauty of the church buildings, music and liturgy. It is crucial that we humanists find ways to open the doors to deeper emotional artistry, feeling and commitment to accompany our scientific knowledge and philosophical reserve.


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  • Finch, Robert D. (1999) “Humanist Futures” in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, vol. 7, Humanists of Houston.
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  • Tree of Religion. This rather whimsical figure illustrates the fact that there are genealogical relationships between the World’s religions. The figure is not historically precise, but indicates how the organized religious movements arose from primitive systems of polytheistic magical beliefs. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) dominate the Western World, while Buddhism and polytheistic Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism and animism are more widespread in the East. Philosophy has ancient roots in many parts of the World, especially in Greece. Philosophy has influenced religion; the effect of Platonism on Christianity, and Philosophy, is a direct progenitor of organized Humanism. The figure omits many details of the important branches of the main religions, and focuses attention on the branching of secular Humanism because of its relevance to this essay.

Copyright 2000 © by Robert D. Finch