Religious Anarcho-Humanism: A Contradiction?

It is a fact that there are religious anarchists(I’m one of them) and it is a fact that many anarchists would describe themselves as humanists. Humanism is often described as a secular ideology, however I reject this claim. Most reasonable and sensible people would claim to be humanists if pressed or questioned about their views. Fundamentalism is a problem, those promoting violence is a problem, positive and affirming beliefs are not. Traditionally religious humanism has been overwhelmingly Christian, however many religions emphasize aspects of social behavior that we can call humanist. I have disagreements with some aspects of secular humanism as described here but this is a moot point. I agree with a majority of humanist ethics.

What differentiates religious from other types of humanism involves basic attitudes and perspectives on what humanism should mean. Religious humanists treat their humanism in a religious manner. This requires defining religion from a functional perspective, which means identifying certain psychological or social functions of religion as distinguishing a religion from other belief systems.

The functions of religion often cited by religious humanists include things like fulfilling the social needs of a group of people (such as moral education, shared holiday and commemorative celebrations, and the creation of a community) and satisfying the personal needs of individuals (such as the quest to discover meaning and purpose in life, means for dealing with tragedy and loss, and ideals to sustain us).

For religious humanists, meeting these needs is what religion is all about; when doctrine interferes with meeting those needs, then religion fails. This attitude which places action and results above doctrine and tradition meshes quite well with the more basic humanist principle that salvation and aid can only be sought in other human beings. Whatever our problems might be, we will only find the solution in our own efforts and should not wait for any gods or spirits to come and save us from our mistakes.

I started identifying myself as a humanist because of all the times I came across a copy of the Affirmations of Humanism (a list of principles which secular humanists generally consider descriptive of their position) and realized that I already accepted just about all of it — even the part which says that appeals to Divinity are not necessary in order to live a moral life.

Admittedly, it’s a rather odd philosophical niche to occupy: a  humanist theist. Some might argue that it’s impossible to be both theistic and a  humanist . Regardless of my beliefs on divinity, I find that my reasons for accepting humanism are wholly secular, so in that sense I think the term applies. This is not as big a stretch as you might imagine, however. Perhaps the biggest reason to see theism and humanism as incompatible involves the nature of morality: is it derived from divine mandate or human experience? Yet if you are a theist, all you have to do is ask yourself honestly:

If God told me to kill somebody, would I do it?

Now, this question requires a few disclaimers. First, no copping out and claiming that the god you believe in would never ask such a thing of you — this is hypothetical, after all. Second, the person to be killed does, in fact, want to live: s/he did not request this, this is not euthanasia, nor does s/he deserve it for crimes committed. This is cold-blooded murder, with no mitigating circumstances or hidden aspects that would make everything all right in the end.

So, would you do it?

If the answer is yes, then perhaps you won’t gain much from reading further — we obviously have deep philosophical differences about the value of human life. But if the answer is no, then I submit to you that you may already have what it takes to be a  humanist theist, even if you’ve never considered it before. If you can’t bring yourself to kill someone on God’s orders because you cannot get over the idea that it’s wrong, then you are of necessity appealing to a higher moral standard than God (higher in the sense that it supercedes God, the way one court is higher than another). Never mind where this sense of wrongness comes from — yourself, society, universal compassion, etc.; never mind that your moral take on the issue may actually be in error. The fact of the matter is, you are defying a direct imperative from your god by saying “I disagree.”

I don’t believe that I am unique in this position, even among theists. Simply believing in the existence of God does not require us to therefore believe that any orders apparently coming from God must be followed. Accepting moral responsibility for ourselves and our actions entails being willing to judge an action independent of whether God wants us to do it or not.

When we read up on humanism, however, we find that such independent moral reasoning is one of the hallmarks of humanist philosophy — one of the things which separates it from traditional religious morality which presumes that whatever God orders must necessarily be correct.

Many well-meaning theists are concerned that without God, or at least the fear of God’s retribution, to enforce the moral order, people would simply do “whatever they felt like doing.” I suggest that this may not be as bad as people think. I can’t now locate the source, but I read recently that 30% of college-age males in a particular survey would murder if God told them to. Some might find that statistic depressing, but to me it says that fully 70%, a strong majority, would not kill if told to. And that’s just among the young males. If so many people would refuse to do something they consider wrong even when commanded by the ultimate authority in the universe, then I think that gives a powerful reason for optimism about the potential strength of human morality and human moral reasoning. No, people will not always behave perfectly, and there are certainly still some very antisocial personalities out there who cannot be relied upon to restrain themselves. But if poor, frail human beings who are supposedly sinners to the core can choose to be compassionate even when strongly motivated to do otherwise, then what might they choose when their freedom is not hampered by outside coercion?


~ by ladycat123 on November 15, 2011.

One Response to “Religious Anarcho-Humanism: A Contradiction?”

  1. When I had been an atheist, I considered myself a secular humanist. When I became a Pagan and Kemetic, the “humanist” part stayed the same, the “secular” part just got removed. I contemplated your thought experiment, and got the same result: I would refuse to kill.*
    My understanding of the relation between the good and the divinely-mandated is grounded in the Egyptian concept of ma’at meaning “truth/justice/good/order”. The gods are said to like ma’at, even to live upon it, as we live on food. So naturally they would like what promotes ma’at, and dislike what decreases ma’at. To take a more human analogy, a parent wants their child to eat vegetables. The parent doesn’t arbitrarily approve of vegetables. Instead, the parent knows that eating vegetables will make their child healthier, and they want their child to be healthier. The resulting increase in health makes the parent happy.

    I’m really enjoying reading this blog, and at this point in my life, I need it.
    Thank you for writing it.

    Senebty/Be Healthy,

    *For the reason explained in the second paragraph, I think that circumstance would be A) an impossibility; B) the result of delusion; or C)The result of a malevolent entity masquerading as a god or goddess.

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