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Can a Humanist Believe in God?
Jan. 7, 2009

Editor's Note: This week HNN features what may be a controversial essay to some. I think that the writer casts fresh eyes on humanism, and presents yet another lens in which to view this philosophy. Readers, I'll be curious to hear what you think.

Many people seem to confuse humanism with atheism, and seem to think that no humanist could believe in God.

We have, however, seen many who believe in God act in ways that are sterling examples of humanism. Prior to the Civil War, evangelicals joined with freethinkers to oppose slavery in the United States.

In the 20th century, humanists, secularists, Jews and Christians, joined forces to support civil rights for all Americans. We now join with more liberal members of churches to reinforce the crumbling wall separating Church from State, and to enshrine in law full equality for our gay and lesbian citizens.

Lincoln was a perfect example of a humanist with faith. He repeatedly referred to God, but acted in a way he thought right based upon human need.

He hoped his actions were consistent with God's will, but he never assumed they were, and instead took at path that, to him, was consistent with the ideals of his nation and its founding principles.

At our own Ethical Society, we've had speakers who are quite devout, but come with a message of humanism. Chaplain Kristi Pappas spoke last year about our ethical obligation to the veterans who return with invisible injuries. A Methodist, she had dedicated her life to the welfare of others.

Carol Bullard Bates, founder of Bethany, was called by her faith and her interpretation of Jesus' words, to help the homeless and recovering addicts in Washington D.C. These two deeply religious people, and many others like them, commit themselves to helping those in need, bringing hope and care to their fellows. What better definition of humanism is there?

If humanists can believe in God, one might ask, than what is the difference between them and those of faith? The answer was given years ago, in the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In one section, Huck is attempting to figure out what is right and what is wrong. His his limited experience, Southern society, laws, and the church are his guideposts to correct action.

But when faced with turning in his friend, the runaway slave, Jim, he finds their guidance repulsive. After ruminating, he decides not to turn in his friend, even after acknowledging that he will probably go to "hell" for his decision. Huck let his innate sense of right and wrong guide him to a humane, morally correct decision to "steal Jim out of slavery."

The fable Twain created helps us understand what a humanist is: A humanist is one who can say "no" to social standards and even to divine guidance when they see them as incompatible with justice and humanity. They rely upon reality to determine whether their actions are good or bad, and while possibly inspired by the metaphysical, seek the correct path by observing how their actions affect their fellow beings.

To argue that humanists cannot believe in God is to posit a creed, one as narrow as those found in a thousand sacred books. We should only look upon actions to see whether someone is committed to humanity. As the saying goes, "Deed, Not Creed."

Humanists are everywhere there is charity and empathy. We humanists should not question the purity of fellow humanists by whether or not they believe in a transcendental world.

When their fellow human beings call for assistance, we can see humanists throughout the religious spectrum: they are the ones who get off their knees and roll up their sleeves.

C. Martin Centner lives in Vienna, Va., and is a member of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society.

Appignani Bioethics Center