Can’t We Just Be Friends?

A Humanism cartoon, outlining the schism between Christianity and humanism

 I’d never even heard the term “humanism” before two weeks ago; now I understand that Christianity and humanism used to be best buds. In fact, Christianity helped define humanism. Early humanists – educated, upper-class thinkers who studied classic Latin texts to learn about human nature, believing that classic Roman and Greek texts were written during an “enlightened” age (McKay 413) – “viewed humanity from a strongly Christian perspective” (McKay 413). Thomas More, one of the forefront humanist thinkers of the Renaissance, wrote in his book Utopia that the ideal society practices Christianity, the “one religion which alone is true” (More 115).

Ok, cool. Some old, white Christian guys who lived 500 years ago thought that Christianity was part of the ideal society. But what about modern Humanists?

I decided to look at more modern interpretations of humanism. Joseph C. Sommer, part of the American Humanist Association and author of “Some Reasons Why Humanists Reject the Bible”, surprised me by showing a strong secular humanist view, stating that the Bible (and Christianity) is incompatible with Humanism.

Sure, I expected the views of humanists from the Renaissance to differ a little bit from that of current-day humanists – what doesn’t change over 500 yeas? – but why would humanism stop being compatible with Christianity? Sommer suggests that the Bible, due to its having been written in an unenlightened and ignorant age, is not only inaccurate but also harmful to society because, “by treating this mistake-ridden book as the word of God, humanity has been led down paths of error and misery” (Sommer). If we shape society’s laws and practices by the Bible, serious error that would “perpetrate the ideas of an ignorant and superstitious past and prevent humanity from moving forward” could occur (Sommer). Such an anti-Christianity statement was hard to wrap my head around – did this mean that all humanists think all Christians are damaging to society? Having grown up in a Christian household, this idea scared me a little bit.

However, after reading through other sources, I’ve realized that though Sommer and most other humanists agree that Christianity and humanism are incompatible, the two are both based on the same values. Christianity begot humanism, and so humanism and Christianity are based on the same ideas, even if modern-day humanists and Christians can’t see those building-block ideas in today’s humanism. Thomas Howard tries, author of “Christianity: the True Humanism”, writes that that “[secular humanism] is…a prodigal son of Christianity” (Howard 19), a school of thought soaked in Christian goals and values but “driven very obviously by the rebel son’s passion to strike the father dead” (Howard 19).

But another question remains: if early Christian humanists of the Renaissance believed that a higher, ethical way of life could be achieved by “[combining] the best elements of classical and Christian cultures” (McKay 416), how could humanism become so opposed to Christianity over the next few centuries? Why would humanism want Christianity dead?

Well, humanism aims to “[find] the path to human fulfillment” and happiness, and has “[cleared] away all that blocks [this goal]” (Howard 19), including rejecting God, because the idea of a god, or a god with a more severe nature, doesn’t always fit in with this goal. Much of the Bible is about the importance of sacrifice and the idea that God always comes first, even before your own children (Isaac and Abraham, anybody?); humanism, however, is all about the pursuit of human happiness and fulfillment. Humanists, as a whole, are “[convinced] that religion everywhere obstructs human fulfillment” (Howard 88).

Disbelief at how God is portrayed in the Bible has also led to humanism developing separate from Christianity. Thomas Howard argues that “by nature we are all inclined against God, feeling him to be against us”. We wish the God of the Bible to be less severe, and “out of this wish will grow hatred of God – hatred that may well express itself in outraged insistence that ‘God can’t really be like that’ and outraged censure of Christians for holding that he is. Humanism…displays this state of mind” (Howard 28). I find it hard to agree with such a strong statement, but understand where he comes from – God, as he is shown in the old testament, punishes people pretty easily (the flood, for example); I’m not sure if this translates into a natural hatred for God, especially because the new testament is very different in how it portrays God, but it may translate into a rejection of religion.

Very few (if any) of today’s humanists are able to merge faith with humanism; even religious humanists are not typically religious. (Yep, you got that right. Read it again if you need to.) I had assumed that a religious humanist would be religious, but found that, surprisingly, religious humanism is defined as a form of a secular ideology that puts emphasis on moral living and ethical action, and religious humanists as people who find “participation in a religious community [a church] to be a meaningful part of their lives” (Murry 14). Religious humanism has a sense of meaning, values, and community that secular humanism does not (Murry 21), but does not typically place belief in a higher power.

