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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