Native American Traditions, Shaminism, Animism, Unitarian Universalism, Universism & Humanism

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Baha'i Faith, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Jainism & Zoroastrianism
Taoism, Buddhaism, Shintoism, Confucianism & Hare Krishna
Native American Traditions, Shaminism, Animism, Unitarian Universalism, Universism & Humanism
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Native American Traditions


What do we mean when we speak of Native American religion? Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, it has no single founder. Unlike Judaism, it is not the ongoing story of a people with a strong sense of their own identity. Neither does it resemble Hinduism, with its ancient and all-inclusive adaptiveness. In a sense, Native American religion does not exist at all: There is no one religious expression common to the 250 distinct Native American peoples still surviving as America approaches the 21st century. And complicating the question even further is the fact that few Native American people today can say for sure how their ancestors worshipped before the onslaught of European immigrations: Too much death lies between the present and pre-Columbian America, too much cultural devastation, too many forced conversions to Christianity. The chain of elders preserving tradition was broken by disease and war. Many contemporary Native Americans interested in knowing their own heritage have found themselves in the peculiar position of needing to consult anthropologists for information.

But anthropology has its own problems. Serious attempts to study Native American culture did not begin until the mid-to-late 19th century, 200-300 years after the first European conquests, and 50-100 years after the beginning of serious western expansion. Many Native American people no longer lived in their sacred homelands, and numbers of eastern tribes had completely disappeared. Even when anthropological studies were undertaken, early reports frequently judged Native Americans by the values of European men, discounting their stores of wisdom, their religious insights, and their different approaches to gender roles. Often, the Native Americans interviewed didn't make anthropologists' jobs any easier: The Wintu of California had a saying that when the white men come, "...we will forget our songs." According to the Lakota, "If it was told to a white man, it is untrue." The Hopi learned early about anthropologists' love of publishing and permanently closed their ceremonials to all but their own people. The list could go on and on.

Anthropologists divide the Native American cultures of North America into seven groups: Eastern Woodlands, Southeastern, Plains, Plateau, Great Basin, Southwestern, and Northwest Coastal. Each of these geographical groupings contains many distinct peoples with only the broadest characteristics in common, each with their own culture and religious beliefs. Any attempt to briefly summarize such a rich variety of peoples -- as this page does -- is going to involve inexact generalizations: It can't be helped. Where space permits, examples appear from different tribal groups, but they do not begin to reflect the diversity of Native American spirituality.

Ritual -- How do traditional Native Americans seek closeness/union with Spirit?
Myth -- What part do sacred stories and history play in Native American religion?
Doctrine -- How do traditional Native Americans explain their beliefs?
Ethics -- How do Native American religions address right and wrong?
Society -- How does Native American spirituality work itself out in the world?
Experience -- What is the nature of religious experience in Native American religion?

Return to Stormwind

Additional pages on religious practices

Religion and Methodology



When you hear the word "shamanism," what images jiffy-pop into your mind's eye? Most folks picture feather headdresses, buffalo hides, medicine wheels and dream-catchers—all images associated with Native American cultures. But contrary to popular opinion, a "shaman" is not an Indian medicine man, and "shamanism" is not a Native American religion. In fact, many Native Americans find the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" offensive. The word "shaman" actually originates among the natives of Siberia, where it describes a specialized type of holy person. The shamans of Siberia interact with deities and spirits not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but also through direct contact with the spirits themselves. With the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting, the shaman enters a very deep or "ecstatic" trance. (In discussions of shamanism, the word "ecstasy" is used in its original sense, from the Greek roots ex and histanai meaning "out of place" or "out of the physical”—in other words an out-of-body mystical state) This trance frees the shaman's consciousness from the body, allowing it to "fly" into the realms the spirits inhabit, and to experience these "Other worlds" with all the senses of the ordinary physical realm. Yet, shamanic journeys are more than mystical encounters with spirits; shamans undertake trance-journeys for practical purposes, in service to their community.

A shaman may journey in the Other worlds to gather information from the spirits, perform healings, guide the spirits of the dead to resting places, gain spiritual favor and power, or any number of other reasons. Like priests in Western society, shamans are not self-appointed, but called to their tasks by the spirits themselves, and then trained and recognized by their Elders and the community.

This specialized, sacred role of the shaman exists in many cultures outside Siberia, and the accounts of ecstatic trance-journeys are remarkably similar around the world. The ecstatic trance seems to open the human mind to archetypal experiences transcending cultural boundaries. The spiritual realms are almost always experienced in three layers: one equivalent to the physical plane of the earth, another to the heavens above, and a third that lies below the earth. Each culture interprets these realms and their inhabitants slightly differently, but the similarities are enough to suggest that the pattern of imagery arises from the process of the trance-journey itself, rather than from cultural expectations. There is even evidence that the ecstatic trance-journey may have been part of the development of all religions, including Christianity. Although the practice of the trance-journey has all but vanished in many cultures, remnants of it exist in myths and traditions.

Since any Western words for the role disappeared along with the practice, "shaman" was adopted into English from Russian in approximately 1700. It describes not only the Siberian shamans, but also any community-recognized specialists of the ecstatic trance-journey, whatever their culture or religion may be. The term "shamanism" refers to the typical practices and beliefs of these spiritual specialists; it includes the methods of ecstatic trance-journey, and the beliefs and methods that arise from it. "Shamanism" also describes religions like those of Siberia, which support and depend upon the shaman as a necessary central figure to their practices (much as Catholicism supports and depends upon on priests). These types of religions are moderately rare, and most modern uses of the word "shamanism" refer to trance-journey practices used within a religion, rather than to a religion itself.

Although Euro-American cultures don't support the classical role of a "shaman," there is a modern effort to re-introduce shamanic practices to the West. Known as neo-shamanism, this spiritual movement adapts the methods of the shamanic trance-journey to the needs of modern society. Like traditional shamanism, neo-shamanism is not a religion, but a set of practices and techniques used within existing belief systems. Neo-shamanism focuses on spiritual and psychological healing, and is finding acceptance, within alternative belief systems, but also among some Christian and other mainstream religious groups, as well as in certain branches of psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, the term "shamanism" has been misused in popular culture for many years. The entertainment industry has used "medicine man" and "shaman" interchangeably (and usually inaccurately) to describe holy men and women of Native America. The public began to assume that "shaman" was a Native American word, and that "shamanism" was a universal Indian Religion—but there is no universal "Indian Religion." There are hundreds of Indian Nations in North America, each with its own culture, language, and spiritual belief system. Many of these Nations are very different from one another in their religious traditions, and none of them describe their beliefs as shamanism. Even from a scholarly standpoint, few Native systems can be accurately described as ”shamanism”—the ecstatic trance-journey is simply not a major part of most North American Indian cultures.

