Religion without a church? Humanism almost qualifies | Andrew Brown | Comment is free | theguardian.com
But there remains the question of whether humanism is in fact a
religion, or something more like a religion than it is like any other
sort of social movement. This is complicated because of the way in which
“religion” has become a toxic brand. But if we go back to the science, I
think the answer is clearly that it is. Emile Durkheim,
who pretty much founded the scientific study of religion, defined it as
“a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that
is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions – beliefs
and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community
called a church”.
So, can you have religions without a church?
Humanism almost qualifies. It sacralises humanity, claiming for us a
significance that is not to be derived from either biology or physics.
Organised humanism clearly has unified beliefs and practices. It even
has the world’s most lugubrious and sentimental hymn: John Lennon’s
Imagine. Like all modern religions it has universalist aspirations,
claiming to explain the lives of non-believers better than they can do
so themselves. It can inspire heroism and self-sacrifice, but also be
used to legitimise intolerance – see Sam Harris and his friends.
the real question is how it can fit into a world of competing
universalist religions. This is hard, and lots of humanists will not
think it worth the effort. Bringing sacred values such as human rights
and democracy into dialogue threatens their sacredness, and even when
they survive the process it is hard to give up the privilege of being
their authoritative interpreter.
But there are some humanists who take dialogue seriously. I talked to Babu Goginieni,
now the international director of the movement, who was relaxed about
theology: “The enemies of humanism are not only on the religious side,”
he said. “I think the government has no business taking up any side.
Atheism is not important. I happen to be an atheist, but that’s not the
point – what is important is freedom and human values, and a way of
living with others and with nature. Once we have concluded there is no
God, we move on.”