The Sacredness of Secular Humanism

September 29, 2013

[First, allow me this detour from the final posts in my “Scripture in Common Usage” series for this and a few other extraneous social/religious considerations and perhaps also a few long shelved music/culture pieces–the SICU series will be chaptered out and linked neatly at the top of my site once fully wrapped for anyone that may be interested in seeing how it all fits together.]

Yes, in obviation to the obvious retort–I understand that “sacred” and “secular” are antonyms by their very definitions. Thus it would seem that any meditation on the sacredness of something synonymous with “profane” would be stretching at best and impossible at worst. Yet I think it is oxymoronic to claim secular humanism as sacred if and only if one limits the definitions of those two terms to their most basic, initial identities; furthermore, that once one aims at getting behind the truth of the terms rather than the mere forms of the terms, sacredness is and has always been deeply intertwined with the secular and the urge to break them apart and keep them separated has been done so by creation of a false dichotomy. Most importantly, I believe that an integral step towards the future of national, global, interreligious–perhaps extending even to all human relationships– hinges on incorporating key insights of secular humanism into religious worldviews and  offering those who identify in some way as humanist without religious identity a seat at the table of interreligious dialogue and action. I believe doing so will be beneficial to both parties.

 

So what is “sacred” anyway? Sacred primarily has meant “set apart,” i.e., “holy.” Sacred are those things unassailable, elevated, divorced from the mundane and celebrated, usually worshipped or used as tools to worship. Thus the majority of first-tier definitions tie “sacred” to “deity,” and then ultimately to religion. So sacred is that which is set apart for a god or God, and progressing from that understanding sacred is that which is tied to religion. So if that is all “sacred” meant then it would be correct to say that it would be impossible to house “secularism” under its umbrella in any way. Because termed in this way, “secular” would be everything else aside from that which is set apart for religious purposes. But is that what someone actually means when they identify in some way as a “secular humanist?” Furthermore, is such a definition of sacred even what those who use the term mean–i.e., do they use that term to refer only to that which is tied to religion?

 

Glancing at the other definitions proffered by various dictionaries, we see a host of other ways of defining sacred not completely tied to “religion” exclusively. “Entitled to reverence and respect,” and “highly valued as important” are two other definitions from Merriam-Webster. “Reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object” and “regarded with reverence” are two others given by Dictionary.com. These definitions hit a little closer to how even the religious often employ the word sacred in modern usage. The term “sacredness of human life” is one that has been used much in recent decades in religious ethics. It has been used to argue for wide ranging issues–in support of pacifism, in opposition to the death penalty or abortion, even in support of a living wage. Some do ultimately ground their arguments for the “sacredness” of human life in their conception of God–that is, human life is sacred, but only as a result of it being created and sustained by God. Yet many others who are not monotheistic in any traditional sense argue for a sacredness ethic vis-à-vis human life without resorting to grounding that status in a conception of God.

 

What is secular humanism? Is it the celebration of everything not tied to religion or God? Perhaps for some; certainly some identify as secular humanist simply to affirm their atheistic or agnostic beliefs. But often when this term is used to describe one’s religious or spiritual identity it is used to imply their belief in the intrinsic rights and dignities of people as people, now expanding even to people in a web of life and relationships with non-persons (animals, the ecology, etc.). It is a self identified label for many who seek to embrace reason, science, logic, and the whole of honest sought knowledge. Humanism has a long history within the Unitarian Universalist church in America, which is one of the oldest churches on the North American continent (and the presence of their many self-described humanist ministers has led to recent debates regarding some of their tax-exempt status rights in the US). So it is obvious that there are those who feel an embrace of humanism is not antithetical to “deeper” or what some are comfortable terming “spiritual” beliefs.

But why seek to bridge this gap between sacred and secular?

Because truth sought and truth loved whatever the source is a noble goal. Truth is non-exclusive and religion itself need not be exclusive either. The goals of ending unjust wars, creating more fair systems of food and wealth distribution, care for the environment, and especially the struggle for a more nonviolent future are core issues that should unite the r\religious with the “non-religious.”  Those who identify with any religion in the world are capable of being inspired by them to do the greatest good as well as the greatest evil. Those who identify as humanist, divorced from organized religion, are also capable of either extreme. It comes down to how that identity is perceived and understood. If value is granted on human life and ultimately all life, then ethics are derived from that. The language of art, philosophy, science and aspiration dig at something deeper, something more than the mundane and can thus be “sacred.” The gap between reason and faith, science and religion, “us” and “them” is not as wide as some would believe. Bridging that gap for all of those committed to utilizing the best knowledge and edification capable of being attained in life for personal, communal, and concrete ends regardless of whether the source of that knowledge be religious or non-religious can only be beneficial to future endeavors of true worth. Personal and communal concrete goals of transformation are “religious” ends, in the truest sense of the word in that these transformative ends bind the seeker to their fellow seeker and to a deeper purpose and truth. Perhaps the baggage of “religion” as a term and word is too heavy for those affirming themselves “humanist” to carry, but worthwhile tasks can be called whatever desired as long as they function truthfully for genuine benefit.

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