Is Secular Humanism a Religion?

The answer to this question can be found in a comparative religion anthology entitled, The Ways of Religion, edited by Roger Eastman (NY: Harper & Row, 1975). The following excerpt is from Chapter 12: "Humanism: Man is the Measure."

How the State promotes the Religion of Humanism
without creating an "establishment of religion"


Man is the measure of all things,
of those that are that they are,
of those that are not that they are not.



Humanism, as Julian Huxley has said, is a religion without revelation. Its source is man; its values and ideals are man-centered. Its hope is a good and rewarding life in this world. There are, then, no humanist "Scriptures." On the contrary, it is clear that this faith has evolved from human experience over the centuries, and it takes various forms with different individuals. It is expected, moreover, that humanist principles and goals will continue to evolve as the conditions of life are altered and human knowledge advances.

The term "humanism" was first used during the Renaissance; it referred to a renewed interest in man and his earthly affairs which was expressed in the arts, literature, and religion of that age. Sir Thomas More and Erasmus were Christian humanists, and in our own time Jacques Maritain has called for a theocentric (as opposed to anthropocentric) humanism. But the mainstream of contemporary humanism is naturalistic: it explicitly rejects all the supernatural elements in other religions.

The first reading selection in this chapter, Julian Huxley's "The Coming New Religion of Humanism," begins, indeed, with a harsh rejection of Christianity. That religion (and, it should be understood, any other whose claims cannot be scientifically verified) Huxley finds hopelessly contradicted by modern knowledge. Consequently, according to Huxley, Christianity is fading away, and moving into its place is the emerging religion of humanism.

In "The Good Life of the Self-Actualizing Person," Abraham Maslow finds that the self-actualizing person is one whose life incorporates "higher," self-transcending values. But such values are not of a realm different from the world in which we live. "The so-called spiritual, transcendent, or axiological life is clearly rooted in the biological nature of the species," Maslow states, and humanistic science should approach the eternal verities as "'real' and natural, fact-based" phenomena.

The "Humanist Manifesto II," with which the chapter concludes, is a recent and well-received statement of the humanist position. A preface to the manifesto, however, emphasized that the manifesto was not "setting forth a binding credo." This, in short, is an open-ended religion.

*Quoted in Victor E. Amend and Leo I. Hendrick (eds.), Ten Contemporary Thinkers (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), p.415.

Julian Huxley (1887- ) is the brother of Aldous Huxley and the grandson of T. H. Huxley, who once said of the young Julian, "I like that chap. I like the way he looks you straight in the face and disobeys you. "*  Educated at Eton and Oxford, he became an eminent biologist and man of letters, and he more than held his own in the distinguished Huxley family. He lectured at universities in England and the United States, served as the first Director General of UNESCO, and was knighted in 1958. In addition to his scientific papers, he has written The Uniqueness of Man, Darwin and His World, The Human Crisis, Evolution and Ethics, Religion without Revelation, On Living in a Revolution, and Essays of a Humanist.

Julian Huxley
"The Coming New Religion of Humanism."

This article first appeared in The Humanist (January/February 1962) and is reprinted by permission.

It is certainly a fact that Christianity does not, and I would add cannot, satisfy an increasing number of people: and it does not and cannot do so because it is a particular brand of religion, which is no longer related or relevant to the facts of existence as revealed by the march of events or the growth of knowledge.

But first of all we must ask what we mean by a religion. A religion is an organ of man in society which helps him to cope with the problems of nature and his destiny -- his place and role in the universe. It always involves the sense of sacredness or mystery and of participation in a continuing enterprise; it is always concerned with the problem of good and evil and with what transcends the individual self and the immediate and present facts of every day. A religion always has some framework of beliefs, some code of ethics, and some system of expression -- what are usually called a theology, a morality, and a ritual. When we look closely we find that the beliefs largely determine both the nature of the moral code and the form of the ritual.

The theological framework on which Christianity is supported includes as its centre the basic belief of all theistic religions -- the belief in the supernatural and the existence of a god or gods, supernatural beings endowed with properties of knowing, feeling, and willing akin to those of a human personality.

In Christian theology, god is a being who at a definite date -- until recently specified as 4004 B.C. -- created the world and man in essentially the same form they have today; a ruler capable of producing miracles and of influencing natural events, including events in human minds, and conversely of being influenced by man's prayers and responding to them.

Christianity believes in a last judgment by god at a definite but unspecified future date. It believes in an eternal life after death in a supernatural realm, and makes salvation through belief its central aim. It believes in the fall of man and original sin, that its code of morals has been commanded by god, and that all mankind is descended from one original couple. Christianity asserts a partial polytheism in the doctrine of the Trinity, and gives full rein to what the students of comparative religion call polydaemonism by its belief in angels, saints, and the Virgin and their power to grant human prayers. Officially it still believes in hell and the devil and other evil supernatural beings, though these beliefs are rapidly fading. It is based on a belief in divine revelation and in the historical reality of supernatural events such as the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus as the son of the first person of the Trinity. It claims or assumes that all other religions are false and that only Christianity (or only one brand of Christianity) is true. It assumes that the earth occupies a central position in the cosmic scheme, and that, though god is believed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, he has a special concern with man's salvation.

