What Can Humanism Learn from Christianity?

What Can Humanism Learn from Christianity? February 22, 2015

I have always felt compelled to maintain a critical eye toward the things I believe.  In fact, for as long as I can remember I’ve made a habit of collecting critiques of my own belief system.  During my church days I used to keep binders full of articles written by people challenging whatever subculture I was in at the time.  Just last week in fact I was going through old boxes in the attic and I found a 5″ binder filled to capacity with external critiques of my favorite writers and theologians.  It’s been a hobby of mine for many years to entertain challenges to my own views.

That’s why it amused me when the pastor who was interviewing me for Interview an Atheist at Church Day asked me, “Do you ever doubt your doubts?” (see clip below)

This question struck both the pastor and the person who submitted the question as profoundly challenging, and I’ll bet whoever asked it thought he was throwing me a curveball.  What neither of them probably realized was just how common “doubting my doubts” has always been for me.  Questioning my own beliefs has been such a regular thing that I have to intentionally shut it off from time to time just to give my brain a rest.  For an overthinker like myself, compulsive self-analysis is a way of life.  That’s how I came to be an atheist in the first place.  I was raised to believe one set of propositions (namely evangelical Christianity), but my hunger to get at reality without being swayed by social pressure or convention prevented me from remaining there precisely because I’m always questioning what I believe.

Which means I never assume that I’ve arrived at final truth.  Just because I embrace the “atheist” label today doesn’t ensure that I will always be comfortable with that label.  Truth be told, there are more descriptive labels I prefer (see “humanist” below), and the only reason I keep using this one is because sometimes you have to go ahead and embrace a label in order to help influence what other people think when they hear that word.  There are so many misconceptions about what that word should mean that it persuades me to be counted among them just so that I can do something about it.

(Incidentally, if you haven’t read what I wrote last week about what Christians mean when they use the word “atheist,” please follow this link here and read that piece.  It’s on the other blog I write for, the Ex-Communications blog, and it must have touched a nerve because it got passed around pretty quickly.)

Atheism is just the beginning for me, though.  That’s only about answering one question.  There are many more questions that still need to be asked and answered, and for me so far the best answers have come from humanism.  To be precise, I identify most with secular humanism but frankly I have enough in common with religious humanists that I don’t think our differences of belief about metaphysical things really matter.  What matters most to both of us is that we are both concerned with this-world problems and we’re not trying to minimize them by holding them up against supposed second-life questions that to me haven’t yet proven their validity.  I’m more concerned about current social and ecological problems than I am about figuring out if invisible beings are angry with us or seeking to come live inside our hearts.

So in the spirit of ongoing self-critique, I asked some of my friends to describe what they felt were the strengths and weaknesses of humanism.  What things does humanism excel at, and on which things does it still need a lot of work?  Conversely, what things does the church do better, and what if anything can we learn from them?  Here is what we came up with:

What Humanism Does Well

As best as we can tell, humanists get a number of things right.  For starters, they do a better job of valuing critical thinking skills. When they discover something that doesn’t fit with their preconceived notions about life, instead of dismissing the new data out of deference to their own tribal loyalties, they revise their understanding of the world to account for the new information. Religions based on authoritative revelation have a significantly harder time learning anything new, and humanists do much better at this.  Because of this commitment to a greater rigor of thought, humanists tend to be more honest about their own shortcomings and the flaws of the world in general. For example, there’s less pressure to hide the dirty laundry of their leadership because we’re not trying to keep up the appearance that supernatural grace is making us better than we really are.

Humanism as a culture also tends to value individual differences and promotes greater tolerance for the uniqueness of individuals. Unlike its more fundamentalist counterpart, humanism exhibits a refreshing absence of shame, and it’s not hung up on convincing people they need saving from themselves.  Humanists do a better job of teaching self-worth and promoting self-actualization.  While the church (especially evangelicals and fundamentalists) views the word “self” as a bad word, humanism doesn’t believe that being human is something to overcome.