Commercialized pseudo-indian groups that sprang up in the late 1970’s reinforce this confusion. Focused mainly on New Age alternative healing methods and environmental awareness, these groups misrepresent themselves as genuine teachers of Indian traditions. Exploiting the stereotype of Native Americans as ecological warriors and spiritual healers, they commonly charge high fees for teachings and ceremonies, a practice particularly offensive to traditional Native Americans. Although the teachings of these movements may be valid in their own right, they are neither traditional nor typical of Indian beliefs, nor are they shamanic, as they rarely if ever stress the ecstatic trance-journey as a central practice. Yet the movement continues to misrepresent itself as both Indian and shamanism.

As a result, many Native Americans see the use of the word "shamanism" as the height of an offensive stereotype and commercial exploitation of their people's beliefs. Many neo-shamanists and scholars are sensitive to this issue, and strive to educate the public about exploitation of indigenous cultures, as well as correcting common misconceptions about the words "shaman" and "shamanism."

A "shaman" is a specialist and master of the ecstatic trance-journey, not a synonym for tribal healer, holy person or medicine man. "Shamanism" is the practice of ecstatic trance-journey, and the typical beliefs and techniques that arise from and support it.

Shamanism is not a catchall term for indigenous religion, earth-based religions, spiritual healing, or beliefs in totems, animal guardians or nature spirits. Both well-meaning and fraudulent teachers, books, periodicals and web pages promote these misconceptions about shamanism. They need to be corrected both for the preservation of traditional Native American cultures, and for the advancement of spiritual learning in the West.

Tori McElroy, October 23, 2000

For More
Information On Cultural Integrity

What are the basic commonalities shared by the many different Shamanic practices throughout the world? What do they each have in common? Are there commonalities? Read and decide for yourself if this is the path for you. I have listed sources at the end of this article. Also, many thanks to Elder Medicine Fire, a real Shaman, my brother and a dear friend always.

1. "Going Around In Circles." All Shaman whether male, female, or androgynous understand this concept. Time is never linear but exists simultaneously on many different planes at one time. The Shaman understands the concept of many different cycles depending on where they are located. In the far reaches of the North two seasons exist which are Winter and Summer. At the Equator they are the season of wet and dry. Somewhere in between are areas that enjoy the four seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. In some parts of the world the Agricultural Seasons rule when to plant and harvest. These seasons continue the same for years, centuries, and eons. There is an understanding of the movement of the Earth and the Moon in relationship to the Sun and the other planets and stars. These are all cycles going around in a circle. Shaman understand the concept of The Circle of Life. We are born, we live, and someday each of us will die. It is as natural as the Seasons turning and understanding each is in the domain of the Shaman to give advise, help, heal and teach as needed for the common good of the community. This often means placing the community first and yours on hold.

2. "Survival." This is extremely important. Not all Shaman will marry and reproduce offspring. If they do, it is important that they train their children how to take care of the 7th generation yet to be born. Even if they never marry or have children it is important that they teach so that the wisdom is not lost but continues to survive in the next generation and their children's children and so forth. One thing for sure, many students will show up wanting to learn if you are a Shaman. They will seek you and it's up to you to choose the right one to teach. The student only hopes and wants to prove themselves worthy. Many a student does not have what it takes. Being insecure, childish, not honest, unethical, immoral, participating in illegal activities or being irresponsible will not endear you to a great teacher let alone a mediocre teacher. Shaman have much responsibility for the common good and survival of the community taking their work very seriously. It is not unusual that they found their way quite by accident not wanting to accept the job as Shaman but got it anyway. It is a gift. The same goes for teaching. Often they did not want to teach but the class keeps getting larger anyway! This means they can be choosy teachers and the good Shaman usually takes on only one, two or three serious students at a time maybe in their entire lifetime.

3. "Responsibility." Not all understand the responsibility of recognizing that everything on this Blue Marbled Planet is connected and alive. This beautiful oxygenated living planet will always survive but will we? We are visitors here and the Earth is our Mother. We need to be more responsible for what is going on here. Our responsibility means making a difference so that the 7th generation yet to come will inherit a better place. It starts now and it starts today. Be responsible and waste nothing. Recycle, reuse, and make everything count. Make do with what you have. Don't be a part of the, "I see, I want group." Don't buy into who ever has the most toys wins. 4. "Gifting." Know that you are blessed if you truly have a job that you like and get paid for doing it. Meanwhile, if you don't have a job you like, work productively so you can get the job eventually that will pay you for what you like doing best. Be responsible for yourself and be self-sufficient. If you made too much share it with another while allowing them the dignity to repay you. This is known as a "gift for a gift." Teaching others is difficult, so remember not to waste time, your resources, or your efforts on those who refuse to learn from their mistakes. Teach the art of gifting to your community and your students. There are ignorant people who do not know any better. "I have enough to share and know that you too will share with me someday when I need it." This is a concept modern people don't always understand. It was an old custom of a "gift for a gift." It is what kept the economy going and is still practiced today but we call it spending money for an exchange of goods instead of "exchange of gifts."

5. "Education." Never stop learning and develop what you were born with: instincts, talents, skills, aptitudes, and your unique abilities. All of this was inherited from your ancestors. Teach and share your knowledge with others. Support and be able to educate your family. A Shaman never ever stops learning. Gather all the knowledge, store it, and use it for the good of the community.

6. "Honor Your Ancestors." You are here because of your ancestors. You would not exist had not they existed first. We also honor the youngest to oldest living member in our own family with equal respect as well. All have a purpose and each should have a say. To honor your ancestors is to honor yourself through them. They are here when we need help and oversee what we accomplish and do for the good of the community. Listen and the ancestors will speak.

7. "Respect." Have respect for all your brothers and sisters. We are all related and members of the same species known as "all-kind." Everything is living, alive, connected and related. The earth is our mother, the sky is related, and the moon is a relation as so is the sun. Every tree holds the memories of our past and oxygen to breath. Every crystal has stories that teach us. The fish, the mammals, the amphibians, the birds, all have something we can learn from in order to live better lives and teach others.

8. "Boundaries." Get rid of negativity in your life and set up boundaries for yourself. Be positive, seek the positive things in life that make you smile and be happy. Unhappy negative people do not live as long. Falsehoods, bad or unpleasant information is negative and the body needs goodness, wholesomeness, love, and positive experiences to survive and live a long healthy life. Strive to live a healthy life! Make good life choices and a good life partner. Always seek the light and enlightenment. Respect yourself, as you are an important individual deserving the very best life has to offer to be happy.

