Is Humanism a Religion

The beginnings of Humanism

Ethics and relationship to religious belief.

“modern, organized Humanism began, in the minds of its founders, as nothing more nor less than a religion without a God”

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The Starry Messenger


The Galileo affair was a sequence of events, beginning around 1610, culminating with the trial and condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1616 and 1633 for his support of heliocentrism.

In 1610, Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope, namely the phases of Venus and the Galilean moons of Jupiter. With these observations he promoted the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (published in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543). Galileo’s initial discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical. Heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas.

Galileo went on to propose a theory of tides in 1616, and of comets in 1619; he argued that the tides were evidence for the motion of the Earth. In 1632 Galileo, now an old man, published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which implicitly defended heliocentrism, and was immensely popular. Responding to mounting controversy over theology, astronomy and philosophy, the Roman Inquisition tried Galileo in 1633 and found him “gravely suspect of heresy“, sentencing him to indefinite imprisonment. Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death in 1642.

Galileo began his telescopic observations in the later part of 1609, and by March 1610 was able to publish a small book, The Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius), relating some discoveries that had not been dreamed of in the philosophy of the time: mountains on the Moon, lesser moons in orbit around Jupiter, and the resolution of what had been thought to be very cloudy masses in the sky (nebulae) into collections of stars too faint to see individually without a telescope. Other observations followed, including the phases of Venus and the existence of sunspots.

Galileo’s contributions caused difficulties for theologians and natural philosophers of the time, as they contradicted scientific and philosophical ideas based on those of Aristotle and Ptolemy and closely associated with the Catholic Church (despite their being pagans). In particular, Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus, which showed it to circle the sun, and the observation of moons orbiting Jupiter, contradicted the geocentric model of Ptolemy and supported the Copernican model advanced by Galileo.

Jesuit astronomers, experts both in Church teachings, science, and in natural philosophy, were at first skeptical and hostile to the new ideas; however, within a year or two the availability of good telescopes enabled them to repeat the observations. In 1611, Galileo visited the Collegium Romanum in Rome, where the Jesuit astronomers by that time had repeated his observations. Christoph Grienberger, one of the Jesuit scholars on the faculty, sympathized with Galileo’s theories, but was asked to defend the Aristotelian viewpoint by Claudio Acquaviva, the Father General of the Jesuits. Not all of Galileo’s claims were completely accepted: Christopher Clavius, the most distinguished astronomer of his age, never was reconciled to the idea of mountains on the Moon, and outside the collegium many still disputed the reality of the observations. In a letter to Kepler of August 1610, Galileo complained that some of the philosophers who opposed his discoveries had refused even to look through a telescope:

My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.

Geocentrists who did verify and accept Galileo’s findings had an alternative to Ptolemy’s model in an alternative geocentric (or “geo-heliocentric”) model proposed some decades earlier by Tycho Brahe—a model, in which, for example, Venus circled the sun.

Galileo became involved in a dispute over priority in the discovery of sunspots with Christoph Scheiner, a Jesuit. This became a bitter lifelong feud. Neither of them, however, was the first to recognise sunspots—the Chinese had already been familiar with them for centuries.

At this time, Galileo also engaged in a dispute over the reasons that objects float or sink in water, siding with Archimedes against Aristotle. The debate was unfriendly, and Galileo’s blunt and sometimes sarcastic style, though not extraordinary in academic debates of the time, made him enemies. During this controversy one of Galileo’s friends, the painter, Lodovico Cardi da Cigoli, informed him that a group of malicious opponents, which Cigoli subsequently referred to derisively as “the Pigeon league,” was plotting to cause him trouble over the motion of the earth, or anything else that would serve the purpose. According to Cigoli, one of the plotters had asked a priest to denounce Galileo’s views from the pulpit, but the latter had refused. Nevertheless, three years later another priest, Tommaso Caccini, did in fact do precisely that.

Agnosticisim – Religion and Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell  – Statement of Agnosticism

Bertrand Russell’s pamphlet, Why I Am Not a Christian, based on a speech delivered in 1927 and later included in a book of the same title, is considered a classic statement of agnosticism. The essay briefly lays out Russell’s objections to some of the arguments for the existence of God before discussing his moral objections to Christian teachings. He then calls upon his readers to “stand on their own two feet and look fair and square at the world”, with a “fearless attitude and a free intelligence”.

In 1939, Russell gave a lecture on The existence and nature of God, in which he characterized himself as an atheist. He said:

The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise; and my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter.

However, later in the same lecture, discussing modern non-anthropomorphic concepts of God, Russell states:

That sort of God is, I think, not one that can actually be disproved, as I think the omnipotent and benevolent creator can.
In Russell’s 1947 pamphlet, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? (subtitled A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas), he ruminates on the problem of what to call himself:
As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.
On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

Later in the essay, Russell adds:

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.



Demographic research services normally do not differentiate between various types of non-religious respondents, so agnostics are often classified in the same category as atheists or other non-religious people. Some sources use agnostic in the sense of noncommittal.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that about 16% of the world’s people, the third largest group after Christianity and Islam, have no religious affiliation.
In the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, 55% of agnostic respondents expressed “a belief in God or a universal spirit”, whereas 41% stated that they thought that they felt a tension “being non-religious in a society where most people are religious.”


Agnosticism is criticized from a variety of standpoints. Some religious thinkers see agnosticism as limiting the mind’s capacity to know reality to materialism. Some atheists criticize the use of the term agnosticism as functionally indistinguishable from atheism; this results in frequent criticisms of those who adopt the term as avoiding the ‘atheist label’.