Because humanists value individual differences and value the self, they tend to bring a healthier approach to relationships because they value personal boundaries and individual autonomy.  Humanists value consent and they teach self-ownership. They believe that no one owns you but you.  Consequently, humanism utilizes a far healthier approach to sexuality, generally maintaining a more sex-positive posture compared to most western religious traditions.

Finally, humanism fashions and promotes moral guidelines that make more sense.  Because of its commitment to critical thinking and the revision and expansion of its own views, its virtues are less arbitrary, less provincial, and less stuck in another time and place.  Humanists are more likely to take full responsibility for what happens in the world instead of blaming demons and angels.  Instead of looking for something magical to happen to fix what ails the world, humanists take it upon themselves to devise and enact solutions according to whatever resources they can amass.  They seek this-world solutions to this-world problems, and they tend to be more naturally skeptical toward justifications for violence, rooted as they so often are in a belief in divine retribution.

For all these strengths, humanism as a culture does not seem to be enjoying a comparatively large following.  On the one hand, one could argue that elements of humanism have been profoundly moving western society since the time of the Renaissance, when it first emerged as an alternative to medieval thought.  But its influence has always been diffuse, subtle. It has a funny way of infiltrating other cultures and nudging them into a more reasonable direction but when it tries to coalesce into its own distinct culture, it doesn’t sell as well as some of the more sensationalist alternatives.  Humanism just isn’t as sexy as its competitors, which is ironic given its strongly sex-positive nature.  It’s like the refined and elegant gentleman/lady of means who looks prim and proper in social settings but is hiding a freaky side which, once you get to know him/her, will knock your socks off.

What the Church Does Well

First of all, the church has been wildly successful.  Let’s get that said right up front. Say what you want, but people love their churches and they reward them handsomely. That goes for most every kind of church, but it’s especially true for evangelical churches in my country.  Because that’s the world I know best, when I say “the church” I mean to indicate Christian community in general but evangelical Christian communities in particular.  So what do they excel at, and what can humanists learn from them?

The church is very good at creating intentional community.  They gather regularly, multiple times a week, even.  The larger churches provide a plethora of activities for people of all ages, and in a church like the one I grew up in, if you wanted you could find something to do nearly every day of the week.  Parents are always looking for things for their kids to do, and the bigger churches have that in spades.  Churches excel at creating and maintaining an identity.  It’s a club to which people are proud to belong.  Its ability to create and maintain an in group/out group dynamic is second to none.

The church also excels at communicating its central narrative, and it works tirelessly to teach people how to organize their lives around the moral commitments their narrative entails.  Because it does so well at getting people to order their lives around its values, the church likewise excels at motivating its people to action in order to accomplish its desired ends.  Charitable work has always played a big role in the activities of the church, and one need look no further than to the large number of hospitals which were started by churches both in my country and around the world for evidence of this.  The church is also good at taking care of its own. When someone is sick or needing help, the church has always done a very good job of inundating those in need with food, childcare, advice, counseling, you name it.

Perhaps underneath all that the church does you will find a high level of organization.  Churches have had decades or even centuries to develop the traditions and organizations that they maintain, and they are very effective at getting things done.  They have a lot of money.  Their ability to fund their interests is phenomenal. When they want to mobilize for political action, it’s as good as done.  If they want to buy out a movie theater and drive the sales of the latest movie through the roof, it’s done.  Americans are consumers if nothing else, and American churches can consume as one. It’s impressive.

