Humanism As Religion

Sumitra Padmanabhan

Let us first see what is meant by the word ‘Religion’. To many the word conveys a strong personal and emotional meaning which would make any unbiased judgment quite impossible. So, let us start with an open mind and analyze the word ‘religion’ to understand –not only what it is, but also why it is necessary at all.

In English the most comprehensive definition goes like this—“ Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency, usually involving devotional and ritual observances and often having a moral code for the conduct of human affairs.”

Even though this definition covers all possible aspects, a few vague terms may be noted. Words like ‘usually’, ‘often’ and ‘especially’ make it quite obvious that one cannot really define religion in specific terms. One religion varies from another not only in its ritualistic observances, but also in its basic concept. For example, there is no place of God in Buddhism; and Hinduism boasts of 330 million deities. Brahmoism again contends that God is the name of a formless, unique power.

What is more or less a common feature in all religions is that each in its own way endeavors to offer an ideal code of conduct for individuals to make society a better place to live in. Why then do we need so many forms, so many rituals, so many scriptures and strictures?  Why so much bloodshed in the name of religion?

The answer is simple. In ancient times the Earth was a less crowded place; men lived in small communities totally isolated from each other. Each group had its own leader. Each religious leader dictated his own codes to his followers. Each religion had its own identity and had no need to look beyond its own ethnic group. With the passage of time, rituals became more complex; the basic social purpose of religion was often forgotten. With increasing population and rising economic crises, religion became a veritable tool for exploitation, a ground for clash and bloodshed.

The differences as we see are mainly in rituals, customs, methods of prayer, forms of idols—namely, in the external features of a religion. Even though external, the differences are there, and they continue to increase. Even when we say that all religions propagate the message of love and peace, we tend to harbor within us a special preference for our own faith that we unquestioningly inherit from our forefathers. In modern world man cannot live in watertight compartments of his own clan. Barriers between countries and communities are fast vanishing. So, separate codes of conduct are bound to germinate into open clashes.

Why?  Could we not have a common code of values for all human beings? Yes we could; only if we could be rational and rid ourselves of our age-old adherence to superstitions, our blind faith in the infallibility of the scriptures, our unquestioning submission to the dictums of ancient lawmakers. Faith without knowledge leads us to blindness and blindness to fanaticism. If we could learn to depend more on empirical knowledge, on knowledge of the natural and social sciences, we could be guided by that to the path of peace and harmony. We then would be able to imbibe the essence of all religious teachings transmitted to us by our forefathers through generations and become total human beings. Then our need to cling to one particular religious identity would cease to exist. Religion as an institution would be deemed unnecessary.

Now what about the social acceptance of this simple ‘Humanism’ as religion? Well then, it may be worth noting that the United Nations had declared in the General Assembly of November 1981 that ‘everyone shall have the right to have a religion or belief of his choice and freedom…’

In this connection let us also remember with due respect the first Humanist Society of New York founded in 1929 by a group of Unitarian priests and Jewish rabbis who had revolted against religious totalitarianism in society. The first ‘Humanist Manifesto’ was signed by 34 eminent intellectuals of the time. Stalwarts like Albert Einstein, Will Durant, Thomas Mann, Julian Huxley and John Dewey were a few among the many great men in the advisory board of the first humanist society. The concept of Humanism conformed to the basic common definition applicable to all known religions in the sense that ‘it was an organized system of ideas and emotions which relates Man to his destiny.’

The Humanists believed in democracy, in science and in personal liberty combined with social responsibility, which is possible only with a strong ethical foundation. On the whole, it was a way of life aiming at the fullest expression of individual freedom and talent along with total social harmony. ‘Humanism’ is non-theistic. That is, the question of God or Heavens or the need for prayers became irrelevant for Humanists. But until 1981, there was no provision for accepting Humanism as a religion.

Now with our broader perspective and deeper insight into all known religions and a better knowledge of all sciences, should we not welcome ‘Humanism’ as an alternative to all established religions? Should we not say that true ‘Dharma’ or the essential quality of Man is to be humane? Just as the ‘dharma’ of fire is to burn and of water is to flow. On the 10th of December 1993 we saw in India 58 members of the Humanists’ Association coming forward from different walks of life to accept Humanism as their religion by signing a declaration. Since then the flow has been steady and it is a matter of pride for our nation that so many are being inspired daily to unite in a truly rational, secular and humane common ground forgetting their caste, creed and religion.

Can the Humanists show the light to the entire world? Can it become the only religion in the world in the years to come?

Sumitra Padmanabhan is one of the Editors of THE FREETHINKER

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