Friday, July 31, 2015

Humanism Gaining Support

Image from the Renaissance

Back in the Renaissance, which folded into the Age of Reason in the 1600s, a small number of artists, philosophers and scientists began to move from the stifling Christianity of their day into an realm labeled “humanism.”  Buoyed by studies of Greek and Roman scholars, they began to emphasize human needs and develop rational solutions to human problems.

Many retained a belief in God, but some completely shed any concept of a deity, although the word “atheism” wasn’t coined until centuries later.

Humanism has lingered on the fringes of society ever since, often lambasted by religious organizations and demeaned by those who only focus on the lack of interest in a deity.  Now, Humanism actually may be coming into its own as an acknowledged alternative to mainstream religions.

Humanist inmates?
Most recently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons settled a lawsuit by accepting Humanism as a religion, placing it on par with Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Inmates who list Humanism as their religion of choice can now hold events, meet with Humanist chaplains and obtain appropriate literature.  They will even be able to celebrate Darwin Day, February 12, which has become a holiday among Humanists.

“This settlement is a victory for all Humanists in the federal prison system, who will no longer be denied the rights that religious individuals are accorded,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

Considering that 92 percent of the American population believes in God, Humanist gatherings in prison or elsewhere can’t expect a big turnout, but the decision confirms the rising interest in Humanism in this country.

After all, in 2014, the U.S. Army recognized Humanism as well.  Since Humanism does not include a belief in a god, the military won’t need to hire any clergy for humanists in the ranks, but servicemen and women now can opt out of programs held by other religions.

They aren't members of a monolithic entity.  There are actually many sects within Humanism, mirroring the diverse beliefs within Christianity, Islam and other prominent faiths.

For example, Literary Humanism focuses on humanities or literary culture, while Renaissance Humanism emphasizes the ability of humans to separate truth from lies.

Famed Greek philosophers
Other sects include Western Cultural Humanism, which looks to traditions developed in ancient Greece and Rome; and Philosophical Humanism, which centers on human needs and includes Christian Humanism.  Modern Humanism, which has several names, may be the largest of the groups and is "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion," according to the late philosopher Corliss Lamont, who taught at many Ivy League schools.

Religious Humanism encompasses organized groups like Unitarian Universalism.   “Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life's harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose,” according to the American Humanist Association, whose motto is “Good without God.”

Because Humanists jettison a god, they are often attacked as amoral.  Folks with deep religious beliefs are sure no one can behave ethically without the big eye in the sky watching.  That view turns out to be wrong.

Several national studies of morality and religion have turned up no correlation between the two. True believers donate more to charity than Humanists, but they also commit more murders. In a book, Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College in California, demonstrated that morality does not require a deity.

“Most residents of Denmark and Sweden … don’t worship any god at all, don’t pray, and don’t give much credence to religious dogma of any kind. Instead of being bastions of sin and corruption, however, as the Christian Right has suggested a godless society would be, these countries are filled with residents who score at the very top of the ‘happiness index’ and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer,” according to a review of the book.


A separate study in 2005 by Gregory Paul, an author better known for his work with dinosaurs, found that the societies that have moved away from religion often have lower murder and suicide rates, and few abortions and teen pregnancies.  That’s corroborated in this country where the highest teen pregnancy rates are in the states that statistically contain the most religious residents.

Paul issued a second study four years later, noting that "high religiosity is not universal to human populations, and it is actually inversely related to a wide range of socio-economic indicators representing the health of modern democracies … once a nation's population becomes prosperous and secure, for example through economic security and universal health care, much of the population loses interest in seeking the aid and protection of supernatural entities. “

At the same time, most Americans actually don’t equate religion with morality.  A report from the Pew Research Center, which studies religion in American life, found that less than 33 percent of Americans “cite religion as the major source of their moral values, and more than half claim that practical experience and common sense are the major source.”  In essence, the vast majority of Americans, religious or not, support Humanist ideals.

Don’t expect to see Humanist churches popping up on street corners or Darwin Day turning into a national holiday.  However, the decision by the Federal Government to accept Humanism as a religion mirrors the burgeoning social movement carrying a large chunk of the American population away from religion toward organizations that focus on rational thought rather than religious speculation.

Think of it as a new Renaissance.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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