Humanist Spirituality, a Primer

Humanism is the practice of taking a rational approach to improving the problems of the world and finding our place in it. Spirituality usually means adherence to a faith based belief, some explanation of the cosmos which fulfills a deep human need, but which is ultimately unprovable. So the idea of a Humanist Spirituality doesn’t make sense. Right?

The need for understanding the big picture is universal. Mystery and awe are spices which our psyches need to balance the crusty, pedantic reality we face daily. The purpose of religion and spirituality is to fill those needs. My question is, must spirituality imply belief in something non-empirical, non-observable?

Buddhism is a good example of a rational, empirical spiritual practice. There are no gods, no dogma, yet there is much description of valid and attainable truths, culminating with enlightenment. Yoga has a similar spiritual component, as does Taoism.

Paganism, though commonly debased and dismissed, has great validity, especially today. We busy ourselves with progress while our planet is being destroyed by corporate greed and consumer blindness. Teaching a humble respect for Mother Earth as a primary rule of a healthy spirit might help turn the tide.

All the above traditions have irrational components, remnants left over from cultural traditions long outdated and disproved. But each one has a valid sense of the human need for connection to something greater than ourselves and liberation from the suffering of life. Rationality fails to take us beyond a certain point. Humans need some kind of poetic and comforting practice through which to understand or at least fathom the mysteries beyond rational analysis.

Perhaps a hybrid of the two might fill both requirements. A set spiritual practices based on physiological knowledge of the need for mystery would be a beginning. The next might be to include a set of affirmations like the ones chosen by the Humanist Society. I explore some of these ideas in this article on Humanist Spirituality.

17 thoughts on “Humanist Spirituality, a Primer

  1. This is exactly what I’ve been talking about. There has been much discussion of Atheism in the news and also about Humanism. One of my goals at Modern Humanist is to discuss what it means to be a Humanist and how that can be just as viable a philosophy without all the hocus pocus.

    I have built my ideas around a common theme of Learn, Experience, Grow & Teach. This path, which some might consider a spiritual journey, is a way to move through life with a sense of purpose as well as a series of actions to lend meaning.

    By following this path, you can not only surround yourself with wonder and amazement, but also help to pass it on to others, while improving yourself at the same time.

    In this way you can find yourself connected to everything and everyone while also cultivating community and bonding all around you – this is the same end product of religious spirituality without the same rules, rituals and fear/control.

    As we continue to learn more scientifically, we are also finding that we may indeed be actually connected to everything, as we are composed of the same matter, which is never created or destroyed.

    We can learn much from traditional spiritual traditions that we can adopt in our Humanist Worldview. Ultimately we have to also take responsibility for our lives and for reality and get the most of out of the life we live and the world we live in, without sedating ourselves with fantasies that cloud our minds and numb our senses.

  2. Excellent comment, Navillus. I think we are striving for the same goals. I’m so glad you found me. I’m sure we will continue this discussion in the future.


  3. she too believes that one is controlled by religions … and it is only when one breaks away … one can see hypocracy. If we are to say that we are part of the Force which is All … then we are connected to everything and all.
    great post. Meant to place you in my blogroll Garnet David. Glad I came across you again. :o) hugs4u

  4. First of all, true spirituality is NOT the dedication to a faith based belief system…it is the search for ones self. Spirituality (like religion) has been turned into a “belief system” for only one reason…to avoid the hard work and sacrifice that finding god actually is…it is nothing more than a scapegoat.
    As for humanism…it is definately not the practice of taking a rational approach to fixing the worlds problems. In fact, the very term “human” implies a frail, mortal creature that fears for it’s own life at every possible turn…if anything, I would say “humanism” is the practice of creating the illusion of control and security for the purpose of self-indulgence and greed.

    I think that if you really want the “humans” to move forward into a new understand (or the original understanding) then you have to abandon all practices or methods and return to where it all started. It started with us, it started with our own ability to “see” what is right in front of us…it is our devotion to “quick fix prayers and meditations” that has made it so easy for us to willingly pass off responsibility for our own “search for self”

    Sincerely hoping you find yourself IN yourself,

    A Forgetful God

  5. You say many things I feel and already know; spirituality is useless if it becomes merchandized. I do not subscribe to any “system” for that reason.

    People become better at the “original” spirituality by experiencing community, love, art, poetry, beauty, mystery, and genuine spiritual practices. The “search for self” is always going on. Buddha nature is already there. Seeing it is not as easy as it may sound, but easier than people think. Each person struggles with their own roadblocks, wildly different psychic, emotional, physical and cultural limitations. Balance those with each person’s gifts, and you get a limitless chemistry of experience.