9. "Spirit." From Spirit you came and to Spirit you shall return. Life is eternal and is referred to as THE CIRCLE OF LIFE. We are born, we live and we die. Every Shaman must learn to face his/her own death. They must understand the cycle of life by coming to terms and facing death so they can guide others to the other side when it is their time to pass over. They must learn the art of compassion and allowing dignity of the dying. The young Shaman must learn by experiencing the joys and sorrows of life. The realm of death is to the more experienced Shaman. Shamans must let their spirit grow as well through experiencing all. None of this is learned over night or in just one lesson but through many lessons throughout one's entire lifetime. The Shaman must remember everything learned through experience and tap into those memories when needed.

10. "Connected." The Shaman must be connected to all there is and trust themselves while being there to experience all the senses which are to hear, to see, to smell, to feel and to taste. Above all they must also trust the ultimate intuition of the knowing and the communication with the other side. They must also master the sending and receiving which involves all of the above.

11. "Memory." Young Shaman are often like sponges and can retain great amounts of memory. The older Shaman learned at an early age to retain the memory and use it as needed along with being connected, which is using all of the senses and intuition. Suddenly there are no books, no records, or computers. What is the Shaman to do? The Shaman is the keeper of all the traditions, the history, the knowledge of our ancestors, and literally a walking library of knowledge for learning, healing, and helping. Be kind to your Elders. They have spent a lifetime of remembering and cataloging what is important, not what is trivial. Our continued survival depends on remembering.


............ 1. Go to your sacred place where you feel connection to deity.
......... .........
......... 2. Ask your Higher Power what your purpose, your duty, your job, your goal in life should be.
......... .........
......... 3. Often this is part of a Vision Quest. There are many kinds of Vision Quests. Some are a rite of passage taken for a few days, a week, or even a month. Men and women both may do this and it is always done alone with a teacher checking up on the individual participating to make sure they are all right. Usually, a Vision Quest is taken for a reason to accomplish something or learn something. Some Shaman use Sweat lodges, listen to drumming, bells jingling, rattling, singing, chanting, meditation, etc. to get into an altered state to communicate with Spirit. Some go to high places, a special well, a special rock formation or a place of high energy or a personal known sacred place.
......... .........
......... 4. The ancestors or deity will fill your mind with information you need to know.
......... .........
......... 5. Stand tall with your arms raised to the sky and ask out loud what you need to know. Be still, listen to the wind, honor all the elements, all living things, your ancestors, your deity, and then your purpose, your goal, and your duty will begin to grow from that point on.

H.J. Carol Thompson, AKA Stormy (Stormsdottir)

Animal Totems


Campbell, Joseph. Transformation of Myth Through Time. Harper and Row,
Publishers, NY, 1st Edition, 1990.

Cowan, Tom. Fire In The Head, Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit. Harper San
Francisco, 1st Edition, 1993.

Matthews, John. The Celtic Shaman, A Handbook. Element, Rockport, MA, 4th
Edition, 1994.

Roth, Gabrielle, Maps to Ecstasy, teaching of an urban shaman. San Rafael,
CA, 1st Edition, 1989.

Scott, Gini Graham, Ph.D. Shamanism and Personal Master, Using Symbols,
Rituals, and Talismans to Activate the Power Within You. Paragon House, NY,
1st Edition, 1991.

The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux.
Recorded & Edited by Joseph Epes Brown and Black Elk Holy Man of Oglala. by
Michael F. Steltenkamp. MJF Books, New York, NY, 1989.

Titus, Robert J. The Complete Book of Natural Shamanism. Snowbird
Publishing Company, Tellico Plains, TN, 1993.

Ywahoo, Dhyani. Voice of Our Ancestors, Cherokee Teaching from the Wisdom
Fire. Shambhala, Boston and London, 1987

Shamanism is a set of tools and techniques used to interact with the spirit world and the world around us. It has no specific pantheon of gods and is attached to no particular culture. It is a way of looking at the world and at yourself. There are no hard set rules, no hierarchy to try and work through. Shamanism is the oldest known form of spiritual practice. It is a time-tested practice, what works is kept, what doesn’t is left behind. When our ancient ancestors prayed that the spirit of the Deer would come to them allowing them a good hunt, they were using shamanic techniques although I am sure that was not the word they used to describe it.

Shamanism is a personal quest for knowledge and inner power, but it is a quest that has traditionally taken place within the confines of a tribe or family group. The same holds true for those who follow a shamanic path today, but our groups might be different. We could work to guide and aid our family or a group of friends or a pagan circle. These groups are just as valid and appropriate a place for a modern person walking a shamanic path as a tribe was to an ancient one. A shaman's place is within a community, not apart from it.

Shamans have held an important place in many different cultures throughout the world since our beginnings. They have been mediators, ceremonialists, healers, diviners, many different kinds of artists and much more. They learn and work with power for both themselves and the good of those around them. They understand the connection and need for balance amongst all things, that all aspects of the world that we share with the rest of creation is alive, humans, animals, plants, rocks, and even the wind.

Traditionally people generally came to a shamanic path by being chosen and trained by an experienced shaman, or by inheriting the role from a parent. Often people choose or are led to follow a shamanic path after a near death experience, but that doesn’t mean that you have to go out and try to kill yourself if you want to learn shamanism. In today's world many people come to the shamanic path becasue they feel drawn to it or curious about it. Anyone can incorporate shamanic practices into their lives. You only need to believe that you can.

However, interest in shamanism does not make you a Shaman. If you are just starting this path it is much more appropriate to say you are following a shamanic path or a student of shamanism. Shaman is one among many titles that can be used for a person who has followed and studied this path for many years. Another common title is Medicine Woman or Man.

Another common misconception is that shamanism is synonymous with Native American spirituality. Native Americans were one of many groups that used shamanic practices in their spirituality. Many other cultures did and still do, from South America all the way to Siberia in fact. Some of the better known shamanic paths include Native American shamanism, Celtic shamanism, and Siberian shamanism. The following pages are purposefully very general, except for a few that were written by someone with a Native American background as an example of that path. Almost all forms of shamanism hold to the main ideas and concepts that follow, although the particulars and dieties will vary from group to group and even from tribe to tribe.



Basic Beliefs of Animism

In anthropology, animism can be considered to be the original human religion, being defined simply as belief in the existence of spiritual beings. It dates back to the earliest humans and continues to exist today, making it the oldest form of religious belief on Earth. It is characteristic of aboriginal and native cultures, yet it can be practiced by anyone who believes in spirituality but does not proscribe to any specific organized religion. The basis for animism is acknowledgment that there is a spiritual realm which humans share the universe with. The concepts that humans possess souls and that souls have life apart from human bodies before and after death are central to animism, along with the ideas that animals, plants, and celestial bodies have spirits.

