Jun 8, 2009

Can Mormons Be Humanists?

I noticed recently that an acquaintance of mine, who left the Church a few months ago, had joined a group on Facebook for Humanists. I had wanted to do a post on Humanism before, so I thought that it would be interesting to present a summary of Humanism.

Humanism was not something I was very familiar with in Canada, but it's quite popular in Norway, especially since those who do not identify with the state Lutheran church needed to find alternatives for the Norwegian cultural traditions of christenings and confirmations. The Humanist Association organizes "name days" and "humanist confirmations" instead of christenings and confirmations, for those who wish to maintain the cultural traditions minus the religion. They appear to be increasing in popularity, particularly among teenagers who reach confirmation age (15 years) but have no relationship to the church and therefore no desire to be affiliated with it.

I admit that my initial impression of Humanism was not favourable, as some articles and interviews with Humanists that I came across left me with an impression of militant anti-theism and utter lack of respect, such as an instance where Humanists encouraged high school students to go to a Christmas mass with earplugs in protest of the school organizing trips to the church, which no one was forced to attend anyways. (A school organizing trips to church may sound odd, but as secular as Norwegian society is, the church and state are not officially separate.)

But despite the unfortunate characteristics of some Humanists, Humanist philosophy in itself is something that I've grown to appreciate more and more, the more I've gotten to know about it. There is much that religious folk can learn from Humanism, in my opinion, and I dare say that Mormons probably have more in common with Humanists than we would like to admit. (Well, at least a left-leaning Mormon like myself. :)

My comments are in red.

"Secular humanism is a philosophy and world view which centers upon human concerns and employs rational and scientific methods to address the wide range of issues important to us all. While secular humanism is at odds with faith-based religious systems on many issues, it is dedicated to the fulfillment of the individual and humankind in general. To accomplish this end, secular humanism encourages a commitment to a set of principles which promote the development of tolerance and compassion and an understanding of the methods of science, critical analysis, and philosophical reflection."

"...it is dedicated to the fulfillment of the individual and humankind in general." Does Mormonism have a similar purpose? "Men are that they may have joy," for example?

"To accomplish this end, secular humanism encourages a commitment to a set of principles which promote the development of tolerance and compassion and an understanding of the methods of science, critical analysis, and philosophical reflection."

Doesn't that sound like the type of world you'd like to live in, albeit, with the option of a separate spiritual/religious element? Does a society which "promote(s) the development of tolerance and compassion and an understanding of the methods of science, critical analysis, and philosophical reflection" sound reasonable to a Mormon? Why or why not?

"Secular humanists are generally nontheists. They typically describe themselves as nonreligious. They hail from widely divergent philosophical and religious backgrounds. Secular humanism is not a dogma or a creed. There are wide differences of opinion among secular humanists on many issues. Nevertheless, there is a loose consensus with respect to several propositions. We are apprehensive that modern civilization is threatened by forces antithetical to reason, democracy, and freedom. Many religious believers will no doubt share with us a belief in many secular humanist and democratic values, and we welcome their joining with us in the defense of these ideals."

Do you feel that you could join with Humanists in defending Humanist ideals? I think that Prop 8 brought out the "Humanist" in a lot of Mormons, who may not have necessarily 100% supported gay marriage, but voted or campaigned for what they viewed as the democratic/constitutional right of homosexuals to marry in the civil realm.

"Skeptical of theories of redemption, damnation, and reincarnation, secular humanists attempt to approach the human situation in realistic terms: human beings are responsible for their own destinies. We believe that it is possible to bring about a more humane world, one based upon the methods of reason and the principles of tolerance, compromise, and the negotiations of difference."

Imagine this philosophy being applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just as an example. As someone who is deeply disturbed by cruelty towards animals and humans, I love the idea of a "more humane world." I often wish that many in the religious world spent as much time and resources towards combatting cruelty and intolerance as they do on things like fighting homosexuality, sex education, or producing propaganda criticizing other religions.

"Secular Humanism is a term which has come into use in the last thirty years to describe a world view with the following elements and principles:

*A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.

* Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions."

