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The dharmic religion of humanism

By David Warden

David is Chair of Dorset Humanists and Humanist Advisor in the Bournemouth University and Arts University Bournemouth Faith & Reflection Team. In this article he reflects on the meaning of the word religion and in what sense humanism is analogous to it. David has a degree in Christian theology and religious studies.

Humanism is not a religion but it makes perfect sense to me to say that humanism is my religion. I'd like to try and unpack the seeming contradiction. When humanists insist that humanism is not a religion they are trying to put as much distance between themselves and the common understanding of religion which is that it is to do with gods, spirits, doctrines, creeds, praying, priests, churches, mosques, and the whole panoply of organised religion. All that is perfectly understandable. But I've always felt rather frustrated by humanists' narrow insistence on dictionary definitions of the word religion, as if dictionaries are some kind of holy writ, and the phobic reaction to anything that remotely resembles religion – a reaction which can sometimes undermine sincere attempts to make humanism more connected and successful. For example, I have no difficulty in saying that humanism is a faith – I have faith in myself and in humanity – and therefore I feel right at home with interfaith dialogue as described by Jeremy Rodell this month.

Coining new metaphors

Humanists have often struggled to come up with an effective word or description of what humanism is. When asked, we burble out a string of possibilities: it's a worldview, a way of life, a lifestance, a philosophy... by which time we've lost the attention of the person who asked the question. The Amsterdam Declaration has, since 1952, described humanism as an alternative to dogmatic religion. This widely-agreed statement strongly implies that humanism is at least analogous to a religion. But we can of course road-test new metaphors if we want to. For example, we could say that humanism is an operating system for homo sapiens – a metaphor which helps people to understand something abstract and unfamiliar (humanism) in terms of something more concrete and familiar (computer software). Alternatively, you could try calling humanism a satnav. Whether people are conscious of it or not, everyone has some kind of operating system guiding them through life, for example a religion or some other implicit philosophy such as hedonism.

Raves and rock concerts

Two articles in this month's edition of Humanistically Speaking stand out for me. One is Barry Newman's article on the way in which religion stimulates the production of enkephalins – a subgroup of endorphins. And the other is Dr Helen Skilton's article on what humanists can learn from Buddhism. Let's take Barry's first. Barry is asking how humanist activities and gatherings can mimic religion in the production of these feel-good neurotransmitters. I think we need to be honest and acknowledge that the production of feel-good neurotransmitters can be quite a specialised and expensive business. People go to raves, rock concerts and festivals like Glastonbury or Greenbelt in order to get a massive boost of these chemicals. The Catholic Church puts on spectaculars like papal visits in order to pull in the crowds. Attending the World Humanist Congress in Copenhagen in August 2023 certainly gave me a big buzz. We can facilitate this on a smaller scale in our monthly gatherings. Just connecting with like-minded people in a humanist setting can be a big boost to your mental and emotional wellbeing. But humanists have to turn up and get stuck in. Join a humanist group, or start one from scratch, and invest some time and energy in it. The most important thing you can contribute is your presence. We need to be around people, and the more the merrier.

The Dharma of humanism

Helen Skilton writes about the Dharma of Buddhism – a Sanskrit word which refers to a path, a right way of living, and the ethical and moral principles that guide one's life. Humanism has this in abundance. It's not been formulated into an eightfold path or ten commandments, although there have been many attempts, such as the American Humanist Association's “Ten Commitments”. It can be a fun and useful exercise to copy this kind of structure but humanism is not the kind of thing that should be confined to a prefabricated structure. It's not that difficult, however, to articulate what could be called the Dharma of humanism. Perhaps it can be reduced to two main precepts:

  1. Think for yourself: This is the obligation to develop your critical thinking skills and to think rationally and courageously, following the truth wherever it leads – not slavishly following the multitude

  2. Live a good life: This includes the obligation to reflect on whether you are living a good life so then when you die, you and others can say that you have lived an authentic life to the best of your ability, which contributed to the good of humanity