Animistic gods often are immortalized by mythology explaining the creation of fire, wind, water, man, animals, and other natural earthly things. Although specific beliefs of animism vary widely, similarities between the characteristics of gods and goddesses and rituals practiced by animistic societies exist. The presence of holy men or women, visions, trancing, dancing, sacred items, and sacred spaces for worship, and the connection felt to the spirits of ancestors are characteristic of animistic societies.



Unitarian Universalist Association Principles and Purposes


We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational and humanitarian purposes. The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.

The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member societies and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.

Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any society unless such is used as a creedal test.


Hope in progress
Communion with others

Questions about God, life and death are difficult questions that no one knows the answers to. Uncertainty is the only thing we know for sure.  The approach of Universists is to search that mystery and reject all seeming authoritative pronouncements from various sundry religions that now exists. Holy books and Scriptures are of no use to Universists.

Many people want to be liberated from the stifling repression of faith based religions.  People demand that the laws of science apply to their health care and now they are demanding that these same laws be applied to their religion.

Universism promotes society and teaches a communion with fellow humans that can only be gained in a community setting.

Many people have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion.
Finally a new rational sensible religious alternative.

Ceremonies are voluntary.
Each individual decides for themselves what they need in their life.


What if there was a religion announcing no universal religious truth exists? The meaning of your existence is yours to determine.

What if there was a religion generating respect among all humanity by making us equals in the most important questions we will ever face?

What if there was a religion uniting freethinkers, including atheists, deists, transcendentalists, pantheists and agnostics?

What if there was a religion with no prophet or holy book?

What if there was a religion announcing no moral authority exists, religious or secular?

What if there was a religion born in 2003 that instantly included millions of people on the planet - maybe even you?

Would it even be a religion? Yes. But it's unlike anything you've ever seen before. Welcome to the future of religion. Welcome to Universism. Please read our Introduction and extensive FAQ.


Universism is a personal religious philosophy or worldview which unites all freethinkers, whether they have used the term Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, Deist, Transcendentalist, Pantheist or others to describe their beliefs in the past. Individuals who agree with and try to live the principles of Universism are termed Universists, in addition to or in replacement in of any of these other terms. Universism is personal and open to personal interpretation and change. I. The most important thing is the search for meaning and purpose, as in relationships and love, understanding and knowledge, experiences and emotions, or elsewhere. II. There is no absolute Truth that applies to all people; ultimate knowledge of the nature of existence cannot be communicated, it can only be reasoned or experienced personally. The natural state of most individuals is uncertainty, motivating curiosity, openmindedness and appreciation for the experiences and thought of other beings. III. Morality is relative to individual circumstances and relationships. Any action's ultimate rightness or wrongness can only be determined by those involved in the action. Good and Evil are ideas that can be useful, but are inaccurate if used to describe the nature of the universe. IV. Social structures such as governments and institutions are useful insofar as they help individuals to flourish - that is, become and remain healthy, happy and able to work toward their goals that do not interfere with the rights of other individuals to work toward their goals. V. All life is free in the universe, limited in potential only by the physical laws of nature.

We Recommend Secularity - a dating service for freethinkers!

an individual who applies personal reason and experience to the fundamental questions of human existence, derives inspiration from the natural uncertainty of the human state, and denies the validity of revelation, faith and dogma. Does this definition fit you? If so, please accept our invitation to take part in the Universist Movement, the fastest growing rational religious movement of the 21st Century.

Universism is the world's first rational religion. Reaching to the heart of humanity's religious impulse, we have uncovered not faith, but mystery. Not complacency, but awe. We have found an essential element of the human experience in harmony with reason - not in spite of it. Universists know the fuller our understanding of the universe, the greater our appreciation for a reality beyond our imagination. We celebrate faith in reason, inspiration in nature, and hope in progress.

A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by traditional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge. - Carl Sagan
Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science . . . Interpretation is the logical channel of consilient explanation between science and the arts. The arts . . . also nourish our craving for the mystical. 
The world that preliterate humans factually perceive is only a small fragment of the full natural world. Thus by necessity the primitive mind is continually tuned to mystery. . . . We are all still primitives compared to what we might become . . . aware of fewer of one in a thousand of the kinds of organisms . . . that sustain ecosystems around [us]. By focusing on the peculiarly human niche in the continuum, we can if we wish (and we so desperately wish) inhabit the productions of art with the same sense of beauty and mystery that seized us at the beginning. No barrier stands between the material world of science and the sensibilities of the hunter and the poet. - E.O. Wilson
Universism is a freethought religious philosophy intended to unite people who have found affinity with Atheism, Deism, Agnosticism, Pantheism, Transcendentalism and other rational perspectives. Join in helping liberate the human spirit from ancient doctrines that have too long held us back. Let’s promote progressive religion that elevates the Search for meaning as the central individual quest, providing humanity the passion to continue evolving. Atheist Religion Deist Religion Agnostic Religion Pantheist Religion Transcendentalist Religion Atheist Philosophy Deist Philosophy Agnostic Philosophy Pantheist Philosophy Transcendentalist Philosophy Freethought Religion UNIVERSISM IS THE NATURAL RELIGION Posthumanism Neohumanism New Humanism Fighting Jerry Falwell's Faith and Values Coalition Moral Majority

Uniting Atheist, Deist, Agnostic, Pantheist, and Transcendentalist philosophy to create the world's first Rational Religion. Universism is the Future of Religion Movement.

Atheism | Deism | Agnosticism | Pantheism | Transcendentalism

. . . .


. . . .

"It's not what you believe, it's how you believe it!"


Scientific Humanism is a rational religion, based upon the three Aspects of Human consciousness:





  The three cardinal Precepts of all Human societies result from conjunctions between two of the three aspects of Human consciousness. In Scientific Humanism, we refer to these principles as the Three Precepts:

Be Nice

Seek Knowledge to Determine Truth

Obey Just Laws


  People strive for Balance among the three Aspects of Human consciousness. When Balance is extended to the three Precepts, People achieve Harmony within themselves. People reach Fulfillment by helping others to achieve Balance and Harmony in accordance the the Mission of the Church of Scientific Humanism:

Make This
A Better World


  The Aspects of Human consciousness, the cardinal Precepts, Balance and Harmony are united within the symbol of the Church of Scientific Humanism.

The Virtues of Asian Humanism

Nick Gier

Department of Philosophy

University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844-3016

Keynote Address at the 40th Annual Meeting

Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Soka University, Japan


Note:  The Soka Gakkei (The Value Creating Society) is the largest lay Buddhist Organization in the world. They are one of 200 Buddhists sects in Japan that follow the medieval monk Nichiren’s exclusive focus on the Lotus Sutra. Daisaku Ikeda, scholar and activist, is the president of their international organization.



It is man that makes the Way great and not the Way that can make man great.

Analects 15.28

The Buddha is an ordinary human being; ordinary human beings are the Buddha.

