Tuesday 16 December 2008

Religious Humanism

I am asked to expand about the meaning of religious humanism.

First of all, the position accepts as standard the usual debates and methods of the intellectual disciplines. This means evolution, of course, and no ghost in the machine with a hand on the tiller - it means local and specific, and it means humans are accidents and that all life forms evolve and evolve more quickly in chaotic or catastrophic conditions. All these disciplines have paradigms of explanations, contested and consensual. So we have mathematics, with its tautologies, logics and points where paradox comes in, underpinning physics. Philosophy has its logic and argument, its schools. There is scientific falsifiability, and then social scientific regularity and validity in primary research, and the use of maths, use of argument. Anthropology develops its valid research into rich observation that equates the report to an explained novel - we are story creating, biographical creatures. History has its houses, but gives primacy to primary documents. With the arts there are periods and styles, but difficult if impossible to objectify what is great art over the mundane.

Theology exists but in a very open approach: there are no closed hermeneutic circles, no protections offered up-front for apparently divine figures. The starting point is the disciplines; theology is just one more. God is not excluded, but can be theist, pantheist, panentheist, non-realist, representing linear time or spiral time, a Universal Principle and so on evermore.

The religious humanist asks what is special about humankind, whilst accepting humankind is but a tiny off-centre part of the universe. The answer lies in all those issues about mind and being conscious of being self-conscious. The question remains whether any machine based artificial intelligence will ever perceive of its own existence. If it does, it then acquires rights and responsibilities. Other animals have rights and responsibilities consistent with their sentience, with some generous extra. We seek, as religious humanists, the generous good.

Faith then is about orientating towards the good, and can draw on several religious and philosophical resources. I would draw upon the ethical Jewish eschatology of Jesus, as well as on insights within the Christian tradition. I would draw on Judaism and modern developments in Judaism. There is the Buddhist insight into dealing with the world in a developed and trained non-attached manner. There is the Hindu insight into plurality and modernist Hinduism's insight into philosophy and theistic rationality. There is the Baha'i insight, freed of its administrative dictatorship, into unity, peace and modernity. There is Islam's insight into purity and transcendence, and Sikh insight into removing particularities of joined insights when developing ethical faith. There is reinvented Paganism and its plurality, ritual and liturgy.

All of these, however, are approached critically: that is subject to individual and communal debate. The principles again derive from those intellectual disciplines. We can pick and choose. There is no exclusivity, but there may be a role for a consistent pathway as a critical raft to take across the water. That might exist as is, to be treated lightly, or self-constructed.

Prayer is more like meditation. Prayer may relate to any particular inheritance of the divine, or construction of the divine. It might tap into some sort of perceived energy or power. For many though, the function of prayer is collective and individual, without external, and is more like developing one's spirituality. The most useful God-metaphor may be depth. Religious content involved is like a fiction, useful fiction.

Ritual is something humans do as part of binding the individual to the group and intensifying the identity of the group. Sometimes the ritual involves considerable material sacrifice towards a spiritual benefit that may or may not come. Deities and helpers and practices are invoked, like transitory mind-body assistants. Ritual can also be moderate, or even severe in its coolness. Like meditation and prayer, it assists towards the reorientation and is chosen to be directed towards the good.

In the end faith is contemplative and reflective, and has the effect of some sort of transformation and reorientation. It requires discipline and self-evaluated behaviour. It seeks no reward other than the good generated, and although ethics must be situational there is more to this that reciprocal response: one hopes for more and better.

This is how I understand religious humanism: it uses rationality, is reasonable, draws and learns from others, and tries to deliver a spiritual benefit with a material outcome from a religious practice.

What's the difference between this and a Dawkins or de Sautoy humanism? One is that it is less sure, a little more agnostic; secondly, that it does allow concepts of God to be meaningful (however perceived); thirdly that it uses the arts far more in its expansion of meaning and support for doing religion and generating hope; but it is still consistent with the basic position of Dawkins or de Sautoy, and cannot be inconsistent withe the disciplines and their debates.

Is it modernist? In part it is, but postmodernism should be after modernism. It is more postmodern in the sense of being eclectic and drawing from around. I prefer pluralism to humanism in the end, but religious humanism offers more clarity perhaps as an arrived-at stance.


rick allen said...

"All of these, however, are approached critically: that is subject to individual and communal debate."

But isn't the purpose of approaching something critically to eventually make a judgment about it?

I agree with you about the universality of insights, and have read, to take a few obvious examples, the Analects and the Tao Te Ching and the Baghavad Gita and the Dhammapada and the Qur'an with appreciation and love. But as a person giving some value to reason, I recognize that the various religions and philosophies contain a number of direct contradictions among themselves which precludes the "acceptance" of all--at least unless what is concrete (and real) about them is abstracted out.

I don't say that that means you must accept Christianity or any of these particular approaches. It only means that, having expressed an appreciation for all, you've said little more than what Vatican II said about non-Christian religions, that the Church rejects nothing that is true and noble in them.

That's a more or less tautological statement--how exactly does any person or institution reject truth. But it's seems pretty much in line with what you're saying, except that in the one case, what is true and noble is accepted only with respect to a certain "benchmark," whereas for you what is true and noble remains open among the contradictory paths.

Again, perhaps just the connotative of words, but your approach does still seem to me more a chosen, indecisive "pluralism" than a "humanism," which normally implies, to me at least, a particular valuing and privileging of the human that your emphasis on the "accidentality" and marginality of humanity seems to deny. Or maybe "scepticism" is the word I'm looking for.

Anonymous said...