The Christian system of beliefs is quite unacceptable in the world of today. It is contradicted, as a whole and in detail, by our extended knowledge of the cosmos, of the solar system, of our own planet, of our own species, and of our individual selves.

Christianity is dogmatic, dualistic, and essentially geocentric. It is based on a vision of reality which sees the universe as static, short-lived, small, and ruled by a supernatural being. The vision we now possess, thanks to the patient and imaginative labours of thousands of physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, archeologists, historians, and humanists, is incommensurable with it. In the light of this new vision, our picture of reality becomes unitary, temporally and spatially of almost inconceivable vastness, dynamic, and constantly transforming itself through the operation of its own inherent properties. It is also scientific, in the sense of being based on established knowledge, and accordingly non-dogmatic, basically self-correcting, and itself evolving. Its keynote, the central concept to which all its details are related, is evolution.


Let me try to outline this new vision as briefly as possible. On the basis of our present understanding, all reality is in a perfectly valid sense one universal process of evolution. The single process occurs in three phases -- first, the inorganic or cosmic, operating by physical and to a limited extent chemical interaction, and leading to the production of such organizations of matter as nebulae, stars, and solar systems; in our galaxy this phase has been going on for at least six billion years.

In the rare places where matter has become self-reproducing, the inorganic has been succeeded by the organic or biological phase; this operates primarily by the ordering agency we call natural selection, and leads to the production of increasingly varied and increasingly higher organizations of matter, such as flowers, insects, cuttlefish, and vertebrates, and to the emergence of mind and increasingly higher organizations of awareness. On our planet this has been operating for rather under three billion years.

Finally, in what must be the extremely rare places (we only know for certain of one) where, to put it epigrammatically, mind has become self-reproducing through man's capacity to transmit experience and its products cumulatively, we have the human or psychosocial phase. This operates by the self-perpetuating but self-varying and (within limits) self-correcting process of cumulative learning and cumulative transmission, and leads to the evolution of increasingly varied and increasingly higher psychosocial products, such as religions, scientific concepts, labor-saving machinery, legal systems, and works of art.

Our prehuman ancestors arrived at the threshold of the critical step to this phase around a million years ago; but they became fully human, and psychosocial evolution began to work really effectively, only within the last few tens of thousands of years. During that short span of evolutionary time, man has not changed genetically in any significant way, and his evolution has been predominantly cultural, manifested in the evolution of his social systems, his ideas, and his technological and artistic creations.

The new vision enlarges our future as much as our past. Advance in biological evolution took place through a succession of so-called dominant types -- in the last 400 million years, from jawless limbless vertebrates to fish, then through amphibians to reptiles, from reptiles to mammals, and finally to man. Each new dominant type is in some important way biologically more efficient than the last, so that when it breaks through to evolutionary success it multiplies and spreads at the expense of its predecessors.

Man is the latest dominant type to arise in the ecology of this earth. There is no possibility of his dominant position in evolution being challenged by an existing type of creature, whether rat or ape or insect. All that could happen to man (if he does not blow himself up with nuclear bombs or convert himself into a cancer of his planet by over-multiplication) is that he could transform himself as a whole species into something new. He has nearly three billion years of evolution behind him, from his first pre-cellular beginnings: barring accidents, he has at least as much time before him to pursue his evolutionary course.

Yeats implied, or indeed affirmed, that if the Christian God were rejected, a Savage God would take his place. This certainly could happen, but it need not happen, and we can be pretty sure that in the long run it will not happen.

The new framework of ideas on which any new dominant religion will be based is at once evolutionary and humanist. For evolutionary humanism, gods are creations of man, not vice versa. Gods begin as hypotheses serving to account for certain phenomena of outer nature and and inner experience: they develop into more unified theories, which purport to explain the phenomena and make them comprehensible; and they end up being hypostatized as supernatural personal beings capable of influencing the phenomena. As theology develops, the range of phenomena accounted for by the god-hypothesis is extended to cover the entire universe, and the gods become merged in God.

However, with the development of human science and learning, this universal or absolute God becomes removed further and further back from phenomena and any control of them. As interpreted by the more desperately "liberal" brands of Christianity today, he appears to the humanist as little more than the smile of a cosmic Cheshire Cat, but one which is irreversibly disappearing.


But though I believe that gods and God in any meaningful non-Pickwickian sense are destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains, and will provide much of the raw material from which any new religions will be fashioned. This religious raw material consists in those aspects of nature and elements in experience which are usually described as divine. The term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret man's experiences of this quality in phenomena.

Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature -- "super-natural" power, a super-human element at work in the universe.

Such magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly outer phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes, biological phenomena such as sex and reproduction, birth, disease and death, and also phenomena of man's inner life such as intoxication, possession, speaking with tongues, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.

With the growth of knowledge most of these phenomena have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific inexplicability is concerned. But there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, and in particular the existence of mind. Our knowledge of physics and chemistry-neurology does not account for the basic fact of subjective experience, though they help us to understand its workings. The stark fact of mind sticks in the throat of pure rationalism and reductionist materialism.

