Humanism and Religion … or How to Thread a Needle

Marilyn Westfall


... threading a needle serves as a metaphor for deciding what’s best to say, or not to say, about religion. As a humanist, I do not want to defend in any way the superstitions promoted by religion; nor would I defend religion’s violations against human rights and dignity. But yet, I want to understand why people are religious, and to assure that each person has the right to practice the religion of his/her choice. I want to be able to criticize religion, when it is necessary—but I want to give religious people an opportunity to moderate their most extreme and hurtful positions.

For centuries, the idea of God has been the very heart of religion; it has been said, no god, no religion — but humanism thinks of religion as something very different, and far deeper than any belief in god. To it, religion is not the attempt to establish right relations with a supernatural being, but rather the up-reaching and aspiring impulse in a human life. It is life striving for its completest fulfillment, and anything which contributes to this fulfillment is religious, whether it be associated with the idea of god, or not.
– Rev. John Dietrich, a founder of Unitarian Religious Humanism.

Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.– Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great