--Nichiren Daishonin


Note: Scroll to the end for the endnotes.  There are no links for the blue numbers.


Humanism, one of the greatest achievements of world civilization, has become a dirty word. Humanism, one of the essential aspects of the American heritage, has become an un‑American word. Something is terribly wrong when a good term like this is abused by people who ought to know better. It used to be that all of America's ills were blamed on a “communist” conspiracy, but now this has been replaced by a “humanist” conspiracy. Humanists are being targeted as the source of every “evil,” from homosexuality to one‑world government. The fact that the American Communist Party had become fossilized and a laughingstock did not deter earlier conspiracy theorists. And now to propose that the 3000‑member American Humanist Association has a stranglehold on our minds is an insult to all intelligent Americans. Communism, by and large, deserves the bad press that it receives. One can understand how Communism has become a dirty word. Many lives and much freedom have been lost in the name of Communism, just as formerly many were lost in the name of Christianity. But as far as I know, no one has ever been killed in the name of humanism.


Why has this innocent name of been blackened? Why has the humanist become the new Satan and anti‑Christ? The Religious Right must certainly take most of the blame, even, regrettably so, some of the best evangelical theologians. John Jefferson Davis, who otherwise makes some positive contributions to systematic theology, claims that an “antirevelational” humanism is the cause of mental illness, international terrorism, and other evils.[1] Some of the blame also lies with narrow‑minded humanists who have insisted that only their views are “true” humanism. When some humanists say that only those who reject a belief in God and put their trust squarely in the scientific method are real humanists, they are distorting the meaning of humanism. When someone like B. F. Skinner, one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto, claims that human beings have neither freedom nor dignity, this is also a significant deviation from traditional humanism.


The evangelist Jerry Falwell charges that humanism “challenges every principle on which America was founded. It advocates abortion‑on‑demand, recognition of homosexuals, free use of pornography, legalizing of prostitution and gambling, the free use of drugs... and the socialization of all humanity into a world commune.”[2]  Needless to say, traditional humanism is not bound at all to any of these positions. Many of the humanists in the Libertarian Party would agree with most of this list, but as laissez‑faire capitalists, they would definitely reject the world commune idea. There are also many Christian humanists who would disagree with most of these points. It is also clear, as I have argued elsewhere,[3] America was founded on humanist principles.


This attack is truly incredible if one considers that the Greek humanism contributed to the ethical foundations of a democratic liberalism that is world-wide in scope. The humanism of the Greek Sophists gave law its adversarial system and inspired Renaissance humanists to extend education to the masses as well as to the aristocracy.  The Christian humanism of Aquinas and Erasmus helped temper negative views of human nature found in the biblical tradition.  The humanism of the European Enlightenment gave us political rights, representative government, and free market economics. It has been said that “the pluralistic, democratic, secular, humanistic one of the greatest political inventions of all time....”[4]  


In this essay I will argue that both Confucian and Buddhist humanists can offer sage advise to Euro-American humanists, whose emphasis on the individual has sometimes undermined social stability and traditional values. We will also see that both Confucian and Buddhist humanism presents a balanced view of heart-mind, which unfortunately has been upset by an overemphasis on the intellect in European philosophy. I will also show these Asians joined Greek humanists in affirming a virtue ethics rather than a rule-based ethics. Furthermore, the fact that Buddhism includes animals in the moral community allows contemporary humanists to avoid the mistake of becoming overly anthropocentric and exclusive in their thinking. Finally, I will propose that the Soka Gakkei is the most promising and constructive Buddhist humanism in the world today. 





Humanism has a long, distinguished history which goes all the way back to Confucius and the Buddha, whose emphasis on human dignity and right human relationships makes them, a full generation before Socrates, strong candidates as the world's first great humanists. A good one‑sentence summary of Confucian humanism can be found in the Analects: “It is humans that makes the Way great and not the Way that can make humans great” (15:28). When the Jesuits first went to China, they thought they had discovered the Asian equivalent of their own Christian humanism.  It is important, however, to note that Christian humanism is theocentric, whereas Buddhism and Confucianism are humanistic in the strong sense that neither view requires divine aid for attaining liberation or achieving the good life.  Accounts indicate that neither the demon Mara nor the Hindu Brahma could prevent the Buddha from achieving enlightenment.  It is only some Pure Land schools, with their emphasis on “other” power rather than “self” power, that do not meet the criteria of strict humanism.


I would like to propose a Buddhist equivalent of Analects 15:28: “It is humans who make the Buddha nature great, not the Buddha nature that makes humans great.”  Let me hasten to prevent a possible misunderstanding. In a basic sense it is the Buddha nature that makes all things great, but the humanistic principle here is that it is people themselves who have to actualize their Buddha natures; no one else can do it for them.  Also consonant with Confucian philosophy is that idea that humans play a unique role, through language and thought, in revealing the true nature of all things in the cosmos.  In this regard the Soka Gakkei reading of Analects 15:28 is, I believe, particularly instructive: It is we who create value and it is we, through art, religion, and culture, who reveal the value of all nature around us.  Protagoras’ homo mensura is therefore too strong: humans are not the measure of everything; rather, they are the only beings who can reveal the true nature of things through philosophy, religion, art, and science.


This strict definition of humanism--human beings achieve their goals completely under their own power--is not suitable as a general definition. I believe that it is essential to formulate a basic definition of humanism that is religiously neutral. It is imperative, especially in a world of cultural pluralism, for believers and nonbelievers to be able to share the same basic humanistic values. A religiously neutral definition of morality is necessary so as to protect atheists from  unfair charges of immorality. Common dictionary definitions of humanism are comprehensive enough to include both European and Asian traditions and sufficiently neutral to embrace both theists and nontheists. This one from the Random House College Dictionary is eminently suitable: “Any system of thought or action in which human interests, values, dignity, are taken to be of primary importance....”


Both Asian and Greek humanists focused on this‑worldly concerns but without giving up the idea of a transcendent realm altogether. In other words, humanism's principal concerns in Greece, China, and India were secular. Greek and Asian humanists turned from cosmology and metaphysics to the important problems of human action and conduct.  A central imperative for both of them was to establish correct human relationships with the goal of peace, harmony, and justice. The stress on reason has been a pervasive element in European humanism, an element clearly subordinate in Asian traditions. For Confucians the highest virtue ren consists in reciprocity and loving others; he does not emphasize cultivating virtues according to right reason.  Although the Buddha was a consummate dialectician, he, too, insisted that right living was much more important than right reasoning.