    I must disagree with part of your comment. The healthy cynicism which serves you well begins to fail with “‘humanism’ is the practice of creating the illusion of control and security for the purpose of self-indulgence and greed”. Would you care to elaborate? What would you call a system of improving the quality of life of everyone in the world?


  6. “What would you call a system of improving the quality of life of everyone in the world?” .. I would call it a myth. To be honest, this “desire to save the world” is another escape from personal responsibility. In trying to take responsibility for the rest of humanity you are trying to avoid looking at your own (you cannot do both, as much as you want to).

    It’s not easy to accept, this part of awareness, but the fact is that the perspective of “improving the quality of life for everyone” is exactly how this “mess” started…one group assuming they had the answers to another groups problems and then asserting those answers rather than letting everyone figure it out for themselves. The more I see, the more I realize that we are often doing the EXACT opposite of what we are intending to do. In believing we “should” help others we are actually hurting them more by taking away their responsibility to choose their own perspective…more importantly, these people we want to “help” eventually come to rely and even depend on that help and no longer even attempt to stand on their own as the one and only true source of their own reality. Soon we have an entire society of people who no longer want to “see” for themselves because it’s much easier to let others do it for them…it’s much easier to follow than to walk alone (ultimate responsibility).

    This is where I disagree with pretty much every “spiritualist” perspective…I do not believe the world needs to be helped, I believe it is OUR “belief that it needs to be helped” that keeps it in a state of turmoil. After all, if it is our belief that creates the reality around us…then the belief we are sick makes us sick, the belief we need help keeps us in a state of “needing” help, and so on.

    Truly, everything happens when and how it is supposed to, if we stop meddling and focus on the one thing that actually is REAL (to us) then the rest will take its course. How can a river flow freely if we’re always building dams and trying to control it? Remember…the river knows where it wants to go…and deep down, so do we.

    When each of us can stand without fear of being alone, in ultimate responsibility as the creator of their own reality, the world will return to “Eden”. Faith in “God” requires that we believe everything will work out and stop trying to influence it in order to get “our” image of the future…it is this need for “control” that formed society as it is, we cannot turn things around until we abandon that need.


    A Forgetful God

  7. I really like the mystical traditions like Buddhism and Taoism. They make it simple and I really believe that “IT” (whatever that might be) really is simple. I’m also all about action and not just philosophical diarrhea.

  8. James- Now now, we are all contributing our part. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says some are perfect in their inaction and some in their action. Both are perfect. Both need each other.

    Yes, “it” is simple, but elusive. Most are wandering alone or just following others. Discussing it helps us guide each other.

  9. I always think it’s amazing how we can use “tradition” to justify our own need to assert control over the world…and yet when one speaks of ultimate responsibility, of the abandoning of “tradition” for the purity of the internal mind, people feel compelled to label it a “philosophy”.
    Don’t get me wrong, I can understand how the label “philosophy” is a great way of avoiding a possible truth…if it is a “philosophy” it can not possibly be reality, but then again why does it have to be a philosophy? Why can’t it simply be a way of life(a perception)? Oh, because that would require us to actually Believe in our own ability to “see” the world…and, as I said before and James restated in his comment, it is “simple” to follow someone elses examples.
    All I can see in this statement is avoidance…”if it’s hard I don’t want to go through it by myself”. What happened to believing in Action? If you are so willing to force your will upon the world, why can’t you use that will to seek inward on your own?

    It’s always easier to pass off responsibility…it is easier to follow. I guess my only question is this…if you have been following for this long and you STILL have questions…don’t you think another approach should be taken? When you abandon a crutch you become stronger for it…”tradition” and any “system” of belief is just another crutch.
    I guess my point is this…when you can stop quoting other peoples words and actually see the truth and limitless knowledge in YOUR OWN words…only then do you realize your own ability to “see”. Otherwise we’re still looking outside of ourselves for something that is ONLY within…after all, isn’t the whole point of this “journey” to find the answers and not just ask the same questions in different ways?
    Remember, these people that we quote…we quote them because THEY didn’t quote others…they spoke with the authority of one who KNOWS, not one who memorizes.

    A Forgetful God

  10. A friend of mine often asks me for a “reality check”. It’s a method of convincing oneself of something one is not sure of, but we all need it once in awhile. The majority of us are, in fact, followers. The danger starts when we are told we are all leaders. Your thought? Can the common man know the responsibility of knowledge?

