Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Is Humanism a Religion?

Is Humanism a religion?  I contend that Humanism does not qualify, but it is compatible with religious experience. Beginning with how religion was defined in ancient times, I argue that the element or aspect of transcendence is vital. I then look at whether transcendence is and could be in Humanism.

Religio, religionis (f, Latin) is translated principally as "supernatural constraint or taboo" or "obligation," in line with the verb religare (to bind). Secondary meanings of religio include "sanctity" and "reverence, respect, awe." In short, the etymology of religion indicates that the phenomenon is based on the binding nature of a religious object that is transcendent (i.e., not based in our realm, including Nature), hence the supernatural attribute or manifestation associated with the nature of the binding, or obligation. So religion is not based on feeling obliged to respect Nature. Hence the ancient nature religions had as a core belief the notion that deities, which are not based in our realm, control various features of Nature. For example, Zeus controls lightning, and Poseidon causes storms on the seas. Somethings (i.e., deities) were premised to exist that transcend Nature. Therefore, Nature itself not get us far enough in referring to religion even in the nature religions. In theism, too, a religious object is believed to exist that is "other-worldly" and hence supernatural.

I submit that the most determinative aspect of religion—indeed, I would even say its essence—is transcendence, an orientation whose reference-point lies beyond the limits of human cognition, sentiment, and perception. Transcendence is something that a person does; it is experiential even as it is not experience as we know it. Technically, transcendence does not require a belief in religious object, such as a deity (i.e., an intelligent being with a personality based beyond our realm—that of Creation). On a bare basis, the focus can be to a focus-point that is beyond the limits of human cognition, sentiment, and perception; as a point, which by definition has no surface-area, the referent operates as a non-attribute-holding place-holder that engenders “deep” transcendental yearning or striving.  Such an undertaking, I contend, serves as the foundation of religion and spirituality. Accordingly, the binding is ultimately applied to the yearning or striving, rather than to normative strictures ensuing from a religious object (e.g., the Ten Commandments).

It follows that respecting human potential, such as exists within Nature, does not get us to religion. Nor does Nature itself get us there. Feuerbach errs, I submit, in attributing divine status to Nature, and, more specifically to the potential of our species (i.e., our better instincts). He points to the case of nature religions, which he claims involves the “worship of nature as a divine being” because “nature is primary and fundamental, and cannot be derived from anything else.”[1] Yet having such a placement within Creation, for example, does not render something divine for lack of a transcendent extension. Even as representations of “the world in a mode differing from sense perception” rather than “a being different from the world,” the original conceptions of gods fell short.

Feuerbach can ironically be drawn on to attest to the shortfall. “I do not look on nature as a god, as supernatural, supersensual, remote, recondite, and One; [Nature in contrast] is a manifold, public, actual being which can be perceived with all the senses.”[2] There being “nothing mystical, nothing nebulous, nothing theological” in his use of the term, Nature, it falls short of being divine because it is based and confined to our realm without a transcendent dimension.[3] So too does his conception of God as “abstracted from the world”—God being “only the world in thought.”[4] Such a god cannot, by definition, extend beyond the world. Feuerbach’s characterization of the word divine as “beneficent, magnificent, praiseworthy, and admirable” also falls short in accounting for the term’s distinctly religious connotations; a political ruler, for example, could be praised as being beneficent, magnificent, and admirable without any hint of anything religious or even spiritual.[5] Similarly, Feuerbach’s claim that spiritual means “intellectual and abstract” falls short, as these descriptors could apply to the orientation of a secular scholar whose trade is theory.[6] Feuerbach, being such a scholar, also characterizes "divine" as "supreme”—his reference here being to Nature itself. The religious connotations of the word, divine, are not satisfied, however, for something can be supreme and yet not transcendent.[7] Life, for example, “is the supreme good.”[8] In fact, Feuerbach maintains that God, as a supreme being, “is in its origin and basis nothing but the highest being in space, optically considered: the sky with its brilliant phenomena.”[9] Being the highest being in Creation may be impressive by our standards, but this does not get us to religious transcendence, which is qualitatively different than even infinite space and time.

