Why I Call Myself “Non-Religious”

Today I got an interesting email from a friend asking why, even though I am training as an Ethical Culture Leader, I consider myself and term myself “non-religious”. This is a thoughtful question because Ethical Culture is legally and by self-description a “Humanistic Religious Movement”, and many (I think most) of the current Leaders consider themselves religious and consider Ethical Culture to be a religion. And yet I do not so see it. Why?

“Religion” is a complex term. There are many different understandings of the word “religion”, all of them contestable and contested. Some think that, to be religious, you have to believe in God. Others consider some level of supernatural belief – though not necessarily God-belief – to be a necessary component of religion. Yet others think that “religion” can be understood as a set of “ultimate concerns” or “life-orienting beliefs”. Finally, others see “religion” as a purely sociological phenomenon, such that any organization which fulfills the same sort of social functions and role of a traditional religion can itself be considered a “religion”.

I reject both belief in God and the supernatural, and therefore by those first definitions I am not religious. The third definition I find extremely problematic for philosophical reasons: I essentially feel that this definition of “religion” does not help us meaningfully understand the phenomenon commonly known as “religion”, and therefore I reject the value of that definition (this includes theistic definitions of this sort like that offered by Tillich, and naturalistic ones like that offered by Dewey). By the final set of definitions, sociological ones, I may well be considered “religious” because of my interest in congregational membership and leadership, and my advocacy of the idea that the institutions of religion often offer something of value to people. In that sense, I think I am “religious” in the sense that most Ethical Culture Leaders consider themselves “religious”, and when people call me “religious” in that specific sense I don’t have that much to say on the matter.

But I myself do not call myself “religious” for a number of reasons. First, I was not raised in any religious tradition. My earliest understanding of myself, shaped through my experience as a non-Christian at a Christian school, was as a non-religious person: I identified myself quite early as not sharing many of the most important commitments my schoolmates and my school, as an institution, held dear. They were “religious”, I was not. So I early-on began to see myself as “non-religious”.

Second, I came to Humanism through the second Humanist Manifesto, which makes (in brief), in my view, a cogent and powerful case against redefining ”religion” in a broad purely sociological way which would include something like my commitment to Humanism:

“Some humanists believe we should reinterpret traditional religions and reinvest them with meanings appropriate to the current situation. Such redefinitions, however, often perpetuate old dependencies and escapisms; they easily become obscurantist, impeding the free use of the intellect. We need, instead, radically new human purposes and goals.”

After having engaged much more significantly and thoroughly in interfaith dialogue over the past couple of years, I have repeatedly observed the truth of this statement. Calling Humanism a “religion”, and accepting broad redefinition of the term “religion” from liberal theologians does, in my experience, too often “perpetuate old dependencies and escapisms” and “become obscurantist”. There is little I abhor more as a philosopher than obscurantism.

Third, I believe from the standpoint of growing Humanism as a movement it would be a critical strategic error, in a society in which the fastest-growing “religious” identification is “none”, to identify Humanism as a “religion”. I believe that more and more people are seeking a secular approach to the world’s problems, and react negatively to “religion” as a concept and as a term. As a public communicator (an “evangelist”, if you like ;) ) I therefore think it unwise to use the term “religion” to describe my life-stance.

For these personal and intellectual reasons, in pursuit of a clearer and crisper public discourse, and seeking the promotion of Humanism as the preeminent 21st Century worldview, I therefore prefer to term myself non-religious: I think that conveys more clearly, in a way which is understood by most, what my deepest commitments are.

How does this position me within the framework of the Ethical Culture movement? I’m lucky that Felix Adler, the founder of the movement, had this to say on the subject:

“Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.”

I, for my own part, am “not so minded”. For me, Humanism and Ethical Culture are profoundly important sets of values – values to which I have chosen to dedicate my life. But to me, despite the (correct) legal characterization of Ethical Culture as a religion, those values are not “religious”, and neither am I.

  • http://terahertzatheist.ca Ian

    This is both a fascinating and utterly boring question for me at the same time.

    On the one hand, I see the rise and strength of movements like The Sunday Assembly in London, which is openly adopting the “Atheist Church” branding as a way of differentiating itself. Perhaps its just a fad (there have been atheist religions in the past) but it does speak to a longing for community in many people that you and I both recognize (I’m assuming here based on your past writings). Identifying as a religious organization also grants extra privileges to Humanist Associations, such as the right to perform marriages. Of course, we can fight to obtain these rights through the courts, but sometimes those battles (which we aren’t guaranteed to win, see CFI-Indiana’s recent loss) don’t seem worth the fight over what essentially boils down to semantics. I also wonder whether we can turn the criticism that “Humanism is just another religion” around and argue that it’s a better one since it’s based on democratic principles, reason, and compassion and is open to revision with new evidence.

    On the other hand, I recognize the usefulness of the label “non-religious” as an identifier. It’s a growing number and many of those (but not all) individuals will be sympathetic to Humanist values. As well, you point out that the various definitions of religion are not created equal.

    I guess what it comes down to is that “religion” as a term or category is so vacuous to almost be meaningless. Even academics often avoid trying to define it.

  • Jim Farmelant

    Also keep in mind that Adler wanted to draw both theists and nontheists into Ethical Culture. But while, nowadays, I don’t think that Ethical Culture would reject theists who are interested in it, I don’t think it goes out of its way to specifically recruit them either. But I do think that one reason that Adler had for calling Ethical Culture a religion was because he wanted to attract theists as well as nontheists. Also in Adler’s day, the notion of a religion of humanity, drawing from Feuerbach, Saint-Simon, and Comte, enjoyed a certain currency among progressive minded people, which I think had some influence on him too.

  • Lance Finney

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve wrestled with this, too. One situation was a debate I was having with some theists in which the juxtaposition of my disdain of “religion” and my active membership in a religious community caused some derision.

    In that case, what I was really disdaining was the dogma and faith embedded in theism, not the aspects of religion that relate to the third definition you gave above.

  • http://www.ethicalstl.org Kate Lovelady

    Just to clarify, Ethical Culture is a religion. There have been a number of lawsuits we have fought and won that settle this question, which in America is a legal question. Adler’s quote shows that he was sensitive to language and did not want terminology to be a bar to anyone interested in becoming a member of an Ethical Culture community, joining its social justice projects, etc. I always tell prospective members that EC is a religion, since it is and I like to be honest, but that they do not have to call it their religion, if they are uncomfortable with the term.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

    James, I don’t see the quote from the Humanist Manifesto as having to do with viewing religion through the sociological definition, I see it as being about why we shouldn’t just stay within traditional religions, reinterpreting them from within. It sounds like a case against salvaging existing religions through creative reinterpretation. It’s against liberal reformers within existing religions, not a case against conceiving of new alternative religious traditions grounded in reason and modern values.

    • James Croft

      I think it is about not attempting to salvage traditional religions, yes, but I also see in there a case against using the language of traditional religions to refer to new conceptions. I see it as a response to the Deweyan attempt to redefine the term “God”, for instance, as in “A Common Faith”. Indeed I see much of HM2 as a response to Dewey and his attempt to naturalize religious language – a project which, in my view, failed on a public-relations level even if it is satisfactory philosophically.