Chapter 1: The Alternative To Faith
The Alternative to Faith
A Growing Movement
Every year more men and women of all backgrounds are calling themselves humanists. For them much in the old orthodoxies has lost significance. They are finding satisfaction in the positive, constructive point of view of humanism. It shares much with the philosophies and religions of the East as well as of the West. In Europe, Asia, and the Americas it is coming to be known as the alternative to traditional faith.
Throughout the ages religions of many kinds have contained a common spirit. We can see this in parts of their scriptures:
In Hinduism we find: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you” (Mahabharata, 5, 1517).
In Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5, 18).
In Christianity: “All things whatsoever ye would that man should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7, 12).
In Confucianism: “Is there one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout one's whole life? Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Analects 15, 23).
In Islam: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself” (Sunnah).
In Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 31d).
In Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tíai Shang Kan Ying Píien).
In Jain scriptures: “The essence of right conduct is not to injure anyone.”
But varying religious practices and diverse theological beliefs have been built upon and allied to this common ethical principle.
Down through history humans have adopted creeds that provide special privileges and practices that separate them from other groups. Throughout the world, wide cultural variations continue. Ways of worship, hierarchies of leadership, rituals, symbols, and sacraments are different. Humanism goes in a different direction and concentrates on what we all have in common. It has become a dynamic alternative to the traditional faiths.
Among the reasons for the growth of traditional religions was the need for explanations of natural occurrences, day and night, summer and winter, life and death. Scientifically minded individuals in recent centuries have figured out the huge distances beyond our planet and have likewise revealed the amazing world of the submicroscopic. Humanists realize we now have answers to many of the questions which once were explained in ways that now seem fanciful and unnecessary.
Humanists know there are evolving and fascinating explanations to answer the questions asked through the ages; they do not need to turn to the supernatural. They feel at home in the natural world and do not need gods or a god, a heaven, or scriptures. Moreover, they feel that humans do not need the promise of a heaven after death to be just and kind to others, to feel loyalty to the whole of humanity and the environment. They respect scientific methods and the knowledge coming from their use. They want to apply this knowledge toward the care of this marvelous planet.
Humanists are content with fixing their attention on this life. Theirs is a point of view, philosophy, or religion without a god, a heaven, divine revelation, sacred scriptures, or authoritarian spiritual leaders. Yet theirs is an overarching view rich in feeling and understanding, which is sensitive to the sorrows and joys, tragedies and triumphs, touching every fiber of human life. They experience wholesome humility as they venture forward with fellow humans into the as-yet-unknown.
This rapidly growing philosophy and religious alternative:
- (1) has developed in response to the spiritual needs and aspirations of people in different parts of the world;
- (2) contains an ethical core similar to that of many traditional religions and philosophies;
- (3) is free from divisive doctrines about the unknown, deity, revelation, sacred scriptures, rituals, sacraments, formal theology, big inequalities in social roles between the sexes, and such befuddling ideas as the radical separation of either the world or the individual into matter and spirit; and
- (4) is a philosophy of human relations to one another and to nature, rather than of relations to deity.
Built on this fresh and vital basis, it is little wonder that humanism has called forth accelerated worldwide interest. In 1952, for the first time, representatives from humanist groups in many countries met in the Netherlands and formed the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Julian Huxley, a leading scientist and the first director-general of UNESCO, served as chair. He was among those who believed that the world was ready for humanism.
Here in the United States, the number of humanist and humanistically focused organizations is growing. Some of these groups, in particular many of the Unitarian Universalist fellowships and Ethical Culture societies, are functioning under the auspices of a liberal religious denomination. Each year more and more Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’is, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews, as well as many without any religious or philosophical affiliation or desire to have one, are coming to accept this as their own way of life.
This alternative to faith is held by a large number of individuals who have made or are making solid contributions to human welfare and understanding. We can note Carl Sagan, Ashley Montagu, Riane Eisler, Steve Allen, Betty Friedan, Buckminster Fuller, Linus Pauling, Erich Fromm, Isaac Asimov, Bertrand and Dora Russell, Kurt Vonnegut, Abraham Maslow, Benjamin Spock, Alice Walker, Richard Lamm, Margaret Atwood, and Albert Ellis. In many respects humanism’s strength is found in the high proportion of eminent leaders and thinkers who today hold this alternative to faith. Yet, to an increasing degree, most who follow this way of life are individuals of average accomplishments who represent a cross section of the world’s population.