This sounds good in theory and in a pluralistic society, it seems reasonable to put things like reason, evidence, and science above religion -- particularly since there are so many different religions with so many varying viewpoints. However, in my opinion, Humanists are sometimes asking the impossible. To me, it's like expecting to be able to scrape melted butter entirely off a piece of toast. You can't. One of my favourite parts of The Audacity of Hope was when Obama said:

"Surely, secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. --indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- not only were motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values."

Continuing on about Humanism:

"* A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.

* A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.

* A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us."

Is there anything in those three points that conflicts with Mormonism?

"* A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility. * A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children."

No objections on my part.

"Secular humanists reject supernatural and authoritarian beliefs. They affirm that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the communities and world in which we live. Secular humanism emphasizes reason and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation."

Sounds similar to Mormon values of self-reliance, freedom, service, charity, and tolerance for others.

"Secular humanists are committed to moral principles, which are derived from critical intelligence and human experience, and we must pursue positive ideals. We should therefore observe the common moral decencies: integrity, humanitarianism, truthfulness, trustworthiness, fairness, and responsibility. This means caring for one another, being tolerant of differences, and striving to overcome divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, creed, or class."

Where do I sign up? :)

"Our best guide to truth is free and rational inquiry; we should therefore not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy. We should defer to no dogma - neither religious nor secular - and never be afraid to ask "How do you know?"

I've never been afraid to ask that. I just haven't always gotten an answer. :)

I thought that I would end this post with the following:

"We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."

-11th Article of Faith

And may I add, "let them not worship at all, if they so choose."

19 comments:

T.J. Shelby said...

Loved the post. Of everything that I have seen (outside of the Mormon culture), secular humanism is what I most closely relate to...sometimes even closer than with Mormonism.

thefirestillburning said...

I've been giving a lot of thought the last few months to how much of my belief comes courtesy of my faith and how much from my science.

When we're born, we can't help absorbing the belief systems of our parents as our "default settings", modified by our genetically-passed personality types, but I've long since passed to the point that my own personal "sense of the spirit" and my scientific training have both passed that default setting in forming my worldview.

My struggle is to have the imagination to find new ways to COMBINE faith and science coherently, not as some sort of final answer, but as light to keep moving toward greater understanding and motivation for personal transformation.

FireTag

Potters said...

Wonderful post! I have always considered myself a secular humanist and an active Latter-Day Saint, but thought that I was alone. I am relieved to find out otherwise. It still puzzles me though why some mormons refuse to look around and find the truth that lurks outside the church. Thanks for articulating such a enlightened point of view

The Faithful Dissident said...

T.J, percentage wise, I probably agree more with Humanism than Mormonism, at least in terms of what kind of society I think offers the most stability, fairness, and equality between human beings, where the church and state are separate, which is what I assume most Mormons -- at least in theory -- want.

The sad part is that whether it's Humanists, Mormons, or whatever other group of people, it's the extremists that often shape our perception of that group. They cut themselves short by being so imbalanced that one can feel repulsed by them, whether it's militantly anti-theist Humanists, or ultra-conservative fundamentalist Mormons who consider "liberal" to be a pejorative.

"My struggle is to have the imagination to find new ways to COMBINE faith and science coherently, not as some sort of final answer, but as light to keep moving toward greater understanding and motivation for personal transformation."

I think that the only reason for faith and science not being able to co-exist, at least from a believer's point of view, is if we aren't open to further enlightenment and revelation. If we are, then science isn't a threat to faith, even though it may require us to change our views on certain things.

"It still puzzles me though why some mormons refuse to look around and find the truth that lurks outside the church."

I suppose that it has to do with not daring to wander outside of one's comfort zone. Also, I think that many Mormons are under the assumption that we somehow monopolize truth or have much more of it than others.

Andrew S said...

FD, I kinda glossed over comments, so I didn't read if this was mentioned...but you do know that humanism isn't *just* secular. In the Renaissance, Christian humanism was a very popular movement. Secular humanism arose from the enlightenment, which kinda split up the spiritual and secular...so Christianity went one direction and the humanists another.

