Worm's eye view of five people in a circleAny extended discussion about Humanism usually involves considering its relationship to religion. This is not surprising as religion has a long history in most societies. Below are three ways Humanism intersects with religion.

First, modern Humanism is an alternative to religion, an attempt to lead a satisfactory and ethical life without religion. Humanism however is a lot more than the absence of religion. In its own right it is a well developed worldview which embodies a set of values such as using reason, being sceptical, supporting human rights, thinking for oneself and being compassionate towards others.  Humanism belongs to a strand of thinking with a long history, stretching back over 2,500 years to the ancient Greeks. A strand of thinking that has generated a view of the natural world arrived at through reason and evidence-based knowledge, in contrast to religions which are mostly based on revelation.

Second, Humanists view religion as a human-made set of beliefs and practices that aim to provide a framework for living and answers to life’s big questions – who are we?, where did we come from?, where are we going? and, how should we live?  While Humanist answers to the same questions are evidence-based, open-ended and sceptical, religious answers are imbued with dogma and certainty. This difference arises because religions claim to offer ‘The Truth’ on the big questions.  Adherents make this claim by placing the source of religious authority in another transcendent world which they say exists. Humanists and many other non-religious people are sceptical and unconvinced by such claims.

This does not mean that Humanists are necessarily anti-religion, but rather that they consider the beliefs of religion to be human-made out of hopes and wishes, rather than evidence. In other words, from a Humanist perspective, god(s) didn’t make humans, but rather humans made the many different gods. This insight and others has increasingly influenced many, at least in developed countries, to turn away from religion.

In doing so Humanists don’t find it difficult to live with and among religious people. And when issues of shared concern arise such on equity, justice and showing care and compassion to those in need, Humanists will take action alongside religious people fighting for these same issues, e.g. better treatment of Australia’s indigenous people and refugees.

Third, Humanists support freedom of and freedom from religion. What we want to see is an end to religious power, control and privilege, but we accept the right of the religious to practise their faith and run their institutions. What we don’t want is religious people and bodies interfering with the right of others to lead differently chosen lives.

In summary, Humanists have an interest in understanding the nature and practice of religion and in tempering its influence in the public sphere.

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2014 Rosslyn Ives

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