I call myself a “religious inhumanist.” What do I mean by that? Allow me to explain.
The simplest way to introduce the phrase is probably to point out that religious inhumanism is the opposite of secular humanism. Secular humanism is the belief that human happiness is the highest goal, and that we’re happiest when we use only our natural human abilities to discern what’s true and what’s right, while casting religion aside as something that gets in the way of that. It’s a quintessentially human-centered, atheistic, and materialist stance.
Religious inhumanism, by contrast, is the belief that spiritual immersion in the numinous is the highest goal, and that we’re most likely to have that incomparable experience – the epitome of all that is existentially true and right – within a religious context, which makes religion indispensible. Merely human prerogatives should be subordinated to spiritual prerogatives when conflicts between the two arise. Only then can we fulfill the promptings of the deepest part of ourselves, which is divine and hence inhuman, and can never be satisfied with a purely human existence.
To give credit where it’s due, the word “inhumanism” was coined by the great American poet Robinson Jeffers in a 1948 collection of poems entitled The Double Axe. Jeffers defined inhumanism as a “shift of meaning and emphasis, from man to what is not man.” He added, “It is based on a recognition of the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness, and on a rational acceptance of the fact that mankind is neither central nor important in the universe; our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness.”
I use the word “inhumanism” in a somewhat different way than Jeffers – and I add the adjective “religious” to it so as to signal that distinction. For Jeffers, the “what is not man” to which “meaning and emphasis” should be shifted is nature, as he implies when he speaks of “the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness.” Judging from his poetry, I think it’s highly likely that Jeffers experienced intimations of the divine through nature, and quite powerfully at times. So, in context, I don’t hold his emphasis on nature against him. But I think that his essentially materialist articulation of that is deeply unfortunate.
That’s how I differentiate between Jeffers’s inhumanism and what I call “religious inhumanism;” for me, the inhuman phenomenon of ultimate value isn’t nature, but rather the numinous. The numinous is that compared to which “our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness.”
The worldly abilities of our species are formidable indeed. With them, we’ve inhabited almost every corner of the world, flown to the moon, invented countless technologies, cured countless maladies, and created breathtaking works of art and culture. Yet what our worldly abilities by themselves cannot do is to find the epitome of ultimate, unconditional value, in whose presence our seemingly insatiable craving for meaning is finally satisfied. Only the divine, working within us and through us, can do that. Our reason can tell us to heed that otherworldly call, because we will be better off for it, but reason is not the call itself, nor its contents.
My intent is not to denigrate the worldly accomplishments of our species, nor the epistemological methods that have aided them, for the sake of denigrating them – let alone to suggest that we would be better off without them. My intent is instead to point out that they don’t stand a chance when their value is pitted against that of the incalculably better world whose mark we carry within ourselves.
It’s entirely possible to have a system of ethics without religion. But secular ethics are inherently inferior to religious ethics precisely because they lack the religious element. The standard of value around which a secular ethos circles is pitifully weak compared to the standard of value around which a religious ethos circles. The secular system is limited to what value purely worldly outcomes can provide. It’s ultimately incapable of transcending the mundane. The best it can offer is “happiness,” the moral equivalent of a full stomach.
But a religious ethos, if treated as a system of ritual piety in addition to morality (that is, where moral actions become informal religious rituals in their own right), can lead the way toward mystical bliss, something so far beyond earthly happiness that to experience it is to scorn the very distinction between happiness and unhappiness, between pleasure and pain, and even, in the end, between right and wrong themselves. In other words, religious morality is self-limiting because it points to something infinitely more important than morality. Secular morality, by contrast, has no “beyond” to point to in the first place.
The greatest good for mankind is to turn away from what is merely human in ourselves, and to instead turn toward the divine. Paradoxically, then, if humanism’s overarching aim is to produce the greatest good for mankind, that goal can only be achieved by the abandonment of humanism in favor of something that has much in common with certain aspects of, say, the Middle Ages.
If you’d like to know more about my philosophy of religion, my book The Language of Meaning: Why Science Cannot Replace Religion is the definitive, systematic presentation of it.