I mean, let me just put out a quote:

One of the first texts regarding Christian humanism was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man, in which he stressed that Men had the free will to travel up and down a moral scale, with God and angels being at the top, and Satan being at the bottom.

Doesn't that sound familiar? I'd argue that not only can Mormons be humanists, but that Mormonism is a humanism, because of many of the things that you wrote about.

Then again, I guess it cannot be understated that in Renaissance times in general, humanism referred to something different than humanism now. Humanism now has a kind of philosophy of implied humanitarianism, etc., But humanism then, while it had some aspect of human dignity prescribed to it, was more about an espoused curriculum -- e.g., what we would call the humanities -- and how mastery of it would improve people most.

The Faithful Dissident said...

That's interesting, I wasn't aware of Christian Humanism. Thanks for sharing, Andrew.

"I'd argue that not only can Mormons be humanists, but that Mormonism is a humanism, because of many of the things that you wrote about."

I think you're right. It's kind of hard to find anything within Humanism that really conflicts with Mormonism, as long as it's understood that Mormons believe in the separation of church and state (which I know is more the case in theory rather than practice among a lot of Mormons). And, unfortunately, many won't even consider looking at Humanism because it's "secular," and that must mean "atheist," which is "bad." Many would probably be surprised at the similarities and common ground.

I like the humanitarian and human dignity aspect of it. Human dignity is certainly something that is sometimes lost in religious dogmas or religious wars. And it's hard for me to believe that that's what God would want.

In The Doghouse said...

May I just ask where the first four principles of the gospel fit within the "secular humanism" realm?

The Faithful Dissident said...

OK, well, let's look at them:

1.) Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
2.) Repentance
3.) Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins
4.) Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost

I'm not sure I see any conflict here because I don't really see Humanist principles, "which promote the development of tolerance and compassion and an understanding of the methods of science, critical analysis, and philosophical reflection," being at odds with Christian Mormon values. While it's true that for believers faith is not always logical, I don't think that logic and faith are enemies that can't coexist.

Andrew S said...

I would argue furthermore that the way the church looks at these first principles is decidedly humanistic.

Many other denominations say things like, "Wo are we; let's just get saved and that's it." But the church recognizes that not only do you have faith (which faith is humanistically in our favor -- it's to make *us* better), but we have a repentance, atonement, and obedience process where we can use our agency to better ourselves. We aren't going to get all the way, or even anywhere class, but that's why the gospel is important, so to speak. However, it is decided humanist in that it's not, "OK, I prayed, got saved, and now that's it." You do have to work at improving yourself and you encourage others to improve too.

In The Doghouse said...

I suppose my greatest concern is that with statements like:
*A world view which centers upon human concerns

*Secular humanists are generally nontheists.

*Many religious believers will no doubt share with us a belief in many secular humanist and democratic values, and we welcome their joining with us in the defense of these ideals."

*human beings are responsible for their own destinies.

*A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.

* Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith

*A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us."

*"Secular humanists reject supernatural and authoritarian beliefs. They affirm that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the communities and world in which we live. Secular humanism emphasizes reason and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation."

God is left completely out of the equation.

Andrew S said...

In The Doghouse,

that is because of the secular part of secular humanism, not because of the humanist part. Of course *secular* anything is going to have problems with the church. It is unsurprising that *secular* anything leaves God out of the equation. But to the question: can mormons be *humanist*? I see no reason why not, and furthermore, I think that the LDS church is basically humanist. I see no reason why *only* secular people can be humanist.

The Faithful Dissident said...

"I see no reason why *only* secular people can be humanist."

I would say that religious people in fact must be, to a certain degree, secular humanists in order to "be in the world but not of it" and to truly live up to what we believe as stated in the 11th Article of Faith, which I cited in the post.

It's true that all the principles of secular humanism may not be *ideal* for a Mormon. But in order for us to coexist with the other 99%+ population in this world who are non-Mormon, is there a better alternative? How many of us would prefer living in a world where the philosophy of any one faith -- whether Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian evagelical, or even a Mormon -- is the guiding philosophy for all? I don't think it's what the LDS Church really wants. I don't think that's what any of us want.

