What can humanists learn from religion?

A little over a year ago, I attended a talk by the humanist philosopher Julian Baggini. He was talking about religion: what it offered people and how Humanism measured up to that. I’m not sure I agreed with everything he said that evening but it was a topic that I found myself drawn to periodically because it says so much to me about what I want from Humanism. It is far too easy for sceptics to reduce religious belief to a set of metaphysical ideas and forget the individuals and communities behind the ideas. Beyond the personal belief in a deity or deities, belief leads to a lifestyle, identity and a community. These are very real needs and benefits. Humans cannot live on food, water and shelter alone, we need friends, family, love, art, music, games and meaning. This is a challenge that Humanism needs to embrace.

Religious life creates community. I keep reading that women are apparently more religious than men and this makes some sense to me. If one assumes a society where women have responsibility for children and the home, then the local church is an invaluable resource. Beyond religious services, churches, mosques and similar play host to children’s play groups, family events, study groups, choirs and much more. Joining a church means finding a community of people who share your outlook on life and have similar values. Religious institutions have a long history of serving their community and it would be foolish to overlook these aspects. Humanism needs to look beyond its ideas and look at its people too.

Another important part of religion is the offering of love, trust and forgiveness. Humanists often talk of fairness, respect and equality but we rarely talk of love. Deciding that opportunity and responsibility lies within oneself can be empowering and inspiring but it can also be lonely and difficult. It is so easy to blame oneself and see only flaws and failings. Belief in a higher being or beings allows for a different perspective. All humanists would agree that every life has value but sometimes it is hard to see your own. Human relationships can be difficult but to know that better, more patient beings love you absolutely at all times allows you to accept and love yourself. Harder still is the challenge to forgive yourself. To move on from mistakes and regrettable behaviour is hard but necessary. Humanists recognise that we must learn from our mistakes but we must remember to forgive ourselves and others in order to keep believing in and realising the world and lives we believe possible.

Finally, a lot of believers will tell you that their faith is what gives their life meaning. The world is baffling and complex but religious texts and religious teachers or leaders can offer guidance, presenting a less personally involved and more neutral perspective. Making sense of the world and deciding what to do with your life is pretty much the most difficult decision there is. Humanism can’t tell you what to do with your life or what it all means but it asks a lot of relevant questions. Approaching the world with an open mind, respect for all life and a willingness to learn is a first step. Humanists can help each other develop the tools for living a worthwhile and meaningful life and provide examples through our own lives – as varied and chaotic as that may be.

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7 Responses to “What can humanists learn from religion?”


  1. 1 Timothy Mills March 17, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Awesome post, Clare. Thankyou.

  2. 3 Catana March 22, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I wonder why I’ve never come across the idea that women are more religious than men. As a woman who’s been a non-believer from some time in her childhood, that’s the kind of statement that makes me go “hmmm.” Sounds far too much like a product of evolutionary psychology–all theory, no proof.

  3. 4 Clare March 22, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    The claim that women tend to be more religious comes from data of current populations (UK and USA). If you want to take a look at some of the recent studies of religion and gender, this might be a good place to start: http://www.ibcsr.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=74:religion-more-important-for-women-and-older-americans&catid=53:in-focus&Itemid=72

    I was surprised as well when I learned that studies show that women are more religious than men. I have also been a non-believer since childhood and few of my female friends are religiously inclined so I never noticed it being a particularly female thing as it seemed about equal among people I knew. It also seems to me that women are usually the ones who are systematically discriminated against in most religions that I know, but then again, if you are denied access to power in the secular sphere or politics, education, employment, etc, then the activities of the church/temple/mosque/etc may provide opportunities to hold some authority and organise services and activities that cater to your needs and wishes. I would be similarly sceptical of any evolutionary psychology claim that women are somehow innately religious, and I can well imagine that there are sociological or political factors involved.

    Just to clarify to any religious believers, I am not trying to explain away religious belief here, merely speculating as to why women may be more drawn to religion than men. For example, women have traditionally been mainly responsible for the role of parenting so might be more actively involved in religious life and activities as well as teaching values to their children.

  4. 5 Catana March 22, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for the reference, Clare. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone in my caution about theories from evolutionary psychology, especially if sociological approaches are ignored.

  5. 6 Christopher Smith March 24, 2009 at 12:11 am

    >>The claim that women tend to be more religious comes from data of current populations (UK and USA).

    This may be the product of cultural factors. Historically, British and American people considered piety a feminine virtue. Masculinity and piety were thought to be, at least to some degree, inimical. In order to determine whether women’s increased piety was evolutionary rather than merely cultural, I guess you’d need some very rigorous demographic controls.

    Incidentally, secularization in Britain really took off in the sixties when the sexual revolution redefined female gender roles.


  1. 1 34th Humanist Symposium is up! « This humanist Trackback on March 24, 2009 at 12:25 am

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