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A Holier Alliance

Humanists Are No Longer Just Secular; They're Adopting a More Spiritual Approach With Biblical Roots


The air was tense as the audience rallied for questions after a panel discussion on religion and public schools. An arsenal of explosive issues threatened to burst on the UC Irvine campus where the group had gathered.

All the more reason why the first query came as such a surprise.

"Do you teach humanism?" asked a middle-aged woman in a quiet voice.

The answer was just as unlikely.

"I do," said Jim Antenore, who includes the often-overlooked topic in a course on comparative religion he offers at Irvine High School.

For 20 years, humanism--"secular humanism" to be exact--has been a dirty word. Especially when Christian Coalition leaders use it to describe anything that goes against their traditional values.

They have their reasons. A pure-bred secular humanist would say there is no heaven or hell, no single right answer to a moral dilemma, no miracles--only scientific facts, and no proof that God exists. Polar opposites to a fundamentalist Christian's beliefs.

Antenore teaches it in his course because, "if something is controversial, I want to include it, not stay away." He sees secular humanism as a world view, with some of the characteristics of a religion. Others describe it as a philosophy.

Lately, however, the humanist movement is going through big changes. A younger generation is steering away from atheism, skepticism and materialism toward a forgotten past. "Religious humanism" is resurfacing, shifting the ground beneath the movement's feet.

Like the secularists, they believe in what is right and good about human nature--endeavors in the arts and sciences, social activism stemming from compassion for others. But religious humanists credit these endeavors to God as the creator and try to live by biblical teachings.

Given its tangled roots, those who claim to be part of religious humanism sound more like opponents than members of the same community. They form a loose affiliation, at best, drawn from the ranks of orthodox Catholics, Episcopalians and Anglicans as well as the most liberal of Unitarian Universalists and even some people who are not part of any religion.

Like an orchestra out of tune, they clash on every moral issue from abortion to euthanasia and even hold different convictions about the existence of God.

Part of the problem could be lack of practice.

"We've forgotten that 'religious' can modify 'humanist,' " Gregory Wolfe says. "We think of the word 'secular,' instead." Wolfe organizes writer and artist workshops around the country as an offshoot of "Image," a journal for the arts and religion that he founded in 1994.

However lacking in harmony they may be, one thing bonds religious humanists closer than skin to bone. They are passionate defenders of all that is, well, human. Think of it, this has not been the popular view. The loudest voices have often told us to deny the body and live for the soul. These days, with hell-and-damnation fundamentalism blaring in one ear and EZ spirituality drifting past the other, humanness gets crushed underfoot on the road to redemption.

Even Pope John Paul II seems concerned. In October, he wrote a letter to his bishops, an encyclical titled "Faith and Reason," clarifying his views. He comes out in favor of religious humanism, with some qualifiers.

Part of the tension between humanist and religious values has always been that faith in human endeavors can be a substitute for faith in God. John Paul II finds human discovery and divine omnipotence compatible. But he sees problems when science or philosophy is used to prove a personal opinion rather than to seek the "ultimate" truth. For him, that truth is God.

Artists and writers have tracked the tension with their sensitive antennae. Author Kathleen Norris writes about her encounters with religious faith in "Cloister Walk" (Putnam, 1996), a best seller.

Not usually one to ascribe to labels, Norris in this case is willing to be an unofficial spokeswoman for humanism.

"There's an ancient tradition of humanism in Christianity, because Christ is divine and human" she says.

"You see it in Judaism as clearly as Christianity. It is in the Bible's book of Genesis and in the ancient literature of the church. Humans are made in the divine image. The goal is to try living up to that." Norris says she can live with the humanist label because she comes to it through literature, which she calls a clear expression of human resources put to a higher purpose.

Non-Christians put the accent on a different beat.

"Humanists believe in this world," says the Rev. Khoren Arisian, the Minneapolis-based minister who leads the Unitarian Universalist's in-house religious humanist movement, founded in 1963. "Life is not a doorway to somewhere else. What you do in this world is most important." For him, humanism is all about taking care of other humans by helping solve society's problems.

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