U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Black Humanism a Religion?

(Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from frequent contributor Chris Cameron — Ben Alpers)

As I get deeper into the research for my project on black freethinkers and closer to the point of publishing an article and applying for fellowships to start funding the study, one question has been continually on my mind: how should I categorize black humanism? Is it a religion, or more of a philosophy? Admittedly, humanism is not the only component of this project, but it is the largest, as I have encountered few black atheists (thus far) who do not also consider themselves humanists.

This question has very practical implications for anyone studying humanism, whether among Africans Americans or any other group. If a strong case could be made for humanism as a religion, then that opens up a number of funding opportunities that may not be available for someone studying black intellectual history. For graduate students, categorization becomes even more important, as how they market their dissertation projects will determine which types of jobs are open to them. Also, if I want to publish an article on black humanism, would I submit something to the new Journal of Africana Religions, or would I go with something such as Modern Intellectual History?

There are more than just pragmatic questions in considering where black humanism fits, however. There is also the more important question of historical accuracy—what did the historical figures who were humanists consider themselves and their movement? Did they even consider themselves part of a coherent black humanist movement? And if so, how would they have described it?

Among the few scholars who have written about black humanism, there seems to be a general consensus that it is indeed a religion. In William R. Jones’ Is God a White Racist?, for instance, he posits that “black humanism is antithetical to traditional Western theism, black or white, but we can label it non-religious only if we equate religion and theism.”[1] Jones was responding to the critiques of liberation theologians such as James Cone that black humanism was a secular philosophy that could not adequately speak to the black experience. Anthony B. Pinn likewise categorizes black humanism as a religion. His work The End of God-Talk aims to construct a nontheistic black humanist theology, while his new textbook Introducing African American Religion has numerous sections on black humanism.[2] Pinn also notes correctly that many black humanists feel comfortable attending Unitarian-Universalist congregations, many of which espouse pagan ideals or religious ethics detached from theism.

In Introducing African American Religion, Pinn defines the topic as “the quest to make meaning out of life.”[3] This definition is broad enough, in his view, to include black humanists who do not believe in God, but consider themselves religious. While a part of me agrees with this move, I also have the feeling that the definition is too broad and could incorporate almost anything that humans do that can have some sort of meaning ascribed to it.

Michael Lackey, who has produced a fine scholarly treatment of atheism in African American literature, agrees that humanism should not be a religion, but for a different reason. For Lackey, the move to classify atheism and humanism as religions challenges notions of blacks as being inherent believers in theism, but it does not challenge or question “the view that black people are, by nature, religious.”[4]

I am currently leaning toward categorizing black humanism as more a part of intellectual history than religious history. I think Lackey makes a great point and I also think expanding the definition of religion to include humanism could be broadening it too far. But I am conflicted. The Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion just put out a CFP and the unit on “Method and Theory of Religion” is asking for proposals on the New Atheism. I may submit one, partly to present at a conference outside of my field, but also because presenting there could clarify my thoughts on where this type of study fits. If others have ideas on this or suggestions for theoretical sources on the topic I would love to hear them.

[1] William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology (1998; Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), xxi.

[2] Anthony B. Pinn, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Introducing African American Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Ibid, 12.

[4] Michael Lackey, African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 144.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If a strong case could be made for humanism as a religion, then that opens up a number of funding opportunities that may not be available for someone studying black intellectual history. For graduate students, categorization becomes even more important, as how they market their dissertation projects will determine which types of jobs are open to them.

    The game is FUBU. You just have to find your U.

  2. I don’t see any problem with submitting this for a conference such as the Southeastern Conference for the Study of Religion. It makes sense that, even if African American humanism is not, in itself, a religious ideology, it can still provide interesting ideas to challenge assumptions about African American life in American history.

    I’ve enjoyed your posts on this website, and they’ve given me much food for thought in regards to African American humanism and atheism. This kind of work needs to be exposed to a larger audience.

  3. This case is a nice illustration of why my former teacher and friend, the late Ninian Smart, preferred the term “worldview,” which can be used to describe any number of non-religious philosophical perspectives (involving, for instance, questions of personal and collective identity and meaning) that have both characteristics and functions similar to, or that might overlap with, traditional religions (or religious worldviews). Although he argued for this in several books and articles, there remains one book of Smart’s by way of an introduction: Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (3rd ed., 1999). Relatedly, Ninian attempted to broaden the conception of “philosophy” as understood in modern professional philosophy in the West since, roughly, the first of the twentieth century with works like World Philosophies (1999, the second edition updated by Oliver Leaman in 2008 with a bibliography composed by yours truly), which included traditions and systems of thought not heretofore thought deserving of the honorific appellation, “philosophy.” Ninian hoped to soften the academic division of labor between not only Philosophy and Religious Studies, but other disciplines as well. He was one of the founding fathers of the cross-cultural study of religions (i.e., the secular study of religious worldviews), and came of age during a time when one who wanted to study Sartre might do best by choosing French Studies; Mao, Chinese studies; Herzl, Jewish studies; and philosophers like Shankara, Nagarjuna or Confucius, Religious Studies (and thus not Philosophy). Why, for instance, should the worldview of the Masai be consigned to Anthropology? As Smart said, scientific humanism and Marxism (say, in its Marxist-Leninist or Maoist varieties) “are often in living contact and conflict with traditionally religious belief systems” and such “rivals should be treated together.” This fragmented and ill-justified academic division of labor explains why, for some time, a Heidegger or a Sartre were not taken seriously in the halls of Anglo-Saxon philosophy (this has changed, of course, but problems persist still with regard to the reception of Indian and Chinese philosophy, for example). These topics are discussed in Smart’s Religion and the Western Mind (1987), a book with a horrible title and too many typographical errors but no less important for all that.