Lastly, the church has always been prolific at inspiring art, creativity, music, and literature.  The Christian narrative appeals to the human love for the sublime.  It promises heaven and threatens with Hell. It situates its people in the midst of a cosmic drama that spans the eons, like an epic science fiction saga that’s supposed to be real.  In other words, it tells a compelling story, and that inspires the creating of a culture that lures people in and makes them feel a part of something all-important and crucial to the world around them.

humanVSchurch2Of course, with each of these strengths there comes an attending weakness.  For example, a great deal of the charitable giving which churches produce gets eaten up with the high cost of overhead and with the funding requirements of maintaining such a high level of organization.  They get so many things done because they pour massive amounts of money into the administrative costs which come with what they do.  A church with a million dollar budget spends nearly three quarters of that on maintaining its physical campus, paying the staff salaries, providing quality sound and lighting, and printing brochures, Sunday School curriculum, and promotional materials.  Even its mission costs are largely eaten up by those same kinds of overhead and comparatively little goes to actually physically charitable activities. But I still want to stop and ask:

What Can Humanists Learn from Churches?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  I’m still working my way through this myself, thinking out loud in front of all of you.  I know there are several things which on the surface we humanists could use.  Alain de Botton has a now famous TED talk on the subject, and I think he’s onto something, although the longer I think about it I see some problems with the project.  He’s right that we need to learn how to be more intentional about community, and he’s right that we need to develop our own kind of alternative culture to the ones being pushed by both the churches and our generally consumeristic American pop culture.  I think there is community-forming power in sharing common rituals, although I personally get really uncomfortable with too much formality, especially if it’s predicated on any kind of sketchy magical thinking. And he’s right that human beings are fundamentally creative, passionate beings who need an inspiring story to find themselves in.  We are happiest when we are excited about a larger vision and purpose for life, and humanism needs to get a stronger hold on how to effectively articulate that vision to the rest of the world, especially in the area of the creative arts.


I’m suspicious that much of the church’s success is due to things which I emphatically reject.  Despite my personal commitment to critiquing my own worldview, I’m not yet convinced that the alternatives I’m looking at have something legitimately better to offer, no matter what their numeric success.  See, I think the church is able to do so much because it’s loaded—it’s got really deep pockets—and that owes much of its success to the structures of guilt, shame, and obligation inherent in the Christian tradition.  The church accomplishes great things because it’s so well-organized, and that can only happen because it’s so well-funded.  And how does the church keep rolling in the cash?  There’s little question in my mind that it’s because churches are taught they owe God money just for being alive.

The church teaches that indeed everything belongs to God, including the money you earn by the sweat of your brow. For the gift of being able to live another day and draw another breath, the least you could do is cough up a regular portion of your income to finance the work of the kingdom of God, amirite?  And there’s the sticking point for me.  I’m convinced the church accomplishes what it does because of its narrative of financial obligation. That’s something I’m not willing to see picked up and imitated in the humanist movement.

Even the church’s charitable work seems to remain rooted in the wrong motivations.  Peter Mosley put it well:

Churches tend to see helping the poor as grace for depraved people; Humanists tend to see it as justice for dignified fellow human beings.

I think more work needs to be done to root what we do in that greater sense of justice.  There are goals and inspirations just as lofty for us as there are for them, and ours are more rooted in reality. But that doesn’t mean we are automatically good at communicating those goals in inspiring ways.  We need a strong emphasis on building that common identity, pulling together and showcasing our common inspirations so that others can catch a vision and a common passion for what we are about.  It remains to be seen if that can be done without promising people heaven and threatening them with hell.  I strongly suspect that even those churches which move away from using fear as a motivating factor tend to dwindle in strength, numbers, finances, and relevance when compared with their more fundamentalist counterparts.

My friend Shira Mary summed up my feelings well:

What I desperately hope humanism will do is convey the message of inescapable human responsibility. I don’t mean blame. I mean that human problems must be solved entirely by human actions. Magical thinking has to be replaced by careful assessment of risks and benefits, the willingness to accept mistakes and the determination to correct them.

And the problem is that, to do that effectively, humanism needs somehow to gain the great virtue of religions, which is their ability to create strong communities where individuals are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of all and large forces can be motivated to coordinate their efforts on a single goal.

I frankly don’t know if that kind of humanism can be built in time.

I don’t know either, but I’d like to see us try.

What do you think?  What can we learn from churches?  What can we do as a culture which won’t require picking up those elements of religion which we don’t want carrying over into our own culture?  I’m still working through this just as much as you.

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