Does Humanism substitute “Humanity” for God?

By | March 28, 2011

“Humanism: Humanity as Ultimate: One result of the secular challenge to spiritual ultimacy has been the emergence of groups that consider humanity itself to be ultimate. The idea of treating humanity as a substitute for God can be traced to the French philosopher, Auguste Comte (1798-1857)”

(from William A. Young, The World’s Religions – World views and contemporary issues, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1995, page 422)

Despite the thinking of August Comte and William Young, contemporary secular humanism does not replace God with Humanity. (*For more on the issue of religious humanism, see note below.) In other words, humanist does not make humanity into an idol to replace deity. Humanism is not religious in that sense at all. But some have argued that there is a sense in which humanism qualifies as a religion. William A. Young uses a working definition of religion as “a human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy” (See his text, The World’s Religions – World views and contemporary issues.) He then goes on to classify Humanism as a religion. The idea is that humanists have an ideal concept of humanity and work to bring humans closer to that ideal. So in that sense the aim is a human transformation of sorts, although many questions would arise concerning the “perceived ultimacy” in Young’s definition.

At any rate, the term “religion,” broadly defined in this sense, might apply to some of the thinking and work of humanists. But there are significant differences between humanism and most religions, and those differences are more significant than the similarities between the two. In several ways, humanism is categorically different from religions: it rejects all reference to supernatural realms (including God, angels, saints, heaven, hell, and such); and it assumes a naturalistic, material view of human beings; humans are part of the natural, biological realm and do not partake of spiritual or heavenly status.

I’ll attempt a few summary statements of humanism vis a vis religion and the concept of humanity.

Humanism espouses human values over supernaturally-based values. It advocates a perspective of reality based on scientific naturalism and a critical, rational philosophy. This generally rules out supernatural doctrines and beliefs that portray humans as ‘higher,’ spiritual beings. In short, ‘God’ is discarded as neither an essential nor justifiable concept. ‘God’ is not replaced by new idol, the human being. However, the ‘humanity’ that humanism envisions is somewhat idealized.

The ‘humanity’ of humanism is very positively portrayed. This implies that “humanism” functions as a value term, and is only partly a descriptive term. Humanity is portrayed as more admirable and upstanding than the facts warrant. Humanism emphasizes the human potential for a scientifically-based, rational life; and tends to see humans as aspiring to high ethical, moral values. For example, humans are portrayed as caring, compassionate creatures, who would try to treat others according to the Golden Rule: Don’t do to others as you would not want done to you. Humanism portrays humans as free agents capable of high achievement in the sciences, technology, literature, the arts, and philosophy. Humanists tend to assume that when humans break the shackles of supernaturalism and authoritarian religion, they will flourish. But all this may give too much credit to our human-all-too-human tendencies.

Much about humanity is not so admirable. The reality of history and contemporary societies show that humans, with or without supernatural religion, often are neither noble nor humane. Humans have a penchant for war, acquisition, oppression of fellow humans, irrationality and destructive superstitions. It was human beings acting in history that dreamt up oppressive and destructive religions that have dogged human history and caused so much suffering. Humans are inclined to short-term thinking; hence their actions have destructive long-term effects: for example, overpopulation, waste of natural resources, destruction of the environment. Humans are often lazy, satisfied with frivolous pleasures, and not inclined to work for higher ends. The casinos of Las Vegas, spectator sports and celebrity worship characterize the human ‘spirit’ more than the higher values that philosophers and poets celebrate. Supernatural religions cannot be held accountable for all the misery and suffering that the world has seen and continues to see. Humans themselves have brought about much of it. However, humanity is not a lost cause.

The optimistic spirit of humanism inspires all to work at improving the human situation. This side of humanism has the audacity to think that human beings can prevail and defeat their many ‘demons.’ Here we see a role for society and education to cultivate and realize the better aspects of people. Among other things, we would try to realize a society in which more people act on the basis of clear and critical thinking. In addition, we promote the teaching and cultivation of humane, enlightened ethics. People should have the freedom and opportunity to develop intellectually, artistically, technologically, in terms of self governance and social work. By means of education, proper training, and a society that learns from experience, we can work to achieving some of these ends. Even some forms of philosophical instruction can help; but we must discard those philosophies which are counter-productive or irrelevant to the task of reforming human society. But aspiring to reach the stars, we must not lose touch with reality.

Humanism must remain a human-based, realistic philosophy, which does not turn humans into the new idols, or replace “gods” with a glorified humanity. A human-based, realistic philosophy works with people as people, recognizing people’s strengths and weaknesses [**note below]. As realists, we know that humans often fail on their own; but this should not be taken as grounds for arguing that humans need a supernatural caretaker. We shall apply the ideals of the Enlightenment (science, reason, education, and a humane ethics) in an effort aimed at helping the tribe of humans improve their human society and realize a better world.

So if we think of religion as “a human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy” and we take “human transformation” to refer to education and eventual enlightenment of people; and we take the “perceived ultimacy” to be the humanists’ view of a more excellent human being; then we could allow that in this very weak sense of ‘religion’ humanism can be taken as religious like. But this is a very vague sense of ‘religion’ and does not over-ride the ordinary view of humanism as a philosophy very much at odds with traditional theistic religion.

* For short article on the issue of “Religious Humanism” in the US, see “Religious Humanism” by Mason Olds at:

** Humanists should avoid coming across as judgmental regarding humanity. Instead of a superior, judgmental attitude to people in general, humanists can learn from the spirit of a poet like Carl Sandburg, who offers these great words on the human condition, recognizing the “hero and the hoodlum” in the people:

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
. . . .
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”

The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
“They buy me and sell me…it’s a game…sometime I’ll
break loose…”

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