The Religion of Humanity

He was a worshiper of liberty, a friend of the oppressed. A thousand times I have heard him quote these words: “For Justice all place a temple, and all season, summer.” He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.

The above passage is an excerpt from a eulogy given by the famous American freethinker Robert Ingersoll for his brother, Ebon. It’s one of my favorite passages from Ingersoll, showing the sublime depth and beauty of his humanist views, even in times of sorrow. But behind the poetic language, there’s an important truth.

The commonly accepted etymology of the word “religion” derives from the Latin ligare, meaning “bind” or “connect”. Religion, then, is the system of obligations that connect human beings to the gods. Sensible enough – except, I have to ask, how exactly are you supposed to form a meaningful connection with an invisible, unseen, unknown, and very likely non-existent supernatural power?

No god has ever offered even the simplest tangible comforts one human being can give another: the contact of a hand, a thoughtful favor or a gift. No god comes to us, speaks to us or reassures us in the ways we all do for each other. No god answers our questions or responds to our petitions. Believers send their prayers into the void, and maybe – maybe – if they’re lucky, they’ll get a vague warm feeling in their hearts as answer, or a random event that works out in their favor which they take to be a sign. This is not the stuff of a deep and meaningful bond, not in the way we bond with our friends and loved ones. With our fellow human beings we exchange secrets, we share laughter and old jokes, we form memories together, we challenge each other and learn about each other. None of those things ever happen between humans and gods.

Rather than trying vainly to form connections with the uncaring blue sky, we can find a better kind of religion down here on earth. What we need is a religion of humanity – a secular belief system that does unite us in meaningful ways, by teaching the astounding truth that we are all part of the same biological and mental tribe.

On the human family tree, we are all cousins. Though the actual paths of the connections may be lost in the misty past, every human being on the planet is united by ties of blood and kinship every bit as real as the ones that bind us to our parents and our children. Our genes, our bodies and our brains are all nearly identical. And with that biological relationship comes, as well, an emotional and rational relationship. We all occupy the same place on the cosmos’ hierarchy of scale; we all look at the world alike, we all experience the same emotions, and we are all rational beings, trying to make our way as best we can through the vast and glorious universe. We share an outlook, a perspective, that gives each of us a deep and intuitive understanding of how all the rest of us think and feel. How could we not desire interconnection with each other? There is every reason in the world to seek it out.

This religion of humanity is not one that will teach us to agree on every issue, for we are too diverse for that. Rather, it will teach us the truth that our similarities are so deep and so pervasive as to completely overwhelm the comparatively shallow things that divide us from each other. And it will encourage us to build on that shared similarity to reason out the issues where we disagree, doing our best to proceed in a spirit of open and communal inquiry and a shared desire to know what is true.

Regrettably, the smaller religions that currently predominate have prevented this from coming to pass. Supernatural religion will only ever divide us, never unite us. In fact, the theist Andrew Sullivan last year put it as well as I’ve ever seen it put:

…the content of various, competing revelations renders them dangerous. They are dangerous because they logically contradict each other. And since their claims are the most profound that we can imagine, human beings will often be compelled to fight for them. For if these profound matters are not worth fighting for, what is?

Sullivan’s proposed solution to this dilemma is that we bear in mind our own fallibility, and never believe that we have discovered the final and absolute truth about God’s desires. This, as he must surely know, is naive. In a system of inquiry based on self-correction, such as science, this could work. But religion is not based on this principle, but rather on the opposite: that it is a virtuous and praiseworthy trait to believe, firmly and unshakably, even in the total absence of evidence. (As atheists know, the fact that religious beliefs never change and never compromise is often trumpeted as a selling point by their evangelists.) In fact, in the eyes of many sects, the more strongly a religious belief is contradicted by the evidence, the more virtuous it is to believe it – this constituting a sign of the believer’s trust in God over the foolish wisdom of man.

Since there is one world, there must be one true description of it. If religious beliefs were based on the evidence of that world, then we might expect them to converge eventually. But, again, this is not the case: religious beliefs are explicitly not based on evidence. Instead, since they arise from people’s wishes and imaginings, they reflect the full range of diversity that can arise from the creativity of the human mind. For this reason, the chances that they will ever converge on the same form are effectively zero.

