2.2 Religion Defined

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2.2.1 There is a good deal of controversy over the precise definition of religion, not only between humanists and others, but within the humanist community itself. What constitutes a religion? Why is Catholicism a religion but humanism is not? Indeed many humanists do think of humanism as a religion and are often called religious humanists, even while sharing the same naturalistic worldview with secular humanists. Religious humanists choose to consider humanism a religion and practice it as such. Secular humanists, on the other hand, consider humanism to be a secular alternative to religion and operate in a manner more akin to community organizations.

2.2.2 There have been basically two approaches to defining religion: what I call the structural approach, and the doctrinal approach. The structural approach considers religion in terms of it having rituals, social events and institutions, a set of beliefs (whatever form they may take), etc. Religion in this context is seen as primarily a social institution, regardless of belief. The doctrinal approach defines religion by the content of the beliefs shared. According to the doctrinal approach, the supernatural and faith-based nature of beliefs is what makes them "religious."

2.2.3 Using the structural approach to defining religion, it is clear that humanism qualifies. However, there are certain logical shortcomings of the structural approach, which lead me to prefer the doctrinal approach. For example, according to the structural approach, it is not clear where the dividing line between religion and other social institutions lie, other than by popular conception. Things commonly thought of as non-religion suddenly find themselves oddly qualifying, such as community civic groups, hobby clubs, sports organizations, even political parties could be considered religions in some cases under the structural model. As mentioned, it is only by subjective popular conception that these are not considered religion, not because of some qualifying factors within the structural approach. The structural approach tends to abstract the word "religion" to the point where what it defines is no longer useful or practical. What word, then, would we have to use when we wanted to speak of religion in the sense that most people first think of it?

2.2.4 The doctrinal definition, on the other hand, takes the positivist approach and recognizes "religion" in manner compatible with what the everyday person means when they use the word. To use the structural approach consistently, one must take on a quest to convince the masses that the word they’ve been using doesn’t actually mean what they think it means. I prefer not to take up semantic battles in this area and choose instead to formalize the word "religion" in the context that most people already understand it. In that sense, the presence of supernatural and/or faith-based beliefs is a commonly expected component of the definition, whereas to use the word "religion" otherwise nearly always requires lengthy explanation and elaboration. Furthermore, the structural definition over complicates the issue of separation of church and state. It is not because religion is a cultural social system, that its separation from government is crucial. It is because it is a package of conclusions which differ from other equal citizens’ and which cannot be proven or disproven - the antithesis of the American legal system, which relies on proof.

2.2.5 According to the doctrinal model, there are multitudes of philosophies which are connected to various worldviews - some secular, and some religious. Humanism in this case would clearly be a secular worldview and philosophy - an alternative to a religious worldview. Holding this position, then, makes me a secular humanist. Since Socio-Personal Humanism is a very specific set of positions including this stance, it can therefore be considered a subset of secular humanism, just as secular humanism is a subset of humanism.

2.2.6 Does this pit me against religious humanists? It shouldn’t. According to the spirit of freethought, everyone should be welcome to disagree and debate openly on these matters in a friendly manner. If some people’s needs are best met by practicing humanism as a religion, then I encourage them to do what works for them. I myself have participated in religious humanist services in the absence of a secular alternative. Diversity of expression should be, and usually is, welcome among humanists and other freethinkers, who are much more similar than they are different. Only by encouraging multi-faceted expressions of humanism can we meet various peoples needs and flourish as a community.

2.2.7 Furthermore, it seems likely that the future of other religions will include a continuation of their move toward humanism. Eventually, it may one day be the case that religion does become commonly understood as not necessarily including a belief in the supernatural. Dictionaries, after all, are reflections of the usage of the day as it has evolved, as opposed to commandments of how words must be used. However, until that day comes, using the word "religion" in such a liberal manner seems impractical; it’s use as such being more reflective of a cultural agenda than of the desire for accuracy in communication. For that reason I will stand on the doctrinal definition as stated for now.

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