I’m still left a little puzzled as to why many modern-day humanists aren’t able to merge Christianity and humanism. Christianity and humanism are not incompatible; Renaissance thinkers married the two, so why can’t modern-day people do the same? I grew up going to church and I don’t see anything wrong with humanist values. Thomas Howard agrees, writing that “[secular humanism]…continues to be nourished by elements of its Christian heritage of goals and values” (Howard 19). While Christianity and humanism may not be similar in terms of their ideas regarding religion and the purpose of life (serving God vs. living life freely and happily), Howard maintains that they both come from the same Christian roots, and so will still hold some of the same values.

Works Cited

Howard, Thomas. Christianity: The True Humanism. Waco: Word Incorporated, 1985. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=1rqLa3aiyJEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=christianity: the true

McKay, John B. A History of Western Society. Vol. B. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2008. Print.

More, Thomas. Utopia. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Ed. Wordsworth Editions Limited. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1997. Print.

Murry, William R. Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2007. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=pTnDx1HvEj0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=reason and reverence religioushumanism&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YgA4T97wKeTKiQLclZGjCg&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA>

Sommer, Joseph C. “Some Reasons Why Humanists Reject the Bible”. American Humanism Association. American Humanism Association, 2008. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Image:

Warren, Joshua. Humorless Humanist Humor. 2011. Photograph. No Apologies Allowed website. Web. 12 Feb 2012. <http://noapologiesallowed.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/naa_045.jpg>.

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6 comments

  1. natalie518

    Hey Becca! I find your post very interesting, especially because I did a somewhat similar topic. Your paragraph on the different goals of Christianity and Humanism really made me think. It seems like in some ways both philosophies have similar goals at their hearts, but go about reaching the goals in different ways (which I guess is a little different from your point at the end, but we are getting at the same general idea). I think that both humanism and Christianity (and religion in general) try to lead people on a path to being a better person and also finding fulfillment and having a deeper understanding of reality. However, I do definitely see where the clash between the two arises, because humanists’ and Christians’ views on how to actually attain fulfillment do seem different. Overall, I agree with you that it is surprising that humanist thinkers are rarely religious, because I don’t think that it is an either/or kind of deal.
    Nice job on your blog!
    ~Natalie

    • becca0906

      Thanks for the comment, Natalie! I think this topic is very interesting to look at right now because we are reaching a climax of animosity between Christians and humanists. I haven’t read your blog post, but your theme sounds very interesting – I’d never really thought of the relationship between humanists and Christians to be like that, but I definitely see it now that you point it out. I definitely agree with you about the purpose of both humanism and Christianity; they are just 2 paths to the same goal. I will be sure to read your blog; it sounds like there are some interesting points that you’ve brought up in it.
      -Becca

  2. mollyageofreason

    Well I was just going to leave a question, then I saw Natalie’s and now feel compelled to leave a whole paragraph… but my question was, do you think the bond between Christianity and humanism is reparable?
    Good job on your post!
    Molly

    • becca0906

      Hi Molly! Thanks for reading my blog post! I definitely think that Christianity and humanism can coexist and are compatible, but whether or not their bond is reparable is a harder question. Personally, I think that the two have developed and expanded so much since the Renaissance that I think it would be hard to rebuild their bond, not to say that it would be impossible. Humanism is very different today than it was during the Renaissance, and has developed ideas separate from its original Christian constructs. Humanism and Christianity are still similar, but repairing the bond between the two would require a lot of work from both sides because there is so much animosity between to two right now.
      Hope this (kind of) answers your question!
      -Becca

  3. harperlarp

    Becca: This was such an interesting post! But I’m still very curious as to your opinions on why humanism has changed so drastically. Do you really not have any ideas? Also, if religious humanists don’t follow a typical religion, do you believe that is an appropriate name for them? Is there anything else they could be called that would more accurately describe their beliefs?

    • becca0906

      Thanks for the questions! As I said in the article, I think that humanism began to develop ideas outside of its Christian construct, and those ideas kept growing and developing until they eventually conflicted with Christian ideas. As for your second question, I think that whether religious humanists should be called that depends on your definition of religion. Check out William Murry’s book (http://books.google.com/books?id=pTnDx1HvEj0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=reason), he has some good insight into the topic. He states that religious humanism has a sense of meaning, values, and community that secular humanism does not (Murry 21), so depending on your definition of religion, the label “religious humanist” could be accurate (I usually associate the word “religious” with a belief in a divine power, but don’t think this is the only definition). Religious humanism is definitely different than secular humanism, so I think it is important that some distinction be made between the two. Also, I want to point out that I was only speaking for the majority of religious humanists; I definitely found some books by Christian religious humanists. Great questions, Harper!
      -Becca

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