Is there room for the spiritual in humanism?

Is there room for the spiritual in humanism? December 3, 2014


At a launch party for a new local coffee shop a few nights ago—the kind of thing that draws people as much to network and get free as it does to support what’s being launched—I ended up discussing humanism, as I often do, with a few new faces. Two men stuck out to me, because they had never heard the term humanism before. And after I explained what it was, both of them immediately told me they were humanists.

The first man told me that, while he’s been an atheist for quite some time, he’s never sought out any fellow atheists because they’re “too anti-theist, like, have you heard of Richard Dawkins?” I explained that the humanist community I, and many others, are building is a community aimed at mutual support and the greater good for humanity—all humanity. I told him that humanism, as I know it, requires the affirmation in the equality of all people. I wish more conversations about humanism with strangers went so smoothly, because then he asked me how to get involved.

After I explained humanism to the other man, he declared himself a “spiritual humanist,” unwittingly countering the much more common “secular humanist.” In my definition of humanism, I mentioned that humanism doesn’t base its ethics on the supernatural. Taking my point, he told me that “spiritual,” for him, had nothing to do with deities, but everything to do with those things that are beyond human understanding.

For clarification, I asked him if he meant those things that we have not yet come to understand or things that defy human understanding. Things that are unexplainable, he said, like how we are all connected to each other in ways that defy physics and how those connections drive us to help each other even if we are strangers. That second part is why he so easily adopted the humanist label in our conversation, while the first part seemed supernatural.

These two conversations illustrate two common issues with humanist as a label—it’s not widely known and it’s meaning is confused. Never mind the people trying to adopt humanist as alternative for feminist because of a misguided and groundless belief that feminist is synonymous with man-hating or female supremacy. Rather, there’s disagreement about what the essential quality of humanism is, if there even is one. And if so, is it atheism?

I’d like to add a few more voices to the mix. I have a religious family member who considers himself a humanist—at least he’d like to be. “I believe in humans too,” he tells me, lamenting the state of affairs that banishes him from a philosophy he believes in because he has religious beliefs. He also has a point. Looking at humanism historically, it was not separate from religious beliefs, but concurrent.

A few more friends describe themselves as “secular humanists,” one appending this second word specifically out of fear that humanism clouds her atheist identity. Like many atheists, my friend feels it is important to be open and public about her atheist identity, even though she identifies primarily as a humanist. The problem is that so many people don’t know what humanist means that too many people don’t realize that humanists and atheists often overlap. Adding secular does that job.

A fellow blogger at Applied Sentience, Paul Chiariello, recently wrote about the need for malleability of labels—specifically, the malleability that comes from internal discussion and debate. Humanism certainly could benefit from such a debate. There are other points worth discussing about the humanism label, but I think the question here boils down to whether humanism is essentially atheist.

For atheists who don’t want to rally around an absence, humanism provides an ethical framework and positive orientation to identify with. It also provides a community of atheists hoping to do some good in the world together. From this point of view, letting the spiritual humanists in might undermine an essential part of what makes the community what it is—no matter how it started, it’s an atheist movement now.

But, as a secular humanist myself, I think these spiritual humanist voices have a point. Originally, humanism was not a reaction against supernatural, but an ethical orientation that is founded on human agency and reason. Why shouldn’t a person be able to adopt this orientation in how they engage the world even if in other aspects of their lives they have some supernatural beliefs? It wouldn’t force the supernatural into humanism, but it would make for a more diverse humanist community.

So the question is: Is secular humanism redundant? Or, to put it another way, are spiritual and secular equal subsets of the umbrella humanism?


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