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Emancipatory Outlooks on Religion and Faith

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Part of the Studies in Humanism and Atheism book series (SHA)


Pragmatic humanism holds a critical attitude toward historic religions, yet it is not anti-religious per se. It aims at a humanist and naturalist reform of religious traditions. Furthermore, the question as to how a humanist stance relates to religious traditions and other systems of belief is crucial for its self-understanding. Is it just a method of criticizing religions, or rather a religion on its own?


  • Religion
  • Worldview
  • Belief
  • Theology
  • Faith
  • Humanism

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-02441-3_4
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  1. 1.

    See, for example, Law, Stephen. 2011. Humanism. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, or the IHEU Minimum Statement: “Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.” In documents like the Humanist Manifesto III (American Humanist Association) or the Amsterdam Declaration (International Humanist and Ethical Union, 2002), atheism or non-theism seems to be not constitutional, but religion is used as a negative reference to underline the features of the humanist position. The German Humanist Association presents itself as a representative and lobby of “religious-free people”. Very close to “The Brights” is the German-based Giordano-Bruno-Foundation, which fosters a strictly naturalist evolutionary humanism and rejects religion in general.

  2. 2.

    A necessary connection between naturalism and atheism is stated by proponents of the so-called New Atheism, see, for example, Dawkins 2006, and also by some advocates of rational theology; see, for example, Tetens, Holm. 2015. Gott denken. Ein Versuch über rationale Theologie, Stuttgart: Reclam.

  3. 3.

    “I feel like a man who must set his back against an open door quickly if he does not want to see it closed and locked” (James 1985, 411).

  4. 4.

    Thus, the pragmatic account combines elements of two of the ideal systematic standard models of how to relate science and religion suggested by Ian Barbour: dialogue and integration. Understanding science and religion to be in conflict (i.e., considering them as competing theories about the world), or completely independent (e.g., as “non-overlapping magisteria” or incommensurable language games), is ruled out; see Barbour, Ian G. 1997. Religion and Science. Historical and Contemporary Issues. New York: Harper One, especially chapter 4.

  5. 5.

    Following James, the clearest example of religious experiences are mystic experiences. Though religion should not be identified with mysticism, mystic experiences can be considered as the kernel of religious traditions, and indeed we find mystic elements and currents in all religions. For James, mystic experiences are marked by four features (see James 1985, 302–303): (1) ineffability: they withdraw from being conceptually grasped and complete and clear articulation; (2) noetic quality: that is, they are not “pure feeling”, but come with—partly very strong—cognitive insights or illuminations that bear authority; (3) transiety: they are of restricted duration; and (4) passivity: they are not induced by one’s own will, but by something that is felt to be beyond the subject.

  6. 6.

    James dedicates the first lecture of his Varieties to the topic of neurology and religion; see James 1985, 11–29.

  7. 7.

    At some point, James even admits to tend to be a supernaturalist; see James 1985, 384, 410–411. This could be taken as an inconsistency in James’ thinking. Alternatively, one could rather understand it as an assumption that refers not to a framework of metaphysical naturalism or, respectively, supernaturalism, but a statement that is directed against a hard, reductionistic naturalism.

  8. 8.

    James adds the second part of the sentence; the first part can be found in Matthew 7:15.

  9. 9.

    Wonder and awe in the face of the (natural) world is widely seen as essential for a humanist perspective, including even proponents of new atheism.

  10. 10.

    By abandoning what James calls the “orthodox image”, that is, of God as an immutable, almighty all-knowing entity, or as “the absolute”, James did only a first step toward a transformation toward panentheist ideas, which might be a consequence of his thinking. Beyond the intellectual motivation for adjusting our idea of god, moral ideals also have to be met; otherwise, the proposed image fails to be morally justifiable. James himself counts the problem of theodicy as a major objection against the standard model of an almighty, all-knowing, and good God (see Chap. 4) In consequence, he holds to a finite, mutable, evolving god, which is the only possible god for him. Schiller also holds to a finite god. For Schiller’s concept of God, see Abel, Reuben. 1955. The Pragmatic Humanism of F.C.S. Schiller. New York: King’s Crown Press, 132–133. For James’ discussion of the theological arguments for the existence of God and his attributes in order to show the shortcomings of the “older” systematic/dogmatic theology in the light of the pragmatic method, see James 1985, 345–359.

  11. 11.

