Jan 3·edited Jan 4Liked by Elle Griffin

Back when Dawkins and Hitchens were prominent atheists debating religious people, as a viewer, I saw atheism as active opposition to enemies of reason. I still think atheist has a place to keep religion in check in some ways, but gradually humanism, even during that time humanism was getting more popular. I think atheism just doesn’t have good press and at the end of the day, most belief sysytems are tied to tradition and ritual.

Humanism is a preferable way of conceptualizing our human experience that allows for more wonder than people think atheists have, so I’d agree that if we’re going to replace religion with humanism, I’d be much more comfortable governing a society on those principles than the ones we have now.

Expand full comment

Great post and discussion here!

My take: I love everything Elle writes about Humanism, but that all falls short of what Religion provides.

To paraphrase the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, Myth (or "Religion", we can say here) has several purposes. One is to tell us How to Live. Humanism as Elle describes it does that beautifully. But Myth also tells the human community Where We Come From. Where We're Going, and Why We're Here.

Secular Humanism just doesn't have those answers. Nor does Science. From all I can tell, if you peer deeply enough into Cosmology, Neuroscience, or Physics, the answers to those questions is always, "We don't know." or "Science can't answer that." So those of us who care about answering those questions must look again to Religion or Myth.

Expand full comment

I like what you're pointing to here, and I'm a big fan of humanism and humanist thought.

I also think it's worth noting that *secular* humanism has had a poor track record when it comes to instituting religion in a traditional sense. Efforts like the religion of humanity from Auguste Comte or the church of humanity from Richard Congreve swiftly failed in the 1800s. And contemporary efforts like Sunday Assembly or Oasis have had lackluster results. To my knowledge, there's not a secular organization that has managed to replicate the communal strength of religion, especially when it comes to offerings for kids.

This isn't to say that secular humanism is wrong. It's just to say that spirituality and mythology seem like essential components when it comes to forming the types of communities that religions represent.

Expand full comment

oh, this: "There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for *him*.”

Expand full comment
Jan 2Liked by Elle Griffin

Elle is directly addressing one of the conundrums that I've been thinking about quite a bit.

I lean in the direction of some kind of Gaiaism at this point: finding our core meaning in the planet and the universe and learning to appreciate our proper place within the web of life (a cliché - more language needed.) The greater good has to go far beyond our own species.

Expand full comment

I'm 100% behind humanism, and I like that you present it as a system that can be complementary to religion instead of necessarily replacing it. But my point of view is a literary one, and I think the whole problem with religion, especially Western monotheistic religions, is a misunderstanding of fiction.

Unless we find a way to solve this problem, humanism is going to be a threat to those who are religious (not all, but definitely some, including those in power) because humanism has almost everything religion has, except none of the bad stuff.

The one good thing religion has is story.

As a novelist, I recognize the power of story. Humans need it. It's literally part of what makes us human, being able to share truths from one generation to the next. But before the development of journalism, it was all fiction. That doesn't mean these stories don't contain truth -- quite the opposite. It just means that certain events didn't necessarily happen. But if you try to explain to a religious person their scriptures are fiction, they usually take it as an insult.

The word "belief" has two meanings. To believe in something and appreciate it and identify with it is entirely different than believing something is factually true. No fan of Star Wars, the MCU, or Harry Potter thinks these stories aren't fiction -- they understand and appreciate them because they understand they are fiction. But plenty of monotheists think the stories of their gods are factually true, which is something they can't explain or justify, and therefore see some human progress, such as humanism or science, as a threat to their belief.

Anyway, I like everything you said about humanism, and it's inclusivity. I just wondered what your take on this angle is, and maybe there's a solution that doesn't sound like I'm trying to man-splain religion to the religious. :)

Expand full comment

Excellent post, Elle. Thanks for reminding us to care for ourselves and for others. The Golden Rule says it all. “ 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.” So very true!

Expand full comment

There’s a few ideas I’m batting around after reading the piece.