In his ascension in his resurrected body into Heaven, for example, Jesus goes up skyward, but not simply up and up into the sky. Rather, he becomes engulfed in a cloud, which signifies the inherent mysterium of a transcendent divine object (i.e., God) that inherently goes beyond the limits of our ability to think and see yet not in the sense that the infinite space in the sky lies beyond our conceptual and visual abilities. Feuerbach rejects this sui generis transcendental dimension of religion, claiming that all “religions of some imagination transfer their Gods into the region of the clouds . . . all Gods are lost at last in the blue vapor of heaven.[10] The transcendent to him is merely the fiction of human imagination; God’s goodness is “merely the utility of nature, ennobled by the imagination.”[11]

So Feuerbach tries to secularize religion, claiming it “is merely the art of life and simply expresses the forces and drives which directly govern the life of man.”[12] Accordingly, he misapplies religious terms to “earthly” objects—which in religious terms is idolatry.  In fact, in claiming that “man has in himself the measure, the criterion of divinity,” Feuerbach can be said to be engaging in self-idolatry.[13] Hence, he posits, “if a being’s worthiness to be worshipped, hence his divine dignity, depends solely on his relation to human welfare, if only a being beneficial and useful to man is divine, then the ground of divinity is to be sought solely in human egoism.”[14]

Feuerbach thus hails Nature as sacred, for example, because we are so dependent on it.[15] “All the strange and conspicuous phenomena in nature, everything that strikes and captivates man’s eye, surprises and enchants his ear, fires his imagination, induces wonderment, affects him in a special, unusual, to him inexplicable way, may contribute to the formation of religion and even provide an object of worship.”[16] Just because something is captivating or enchanting, even special or unusual, does not render it sacred—which is to say, with significance that transcends our realm. Yet Feuerbach attacks the attribution of the sacred to transcendent religious objects. Such “an object first takes on its true intrinsic dignity when the sacred nimbus is stripped off; for as long as a thing or being is an object of religious worship, it is clad in borrowed plumes, namely, the peacock feathers of the human imagination.”[17]

Humanism, moreover, also falls short of religion and even spirituality in eschewing the sheer existence of any transcendent religious object(s). Put another way, Humanism limits itself to recognition only within the limits of human cognition, sentiment and perception. Yet Humanism can be religious or spiritual, I contend, on account of the human (instinctual) urge to undertake transcendent yearning. Given the salience of religious experience both cross-culturally and through human history, the human brain may have an instinctual urge—admittedly stronger in some people than others—to engage in transcendent experience whose orientation or focus is curiously beyond the capacities of the human brain.  If transcendence is simply one of many human qualities or abilities, pursuing its potential is consistent with the aims of Humanism: to develop human potential.

The key for Humanists whose transcendentalist urge is ardently felt lies in distinguishing the experience—the yearning itself—from whether religious objects exist beyond the limits of human cognition and perception. No such objects need be presumed to exist in order to engage in the human yearning whose focus lies inherently beyond the capacity of the brain; it is enough—and indeed, crucial—for the focus to be beyond. This is what enables Humanism to be religious without having to believe in God. Put another way, God for the Humanist may be the transcendence itself, rather than a transcendent entity. Both Augustine and Calvin stress that the Christian god is love; God is the love between people that issues out in universal benevolence. Yet such love, having a divine basis, cannot merely be moral in nature; transcendence cannot be of own kind, or sui generis, and yet reduce to morality. So a religious Humanism cannot simply be human morality; a unique way of being human hitherto assumed to be conditioned on belief in particular conceptions of religious objects (e.g., God) must be uncoupled for the Humanist to admit to his or her own human religious nature.

In summary, Humanism in the limited sense that it is commonly "understood" does not qualify as a religion for lack of transcendence. To niggardly hold to the ideologically constrained common view and presumptuously erase and replace the default meaning of religion does not do justice either to Humanism or religion. Like the "other shore" in Buddhism, the very existence of the abyss that Humanists and Theists alike insist separates Humanism and religion is, I submit, an illusion foisted by narrow-minded, partisan thinking. Humanism is not, but could be, religious.

1.  Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 89.
2.  Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 91.
3. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 91.
4. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 114.
5. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Religion, trans. Alexander Loos (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), p. 7.
6. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 116.
7. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Religion, trans. Alexander Loos (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 4.
8. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 53.
9. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Religion, trans. Alexander Loos (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 11.
10. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Religion, trans. Alexander Loos (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 11.
11. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 111.
12. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 53.
13. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 53-54.
14. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 62.
15. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 37.
16. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 45.
17. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 38.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

On the Paradox of Transcendence and Self-Idolatry on Human Dynamics

Ironically, a focus on a transcendent religious object, or even on the experience of transcendence itself, can engender or bring about more humane human relations than may ensue from humanism.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Realive: Lazarus Reanimated!

