Humanism as the future of religion
A belief system for the religious and secular alike.
After a series of plagues and then an earthquake ravaged Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, killing nearly half its population, people were bereft and looking for answers. Theologians responded that it was God’s will, that there was some larger plan we were part of. But Humanist philosophers ventured another idea. They were the among the first to answer the question “why did my child die?” with “because we didn’t build a bridge over the train tracks.”
We can build bridges, and this became Voltaire’s beat. In his novel Candide, the titular character rages against the “mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.” We can fix things, he insists, we can make them better. We needn’t sit idle as we await the next plague or earthquake, assured that this is all part of God’s grand design. Instead, we can study earthquakes, build safer buildings. We can develop vaccines and halt pandemics.
“We must cultivate our own garden,” Candide concludes.
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Voltaire may have been the first progress writer—focused on how we can make the world better one plot at a time—and we have built a lot of bridges since his time! We created an inoculation for smallpox. We figured out germ theory, increased sanitation, and developed antibiotics that saved our children’s lives. We created safer working conditions and regulations that make it easier to evacuate a building in a fire or survive an earthquake or cross the train tracks.
And we did all of these things whether we were religious or not.
As the thinker Robert Ingersoll once said: “In all ages man has prayed for help, and then helped himself.”
Or as the African proverb puts it: “When you pray, move your feet.”
Praying without moving our feet is akin to “waiting for God to save us,” and here we must recall the classic Christian joke: As a man sits on the roof of his house, his entire town flooded, he turns down the aid of a passing boat and helicopter—he’s “waiting for God to save him.” When he dies and arrives at the pearly gates, God is flummoxed. “What do you mean you were waiting for me to save you?” He asks incredulously, “I sent you a boat and a helicopter!”
Whether or not we pray is a personal matter, but can we at least agree to help one another? To move our feet? I find this a much more useful counter to nihilism which asserts just the opposite: That whether or not we pray, there is no use moving our feet. Nihilism has become the default belief system to those left with none, and I think this has been the great failure of secularism: That in the absence of a positive belief system, we created no alternative.
Atheism itself is not a belief, it is the lack of a belief, and we can’t unite around the idea that there is no God. We can, however, unite around the idea that we should send more boats and helicopters—that we should work together for the greater good. Doing nothing will do nothing, but doing something is within our power. We can ease human suffering in some way, and this is the central tenet of Humanism, the moral philosophy that emerged from the Renaissance, was expanded during the Enlightenment, and continues today.
Humanism is a philosophy, not a religion, so it has no dogma—but it does have a creed: Humanism believes in the equality of all humans and celebrates the rich diversity of experiences between us. Humanism believes our actions are best informed by reason and critical thinking. And above all, Humanism believes in meliorism—that the world can be made better by human effort. That we can alleviate the suffering of our fellow man, and work toward human flourishing for all.
Thomas Paine penned his own Humanist creed in his work Age of Reason: “I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
And Humanism comes with thousands of years of philosophical texts: Ideas first espoused by the Greek philosophers Cicero and Epicurious, as well as the Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism, were later resuscitated by Renaissance Humanists like Petrarch, Desiderius Erasmus, and Michel de Montaigne. During the Enlightenment, Humanist writers like Voltaire and the Marquis de Condorcet brought those ideals into our states and governments, and modern writers like Steven Pinker continue the work, all gospel that humans have some agency against the ails of the world.
Throughout history, we took those ideals and made them manifest. As Sarah Bakewell points out in her book Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope: “It was thanks to humanistic beliefs in reason and meliorism that Voltaire argued for tolerance of different religions, Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges argued for including women and non-European races in the French Revolutionary idea of human liberation, and their fellow Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham argued for what would now be called LGBTQ+ rights.”
It was Humanism’s insistence on equality that demanded an end to slavery. It created orphanages, hospitals, social work, and women’s suffrage. It implored us to devise spaces for disabled persons. It was Humanism’s belief in meliorism that inspired human rights movements and liberal democracies. The progress we have made comes from Humanism’s central belief that all human beings are equals and that we have an equal right to human flourishing.
Whether or not there is a God is irrelevant to this goal. “I am a humanist,” the philosopher Kurt Vonnegut once said, “which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”
If we are ever in doubt whether something is the Humanist thing to do, we have only to look to the Golden Rule which has become the banner of Humanist thought. Do unto others what you would have done to yourself, it asks. Or more importantly: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself. As the social reformer Frederick Douglass once put it, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
If something is not acceptable for one person, he says, it is not acceptable for the rest either. As a former slave, Douglass wrote an open letter to his former master and it was the Golden Rule he used to make his point, asking whether his Master’s daughter should have been kidnapped, dragged 15 miles at gunpoint, and sold as property as he was.
During the Enlightenment, Humanist ideas were often in contention with religion. For containing “religious blasphemy” Voltaire’s Candide was burned and censured, as were his Letters and Philosophical Dictionary. Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia, which was meant to bring knowledge to all, was censured for “seditious” entries about religious tolerance and free speech before it was destroyed without leaving another copy. Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason was banned and he imprisoned for writing it—so was his printer Richard Carlile for publishing it.
Of the time, Voltaire complained, “These days, no book can enter France by post without being seized by the officials, who for some time have been building up a rather fine library and who will soon become, in every sense, men of letters.”
But Humanist philosophers have always been religious and secular alike, and bridge by bridge and garden by garden these thinkers pushed progress forward, advocating for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. Atheist Humanists like Denis Diderot and David Hume worked toward the same goal as deist Humanists like Voltaire and Catholic Humanists like Desiderius Erasmus and Michel de Montaigne who posited that the Humanist and religious mission were one and the same.
Many religions have become more Humanist over time. It was a Humanist pope who, in 1537 declared slavery a moral wrong, and the Quakers and eventually Anglicans followed suit. Later Protestant, Reconstructionist Jewish, Vatican II Catholic, and non-denominational Christian movements pushed their religions toward tolerance and social action. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, and Methodist sects as well as some Jewish sects began recognizing gay marriage.
Today, Humanism is complementary to religion, even actively part of it. Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths, among others, all focus inward, on how we can be better ourselves, at the same time that they focus outward, on how we can make the world better for one another. That’s why I think it’s time to dig our Humanism back up and bring it out into the light. To resurrect thousands of years of Humanist thought and establish a new path of moral and enlightened humanity that anybody, religious or not, can pursue.
When I left Catholicism for Humanism, I wrote that I had left my religion for nothing. That I had replaced a religious tradition with a bible, a defined set of beliefs, and a calendar of holidays for a philosophy without any kind of blueprint I could follow. But I have since discovered just the opposite. That Humanism comes with a rich canon of text we can study, that it contains a creed we can all believe in, and that its practices unite humanity much more than any religion I have studied.
Humanism might be the best possible philosophy we can bring into the future, no matter our creed.
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Thank you for reading,