In an unpublished paper entitled "Buddhism and Chinese Humanism," David Kal­upahana contends that it is Buddhism, not Confucianism, that should be promoted as the true humanism of Asia.  He claims that Gautama's rejection of tran­scendental knowledge, his declaration of moral freedom in the midst of karmic de­terminants, and his refusal to go beyond immediate experience all converge nicely with major elements of European humanism.  Based on knowledge gained from experience and induction, a Buddhist, says Kalupahana, can use an evaluative knowledge called anumana, a mode of moral reflection which allows her to complete the eight-fold path and become an uttamapurisa, an "ultimate" person.  This ideal person is one who acts with a clear goal in view and harms neither herself nor others. Although Kalupahana translates ut­tamapurisa as "superman," this obviously does not represent a Buddhist Titan, as it may have in Hinduism or as it does in the later Buddhist Mahavastu.  (Spiritual Titanism is an extreme form of humanism in which human beings take on divine attributes and prerogatives.)[5] The ut­tamapurisa simply acts "with a clear goal in view and does not waver when faced with obstacles.  He is one who has attained freedom from the suffering and unhappiness in the world. . . . Such a person. . . is not only happy by himself, but also makes other people happy by being pleasant and helpful to them."[6]  This Buddhist saint sounds very much like a Confucian sage rather than a spiritualTitan.


Kalupahana sums up his view of Buddhist humanism in this way:


The philosophy of . . . Buddhism. . . undoubtedly represents one of the most comprehensive and systematic forms of humanism.  It is based on naturalistic metaphysics, with causal dependence as its central theme.  Rejecting any form of transcendentalism, determinism, or fatalism, it em­phasizes its ultimate faith in man and recognizes his power or potentiality in solving his problems through reliance primarily upon empirical know­ledge, reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision.  It believes in the freedom of man, not in a transcendental sphere, but here and now.  The highest goal it offers is not other-worldly but this-worldly.[7]


Kalupahana concedes that Euro-American humanists would not be sympathetic to the Bud­dhist belief in transmigration, but he counters that the Buddhist version of reincar­nation does not undermine human freedom in the way that he believes that Hindu or Jain views do.


Two other objections to Kalupahana's thesis should be mentioned.  First, Buddhist monks claim that the capacity of retrocognition, clairvoyance, and telepathy aids them in apprehending the twelve-fold chain of causal dependence.  Contemporary Euro-American humanists, especially those as­sociated with a leading humanist journal Free Inquiry, have consistently rejected claims of ESP and other claims of paranormal experience.  Second, these same critics might also respond negative­ly to Buddhism's "soft" determinism, claiming that true humanism must be based on a theory of genuine self-determination.  If freedom of this sort is a requirement for humanistic philosophy, then none of the classical Asian philosophies, including Confucianism, qualifies as such.  Ironically, Euro-American humanists cannot consistently hold to this criterion of freedom either.  The Humanist Pantheon, com­prised of historical humanists chosen by the editors of Free Inquiry and listed on the back of each issue, features determinists such as Lucretius, Epictetus, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, and Freud.  Their Academy of Humanism also contains sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson and other prom­inent scientists who subscribe to the theory of universal determinism.  It is clear that ancient and contemporary humanists support moral and social freedom, but do not agree on the issue of free-will and an internal self-determining agent.[8] 




European humanism commenced with the classical Greeks, especially Socrates, Protagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, who celebrated the use of reason and discovered human conscience – Socrates' daimon that always warned him of wrong actions. In Plato's Protagoras (324 ff.) we find the idea of an inner habit of virtue by which we become morally responsible and to which punishment is directed if we do wrong. In this dialogue Socrates' debate with Protagoras reveals a basic split in Greek humanism, a division which is still with us. In the passage referred to above, Protagoras is a protoutilitarian in his concept of moral responsibility and punishment. The modern doctrine of rehabilitation and deterrence is actually 2500 years old: “He who desires to inflict rational punishment does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished, and he who sees him punished may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention...” (324 B). Plato, Aristotle, and Kant have a different view of moral responsibility and punishment. Their moral objectivism is nonutilitarian and their idea of justice is retributive: punishment is not future‑oriented with deterrence in mind; but past‑oriented, focusing on the deed done, rather than on the hypothetical better deeds which will come by rehabilitation.


We, therefore, have two major schools of Greek humanism. The Sophists and Epicureans are fully secular humanists; they are protoutilitarians; they believe that moral laws are conventions, and they hold that virtues come about as the result of a pleasure‑pain calculus. In their rejection of hedonism and relativism, Plato, Aristotle, and their modern followers affirm a virtue ethics basic on objective moral values.  Although they still emphasize human dignity, Plato and Aristotle reject Protagoras' famous motto homo mensura – humans are the measure of all things. Furthermore, Plato and Aristotle preserve the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Following the Greek atomists, the Sophists and Epicurus separate fact and value. For them the fundamental nature of reality consists of inert atoms bouncing around in empty space.  Accepting this view of reality, modern science essentially agrees with the Sophists: values such as goodness and beauty are merely human projections upon a valueless world.


Anticipating the Greek philosophers by a generation, the Buddha established an essential link between goodness and truth on the one hand and evil and untruth on the other. Mahayana Buddhism in China and Japan is most aware of the aesthetic dimension of being moral, and the founder of the Soka Gakkei continues this tradition.  Even though Tsunesaburo Makiguchi substituted benefit for truth in his trinity of benefit, goodness, and beauty, he still agreed with the Greeks that beautiful deeds are performed by beautiful souls.[9]  Makiguchi’s focus on the idea of benefit sounds utilitarian and it is completely consistent with a pervasive consequentialism that is found in the Buddhist tradition. One of the most striking and controversial examples of conseqentialism is that some Mahayanists Buddhists hold that Bodhisattvas may kill persons who will, if not stopped, murder others in the future.[10] At least three good consequences result from such action: Bodhisattvas accrue merit that they then can bequeath to others, the would-be murderers are saved from the horrors of Hell, and the lives of many people are saved.  


In a famous passage that demonstrates that the Buddha is a humanist in the strong sense, he exhorts his disciples to reject all traditional forms of authority. He tells his disciples that they should not accept any claim merely on the basis of appeal to holy scripture or that it was said by a great yogi; rather he says “if you find that it appeals to your sense of discrimination and conscience as being conducive to your benefit and happiness, then accept it and live up to it.”[11] After sixty of his disciples had reached enlightenment, he offers the same advise: “Go forth, O monks, . . . for the good, benefit, and happiness of the people and devas.”[12]


Buddhist consequentialism, however, is not utilitarian because the Buddha rejected all forms of hedonism, and he also believed that intentions were just as important as consequences.  Consqeuentialism is a moral theory that insists that all moral value lies in consequences not intentions, but not all consequentialists agree that moral value is established by a pleasure-pain calculus. Gandhi’s works contain a strong appeal to consequences as well, but his view is what might be called a “spiritual” consequentialism rather than the utilitarianism with which we are most familiar.  A theory that is even more appropriate, however, is the “character” consequentialism that P. J. Ivanhoe has attributed to Confucianism and which can be applied to Buddhism as well.


