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Friday, February 10, 2006

Humanism & Christianity?

My friend Ross Hamilton Henry (the Humanist Minister who married my wife and I), recently made me and other Humanist friends aware of a letter by the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

The letter, from Bishop Spong's daily newsletter, is in response to a question on the future of Christianity and Humanism. I thought his words were worth reading so here they are. Thanks for this Ross!

Gene Rigelon, coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists located in Front Royal, Virginia writes:

"While current forms of Christianity are engaged in a relentless struggle against secular humanism other forms of Christianity past and present have been less confrontational and more accommodating. Are Christianity and humanism destined to be forever at odds or is some kind of rapprochement possible?"

Bishop Spong replies:

Dear Gene Rigelon,

I do not see Christianity and secular humanism as enemies, reflecting mutually exclusive values. Indeed I believe the aim of both Christianity and humanism is to seek and to encourage the expansion of human life. The differences are found in what each believes is necessary to achieve that goal and the definition of the goal itself. In the struggle to humanize our world I think that Christianity and humanism are allies not enemies.

Secular Humanists have, however, frequently experienced Christianity as narrow, prejudiced and imperialistic. Christians have experienced secular humanism as anti-religious and anti-Christian. I believe both stereotypes are false.

I look at the 20th century, which in many ways was a secular humanist century in which organized religion declined dramatically in influence and in power. Yet in that very century, the emancipation of women occurred, the end of colonial domination of the less developed third world nations was largely ended, the civil rights movement broke the back of segregation and homosexuals began to overcome the prejudice that has prevented them from achieving full membership and justice in the social order. Each of these is a powerful achievement.

A study of the history of that century also reveals that the majority of the Christian world, expressed through the leadership of institutional Christianity, resisted each of these changes. These accomplishments were achieved, by and large, through the work of secular humanist forces. Each of them seems to me, however, to be fully in accord with Christian teaching. Jesus is quoted as saying that his purpose was to give life more abundantly, that! is exactly what the death of prejudice and negative stereotypes of minorities, women and homosexuals accomplishes. Mark and Luke quote Jesus as saying: "If you are not against me you are for me." Secular humanism is not my enemy. It is my ally in the struggle for justice. Indeed I see secular humanism as the glow of Christianity that remains when the interpreting myths of the past have been abandoned. It is the bloom of the rose that remains long after the rose is severed from its roots.

I see a bright future of cooperation - I hope you do too.

-- John Shelby Spong

Bishop Spong is also an author whose work includes, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" which Ross tells me is a good book. His newsletter can be subscribed to by emailing


  1. Hi! I've seen you around JEDI, though I'm rarely on the discussion side these days since the academy keeps me busy. Just thought I'd drop in and say hi. I'm also encouraged by the Bishop's statements and completely agree with him. I'll never find my way back to a religion myself, but for those people who enjoy what religion brings, people like the Bishop will be really good guides for them. After all, we all need to find our spirituality, whether within or without religion. :-)

  2. Thanks for the comments Jaxson! I think you're right about Bishop Spong. Given that the media is intent upon only showing the most extremists within religion, it's up to reasonable folks to observe, encourage, and highlight moderate voices wherever possible, in the hopes that the shift toward fundamentalist polarization in all the faiths might be lessened (that can only be bad for everyone, religious or not).

    As for religion, I've given up worrying about what is 'religion' and what isn't. Instead, I simply seek to improve my knowledge and life practice and I'll consider rational and helpful ideas wherever they are found. Whatever pigeonhole that makes me appear to be in to others is their concern.