However, it remains true that phenomena are charged with a magic quality of transcendent and even compulsive power, and introduce us to a realm beyond ordinary experience. Such events and such experiences merit a special designation. For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural but transnatural -- it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his worship: and during history it evolves like everything else.

Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safeguarding of divinity, and seeks contact and communion with what is regarded as divine. A humanist-based religion must redefine divinity, strip the divine of the theistic qualities which man has anthropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective agencies, enabling man to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material.

The character of all religions depends primarily on the pattern of its supporting framework of ideas, its theology in an extended sense; and this in its turn depends on the extent and organization of human knowledge at the time. I feel sure that the world will see the birth of a new religion based on what I have called evolutionary humanism. Just how it will develop and flower no one knows -- but some of its underlying beliefs are beginning to emerge, and in any case it is clear that a humanism of this sort can provide powerful religious, moral and practical motivation for life.


The beliefs of this religon [sic] of evolutionary humanism are not based on revelation in the supernatural sense, but on the revelations that science and learning have given us about man and the universe. A humanist believes with full assurance that man is not alien to nature, but a part of nature, albeit a unique one. He is made of the same matter and works by the same energy as the rest of the universe. He is not only a product of the universal process of evolution, but capable of affecting the process which has produced him, and of affecting it either for good or ill. His true destiny is to guide the future course of evolution on earth towards greater fulfilment, so as to realize more and higher potentialities. And this can only be done by intelligently co-operating with outer nature, not by senselessly exploiting and wasting its resources; and by intelligently guiding his own nature, not by senselessly succumbing to his conflicting instincts and moods -- reproductive, acquisitive, despairing, idealistic, or aggressive.

Evolution is essentially creative. It is constantly generating improved, more varied, and higher types. During pre-human evolution from some precellular submicroscopic speck to a dominant type of terrestial [sic] organism, the evolutionary process has realized almost inconceivable potentialities -- of adaptability and power, knowledge and emotion, intelligence and love. During his own evolution, man has realized further and equally inconceivable potentialities. Some are good and have grandeur, in the shape of comprehensive scientific theories, soul-compelling religions, glorious buildings, fantastic machines, undying works of art, inspiring moral codes. But he has also realized equally inconceivable potentialities of horror and evil -- torture by the Inquisition, Hitler's gas chambers for Jews, the ruthlessness of Genghis Khan, war after war after war, the horror of the atomic bomb, and the incredible stupidity of the nuclear deterrent stalemate.


A humanist religion will have the task of redefining the categories of good and evil in terms of fulfilment and of desirable or undesirable realizations of potentiality, and setting up new targets for its morality to aim at.

In this process of transvaluation, to borrow Nietzsche's phrase, a humanist religion will certainly do something new -- it will assign a high value to the increase of scientifically based knowledge; for it is on knowledge and its applications that anything which can properly be called human advance or progress depends. It will also assign a high value to the creative imagination and the works of art and beauty and significance which it produces; for it is they which are the highest expressions of the spirit of man.

As regards the individual, a humanist religion will, like the ancient Greeks, stress excellence. But as complementary to this, it will go further than the Greek principle of moderation: nothing too much -- and will make psychological integration and total wholeness an essential aim, and in some sense the equivalent of the state of salvation in Christian terminology. Finally, it can give the individual much-needed protection against the tyrannies of society, much-needed support against the pressure of authoritarianism and conformism, by proclaiming the vital truth that in realising his own potentialities and in developing his own personality the individual is making his own unique contribution to the universal process of evolutionary fulfilment.

Integration implies the resolution of dichotomies and conflicts, through their incorporation in a unified, balanced dynamic pattern, well equipped with feedback mechanisms. In Marxism, the individual is presented in opposition to society. In humanism, the individual and society are seen as inevitably interrelated; integration here implies making the interrelation more profound and more harmonious. In the evolutionary humanist view, the dichotomy between heredity and environment can similarly disappear, by making heredity and environment support each other and act synergistically so as to secure a more complete development.

Humanism also differs from all supernaturalist religions in centering its long-term aims not on the next world but on this. One of its fundamental tenets is that this world and the life in it can be improved, and that it is our duty to try to improve it, socially, culturally, and politically. The humanist goal must therefore be, not Technocracy, nor Theocracy, not the omnipotent and authoritarian State, nor the Welfare State, nor the Consumption Economy, but the Fulfilment Society. By this I mean a society organized in such a way as to give the greatest number of people the fullest opportunities of realizing their potentialities -- of achievement and enjoyment, morality and community. It will do so by providing opportunities for education, for adventure and achievement, for cooperating in worthwhile projects, for meditation and withdrawal, for self-development and unselfish action.

Above all, a humanist religion will uphold the ideal of quality, against the assaults of mere quantity, of richness and variety against drabness and monotony, and of active open and continuous development, personal, social, and evolutionary, as against static self-complacency or unreal millenary fanaticism.

Christmas Conspiracy


Vine & Fig Tree

Paradigm Shift


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