Defining Religion: An Ongoing Discovery

Being a secular humanist working in an interfaith capacity – particularly with curious college students – means that I get asked many questions about how humanism relates to religion. The other night, a student asked if we could dedicate one week’s dialogue to “hearing more about Esther’s religion”, and another student quickly chimed in with, “Esther doesn’t have a religion – she’s a humanist.” This led to a short discussion on how we define religion, something that has been on my mind a great deal lately, and something that I look forward to exploring further with my students when we have more time.

My short answer, murky at best, is that I consider Secular Humanism to be my religious affiliation, but I would not consider it my religion. I turn to Secular Humanism in place of turning to religion. Secular Humanism fills my need for an ethical philosophy, a way of looking at the universe and my place in it, a way to self-improvement, motivations for compassion and growth, and my experience with the unexplained. However, unlike what I see as most religion, there is no sense of anything greater than what can be experienced by the self in the present. This is an imperfect explanation, and I’m continually revising, but I think it works for opening up the discussion of how we define religion, and what is at stake in that definition.

Professor Elizabeth Hurd from Northwestern University has said that every definition of religion is an act of power. Because we do not have a way to comprehensively, universally, and fairly define religion so as to be fully inclusive, all definitions fall short of equal protection for all. We cannot give up trying to define religion, but maybe we can change how we construct its boundaries. We functionally define religion enough to study it, and we can distinguish it as part of history, anthropology, literature, etc., and we do that because we recognize its influence and importance in our world. We define religion so that we can protect it – we cannot guarantee religious freedom if we cannot agree on what falls within that category. We want to be able to protect our children and ourselves, so we have to be able to distinguish between religious practice and manipulation. We struggle to distinguish religious practices from social practices. How do we distinguish between cultural values and religious values, particularly for those traditions that do not include belief in a deity or supernatural power? How do we determine what counts as religion and what does not? When I define Secular Humanism as “not religion”, I am making a statement about what is religion, and putting myself in opposition to that.

We also must take into consideration the human propensity for self-transcendence. As Diana Nyad articulated a few months ago to Oprah, one does not have to believe in any sort of divinity to experience awe and wonderment. Similarly, we feel swept up in the transcendent moment when we feel as though we are a part of something greater than ourselves. This might happen during a rally, a concert, a quiet moment on a mountaintop, or in the arms of our loved ones. How do these experiences fit into our understanding of what is religious, what is spirituality, what is human, and what the difference is between them all?

This has taken on a very practical urgency in my work life. This week I have met with two students, both of whom are interested in forming a Secular Humanist student group on our campus. Due to the nature of religious life and student activities, both groups were told they would need to seek official status through Campus Ministries, and establish themselves as part of the religious landscape. While both students were eager to meet and move forward, each expressed concerns over the apparent “confusion” about Secular Humanism being part of religious life, and wanted to know why they were sent to our office. Being a secularist myself I understand their hesitation, and I attempted to explain as best I can. The formation of a Secular Humanism group is seen as being in relation to the religious groups on campus – such groups often form so that students have the resources and opportunities present in those religious groups, but want to perform those functions in a secular capacity, and want to use Humanist ethics as a grounding for conduct and community rather than a religious tradition. Because we are an emphatically secular institution, these groups are not forming out of a need to protect themselves against a religiously biased student body or administration, but to build a community of like-minded individuals who wanted to use their shared principles to better the larger university community.

As long as the group does not act in an antagonistic way towards religious life, there is no reason they would not be able to form, and due to the nature of the group, they would be welcome on campus through a channel other than our office. My personal hope, however, is that they will choose to be associated with religious life. The students I meet with each week are as curious about Humanism as they are about any tradition with which they are unfamiliar. I am actively working to promote the inclusion of the nonreligious in interfaith work, and so fostering a secular student group that worked alongside the religious community for social justice, religious literacy, and community improvement would be a dream opportunity. I will be an enthusiastic supporter whether or not they choose to take on an official affiliation with Campus Ministries, but I have my fingers crossed. I think we could all benefit from having the lines blurred a bit, and I would love to see what we can uncover in the smudges.

This image was created by an official group of Secular Humanists hoping to offer something in response to the stereotype of the “Angry Atheist’, and was adapted from the symbol of the American Humanist Association.

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5 thoughts on “Defining Religion: An Ongoing Discovery

  1. Esther, YOU ROCK! Thank you for writing this thought-provoking and helpful article. I will be sharing it with my religion class and my interfaith student club, if that’s alright! Wishing you all the best in your chaplaincy. 🙂 -Kate

  2. Esther I love reading your pieces. There is so much of what you attribute to your secular humanist approach to life that I resonate with as well. I sometimes wonder if part of what trips us up is language. In the New Testament there is the claim that we ‘hold this treasure in earth vessels.’ It’s easy to confuse the vessel with the treasure. My experience with folks of many faiths and no faith; those with a well articulated world view and those who can’t articulate it well is that even when we share a common experience of awe and wonder, we may name it in different ways. I love being with folks who understand the same experience through a different lens. I love being in relationship with others; and to me the ability to not ‘own’ or control how the experience is understood is true compassion and awe.

  3. Kate, thank you! Please share away.

    Wint, thank you, too! I agree with you that language can often be what trips us up, and I think that something as important and essential to our identity as what we believe about the universe, our place in it, and our relationship to everything and everyone else that’s in it deserves to be continually reassessed. Your appreciation for being with folk who see and interpret experiences differently is one way that interfaith work can be so rewarding.

    I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying that language is too much of a barrier, though. I don’t believe we really are all experiencing the same thing, and somehow have that dilute religious experience to some unnamed pan-religion. I think our interpretation and the different lenses we use are incredibly important and the differences need to be honored as well as explored.

  4. Dear Esther, I find your article fascinating. In fact, it is very relevant in the context of one of the most important conversations that we see in Judaism of the 21st century. Is our commitment cultural or religious? Is the “Jewish belief” turned towards the God of the bible or perhaps it is a belief in values? And is the bible itself even a divine document that was given to humans or rather a human creation trying to express high values? These are all open questions, especially with the existence of the state of Israel, and with the developments of the second largest Jewish concentration – the one in the US.
    I must say that I join your hope that the students will decide to take affiliation with the Campus Ministries. I’m not sure if for the same reasons. I think that the dialogue between people who hold deep faith, which doesn’t have to be related to the biblical God, the one in the Koran or any other, and can involve values, is a thing that can create consciousness and become a power that moves the world. According to my personal structure of faith for example, even though I’m a Rabbi, I also believe that prayer probably won’t convince your students to join and I definitely think that crossing our fingers might be more efficient.
    One last thing – you talk about the definition of religion, and only use a general definition in accordance with what you feel that you are not. However, once you talk about religion as a whole versus humanism, it looks like you might have further thoughts about how to define each of them, probably based on some specific religious identities, and I am very curious about that.
    Thank you for your thoughts!

  5. Nico, thank you for your thoughts. I would definitely agree that prayer isn’t going to bring then around – I am more of the fingers crossing type. I’m not sure I quite understand the distinction you make between my reasons for wanting the secular students to join our interfaith ministry and your own. I would t say that both the religious (whether based in a sacred text, a tradition, spirituality, or a combination) and the non-religious students would benefit from learning more about one another’s values. Neither group of students have the upper hand on moving the world, and I think that greater religious literacy and Interreligious understanding would be mutually beneficial.

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