In 2016, Robert McIntyre, a graduate of MIT, became the first person to freeze and then revive a mammalian brain—that of a white rabbit. “When thawed, the rabbit’s brain was found to have all of its synapse, cell membranes, and intracellular structures intact.”[1] The film, Realive, made that same year, is a fictional story about a man with terminal cancer who commits suicide to be frozen and revived when his illness could be cured. In the context of McIntyre’s scientific work, the film’s sci-fi demeanor belies the very real possibility that cryogenics could realistically alter fundamental assumptions about life and death even just later in the same century. What the film says about the life and death is timeless, however, in terms of philosophical value.

The full essay is at "Realive."

Monday, May 8, 2017

Spirituality as Distinctively Religious

To be at its fullest, the notion of spiritual leadership applied to business should not shirk the religious basis of spirituality to make it somehow more fitting to business-or a certain rendition of business. Many of Gilbert Fairholm’s descriptions of spirituality risk embalming spirituality in a secular tomb in keeping with the bias typically found in the business world against anything religious. Fortunately, some of his other characterizations of the term provide an alternative basis for an invigorated notion of spiritual leadership applied even in the business world.

Material from this essay has been incorporated into Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook. 

See The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook. Taoist, Buddhist, and Judeo-Christian principles relevant to leadership comprise part two of the book. 

1. Gilbert W. Fairholm, Capturing the Heart of Leadership: Spirituality and Community in the New American Workplace (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997).

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Politically Partisan Clergy: A Cleft in the Bright Side of Faith

Citing religious liberty, President Trump signed an executive order on May 4, 2017, the National Day of Prayer, “directing the Internal Revenue Service to avoid cracking down on political activity by religious organizations.”[1] In particular, clergy could then endorse political candidates without fear that their respective churches would lose their tax-exempt status. It is a bit extreme that such status would be lost simply because a pastor mentions a preference for a political candidate or a particular public policy, for such references are not integral or central to a clergy’s message, which is religious in nature. Nevertheless, the risk of religious faith being usurped by the political merits an attentive watchfulness, at the very least.
Outwardly, religious content can unwittingly, and without notice even to the religionist oneself, give way to political agendas, especially during an election season. In fact, such agendas—in particular, the ideologies—can “rebrand” themselves into religious garb such that even the endorsement of a political candidate can be presumed to be religious in nature. When the U.S. president signed the order, for example, he said, “For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people for faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.”[2] The implication is that endorsing a candidate is such a belief. With the distended notion of religious belief comes less room for, or a proportionate decrease in the genuine article.
 A more subtle downside—one that is actually even more likely—has to do with the impact of even occasional politically-partisan statements on the still-dominant religious ethos and message. The overlay of a cross-cutting partisanship compromises the coherence in the primary partisan axis. Don’t despair; this statement needs some unpacking.
Feuerbach (1804-1872), a European philosopher, uncovered a seldom-recognized side of faith by analyzing Christianity. Within the faithful, the partisan nature of faith is obscured by the unity of the faithful. The prejudiced nature of faith—its “(d)ogmatic, exclusive, scrupulous particularly”—does not play out among the faithful, except as it cuts off part of itself as heretics.[3] Far from being universally applicable, love gives way only within the confines of the faithful. “He is not for Christ is against him; that which is not chiristian is antichristian.”[4] It would be to dishonor God to love those who dishonor God. “Hence faith has fellowship with believers only; unbelievers it rejects. It is well-disposed towards believers, but ill-disposed towards unbelievers.”[5] Even as believers actually harbor hatred toward the disbelievers—belief being presumed to be decisive to faith—they overlook their ill-will and thus that in faith itself “lies a malignant principle.”[6] Within the faithful, it does not come into play, so faith is perceived as wholly salubrious—without a back side. Keeping disbelievers at bay ensures the apparent congruence of love and faith. Yet if another sort of partisanship is introduced within a congregation—such as political partisanship—a cleft arises such that can break up the serenity of the love of faith. Put another way, introducing political disagreement disrupts the agreement that exists within the faithful. The cost in endorsing partisan causes or candidates is in terms of the original domain—that of religion. The malignant principle of faith and political anger at the opposition are one and the same; introducing a political cleft into a congregation resonates with the partisan nature of faith, yet even as the latter can remain invisible from within the confines of the faithful.
So clergy in the pulpit should think twice before lapsing into the political arena, even as mere partisan mouthpieces. In addition to the opportunity cost of foregone attention to religious matters, the offense engendered among the faithful creates a rift on the bright side of faith that detracts from it unnecessarily.

[1] Michael D. Shear, “Trump Eases Political Activity by Religious Organizations,” The New York Times, May 4, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 251.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 252.
[6] Ibid.