Humanism and Definitions

David Breeden
Oct 10 · 3 min read
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Dictionary.com defines “religion” this way: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

Here are the elements of this definition: a set of beliefs; cause, nature, and purpose of the universe; superhuman agency; devotional and ritual observances; moral code governing human action.

Here is my shot at a definition of religion: “Religion is a set of shared practices and ethical commitments grounded in a worldview.”

By “shared practices” I mean everything from postures — bowing, sitting, standing, and on and on — to ritual, which I define as “repetition within bounded space.” Sure, anybody can — and probably will — create practices of their very own. But those are subjective. They don’t translate to other people. It’s that “devotional and ritual obervances” in the dictionary.com definition.

“Ethical commitments” is the easy part of the definition. The most common assumption about any religion is that it has ethical commitments: a “moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” Again, those are shared outside of subjective reality. For example, if you are ethically committed to shapening pencils once and only once, then burning them with kerosene, I won’t get why you have such a practice or commitment. I don’t have such a commitment. On the other hand, if you practice nonviolence, you could perhaps persuade me to follow your commitment — nonviolence is an intersubjective commitment.

Practices and commitments imply a worldview — that “ cause, nature, and purpose of the universe.” And a worldview implies practices and commitments. If I’m convinced, for example, that the universe is saved from utter annihilation only because I light a candle every sixty days after abstaining from peanut butter for 48 hours, I just might decide it is my duty to do that. Similarly, if I don’t believe in a god that intervenes in human affairs, my worldview might require me to act as if only human beings can solve the world’s problems.

Now notice the “superhuman agency or agencies” part of the dictionary.com definition. More and more definitions of religion are leaving out the term “supernatural” and using the term “superhuman.” “Supernatural” implies outside and above the natural, observable cosmos. “Superhuman” on the other hand implies some sort of management above the human paygrade. Which leaves a lot to the imagination.

For Humanists, the laws of the universe are a “superhuman” force. No debate there — as a matter of fact, fans of theology will notice that the definition of “god” by mid-twentiteth century theologian Paul Tillich has at last entered mainstream culture.

But I still prefer my definition: “Religion is a set of shared practices and ethical commitments grounded in a worldview.”

“Worldview” can imply gods of various sorts.

“Worldview can imply no gods at all.

It’s all in your worldview.

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Humanism Now

#Humanism is a grass-roots, global movement of #Freethinkers and free thinkers.

David Breeden

Written by

Poet, translator, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page amazon.com/author/davidbreeden

Humanism Now

#Humanism is a grass-roots, global movement of #Freethinkers and free thinkers.

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