These shallow supernaturalisms will not bring us together. Even the briefest glance out over human history should make that obvious. At best, some believers have learned to paper over their differences in the name of amity; but those differences still remain, irresolvable, and will inevitably flare up wherever they are put to the test. Their desire for a greater human brotherhood is laudable, but the road they have chosen is unlikely to ever lead to success. As long as people continue to hold belief in dogma as the highest moral value, division and conflict will remain. The highest moral value, in fact, is our common humanity and the obligation it confers on us to be good to each other. When this is more widely recognized – when, not if – then, and only then, we will finally have a religion worthy of our worship.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.kezrek.deviantart.com/gallery Kezrek

    This is beautifully stated. So religion takes ideas and then looks for evidence, but all in all humans should be doing the opposite, and take evidence and turn it into ideas. Makes a lot of sense. Thank you for posting this!

  • hb531

    I think the lack of comments thus far is an indication that your readers are just dumbfounded at the clarity and simplicity of this post. If any one essay could ever de-convert a believer, this is it. If any one essay could ever inspire an atheist, this is it. What a great statement to start your 3rd year with. Keep it up!

  • Christopher

    From the article,

    “We all occupy the same place on the cosmos’ hierarchy of scale;”

    I’m yet to see any hierarchy in the cosmos – all I see is matter/energy interacting with other matter energy: moving and reacting without any intrinsic purpose or meaning. The only hierarchies I see are the ones we (i.e. the human species) has created.

    “we all look at the world alike,”

    No, we don’t – in fact, it’s impossible for us to do so as our worldviews are colored by our life experiences, culture, genetics and a multitude of other factors that govern our outlooks on life.

    “we all experience the same emotions,”

    See above…

    “and we are all rational beings, trying to make our way as best we can through the vast and glorious universe.”

    One can argue that the “rationality” of man often alluded to is little more than anthropocentrism: we may very well be stuck on ourselves and our own concepts of “greatness” that we miss the bigger picture of existence – one that doesn’t give a damn whether we live or die.

    “We share an outlook, a perspective, that gives each of us a deep and intuitive understanding of how all the rest of us think and feel.”

    If we did possess this, communication difficulties would vanish and “true communication” would not only be possible, but omnipresent in our species.

    However, this isn’t the case…

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    The highest moral value, in fact, is our common humanity and the obligation it confers on us to be good to each other. When this is more widely recognized – when, not if – then, and only then, we will finally have a religion worthy of our worship.

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what distinguishes a non-theistic religion from a philosophy. Is “worship” of something a necessary component of religion? Is “worship” a good thing? My current thinking is that “worship” of anything is unhealthy.

  • Steve Bowen

    @Christopher

    I’m yet to see any hierarchy in the cosmos – all I see is matter/energy interacting with other matter energy: moving and reacting without any intrinsic purpose or meaning. The only hierarchies I see are the ones we (i.e. the human species) has created.

    I think what Adam is saying is that on the physical and temporal scale that humans exist we all perceive the universe from a similar standpoint. If we were several orders of magnitude bigger, smaller or longer lived we would have a different perspective.
    It is true that genetically and culturally we all express differences, but we are more similar than different in our basic needs, our physical and emotional drives. Substituting a rational, evidence based and yes “anthropocentric” humanist (isn’t that a tautology?) philosophy stikes me a a much more assured route to peaceful co-existance than vague tribal superstition.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “Believers send their prayers into the void, and maybe – maybe – if they’re lucky, they’ll get a vague warm feeling in their hearts as answer, or a random event that works out in their favor which they take to be a sign.”

    This point was one of the major causes of my loss of faith — the stupefying silence at the end of every prayer, and the emptiness thus engendered. How much more satisfying is the goodwill created by treating all with decency. How much more secure is my worldview when it is bathed in the light of rationality.

    And to the Chaplain:

    Complete agreement here. In my mind (and I may well be wrong), “worship” has a connotation of unthinking acceptance. While radical skepticism is of dubious value, it behooves us all to question our premises regularly.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    The commonly accepted etymology of the word “religion” derives from the Latin ligare, meaning “bind” or “connect”. Religion, then, is the system of obligations that connect human beings to the gods.

    Put that together with the title, and I’ve caught the pretty metaphor already :-)

    Rather than trying vainly to form connections with the uncaring blue sky, we can find a better kind of religion down here on earth. What we need is a religion of humanity – a secular belief system that does unite us in meaningful ways, by teaching the astounding truth that we are all part of the same biological and mental tribe.

    I’d like to take that further, actually. You write of real world facts by which we might perceive ourselves to be connected; by which we are connected in some metaphorical sense. But my first thought was not of how we are connected but of how we should develop and create connections with each other.

    The highest moral value, in fact, is our common humanity and the obligation it confers on us to be good to each other. When this is more widely recognized – when, not if – then, and only then, we will finally have a religion worthy of our worship.