Mentioning some of the people who have expressed ideas consistent with this rich and varied view may help in the understanding of humanism.
Those who have contributed to the advancement of human welfare and understanding on the international scene include Brock Chisholm, Julian Huxley, John Boyd-Orr, Gerald Wendt, Margaret Sanger, and Ted Turner.
There are, of course, varied emphases in humanism, and the particular quality of an individual’s views will be conditioned, within the very wide limits of this philosophy, by background, whatever it may be—science, philosophy, business, social work, the arts, liberal religion, freethought, or just by limited economic and educational condition. Some individuals do not apply the humanist label to themselves, that is, have not yet come out of the figurative closet. In some cases they may even point to a particular humanist and say, “I am not that kind of humanist.” But would not that also be true of any other philosophy? A few people have labelphobia. Our list is, however, a reasonable cross section, and most of the Americans mentioned have been members of the American Humanist Association. The few who have not can be identified by their own writing and declarations as pursuing this way of life or have expressed in their published views many humanist principles.
This alternative to faith is beginning to make an impact on human affairs. Its effect is appropriate in our age in which humans are coming to realize their own strength and worth.
Ours is a time of vigorous protest, of a desire for reassurance. We see in many regions agonized efforts of peoples to rule themselves, to be free from dictators, to democratize their governments. Just as most political concepts of divine right and clerical control have been disregarded, so many of the traditional religious and philosophical ideas are being challenged. In many instances people have simply turned away from religious activity. They are doing this even in those countries where to do so can politically bring social disapproval, even ostracism. For them no institution or group of people has a corner on wisdom or on high ethical principles. It is becoming more and more evident that religion is often chiefly a political factor. At the same time more and more thoughtful people are likely to recognize the whole human family as a great interdependent brotherhood.
People everywhere are coming to realize that science makes orderly knowledge possible, as it is not limited to just local belief. They know that biologists, whether in Bolivia, Botswana, Japan, Nigeria, or Sweden, have a basis of common principles and share the fruits of their knowledge. There is no special kind of Bolivian or Botswanian biology which is radically different from Swedish biology. Political leaders in a few nations have tried to shape scientific studies to nationalistic ends but they sooner or later failed in this. People are also coming to understand that ethical principles and basic standards of moral conduct have common roots and universal application. It is only natural that those groups that limit or tie these standards to religious observances and theologies are probably fighting a defensive, losing battle. The human spirit is too needy and too vigorous to be kept in shackles.
We have seen the formation of humanist groups in nations as different as India, Norway, and Argentina. Organizations in several countries have been started by individuals who had no inkling that, at the same time, people in other countries were engaged in similar activities. Men and women in different nations arrived at the same conclusions and proceeded to form groups.
Both in the United States and in other parts of the world, humanism is thought of as an alternative force. That is, it is considered a different type of belief and action in contrast to the authoritarian political systems on the one hand and to the traditional religions on the other. Little wonder there are entrenched interests that consider it threatening or dangerous.
Whether or not there will be humanist halls in every city of our land and tens of millions of members remains to be seen. It is not essential to belong to an organized group to be a humanist. In its present stage of growth, humanism is having a liberalizing influence on many of the traditional religions and philosophies. Within the Unitarian Universalist and Ethical Culture organizations whole congregations are becoming openly humanist. The mounting concern of Buddhists and the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergies over the effect of humanism on some of their members testifies to the appeal and strength of this liberating alternative to supernatural faith.
Humanist organizations are not entirely focused on bringing people into their organizations. Many in liberal churches enjoy membership in both a church and the humanist organization. Such humanists take part in the educational and social programs which are cooperating rather than competing membership organizations. The Habitat for Humanity is one example. Human fulfillment is the goal; institutions may or may not be instruments of fulfillment.
Religion and the Religious Attitude
Attempts to ridicule religion or to dismiss it as unimportant rarely meet with any lasting success, for religion is a vital part of the lives of many, and it gives every indication of continuing to be so.
Religion has been defined in nearly as many ways as there have been definers. It is often spoken of as “a system of faith or worship,” or as “an awareness or conviction of the existence of a supreme being arousing reverence, love, gratitude, and the will to obey.”
Other thoughtful individuals have given very different definitions. Thomas Paine merely said: “The world is my country, to do good my religion.”