As opposed to most hedonic calculations, character consequentialism focuses on the long-term benefits that the virtues bring to individuals and society as a whole.  Ivanhoe illustrates this distinction between the short-term utility of quarterly results in American corporations and the lifetime commitment of Japanese companies to their employees.  What the Japanese lose in terms of quick and large profits, they gain in the form of corporate, civic, and personal virtues of loyalty, perseverance, and benevolence. One of the weaknesses of the hedonic calculus is the myriad contingencies and uncertainties that make prediction virtually impossible.  In stark contrast, the value of the virtues is well-attested and the person of character is eminently predictable and reliable. 


A thoroughly contingent future makes the application of rules difficult, but the virtue theorist, always working from concrete particulars, offers moral agents the freedom to adapt and to improvise.  Although critics claim that virtue theory is vulnerable to perfectionism, it appears that both rule ethics and utilitarianism have even a greater liability on this point. Their abstract and universal perspective may deceive them into thinking that there must be a solution to every moral dilemma.  The particularist and contextualist perspective of virtue theory should to save it from this danger.  Furthermore, Ivanhoe adds: “If one does not recognize that some moral problems simply have no satisfactory solution, one runs the risk of cultivating a seriously deformed character.”[13]


This conclusion leads Ivanhoe to one of his most powerful insights.  He is very concerned that both rule ethics and utilitarianism, primarily because both assume a disembodied moral agent, occasionally require actions that ignore the impact on personal integrity and character.  Ivanhoe grants that it is conceivable that a few people in isolated situations may be forced to perform gruesome deeds in order to maximize the social good. But there must be something fundamentally wrong with a theory that uses the language of moral necessity in hypothetical actions such as torturing a child to save the lives of ten adults.  There is also something terribly wrong with the Kantian rule that it is always wrong to lie, even when doing so might save the life of your best friend.  The Kantian allows that it is prudent for you to lie but insists that your action has no moral worth at all.  Kant’s reasoning has the absurd result that it moves many of our most trying decisions, ones that have the much moral force and difficulty, out of the realm morality altogether.





If we are to speak of a Buddhist virtue ethics, at least two major differences must be noted vis--vis the Greek tradition.  First, for the Buddha pride is a vice, so the humble soul is to be preferred over Aristotle's "great soul" (megalopsychia). Second, the Buddha would not have accepted Aristotle's elitism.  For Aristotle only a certain class of people (free-born Greek males, to be exact) could establish the virtues and attain the good life.  In stark contrast, the Dharmakaya contains all people, including the poor, the outcast, people of color, and women.  Even though the Analects contains one reference to a feudal class structure (8.9), there are other passages that imply universal brotherhood (12.5) and the education of all children (7.7, 15.38).  


 An Aristotelian definition of virtue ethics might be phrased as the following: It is the art of making the soul great and noble (megalopsychia).  A Platonic definition, drawing on the principal insights of the Republic—the art of making the soul balanced and harmonious--is actually more compatible Confucianism and Buddhism.  But it is again a Soka Gakkei definition that gets at the full meaning of art in the modern sense of the word.  Virtue ethics for them would be the art of creating value for themselves and for the world around them.  The Chinese have a wonderful image of all people as rough gems at birth, each with the responsibility of polishing their stones so that each shines uniquely and distinctively as radiant gem-persons.


Even with the significant differences mentioned above, there are still several constructive parallels between Aristotle and the Buddha, and David Kalupahana and Damien Keown are the scholars who have led the way in this comparative analysis. As far as I can ascertain, Kalupahana is the first to suggest a parallel between the Greek eudaimonia and the Sanskrit sukha and sugata, both best translated as “well-being,” “inner peace,” or “contentment,” although “happiness” is acceptable if it is understood in a nonhedonistic way.  Kalupahana appears to go astray in his interpretation when in his later work he identifies Buddhist ethics as primarily utilitarian.  Damien Keown critiques Kalupahana and others on this point, proposes a full fledged Buddhist virtue ethics, and offers a brilliant comparison analysis of the Buddha and Aristotle.  Keown should also be commended for rejecting an intellectualist reading of Buddhist ethics, one that holds that insight (prajna) alone, just like Aristotle sophia, can leads us to nirvana/ eudaimonia. Keown states that prajna “is the cognitive realization of [no-self] while sila (virtue) is the affective realization,” and cites Croom Robertson to strengthen the point: “wisdom . . . is a term of practical import; it is not mere insight, but conduct guided by insight.  Good conduct is wise; wise conduct is good.”[14] The Buddha would have agreed with this statement completely.


Let us now supplement Keown’s excellent work by proposing that one can discern the operation of Aristotle’s practical reason in the Buddha’s eight-fold path and also in one of his most famous sayings: “They who know causation (prattiyasumutpada) know the Dharma.”15 Let us unpack the meaning of this pithy proposition.  First, a more accurate translation of the Sanskrit phrase prattiyasumutpada is “interdependent coorigination.”  Second, the word Dharma can be translated as “reality,” “truth,” “moral law,” or “righteousness.” Contrary to some European humanists and modern science, the word Dharma fuses the realms of facts and values. Sometimes the term is used to describe basic moments of reality, an anticipation of the quanta of energy of contemporary physics.  Dharmas in this sense are not substantial things but events and processes.  The Buddha embraced what is best called an organic, holistic, interdependent world, one that has been reaffirmed in many disciplines, including contemporary physics.  The Buddhist virtue of compassion (karuna) is based on the interrelatedness of all life, and this was the fundamental moral discovery of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.  The Buddha realized that compassion and sympathy can have no meaning if the Sankhya purusha, Jain jiva, or Vedantist atman are, as these schools hold, independent substances.


We are now ready for an interpretation of this powerful phrase.  I propose that it means the following: Those who know their own causal web of existence know the truth (i.e., the true facts of their lives) and they will know what to do. As Kalupahana states: "Thus, for the Buddha, truth values are not distinguishable from moral values or ethical values; both are values that participate in nature"; and this means that Dharma consists in moral and physical principles derived “from the functioning of all dharma,” as basic constituents of existence.[16]The truths we discover by means of this formula will be very personal truths, moral and spiritual truths that are, as Aristotle says of moral virtues, “relative to us.”  Both Aristotle and the Buddha thought it was always wrong to eat too much, but each person will find his/her own relative mean between eating too much and eating too little.  A virtue ethics of moderation is still normative, because the principal determinants in finding a workable mean for eating are objective not subjective.  If people ignore these objective factors--e.g., temperament, body size, metabolism, and other physiological factors--then their bodies, sooner or later, will tell them that they are out of their respective means. 