    ”if it’s hard I don’t want to go through it by myself”. This is the building block of civilization. Our ancestors quickly figured out that we cannot survive alone against wild nature. This is not a philosophy or a mind controlling spirituality. It’s a simple fact of survival against the odds. Let’s build on that, not berate it, despite it’s imperfections. Even in Buddhism, one of the more individual practices for attaining detachment, one is encouraged to acknowledge the ‘sangha’, the community of commone believers in truth.

    The trick in learning from tradition is to separate the wheat from the chaff. The essence of most religion is the same. “the kingdom of heaven is within you”, “attachment to desire is the cause of all suffering”, “you are part of something greater than you” and my favorite, “give into the unknown, it is your freedom”, . This is the hardest to understand and takes a leap of faith to believe. What do you think?

    You are an idealist and are meant to say what you say. Do not shy away from that. Just understand that not everyone can or will grasp what you say, but they may sense its truth and quote it. Don’t let this go to your head. You have more responsibility, not less, to be sure of your ideas.

  11. You’re right, actually, not everyone is willing to even admit that the possibility I’m talking about exists…I accept this freely, people will do what they are meant to, that is the freedom of choice. In fact, I agree with most of what you just said…with only one exception.

    –> ”if it’s hard I don’t want to go through it by myself”. This is the building block of civilization. Our ancestors quickly figured out that we cannot survive alone against wild nature.

    I don’t think it is a matter of “figuring out we cannot survive alone”…I think it was a matter of giving into our fear. One of my favorite “stories” about Creation is Genesis. In Genesis we were without fear, completely connected to this thing we call “God” (which is nothing more than our true self as reality), and at the beginning of Duality…it was the first step from Unity.
    Once again, the beginning and the end are always the same…it is a return to absolute being (the end of the perception of separation).

    Between the beginning and the end we (as a consciousness) “leave” the perception of Unity, expand into the infinite reflections of Duality, and then return to Unity (our true self without perception”. Civilization was born from this expanding Duality…as the perception of Faith expanded, so did the perception of Fear. It was this new experience of Fear that led us to the idea of “society”…essentially a way to feel secure.

    The only problem with this is that we were now looking at reality as separate…no longer as “one thing” but rather as individual beings (Duality again). This perception is still expanding…more and more we believe we are separate from those around us…which of course breeds more fear, envy, and the need for control.

    My interpretation of the Buddhist Sangha is a little different but I think grasps the meaning of it…the “community” is your reality…it is the one family you will always have. Yes, you should value community…but not as a group of individuals, you should value it as “God” (yourself reflecting back at you).

    As we return to this perception of Unity I think we are finding this meaning…as we recognize ourselves as “one” we become more aware of acceptance (or love). After all, you cannot judge something that IS you…you must accept it if you wish to truly accept yourself.

    We are approaching the extremes of Duality…this is the reason we are seeing those of us who absolutely resist being “one” and those of us compelled to seek it…this is becoming more evident by the day. The only comforting part about this is that those of us who resist are resisting themselves…and so they’re reality will resist them according to that frame of mind. Those of us who choose to accept our own “Divinity” will find the strength to let go of the things we depend on for strength…we will be able to abandon anything because we believe…it is this belief that will see us through the extremes.
    “The meek shall inherit the earth” Being meek simply means being willing to take what comes and give up what you must…it means to accept change.


    A Forgetful God

  12. GD:

    You’re right. I’m too hard on the Christians. Thanks for the reminder to keep things in perspective. This whole discussion reminds me of this quote from Gandhi:

    Religions are different roads converging on the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal? I believe that all religions of the world are true more or less. I say “more or less” because I believe that everything the human hand touches, by reason of the very fact that human beings are imperfect, becomes imperfect.

    -Mahatma Gandhi

  13. fascinating to read these posts. i agree that it is a lonely road, one has to discover one’s ‘god’ and that not many want to do it or aware of it even. often one feels the need to rest, to give up the relentless search, to succumb to the comfort of not needing to know, because the journey often seems to be a dead end. how does one know that seeking is the right thing to do? how does one carry on? the ‘sangh’ of such blogs are surely helpful. it helps to know that you are not alone.

  14. BluMount- Thanks for your insigtful comment. “…the need to rest…to succumb to the comfort of not needing to know…” Very elegantly put. I think each must find her own comfort level.

    I hope you return again.


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