A politician -- at least in a free, democratic state -- who is religious must follow humanist philosophy to a certain degree in order to legitimately do the job that he/she has been given to do. While he should be free to live his personal life according to the dictates of his own conscience, he cannot allow his personal convictions to override what the people have decided in a democratic vote. We may feel that a religious approach based on Mormon Gospel principles would be more appropriate if it were applied in certain situations -- and in some cases we may even be right -- but what if the tables were turned? What if it were an Islamic fundamentalist calling the shots? Suddenly a "secular" philosophy where things like human dignity and logic are paramount doesn't sound so bad.

Andrew S said...

and here I disagree. Not everyone believes in secularism. As with the Prop 8 struggle and beyond, this was several religious groups saying that they don't believe religious ideals should be kept separate or neutral from politics. Rather, they believed that since religious ideas do permeate through political concepts, people should and do vote with their religions.

You're right in that Mormons *shouldn't* be jumping on this bandwagon because we are not in any way the majority (e.g., what happens if the allies of the church in prop 8 decide to act on their beliefs that Mormonism is a "cult"?), so that is an argument that we *should* be more secular, not necessarily that we are. Most people, from shoddy anecdotal evidence that means nothing, *would* want to live in a world where principles that they find to be *morally true* and *morally factual* -- which generally are tied with religious preferences -- are the guiding principles of the land.

I agree that politicians must be humanist. But they don't have have to be secular, and in fact, with the way that America's politics are, most *aren't*. Because remember, even as they are representing their constituents, America is a country where most constituents do not agree (at least, they don't vote that way) with a secular agenda. We are decidedly two-sided as you point out...as long as *our* religion is in power (so, Christianity for most Americans), then we have no problem with having religious ideals be the way. But only if our religion is threatened do most people want to retreat behind a moderating secularism.

The Faithful Dissident said...

"I agree that politicians must be humanist. But they don't have have to be secular, and in fact, with the way that America's politics are, most *aren't*."

That's a very good point, which reflects what Obama said in that quote. I'm probably blurring the line between "secular" and "humanist." Sometimes it takes an atheist to point it out to me. Thanks, Andrew. ;)

Kaimi said...

Nice discussion, FD.

I think you're right that there's a lot about the content of humanist philosophy which should be appealing to church members. I'd say about 80% of the content of the humanism discussion that you cite dovetails nicely with a relatively orthodox approach to Mormonism. Of course, it's the other 20% that's going to set people's radar off.

For instance, I think that many church members would disagree with some of the broad worldview statements. In addition, the absence of religion would probably be jarring for many members. But one could, I suppose, suggest to members that they treat humanists sort of like Einstein would treat a Newtonian -- as someone who's 80% of the way there, and is just missing a few (albeit important) details.

But then, humanism generally isn't packaged that way these days ("here's a basic value package; feel free to add religious content to it, or not, as you see fit"). Rather, it's packaged as a religion substitute. And that packaging is suggested, these days, as a major raison d'etre for humanism. As Andrew notes earlier, it's not necessarily the humanism that deters, but the secular. It would take a pretty fundamental change in Mormonism to make secular approaches more widely acceptable.

(Also as Andrew notes, this isn't the only way that the label has been used historically, but it's overwhelmingly the way that it's used today.)

So, despite the compatibility of much of the basic philosophy, I don't think that the humanist package (basic philosophy plus implied understandings about the role of religion in society) is likely to be appealing to many Mormons.

(In general, I think that there is broad overlap between many kinds of basic philosophies; but the Devil is always in the details, as each group has its traditions as far as applied belief. For instance, in theory, there is similarly much about classic Christian ideas which is appealing; but there are many Christian organizations which are pretty virulent in their interactions with church members.)

Kaimi said...

Also, I think that Andrew's comment,

You're right in that Mormons *shouldn't* be jumping on this bandwagon because we are not in any way the majority (e.g., what happens if the allies of the church in prop 8 decide to act on their beliefs that Mormonism is a "cult"?), so that is an argument that we *should* be more secular, not necessarily that we are.

is sensible enough. It's odd that most church members don't seem to realize this -- that the folks pushing for a broader public role for religion are generally not friends to Mormons.

