Martin Rowson's cartoon of AC GraylingThis is a response to Dave Belden's article Is it time for humanist to start holding services?

A rose might indeed smell as sweet by any other name, but names matter nevertheless, and it especially matters that the terms 'humanism' and 'religion' should have clear definitions so that temptations to describe the former as a species of the latter can be avoided. Some succumb to such temptation because they would like humanism to be a movement with a credo that would sustain communities of like-minded folk, making it a substitute version of church membership. But humanism is not such a thing, and religion is a quite different thing. Humanism is a general outlook based on two allied premises, which allow considerable latitude to what follows from them. The premises are, first, that there are no supernatural entities or agencies in the universe, and second, that ethics must be based on facts about human nature and circumstances.

There can be much debate about what the human good, ranging from philosophical abstractions to practical politics; but it is distinctively humanist only if it eschews efforts to decide these matters by invoking the notion of supernatural powers whose purposes and desires dictate what the human good should be.

Religion, by contrast, is premised on belief in the existence of supernatural agencies, and moreover ones that in some way matter to the human good. In typical cases it is supposed that the supernatural agencies have a personal interest in the conformity of human beings to their purposes; and such religions further suppose that human petition or blandishment can alter those supernatural purposes by prayer and sacrifice. But unless an outlook premises the existence and (usually) interest of supernatural beings, and demands a response to their existence, it is not a religion and should not be called one.

Neither Buddhism in its original Theravada form, nor Confucianism, are therefore religions; they are atheistic in the quite literal sense of this term. They are philosophies. This applies also to Stoicism, once the outlook of most educated people in the classical world.

The Stoics had a notion of reason as the ordering principle of the world, which those anxious to impute theistic leanings to them interpret as a deity in the Judaeo-Christian sense. But it was no such thing; it was a principle of rational structure, to which ethical endeavour - so they argued - should fit itself. The Stoics did not 'worship' or petition it; they did not think of it as conscious or purposive in any way; which is what would have been needed for it to qualify as a deity.

The theatre and rituals of religion answer a need many people have for communal celebrations of significant moments in life and death. Humanist groups can offer non-religious versions of some of these observances.

But it is a failure of imagination not to see that when people go to art galleries or concerts, enjoy gardening and country walks, or have dinner with friends, they are expressing themselves aesthetically and socially in the same (and arguably better) way as people who come together in church congregations.

When illiterate peasants gathered from their dispersed farms every Sunday in church, it gave them a dose of communality, theatre and (in the form of graphic murals, not infrequently about punishments in hell) art. Human resources have expanded since, and people can choose their own ways of satisfying the needs once met by that limited and propagandistic ration.

Humanism, though, is not even a philosophy, for it has no teachings beyond its two minimal premises, and obliges us to do nothing other than think for ourselves. Since it does not constitute a body of doctrine, a sequence of arguments, an adumbration of principles, or a code of living, and requires no belief in anything beyond what empirical evidence defeasibly and revisably requires, it is as far from being a religion as anything could be, for a religion is all these things and more.

Religious folk try to turn the tables on people of a humanistic outlook by charging them with 'faith' in science and reason. Faith, they seem to have forgotten, is what you have despite facts and reason. The point of the Doubting Thomas story, remember, is that it is more blessed to believe without evidence than with it, as Kierkegaard likewise later insisted with his 'leap of faith' doctrine.

No such leaps are required to 'believe in' science or reason. Science is always open to challenge and refutation, faith is not; reason must be rigorously tested by its own lights, faith rejoices in unreason. Once again, a humanistic outlook is as far from sharing the characteristics of religion as it can be. By definition, in short, humanism is not religion, any more than religion is or can be a form of humanism.