We can easily spend a lifetime trying to live up to these two precepts. Humans are pretty bad at being rational because evolution has given us a brain that loves to take short-cuts. And so a major part of the curriculum of humanism should be training ourselves to think better and more slowly. For example, the treasurer of Dorset Humanists, Daniel Dancey, gave an excellent talk in December about how to spot logical fallacies in our own arguments and those of others. Humans can also be pretty bad at living a good life. We can make a mess of things, we may have an irascible or obsessive personality, we may get addicted to bad stuff. Humanism holds out the possibility and potential of living an optimal human life, a life of human flourishing. But what does this actually mean to people struggling with the basics such as bad housing or unemployment or mental health problems? Humanist groups and communities should be tackling these things in their events and charitable programmes, and many are doing so. The word “Dharma” also refers to the universal order or law that governs the functioning of the universe. Humanism has this too. We look to physics and chemistry and biology to understand the whole structure of the cosmos and life on Earth.

A humanist world

Humanism is much much bigger than the organised humanist movement. Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the (now much-maligned) Industrial Revolution, we have been creating a humanist world in fits and starts. If you were to go back to the Middle Ages in a time machine you would find yourself in Christendom with all of its hideous doctrines, deprivations and torments. There would be no freedom of thought or speech, no books unless you were a monk or a prince, no newspapers or magazines, no art except endless depictions of the Virgin Mary and the Crucifixion of Christ, no science, no education except for the clergy, no hospitals, no dentists, no humanitarian aid, no fashion, no transport except on foot or by cart. The best you could hope for would be a life of hard work, perhaps a little music, dancing and feasting, with lots of prayer and the hope of Paradise after you die. In today's world, we have endless opportunities for self-actualisation through education, travel, the internet, art galleries, libraries, concert halls, films, novels, plays, restaurants, world cuisine, fashion, festivals, sexual liberation, political activism, hobbies, sports... the possibilities are endless and within reach of the majority, at least in economically developed countries. The humanist movement is a small element within a much larger humanist and secular world. We should recognise and rejoice in that stupendous humanist achievement, which has largely been brought about by our liberation from the dark ages of religion. We have rediscovered and in some respects surpassed the humanist glories of classical times. So when Revd James Sharp, in this edition of Humanistically Speaking, complains that humanism does not have enough beautiful music and architecture compared to the church, he's (understandably) missing the point. Humanist music, architecture, art and so on is all around us.

The eureka moment

As far as we can tell, millions of non-religious people do try to live according to humanist precepts. They may have picked up the general idea from Star Trek or by reading the novels of George Eliot. There are millions of incognito humanists out there waiting for the eureka moment: "I'm a humanist! And I've been one all my life without realising it!" They may or may not come to our events and meetings. And they don't have to if they have better things to do, such as going to a rave or having sex or bringing up their kids or visiting an art gallery. But we should be there for the people who do need and want a humanist community, who want to feel confident and supported in their identity as a humanist, and who have a drive to make the world a less irrational and more humanist place.

The answer to this month's question

So is religion the root of all evil? It depends what you mean by religion, of course. The extremely dangerous thing about religion is when powerful and fanatical men think that they have been told exclusively what to do and think by Almighty God. That kind of religion leads to unspeakable evil, chaos and destruction. But religion in the sense of Dharma – a way and a set of ethical precepts for right living – now that kind of religion can help us to live good lives.

Maggie's question

I was intrigued by Maggie's attempt this month to answer the question If they all worship the same God, why don’t they get along?” The key to this question is to recognise that gods are cultural artefacts which evolve in particular cultural settings. The God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims is singular and consistent in the sense that he is considered to be the same God that was worshipped by the Hebrew patriarchs. But he has gone through a process of cultural evolution in each of the three traditions, and each one has developed a different understanding of what God is, how he behaves and relates to human beings and so forth. This is what we should expect when there is no actual object in the real world answering to the word “God”. The Empire State Building can be described consistently by many different observers because it is an object in the real world. But God, like Santa Claus, exists in the realm of myth and human imagination. That is why Jews, Christians and Muslims sometimes find it difficult to get along, because extremists in each tradition insist that their understanding of God is the correct one.

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A thought provoking chapter that reaches to our prejudice of certain words. There is religion and then religion. Back in the day we probably had drugs and drugs. Today however things that improve our health are called medicines and things that harm our health are called drugs. Maybe this is why religion falls into the drugs category. To me, drugs are bad. To me religion is bad. On a personal level it can bring a person momentary happiness. But if people get together in a tribe, religion tends to result in harm... a bit like drugs.

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