  4. As a section chair for the Religion, Culture, and the Arts section of SECSOR, I invite all USIH readers to submit to the RCA section or any others. Although the shared topic is religion (broadly conceived), there are a variety of disciplines involved. You could submit a paper about the methodological reasons why you think it *isn’t* religion–and why that category matters in the first place (why do you as the scholar, rather than the practioners, have to make this decision?)

  5. Chris:

    I’m very glad that you raised the issue of categorization for graduate students. I have occasionally received the advice to just do good work and not to worry about audience, academic trends, or the job market. Though well-meaning, such advice is, in my opinion, misguided. I don’t mean to cynically repeat the oft-heard characterization that academics don’t respect original work. Instead, I only want to suggest that the person who writes about Y when everyone is talking about X faces a real uphill battle in convincing people that his/her work is important. If there is no current conversation going on about Y, someone who does the best work in the world on that subject is still going to wind up out on the street.

    Having said that, though, I think that your post conflates two different issues. The first is where black humanism belongs in a scheme of intellectual taxonomy, while the second concerns disciplinary relevance. With regard to the former, I find Professor Jones’s assertion that “we can label [black humanism] non-religious only if we equate religion and theism” to be as puzzling as it is common. To argue that theism is not central to the essence of religion is to say, effectively, that every intellectual tradition is a religion. That strikes me as a sophistical argument, designed to co-opt other approaches to the religious one. Similarly, Professor Pinn’s definition of religion as “the quest to make meaning out of life,” implicitly says that the only non-religious people are those who lack curiosity or perspective (because they apparently have no meaning in their lives), or that humans are religious by nature (which would make the definition empty). It also forces us to include the thought of many figures that most would not consider to be religious, from Socrates to Richard Dawkins, under the category of religion. So, to me, such an approach is of little value. Assuming, then, that theism *is* part of the essence of religion, and that humanism is not theistic, I would put humanism in intellectual history.

    The second issue you raise is that of where your subject fits in disciplinarily. On that question, I suspect that black humanism might fit better in religious history. Humanism clearly evolved as a response to theism, even if it is not itself religious. So the people who will be familiar with the issues against which you want to make your interventions might be more likely to be in religious history. That’s an empirical question, based on your reading of the people in the different fields.

    But my largest point relates to my first paragraph above. If the intellectual fit and the disciplinary one differ, I think the disciplinary one is more important. That’s where you will find people to read, respond to, and fund your work. And, to me, that seems like the main point of doing the work in the first place.

    As I side note, I don’t think you mentioned African-American history. Not being familiar with your field, I’d be interested in hearing why you don’t seem to think that journals, conferences, etc. in that field would be relevant to your project on black humanism.


    • Of course the assumption that theism is the essence of religion or even essential to it is implausible, both philosophically and historically, as you will see in the post I referenced above.

      • “To argue that theism is not central to the essence of religion is to say, effectively, that every intellectual tradition is a religion.”
        That strikes me as a gross non sequitur. There are theistic and non-theistic religious worldviews (examples of the latter: Confucianism, Daoism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Advaita Ved?nta:* there may be ‘gods’ in both Jainism and Buddhism, but they do not possess the three properties traditionally associated with ‘God’ in the theistic Abrahamic traditions: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, moreover, in one crucial respect, these gods are ‘less’ than human beings, as only men and women, and thus not the deities, are capable of ‘liberation’ from karma and thus rebirth; similarly, the ‘gods’ in (especially neo-) Daoism are subordinate to the impersonal Dao), and there are secular worldviews (‘intellectual traditions’ if you will) that are not religious: humanism, Marxism, naturalism, and so forth. In short, it is true that theism is NOT central to the essence of religion, AND from that truth it does not follow, either directly or indirectly, that “every intellectual tradition is a religion.”
        * In the Hindu tradition of Advaita Ved?nta, the “Ultimate Reality” is (nirguna) Brahman, not God, although there is a “God,” ??vara, but the latter is ultimately discovered to be illusory with the jñ?na yogi’s cognitive realization of Ultimate Reality (until such a realization by consciousness, the illusory world associated with ??vara is in effect a—psychologically, ethically, and spiritually—useful fiction).

  6. Serving as an Ethical Humanist Leader in both Philadelphia and Baltimore, I am constantly in discussion over identity. I subscribe to the belief that there are those who consider themselves religious humanists and others who consider themselves secular humanists. Generally religious humanist choose their label for different reasons – some stress the congregational nature of their humanism and others the experiential characteristics of awe, humility and connection to something greater that they experience associating with humanism. Secular humanists either experience similar characteristics but simply cannot abide the religious label or do not experience similar things in their association with humanism. I include all such humanists in our tent due to what we share.

    I would submit that most humanists – religious or secular – can agree on a number of things, including: reason, compassion, science, democracy, and an emphasis on human responsibility to solve problems that confront us without reference to, or reliance on, supernaturalism and miracles. The last point is summed up by the term “non-theism.” Given humanism’s close connection to freethought, it is no surprise that some humanists will find my description incomplete or inaccurate. I celebrate the skeptic and pragmatic parts of our shared tradition that welcome divergent perspectives, and am eager to learn more from others.

    So to answer the question of whether humanism is a religion, I would answer, it depends who you ask. I see room for both religious and secular humanism. This is not a cop out. It’s a plea for this discussion – and your research – to continue. It is a plea for inclusion and tolerance and respect for diversity. It is a reminder that the power to label is fundamental. Humanism, especially when dominated by scientism or rigid emphasis on intellectualism and binary thinking, can exclude the very voices it needs to hear. To answer whether Black Humanism is a religion, it also depends who you ask. Keep asking.

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