One of the core insights of the Unitarian ministers who adopted Humanism in the early twentieth century is that they could “do church” without the traditional language and liturgy of a specific religion.
This idea had already been explored by French secularists during the Revolution, by philosopher Auguste Comte with his Religion de l’Humanite, and by Felix Adler and the Ethical Culture movement among others. Later, Rabbi Sherwin Wine explored the same idea in Humanistic Judaism.
The question is fundamental: What is it about religion that crosses cultures? The answer focuses on three things: identity, community, and marking life passages.
Human beings are social animals. Therefore, saying “I am a _____” is as old as the species (perhaps older). For good or ill, we human beings communicate in labels. Gender, race, politics, and on and on. This is why Facebook can mine data that is useful to both Walmart and Russian spies. “I’m Roman Catholic” works in the same way, though in the US people tend to add adjectives: pro-choice, et cetera.
Labels. We humans like ‘em.
Second, again because we are social animals, we like community. Especially community with those of like minds and labels. Conservative. Liberal. Southern Baptist. Labels mark us off, and signs on buildings tell us where we will find those who share some of our labels. The website Meetup promises: “Find Meetups so you can do more of what matters to you.” If you can’t find the community you want, Meetup invites you to create your own.
Community is the essence of being human, and religion has long provided community.
And each life passes. It may be that religious thought began when the first animal stopped to mourn the death of one of its kind. Ministers have long joked that our job is to “hatch, match, and dispatch.” We want something formal said when a tragedy occurs. Or when something amazing happens.
We mark our lives in formality. Form.
As Oliver Cromwell’s army knew, it doesn’t take a particular statue or type of window to be religious. So, they smashed Roman Catholic iconography, just as secularists would later do at Notre Dame, and the Taliban would do in Afghanistan and . . . . It isn’t the specific that makes religiosity. It’s in the mind.
As a matter of fact, as early Humanists discovered, the tried and true and traditional may just be a damper on awe and wonder.