A few years ago, I wrote about this in the context of school prayer, at T&S:

While in Utah, it may be possible to lose sight of the fact that Mormons are an underrepresented minority nationwide. However, in most of the country, we are a politically weak (politically non-existent) minority, and the ACLU helps prevent other majority religions from oppressing us.
I don’t know how many LDS people are aware that one of the lead plaintiffs in Santa Fe v. Doe, which struck down some “school prayer” programs, was an LDS student. That plaintiff was an LDS student who had been harassed by other students and teachers for being LDS, had been told by teachers that the church was wrong. That is, of course, exactly the kind of behavior majority groups can inflict on minority groups.
The ACLU suit in that case had several effects. For the LDS plaintiff, the suit had the effect that school officials could no longer harass LDS students (i.e. the plaintiff) and tell them that the church was wrong. That’s a good result for church members everywhere, which is why I am consistently surprised by the number of e-mails I get from LDS relatives about why “school prayer” is good. As the facts of Santa Fe point out, “School prayer” = license to harass LDS kids. Why exactly am I supposed to like that?
I’m not a Utah Mormon. I’ve never lived in Utah (except for a month at the MTC). I have lived in Mesa, Arizona for several years, which is similar in many respects to Utah, but I’ve also lived large stretches of life in areas where church members were practically unknown. I lived for several years in Oklahoma, where I was one of a handful of LDS kids at the school. I also lived for some time in New York, where my children were among the only LDS students at their school.
Being an LDS member in a non-LDS area made me very grateful for the ACLU. I am glad that no one is teaching my son prayers at school. I’ll do that myself, thank you very much. I’m glad that groups like the ACLU prevent the state from blatantly supporting religions, because any support would go to groups I am not a part of.

Original Mohomie said...

My curiosity has recently been piqued by the philosophy/ideology of humanism as well, whether secular or Christian. I haven't studied it much, so this post was a bit of an introduction for me.

More importantly, though, the bit about scraping melted butter off of toast was beautiful! :)

Andrew S said...

I knew i had read something relevant to this discussion. Here's a link to New Cool Thang's discussion on Mormonism as a humanism.

http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2009/03/mormon-humanism/870/

Michael Richardson said...

1. Mormonism exceeds humanism in its positive, optimistic view of humanity. Mormonism emphasizes the divine nature of humans. Humanism appears to emphasize the goodness in humanity more than some traditional religious views, but for secular humanists, humans are essentially highly advanced worms--albeit potentially benevolent ones. In Mormonism, we accept all sources of knowledge, empirical, rational, and spiritual. Humanism accepts only two of these (at most), which makes it a narrower, less open minded, and less inclusive worldview. Mormonism embraces the temporal development of humanity, and also its spiritual development. Humanism only emphasizes our temporal (temporary) existence. To call oneself a "Mormon Humanist" would be something like claiming to be a "college-educated Kindergartener".

2. Humanism emphasizes what are essentially Judeo-Christian values, while attempting to sever them from their historical and philosophical roots. In this sense, Humanism is also a narrower ideology than those from which it historically grew. The enlightenment was first a Christian movement before it became a secular movement. And even original "secularity" was much broader than secular humanists define it. Christians originally conceptualized the "secular" as being inclusive of both spiritual and worldly concerns, inclusive of both religious and non-religious ideas and interests: religion + science. "Secular priests" were originally those who--without neglecting spiritual concerns--turned their attention also to human concerns that existed beyond a specific religious order. It wasn't until some influential Christians (e.g. Descarte) conceived of separate spiritual and physical realms that the notion of secularism without spirituality could even emerge. Secular humanists are dependent on Christians even for the modern concept of secularism. Consistent with the ORIGINAL understanding of secularity, Mormonism emphasizes the unity of spiritual and temporal things. They are one. Indeed, all truth is one. So again, secular humanism falls short as the narrower (narrow-minded) view.