Humanism, Religion, and the Opinions of a Bunch of Dead People

The relationship between humanism and organized religion (especially Christianity) can best be described as the marriage of a high school football jock to his attractive yet brain dead cheerleader girlfriend; first it’s all roses, then he has some second thoughts, and finally, thirty years later, they end up divorced and frequently sending each other letter bombs. St. Thomas More, one of the first, and certainly one of the most influential renaissance humanists, writer of the book Utopia, was also catholic. McKay goes into great detail when it comes to renaissance humanists, with one popular variety being christian humanists. Clearly, during the renaissance, religion and humanism were on the best of terms.

Fast forward to the present, and the situation is rather different. The America Humanist Association has some rather strong opinions about the bible, and most other humanists seem to agree with those sentiments. One of the most well known humanists of modern times was Christoper Hitchens, who passed away last December.  To say that Mr. Hitchens was not a fan of religion would be a massive understatement. Christopher Hitchens was a strong opponent of religion both as it applied to politics, and to normal life. He railed against it in various newspaper and magazine columns (he wrote book review for the New York times among other things), and even wrote a book on the subject, titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As I said, he was not what you would call a fan of religion.

So the question is, why did humanism change this way? In my opinion, the change was inevitable.   A large part of humanism revolved around the idea that people can make life better for themselves right here on this earth rather than relying on the afterlife. As technology advanced, and as the human standard of living continued to improve, humanists probably increasingly considered the traditional ideas of western religion to be an impediment to the advancement of the human condition through science, as well as a catalyst for illogical decision making. Whatever the reason behind the shift in the humanist attitude towards religion, the subject definitely warrants closer scrutiny.



  1. mollyageofreason

    What do you think Renaissance humanists would think about The American Humanist Association’s opinions of the bible?

    • matthewthemadscientist

      It’s hard to say. Humanists from the 1500’s wouldn’t have the same context that we do today, and back then, questioning Jesus was almost inviting the catholic church to imprison you, and possibly set you on fire.

  2. natalie518

    Hey Matthew!
    Do you think that perhaps the next step in the evolution of humanism is to come back and take a new look at the relationship between Christianity and humanism? It seems to me that while humanists and Christians have differences, the two philosophies are not irreconcilable. They did work together in the Renaissance, and although times have changed, perhaps it is time now to come full circle and re-asses the relationship (Which is not to say that humanism should change, just that it seems not to be intrinsically anti-Christian, and I would think that there are some similarities and points of comparison to be found in the original tradition).
    Good job on your post!

    • matthewthemadscientist

      I doubt any for of humanist-christian reconciliation is happening any time soon. A lot humanists (myself included) see a lot of ideas in the bible as archaic, and sometimes even barbaric, let alone relevant when applied to modern society.
      In turn, a lot of fundamentalist Christians throw the word “humanist” around as if it is an insult, so as I said, I rather doubt that humanism and Christianity will end up “best friends” any time in the near future.

  3. katiereindeer

    Why did the humanists of the renaissance not dislike religion? Did the definition of humanism change?

  4. amandagowithit

    I do agree with you that change happens because it can’t be stopped, & happens no matter how much we want to stop it. Do you think even after the humanist Hitchens that his idea have an influence on today?

    • matthewthemadscientist

      Hitchens was an excellent, as well as very prolific writer, and in that sense, his ideas have been immortalized through his work. To a certain extent, he IS the metaphorical Thomas More of our time.

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