The first regards humanism and dogma. A significant theme of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is that humanism is ultimately as "religious" as the traditional religions.

The notions that humans are equal, that we should uphold justice and care for the marginalized, that actions are best informed by reason, and the progression of humanity are, in a significant way, dogmatic. They can’t be empirically established or reasoned towards without making faith assertions.

Harari’s assertion is uncommon in my experience. What is more common is what the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “subtraction story”: the secular outlook is simply what was left after science and reason we have subtracted our former belief in the supernatural. Once that superstition is gone, we are able to see things that had been there all along—that reason alone can establish truth and the humanistic values of equality and freedom. The problem, as Saudi anthropologist Talal Asad puts it in his work Formations of the Secular, is that this process entails shedding one set of unprovable assumptions about reality for another. To that end, your words on the various creeds we embrace resonated.

The second was your compelling engagement with nihilism. I suppose one reason nihilism has become a default is that many find it a logical conclusion to the materialist view of the world. They may be able to generate rationalizations of meaning and universal benevolence, but it nonetheless feels like a conscious larp.

For most cultures/worldviews throughout time and place, meaning and ethics are downstream from ontology. In some ways, secularism was particularly constructed to isolate these elements of the human experience (in part to quell the religious wars of Europe). But that leaves modern Westerners in a unique position.

I’ve seen humanistic ideals unite folks along the moral level. But, the ontological questions can’t help but seep into the conversation, or at least our consciousness. And if you leave a vacuum regarding these questions, it will fill up in ways that are often unexpected (Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites does a great job of documenting how this manifests in our secular age).

Nevertheless, I think the draw to nihilism begs the question of whether secular ontologies have the resources to generate secular humanisms, especially over the long haul.

P.S. I am wrapping up my draft for a delinquent “curation assignment #5” on David Perrell’s Why You’re a Christian (https://perell.com/essay/why-youre-christian/). That’s one of the reasons this conversation is very fresh on my mind. After reading this essay, I think you’re critical feedback would be really valuable if you had the opportunity! Either way, I'll be sharing the essay soon and this discourse is really helpful in me processing the content of the piece~

Well written essay Elle! looking at some of your linked, prior pieces now on this subject!

Expand full comment

Humanism is getting back to basics. Religion was invented by humans as some way to run the world, and throwing it off would release us from the constriction it put us into. We’re stuck in original sin where original blessing would have us evolving happily and treating each other well – all those humanistic characteristics. To strip Jesus and other holy folk from being gods and seeing them as mystics, who have broken through the shell of materialistic reality to what encompasses it, is my advocacy. Anyone who, by psychedelics or near-death experiences or other ways they tasted what mystics are steeped in, knows that the humanistic way is the real deal that we're being challenged to move into now.

Expand full comment

Go Thomas Paine! “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

Happy New Year, Elle!

Expand full comment


What a great post to start the year with. I like your concept of Humanism being complementary to religion. Having faith in our own capacity for goodness is the condition precedent for all acts of kindness.

Expand full comment

Is Enlightenment humanism only possible because of Christianity's focus on a personal revelation? Chicken or egg conversation. But we forget our founding father's humanist ideals at our peril. It is perhaps a sign of privileged amnesia when the pendulum of public opinion begins to swing towards authoritarian certainties that ultimately rely on the passivity of the refrain "God's wills it so."

Expand full comment

I love this, but I do wonder how we could ever possibly create a model of humanism that is actually as effective for subscriber retention as the current monotheistic MLMs are.

Like. “If you leave our tribe you will go to hell” is such a strong tactic that costs these ideologies $0 haha

Expand full comment

I’m reading The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis for the first time. And although I expected it to be from the lens of Christianity (as he is famously a Christian apologetic), he claims in the book to be defending that humanity’s universal values are innately derived from within us in the form of Tao, regardless of religion. I’m not well-read on the subject and have yet to finish the book, but find it fascinating nonetheless. Being a good person to others is definitely something I can get behind haha. Thanks for sharing this article, Elle!

Expand full comment