Why Use ‘Religious’ Language?

I’ve been challenged again about my use of ‘religious’ terminology like ‘Temple’ by a commenter over at Freethought Blogs, and I thought it valuable to point out the reply I give in my FAQ regarding the use of ‘religious’ language by Humanists. Here’s what I think:

Humanists have a long tradition of using language more commonly used in religious settings in order to promote their ideals. The “Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll, a 19th Century Humanist known across America for his sparkling oratory, and the most formative influence on this site, was happy to use words like “creed”, “benediction” and “angels” when expressing his values. The name “Temple of the Future” comes from one of Ingersoll’s speeches, and he frequently made allusions to the Bible. Likewise, Carl Sagan, one of the greatest Humanists of the 20th Century, spoke of science as “informed worship”, and Humanist author Kurt Vonnegut referred repeatedly to the “soul”. John Dewey, one of the most significant American philosophers, sought to reclaim religious language for naturalists in his book “A Common Faith”.

Such language, precisely because of its religious connotations, carries the potential for deep poetic and metaphorical resonance, and can be powerful. At the same time, I recognize that the use of religious language can make some naturalists uncomfortable. The potential for confusion is high: some might think the Temple of the Future is an attempt to create a new religion, or might misinterpret language meant metaphorically by reading it literally.

I am sensitive to these concerns, and strive to use language that is linked with religious belief and practice sparingly and intelligently. I do not use the term “God” in a metaphorical way (as, for example, Dewey did), because I think this is unhelpful and unnecessary. I also try to make the metaphorical nature of my language explicit when it doesn’t ruin the flow of a piece. At the same time, I believe that some “religious” language, used in an intelligent and reflective way, could enliven and invigorate Humanist discourse and practice. I sometimes talk of “souls” and am happy to term my ethical values a “creed”. Occasionally I quote from various scriptures, among other literary sources.

Furthermore, recovering the tradition of Humanism and freethought for a new generation is one of my explicit purposes, and that means being comfortable to quote writers like Ingersoll and Sagan even when they use language that might make today’s Humanists wary. I take the name “Temple of the Future” for this site for this reason. It would be foolish to repudiate the greatest figures from our past due to semantic squeamishness.

Ultimately, naturalists have little to fear from religious language. We understand that all such language and all religious texts were created by human beings to describe aspects of their experience. There is no good reason to chuck out every piece of religious thought, writing and mode of expression because we have (rightly) chucked out God.

 

  • Edward Clint

    re: the dangers
    One is reminded of the case of Albert Einstein, a distinctly non-theistic person who sometimes used religious language to describe nature. He was repeatedly taken for a theistic person, perhaps even deliberately misconstrued and he sometimes remarked on it. To this day, religious people sometimes try to claim him as one of their own.

    The same is not true of Carl Sagan, who used such language, presumably because he wrote critically so critically of religion at times.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Good point. I suspect it might be something to do with the fact that Einstein talked about “God”, while Sagan never did (to my knowledge). That’s a rail I won’t touch.

  • http://jcsamuelson.com J.C. Samuelson

    Last line is the best.

    I personally feel that religion is one expression of early attempts to capture a sense of connection to the cosmos and derive meaning from mere existence.