Two further qualities of religious humanism:

- it holds that theology must be compatible with psychology and in particular with the doctrine that (some sense of) the divine is not only a human construct but a necessary consequence of humanity;

- it has little or no time for institutional religion as such (as opposed to such practice conceived as a possible portal to both rational and mystical religion) which it sees as basically a form of cultural "glue". It holds, more or less dogmatically that God cares for individual souls, but not at all for nations or cultural practices.

It is this last feature which creates the conflict between religious humanism and more "mainstream" forms of religion.

Mike Killingworth

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It is sceptical, yes, but the matter of consciousness and self-consciousness is pretty important for raising up the human. One wonders about the possible developments in reptile life had such not come to a major catastrophe, and of course there is that old one of alien life far far away.

It may be (hello Mike!) that religious humanism cares little for religions as packages, but humankind is very tribal and it ought to recognise that there is a positive side to collective identity as well as a negative - that nationalism uses religion to further itself and further the tribe, and this must be criticised.

Erika Baker said...

I must be particularly dense this morning.

I can agree with everything you say and much of it is true for my own faith. “Is it true” is a modern question that the authors of Scripture did not ask. Some people, having thought about this modern question, come to the conclusion that “yes, it is true”. Others pick and choose which bits they can genuinely believe. Others still will reject all literalist claims and even all claims for exclusivity.
But having come to a conclusion about the literal veracity of the claims made ultimately says nothing about “faith” or “religion”.

“What is it trying to say”, or “How can it still speak to me” is my question. Or even “Is it saying something deeply meaningful that other stories are not saying”.
But I do have a positive faith, a positive belief in God - who is more than "depth". I find his truth in the mysteries and the psychology of the Christian narrative. Most importantly, he is not anthropocentric.

So we both seem to be asking the same questions of our faith narratives, yet we come to different conclusions. That means that the answer cannot be found in the kind of questions we ask nor in how we ask them.

Humour me, please.
My understanding says that you can approach your personal philosophy in all those ways you suggest. Then you either arrive at a belief that includes the possibility of a "supranatural being" - in which case you have a religious faith, however defined.

Or you arrive at a belief that is purely referenced to humanity and does not need an external "being" - in which case you have a non-religious, humanist approach: possibly atheist, more likely to be agnostic.

Or maybe you need to define "religion" for me. Defined too loosely (money is the modern world's religion) it become devoid of meaning.
Defined too narrowly (only a solid belief in the doctrines of any of the major faiths, say) it becomes a straightjacket.

Will say that religion and faith are on the one side of this equation – humanism is on the other. Religion and faith are other-focused – humanism is people-focused.

And I don’t see how the two can be meaningfully combined.

rick allen said...

It seems to me that this phrase "religious humanist" has an older meaning and a newer one.

The older meaning would be "a humanist who is religious," i.e. one belonging to a particular religion. The textbook examples would be Thomas More and Erasmus. (Another example is a fictional character, Serenus Zeitblom, the narrator of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, who standing in contrast to the relentless modernism of the protagonist, Adrian Leverkuhn, displays religious humanism as a venerable tradition).

More and Erasmus would be excluded, I think, by Mr. Killingworth's two further qualities. His definition (which, I suspect, is a bit closer to what our host has in mind), points to a humanism which sees the religious impulse as a fundamental component of humanity (as opposed to those who see it as a mere error), but an impulse which religions distort as much as atheism. To use a term which I have criticised as much as anyone, it strikes me as more a humanism of spirituality than a religious humanism.

But this is really a matter of definition. I am interested because I consider myself and have always defined myself as a religious humanist, but have also always been a rather conventional Christian. I therefore tend to regret that the term has come to imply a more radical alienation from religion than it has in the past. A modern humanist must of course grapple with the Nietzsches and Heideggers, whom our Renaissance predecessors were spared. But we need not go there.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

You want me to humour you? Read my piece on Prof. Frame Remain. If that doesn't humour you, I'll tell a few jokes.

Why did the very tall man prefer to get his hair cut in the stylish salon?

Because it was a cut above the rest.

Buddhism is a religion and (with some exceptions) has no supernatural element. You can do without the supernatural.

Humanist has many meanings and varies. There is a need to be clear what religious humanist means, at the same time as allowing the definition to be broad.

Fr Craig said...

What strikes me as odd in all of this train of discussions is the total absence of the word or concept of 'love.' Perhaps because I'm INFP, I find myself vastly more interested in emotions, images, concepts and 'pointers' than I am in intellectually rigid theology/philosophy. While I can understand why someone would want everything to be reducible to logical and verifiable points, there is no beauty in all of that (for me). P, I used you (flatteringly) in my St. Thomas homily (having freely shifted the dates) this week. I live comfortably with Hebrews 11:1, but admire those who struggle with God - vastly better than indifference. In any event, I cannot intellectually quantify most of what is most important to me: why I love my wife, why my favorite color is green, why I love Bach and Beethoven but despise rap, how I come to trust my 'instincts', etc. But those are much more real to me than arcane theology/philosophy. At bottom, though, I am Christian because in the Incarnation I find a God who loves us 'that much,' and that's a God I need - surely for my own unique psychological profile, I admit. But in the end, it is the love that matters most in life - for what else will end human evil? Surely not theology/philosophy. I admire those who can think in those intensely ordered ways, but - to me - love is the bottom line. blessings, Adrian.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Well you have an assuredness about incarnation that helps you regarding what love is.

I don't mention love a lot because I'm not sure what it is. Somehow I think love is a derivative from other behaviours and stances, and it comes and it goes.

As a person I am very unromantic and somewhat pessimistic.