    In the spirit of connection, I’d like to put in a good word for all those religious people who are developing their religions in that direction, too — people like Mike Clawson. I know he still believes in the superstitious stuff, but it’s comforting when that doesn’t stop people from valuing being good to other human beings as the central moral virtue. (Needless to say, I don’t think that means that atheism isn’t worth promoting).

  • Karen

    Believers send their prayers into the void, and maybe – maybe – if they’re lucky, they’ll get a vague warm feeling in their hearts as answer, or a random event that works out in their favor which they take to be a sign.

    Actually, some people “hear” god responding to their prayers – either in an audible voice, or in their own thoughts, which they attribute to god.

    I often did the latter, as a believer. It wasn’t until I started to question religious belief intellectually that I started to question whether those thoughts were really from god or whether they were my own subconscious responding to my own questions and supplications.

  • Alex Weaver

    Our genes, our bodies and our brains are all nearly identical. And with that biological relationship comes, as well, an emotional and rational relationship. We all occupy the same place on the cosmos’ hierarchy of scale; we all look at the world alike, we all experience the same emotions, and we are all rational beings, trying to make our way as best we can through the vast and glorious universe. We share an outlook, a perspective, that gives each of us a deep and intuitive understanding of how all the rest of us think and feel. How could we not desire interconnection with each other? There is every reason in the world to seek it out.

    While I agree with your general sentiment, it’s quite possible to oversell this similarity. People with ASDs like autism and asperger’s do seem to have the same emotions as others but respond to them differently and definitely don’t look at the world the same way as neurotypicals; this is a gulf that can be bridged, true, but trivializing it or denying it won’t help that.

    Much more serious are cases like that of sociopaths, whose statements seem to indicate a congenital lack of empathy, an inability or unwillingness to feel compassion or value the welfare of others, and an abject denial of their own crippled humanity as evidenced by their dogged insistence that everyone, deep down, thinks the way they do and their professions and actions to the contrary are merely convenient falsehoods…where does this latter group fit into this prospective religion of humanity?

  • goyo

    Thump and Karen: I felt the same way. Especially when I was involved in the Pentestocal movement. There was always so much talk about how god was answering prayers in everyone’s lives, then later when I thought about them, they were just that: pure talk, and small coincidences.
    That’s why, for me, the greatest evidence for no god is completely unanswered prayer.
    Our lives are no different. We are alike in so many ways.
    Great post Adam, life here is so precious and valuable, we shouldn’t be wasting it on a future hope, but making a difference now.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Wonderful post, Adam. If we’d concentrate on what we have in common – so very much – instead of what separates us, how far could we go? If (as JM Coetzee’s narrator says in his latest book) instead of a competitive race, we engaged in a cooperative jog?

  • Lyssad

    We form deep and meaningful bonds with only some other humans, not all. We constantly hear calls to deny connection with our enemies, terrorists, murderers, possibly abortionists, gays, or heretics, depending on your particular religion. OTOH we also form deep and meaningful bonds with other species (our pets, Jane Goodall’s gorillas,). In either case, those we don’t form connections with are those we exclude from our ‘mental tribe’. How or why would our ‘tribe’ coincide with ‘all humans’—excluding other species with whom we do form deep and meaningful bonds, yet still including other humans with whom we don’t form such bonds?

    Our perception of the cosmos may necessitate a certain humanistic/anthropomorphic perspective, but it doesn’t follow that we are limited to only that. Nothing prevents us from excluding certain groups from our ‘tribe’ as theistic religions have done, nor prevents us from seeking connection to all life as Buddhists or Jains have done. Wouldn’t a rational, evidence based, belief system point to the latter?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Just an administrative note, friends: At this point, I strongly suspect Christopher is commenting here just for the sake of provocation. I’m not going to respond to him any further; I suggest that you all do likewise.

    For the Chaplain:

    Is “worship” of something a necessary component of religion? Is “worship” a good thing? My current thinking is that “worship” of anything is unhealthy.

    I second that position. Obedience, respect and recognition, where merited, are appropriate responses to wisdom and authority. To me, the term “worship” implies that the object of worship is somehow on an intrinsically higher level than the giver. I see no basis for such a distinction, so I reject that idea. Teaching people to question, rather than worship, might have gone a long way toward preventing some of the harms that have been perpetrated in a deity’s name.

    For Alex:

    People with ASDs like autism and asperger’s do seem to have the same emotions as others but respond to them differently and definitely don’t look at the world the same way as neurotypicals; this is a gulf that can be bridged, true, but trivializing it or denying it won’t help that.