    So well-being is, against a common prejudice against Jamesian pragmatism, no overruling argument for the truth of a hypothesis. “If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide”, James humorously states, “drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience” (James 1985, 22). Instead, reality is the crucial benchmark. Prayer, for example, needs to be actual, mutual intercourse to be not a deceitful practice; see James 1985, 365–376.

  12. 12.

    Faith, following Schiller, is the “mental attitude which, for purposes of action, is willing to take upon trust valuable and desirable beliefs, before they have been proved ‘true’, but in the hope that this attitude may promote their verification” (Schiller 1912, 357); see also Abel 1955, 130–131. In his essay “The Will to Believe” (1896), James explicitly addresses and rejects the evidentialist position. Yet the opposite position, fideism, that dispenses religious belief from rational justification is ruled out as well.

  13. 13.

    For example, in his essay “Absolutism and Religion”, see Schiller, F. C. S. 1912 [1907] Studies in Humanism. 2nd Edition. London et al.: Macmillan and Co, 271–297.

  14. 14.

    James seemed to be very optimistic about the capabilities of the science of religions: “I do not see why a critical Science of Religions of this sort might not eventually command as general a public adhesion as is commanded by a physical science. Even the personally non-religious might accept its conclusions on trust, much as blind persons now accept the facts of optics – it might appear foolish to refuse them” (James 1985, 360).

  15. 15.

    “[S]ince the evil facts are as genuine parts of nature as the good ones, the philosophic presumption should be that they have some rational significance, and that systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try at least to include these elements in their scope. The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed” (James 1985, 137–138). For further considerations on evil, theodicy, and the pragmatic “anti-theodicism”, see, for example, Pihlström, Sami. 2014. Taking Evil Seriously. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, and Chap. 5.

  16. 16.

    It is one of the demurs against a strong anti-theism that it is caught up in theistic categories: “Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers.” Thus, we are faced with the most unwelcome consequence that “a world defined by the absence of the Christian’s God is still a Christian world” (Gray, John. 2007. Straw Dogs. Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 126).

  17. 17.

    Though Kolenda does not abolish the term “religion”, he draws mainly on Dewey’s ideas for his pragmatic humanist account: the concept of God as integration of highest ideals, the reality of ideals (and god) through human lives; see Kolenda 1976, 65–90.

  18. 18.

    Schiller founded the British Society for Eugenics and published three major works on the topic: Tantalus or the Future of Man (1924), Eugenics and Politics (1926), and Social Decay and Eugenic Reform (1932). For a summary of his eugenic and progressivist ideas, see his essay “Ant-Men or Super-Men?”, in Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott. 1939. Our Human Truths, New York: Columbia University Press, 251–268. For a critical evaluation, see Honnacker, Ana. 2018. “Man as the Measure of All Things: Pragmatic Humanism and Its Pitfalls”. In Humanism and the Challenge of Difference. ed. Anthony B. Pinn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 135–164, especially 152–154. The transhumanist striving to overcome death is dealt with in Chap. 6.

  19. 19.

    The German loanword Weltanschauung actually appeared first in a letter of William James in 1868; see Naugle, David K. 2002. Worldview. The History of a Concept. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 64.

  20. 20.

    See more extensively Law 2011, 135–141. For special humanist resources to cope with loss and grieving, see Christina, Greta. 2014. Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God. Durham: Pitchstone. Humanist, psychoanalyst, and feminist Julia Kristeva demands the acknowledgment of the religious traditions for rearticulating humanism. The “need to believe” she conceives as fundamentally human has to be answered. For Kristeva’s psychoanalyst reconstruction of the “need to believe”, see Kristeva, Julia. 2014. Dieses unglaubliche Bedürfnis zu glauben. Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag. A centralization of her thoughts on humanism can be found in Kristeva, Julia. 2012. “Zehn Prinzipien für den Humanismus des 21. Jahrhunderts. Vortrag an der Universität Rom III am 26. Oktober 2011 unter Teilnahme der Delegation der Humanisten und des Kardinals Ravasi.” In Selig, die Frieden stiften. Assisi – Zeichen gegen Gewalt. ed. Roman A. Siebenrock/Jan-Heiner Tück. Freiburg/Basel/Wien: Herder. A shortened English version of Kristeva’s talk is available via (13.03.2017).


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Honnacker, A. (2018). Emancipatory Outlooks on Religion and Faith. In: Pragmatic Humanism Revisited. Studies in Humanism and Atheism. Palgrave Pivot, Cham.

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