True Humanism Requires Religion

Albert Schweitzer said it best when he described how the longing for self-understanding, to know one’s purpose and place in the world, comes from our desire to connect with something greater than ourselves. It is a ‘inner spiritual relation to the world,’ one that is deeply felt and not satisfied by theoretical musings and purely rational principles. True humanism requires what is called transcendence in a real and participatory sense rather than abstract, inarticulate, fell-good fluff about “spiritual” life. Religion offers the participation in the transcendent that is required for a truly human ethos capable of transforming barbarism into humane culture.

An acknowledgment of this desire for a connection with the transcendent is vital to a cultural ethos that can account for a common humanity. What Schweitzer wrote in the 1950s is even more pressing today because of the bankruptcy of secularism. The claim of secular humanists that humanity is fully capable of satisfying itself without the assistance religion or transcendent reality, stifles this internal desire to be part of something greater.

We are in dire need of a cultural ethos that can account for a common humanity and includes both rational and the religious. Contrary to popular belied, these are totally compatible. In the Western intellectual tradition, this ethos is humanism. It is important to realize that humanism with its postulates of human greatness, solidarity, freedom, and character formation through education originated with the Christian transformation of mostly ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman thought, and featured exactly the kind of structure desired by Schweitzer: a spiritual relation to the world through participation in the divine Logos. Many assumptions that modern man takes for granted, including the sense of a common human bond in which the individual and collective balance each other, and of confidence in humanity’s moral progress, were originally planted in this religious soil.

Humanism requires religion and is not opposed to it. There is a need to connect our desire to know ourselves with a transcendent reality: something greater than ourselves. The religious tradition of Western society offers the intellectual grounding for this relationship even if it seems that the predominant “religious” message is the inflexible, exclusive, dogma of the Christian fundamentalist sect.

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