A. Eustace Haydon, when professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, offered as his definition: “The shared quest of the good life.”
Alfred North Whitehead described it simply as “what the individual does with his solitariness.”
To us religion is the creation and pursuit of ideals and the relationship people feel with one another and with the universe. For us religion and theology are not equivalent words but rather theology is only a type of religious expression.
Humanists are divided in the belief that individuals can have a religious experience that does not include any supernatural element. Some note that religious feelings and attitudes have been mistakenly limited to that which is becoming less and less real and meaningful to us—the old theologies and rituals.
John Dewey described religious attitudes as basically a thoroughgoing and deep-seated harmonizing of the self with the universe. And he further defined religious experience as that which has the power to bring about a deeper and more enduring adjustment to life. Can we not agree with Dewey that everyday life will have more meaning once we realize that so-called religious experiences can be a part of its fabric?
Julian Huxley regarded the basis of religion as “the consciousness of sanctity in existence, in common things, in events of human life.”
From time immemorial humans have related their lives with the larger life of nature. They wished to feel that their code of social behavior had something of the sacred in it. These attitudes have been organized together in the idea of “God.” Yet we can receive these same satisfactions from a philosophy that is not built on the idea of deity. We can learn that ideals are in reality useful goals growing out of human experience and not set apart from creative life. We can learn that our lives are more closely woven into the whole universe than we had even suspected in the old days. Religion without a supernatural element can become meaningful and personal. Partially because of the conflict of sects, some of us do not regard humanism as a religion but as an alternative.
The endless struggle between science and religion can die down. The spiritual aspects of life are no longer inconsistent and at odds with those things that we can experience and test. No longer need there be that type of spiritual realm that does violence to our intelligence and to our knowledge of the processes of the world. Humanists recognize that we all live in a unified world, the world of nature.
Humanism as a Philosophy and Religion
Humanism, like religion, has been defined in innumerable ways. Many a humanist has made his or her own definition. This is a healthful condition, for truths are not contained within the words of definitions. The value of definitions is in calling attention to relationships or in making appropriate descriptions. The broad general humanist viewpoint, enriched as it is by the insights of people of varying temperaments, cannot even be sketched within a few sentences or paragraphs. As it is a general point of view it is only natural that different people should find different aspects of it particularly significant to them.
Those individuals of more philosophical bent will look to it as a living philosophy. If they are technically trained they may study humanist ethics and stress the values of good morality. Some whose primary interest is found in current world problems, in revising laws and customs toward building a better, happier human community, naturally think of humanism as a point of view that could bring all the people of the world together. For them it is a challenging call to make full use of all that is in us to build cooperatively a richer human life. The interest of yet others is in the role of humanism as a champion of the rational approach over the traditional theological one, of democracy over authoritarianism, of common sense over superstition. A fourth focus hails it as a means for achieving personal integration, maturity, and freedom. Once these personal values are won, concern in and action for the larger social good follows naturally for all of these groups.
Whether or not one looks to humanism as a religion, as a philosophy, as a lifestance, or as a way of life is, we believe, largely a matter of personal temperament and preference. Those caught up by its religious aspects know that it provides a vibrant, satisfying moral orientation. Those who think of it as a philosophy find it both reasonable and adequate. Those who recognize it as an alternative to religion may or may not feel personal value in belonging to an organization.
One of the great religious humanist pioneers, John H. Dietrich, pointed out:
For centuries the idea of God has been the very heart of religion; it has been said “no God, no religion.” But humanism thinks of religion as something very different and far deeper than any belief in God. To it, religion is not the attempt to establish right relations with a supernatural being, but rather the upreaching and aspiring impulse in a human life. It is life striving for its completest fulfillment, and anything which contributes to this fulfillment is religious, whether it be associated with the idea of God or not.
Humanism gives to many people the satisfactions which have come to them in the past either from other religions or from other philosophies. In doing this it serves some as a religion, others as a philosophy. Insofar as it serves as both a philosophy and a religion, there is no need to deny that it has both functions. Inasmuch as faith in a theology is not involved, it can be recognized appropriately as an alternative to faith.
It developed as the rational scientific viewpoint was grafted upon a philosophy of good will and concern for humans and nature. It is neither vague nor colorless but positive and dynamic, whether thought of as a non-sectarian religion, a philosophy, a lifestance, a way of life, or an alternative to faith.