Many theistic thinkers repudiate the validity of agnosticism, or certain forms of agnosticism. Religious scholars in the three Abrahamic religions affirm the possibility of knowledge material, spiritual element.

They affirm that “not being able to see or hold some specific thing does not necessarily negate its existence,” using gravity, entropy, reason and thought as examples.
Islam tends to completely disregard agnosticism. Religious scholars such as Brown, Tacelli, and Kreeft argue that it does not take into account evidence that God has placed within his creation.

And for this, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli cite 20 arguments for God’s existence. They assert that any ‘demand’ for evidence testable in a laboratory is in effect asking God, the supreme being, to become man’s servant. They argue that the question of God should be treated differently from other knowable objects in that “this question regards not that which is below us, but that which is above us.”




Philosophical Issues

Existence of God – Part 9 million to One

In Classical theism, God is characterized as the metaphysically ultimate being (the first, timeless, absolutely simple, and sovereign being, who is devoid of any anthropomorphic qualities), in distinction to other conceptions such as Theistic Personalism, Open Theism, and Process Theism.


Despite extensive writing on the nature of God, these classical theists did not believe that God could be defined.

They believed that it would contradict the transcendent nature of God for mere humans to define him. Robert Barron explains by analogy that it seems impossible for a two-dimensional object to conceive of three-dimensional humans.


By contrast, much of Eastern religious thought (chiefly pantheism) posits God as a force contained in every imaginable phenomenon. For example, Baruch Spinoza and his followers use the term God in a particular philosophical sense to mean the essential substance/principles of nature.

Saturn Cast the First Stone

In modern Western societies, the concept of God typically entails a monotheistic, supreme, ultimate, and personal being, as found in the Islamic, Christian and Hebrew traditions. In monotheisms outside the Abrahamic traditions, the existence of God is discussed in similar terms.

In the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, reality is ultimately seen as a single, qualityless, changeless nirguna Brahman. Advaitin philosophy introduces the concept of saguna Brahman or Ishvara as a way of talking about Brahman to people. Ishvara, in turn, is ascribed such qualities as omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence.



Atheism: Definitions and distinctions

Writers disagree how best to define and classify atheism, contesting what supernatural entities it applies to, whether it is an assertion in its own right or merely the absence of one, and whether it requires a conscious, explicit rejection. Atheism has been regarded as compatible with agnosticism, and has also been contrasted with it. A variety of categories have been used to distinguish the different forms of atheism.


Some of the ambiguity and controversy involved in defining atheism arises from difficulty in reaching a consensus for the definitions of words like deity and god. The plurality of wildly different conceptions of God and deities leads to differing ideas regarding atheism’s applicability. The ancient Romans accused Christians of being atheists for not worshiping the pagan deities. Gradually, this view fell into disfavor as theism came to be understood as encompassing belief in any divinity.

With respect to the range of phenomena being rejected, atheism may counter anything from the existence of a deity, to the existence of any spiritual, supernatural, or transcendental concepts, such as those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism.

Implicit vs. explicit

Definitions of atheism also vary in the degree of consideration a person must put to the idea of gods to be considered an atheist. Atheism has sometimes been defined to include the simple absence of belief that any deities exist. This broad definition would include newborns and other people who have not been exposed to theistic ideas. As far back as 1772, Baron d’Holbach said that “All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.” Similarly, George H. Smith (1979) suggested that: “The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god.

This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist.” Smith coined the term implicit atheism to refer to “the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it” and explicit atheism to refer to the more common definition of conscious disbelief. Ernest Nagel contradicts Smith’s definition of atheism as merely “absence of theism”, acknowledging only explicit atheism as true “atheism”.

Positive vs. negative

Philosophers such as Antony Flew and Michael Martin have contrasted positive (strong/hard) atheism with negative (weak/soft) atheism. Positive atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist. Negative atheism includes all other forms of non-theism. According to this categorization, anyone who is not a theist is either a negative or a positive atheist. The terms weak and strong are relatively recent, while the terms negative and positive atheism are of older origin, having been used (in slightly different ways) in the philosophical literature and in Catholic apologetics. Under this demarcation of atheism, most agnostics qualify as negative atheists.

While Martin, for example, asserts that agnosticism entails negative atheism, many agnostics see their view as distinct from atheism, which they may consider no more justified than theism or requiring an equal conviction. The assertion of unattainability of knowledge for or against the existence of gods is sometimes seen as indication that atheism requires a leap of faith.

Common atheist responses to this argument include that unproven religious propositions deserve as much disbelief as all other unproven propositions, and that the unprovability of a god’s existence does not imply equal probability of either possibility. Scottish philosopher J. J. C. Smart even argues that “sometimes a person who is really an atheist may describe herself, even passionately, as an agnostic because of unreasonable generalised philosophical skepticism which would preclude us from saying that we know anything whatever, except perhaps the truths of mathematics and formal logic.” Consequently, some atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins prefer distinguishing theist, agnostic and atheist positions along a spectrum of theistic probability—the likelihood that each assigns to the statement “God exists”.

Definition as impossible or impermanent

Before the 18th century, the existence of God was so universally accepted in the western world that even the possibility of true atheism was questioned. This is called theistic innatism—the notion that all people believe in God from birth; within this view was the connotation that atheists are simply in denial.

There is also a position claiming that atheists are quick to believe in God in times of crisis, that atheists make deathbed conversions, or that “there are no atheists in foxholes“. There have however been examples to the contrary, among them examples of literal “atheists in foxholes”.

Some atheists have doubted the very need for the term “atheism”. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris wrote:

In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist“. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.