    Granted, in the interest of metaphor, I made that point overly broad. Nevertheless, it’s accurate to say that despite cultural differences, and despite the rare biological exceptions, there are hundreds of traits, attitudes, and activities which have been universally found in every human culture that has been studied. Here’s a list of some of them, compiled by Donald E. Brown. It’s not too inaccurate to say that, even in cases such as autism, the similarities that unite us are more profound than the differences.

  • javaman

    When the dala lama was asked ,”if there is no god in Buddhism, what do you worship?, his respond was ,”I worship being awake”

  • Christopher

    Steve Bowen

    “It is true that genetically and culturally we all express differences, but we are more similar than different in our basic needs, our physical and emotional drives.”

    That may be true, but one can’t deny that – more often the not – the differences in individuals eclipse the similarities between them.

    “Substituting a rational, evidence based and yes “anthropocentric” humanist (isn’t that a tautology?) philosophy stikes me a a much more assured route to peaceful co-existance than vague tribal superstition.”

    But there are many other philosophies to choose from besides primitive superstitions (there all pretty much the same) and humanism: what about objectivism, existentialism or (dare I say it… my personal philosophy) nihilism? It seems to me that to pick one philosophy and tout it as being intrinsically superior to the alternatives availible is ridiculous…

  • Bill Johnston

    One of the sayings of Buddhism is “I take refuge in the Dharma.” The following is a definition of Dharma:”Dharma” usually refers inclusively not just to the sayings of the Buddha but to the later traditions of interpretation and addition that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and expand upon the Buddha’s teachings. The 84,000 different teachings (the Kangyur/bka.’gyur) that the Buddha gave to various types of people based on their needs. The teachings are expedient means of raising doubt in the hearer’s own cherished beliefs and view of life; when doubt has opened the door to the truth, the teaching can be put aside.
    Alternately, “dharma” may be seen as an ultimate and transcendent truth which is utterly beyond worldly things, somewhat like the Christian logos, seeing the dharma as referring to the “truth” or ultimate reality or “the way things are”.
    hardly non-theistic. From the Wikepedia

  • javaman

    If you meet the buddha on the road,……kill him.

  • spaceman spif

    The highest moral value, in fact, is our common humanity and the obligation it confers on us to be good to each other.

    “Be excellent to each other”

    When this is more widely recognized – when, not if – then, and only then, we will finally have a religion worthy of our worship.

    “Party on, dudes!!”

  • http://mapr.pl Mapa

    javaman if u meet the buddha on the road …. kiss him . ;) more love less fight

  • steve bowen

    It is interesting that this thread has thrown up questions of common humanity. As atheists we are drawn to this forum but the comments to this excellent post of Adam’s have highlighted, paradoxically , what a diverse group of individuals we are. Christopher continues his nihistic theme (provocatively? maybe). Others are drawing on Budhist teachings which (depending on your point of view) either are , or are not theistic. Personally, I find it hard to disagree with the thrust of this post but I’m not sure that “humanist” would be my instinctive choice of label to put on my census form under religion. Like many atheists I feel a strong responsibility towards the condition of my fellow humans, and like many I support charitable human causes when the “spirit” moves me. However contemplating my response to Adam’s thoughts on a religion of humanity I reminded myself that my monthly DD charitable donation goes to Gorillas! Why? because we share a common genetic heritage and only human intervention can preserve them; they can’t ever help themselves. My point? On an individual scale, our differences are large measured by our immediate political, cultural and religious biases. On a regional scale, those differences are diluted by common interest, on a global scale differences are further diluted by our common humanity and on a cosmic scale the differences between us and all evolved life are insignificant. This, I assume, is the what Adam means by

    the cosmos’ hierarchy of scale

    We occupy a small, insignificant planet, in an insignificant corner of an insignificant galaxy, in an immense if not infinite universe that neither knows nor cares that we exist. There is no God! If we don’t look after each other and the life that co-exists here with us , no-one else will.

  • javaman

    Mapa – I’am sorry, I didn”t mean that we should kill people. It’s a buddhist saying that means, don’t think you are awake, know you are awake, be it, in silent actions with and to others, moment by moment. Don’t talk about it, be it, without words or ideas attached to it. the word buddha is a title, it means a person who woke up ,we all can become buddhas. In lucid dreaming a person is reported to wake up in their dream, knows its a dream and may be able to direct it, have you woken up in this dream yet? Killing the buddha means to stop talking to your self and to be still in mediation or to others who belives they can tell you what buddhist means to you


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