The motto above can also be interpreted in terms of the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. Those who are mindful of what is going on inside of themselves as well as what is going on in the world about them will know what to do. For most ancient philosophers this meant breaking through the veil of disordered desire to the truth of the situation, which essentially means learning to desire only that one needs rather than craving for things one does not need or cannot obtain. This is not simply a cognitive knowing of everything but a practical grasp of what is appropriate and what is fitting for us and our surroundings. (Like Aristotle’s phronesis it is primarily nonsensuous correct perception.) The famous "mirror of Dharma" is not a common one that we all look into together, as some Mahayanists believe, but it is actually a myriad of mirrors reflecting individual histories, distinctively individual needs, even different environments and cultures.  This is why mindful and tolerant Buddhists would excuse the Inuit from their exclusive meat eating.


“Those who know causation know the Dharma” sometimes has a provocative addition: “Those who know the Dharma know me.”[17]  This conclusion appears to undermine the thesis  above that we are essentially our own standard for determining the Dharma. In Mahayana schools that deify the Buddha one is faced with the possibility that the Buddha becomes the absolute standard for value in the same way that God is in Christian ethics.  The fact that this additional phrase appears in Pali texts as well as later Sanskrit texts indicates that there may be an alternative reading to “knowing me.”  The Buddha would not be a Spiritual Titan if he claimed, especially in the context of the Indian acceptance of knowledge of past lives, that he knew the Dharma better than anyone heretofore.  One need only compare the moral knowledge that mindful people learn from trial and error in one life to a vastly expanded font of moral lessons one could learn from thousands of past lives.  Therefore, we can see the Buddha as a paragon of virtue without at all deifying him, and “knowing me” could be interpreted as an invitation for us to find our own middle way by the Buddha’s example.  This would coincide with the Confucians referring to the ancient sage kings as models of virtue.  We therefore must reject Keown’s claim that the Buddha’s choice “determines where virtue lies.”[18] This is simple not compatible with Buddhist personalism and contextualism, but more importantly, it undermines the foundations of Buddhist humanism.


Let us now look at a humanistic interpretation of Nichiren’s myoho renge kyo and relate it to the motto about causality and the Dharma discussed above.  The Japanese renge means “lotus” and kyo means “sutra,” so the passage is calling on the authority of the Lotus Sutra. Myoho means the Dharma as moral law and fundamental reality.  Separating out myo as “potentiality” and ho as “action,” we can see the basic link between causality, personal action, and the Dharma discussed above. Myoho is sometimes translated as “mystic law,” and many Euro-American humanists would reject this as irrational.  In terms of our interpretation of the Dharma above, the word “mystic” should mean “incomprehensible” rather than “irrational.”  This is especially true if we are speaking of ordinary humans and not perfected Buddhas or Bodhisattvas.  Even though we might be very mindful of how the law of causality works in our life and the lives of others, this does not mean that we can claim to understand it completely.  When the millions of Nichiren Buddhists chant myoho renge kyo they are attempting to actualize the best possible action from the great potential of the Dharma and the flux of interdependent coorigination.  In their chanting they are dedicating themselves to producing nonviolent actions, developing the virtues, and improving their overall personal character. In short, as they know causation they know and realize the Dharma.  Most significantly, they act through their own personal virtue rather than according to abstract moral law.





In his book The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis, who calls himself a Christian humanist, declares that secular humanists who reject human immortality undermine what it is to be truly human.[19] Just the opposite, I believe, is true. The doctrine of natural immortality is not only unbiblical but also a basic element of spiritual Titanism. True humanists are they who recognize their earthly limits and their proper place in the world, and that is obviously not at its center. Genuine humanists reject the idea that they are the sole focus of cosmic activity; and they do not suffer from the illusion of Nietzsche's “otherworldly hopes”; rather, they follow Zarathustra's gospel of remaining “faithful to the earth.” I must also respectfully disagree with Joseph M. Shaw's thesis that the Incarnation actually makes Christian humanism “revolutionary.”[20] The humanization of God is just as serious a mistake as the divinization of human beings. The former confuses divine nature as badly as the latter undermines human nature.


Daisaku Ikeda has written a very fine biography of the Buddha that strongly emphasizes the humanity of the Buddha,[21] and thus avoids the docetism that characterizes many other Mahayana schools.  In a most striking statement Ikeda paraphrases Nichiren as follows: "The Buddha is an ordinary human being; ordinary human beings are the Buddha."[22] The interpretation of the second phrase is essential to formulating Buddhist humanism correctly.  From the standpoint of Pali Buddhism to say that we are all Buddhas simply means that all of us have the potential to understand the Four Noble Truths and to overcome craving in our lives.  The Mahayanist interpretation would be that we all possess a Buddha-nature that has an intimate relationship to the Dharmakaya, the cosmic "body" of the Buddha.  One of the problems with this option is the absolute monism that some Mahayanist schools affirm: the belief that our Buddha natures are completely one with the Dharmakaya.  This position of course undermines a central tenet of humanism: the individual integrity of each human being.


            For the absolute monist or nondualist, the Mirror of Dharma shows one reality united with one universal soul, but for Buddhist humanist the mirror reflects all personal histories as distinctively unique and valuable united within the Dharmakaya. Thich Nhat Hanh offers his own playful critique of absolute monism: "Non-duality means 'not two,' but 'not two' also means 'not one.' That is why we say 'non-dual' instead of 'one.'”[23] Radical individualism has been humanism’s greatest flaw, and it certainly is if the individual is conceived as a social atom externally related to other isolated selves.  But if the individual is interpreted as a real relational and social self within the unity of life and reality as whole, then we have found the Buddhist Middle way between the two extremes of monistic dissolution and social atomism. 


Let us now look at the diagram above next page that I call “The Circle of Humanism.” The cardinal directions of the circle indicate the “heart” as north, the “mind” as south, the “west” as secular and the “east” as sacred.  The significant feature of this graphic is that except for Hume, all the European philosophers are in the lower “mind” part of the circle.  What the graphic demonstrates is that both Buddhism and Confucianism offer an essential corrective to European humanism, which has generally not only split the heart from the mind and made it the dominant faculty, but has also dichotomized the secular and the sacred.  I believe that the Buddha would agree with the Confucian concept of xin, the essence of humanity is not just the intellect, nor is it the just the passions, but a unity of both heart and mind.  Unfortunately, the ascetic tradition in Buddhism devalued the passions and the world in general in a way that the Buddha would have disapproved.


Some Mahayanist schools, such as Zen and Soka Gakkai, should be commended for preserving this all important balance of heart and mind and also affirming the passions and the body.  (Indeed, Daisaku Ikeda has one of the most positive views of the body in all of  Buddhism.)[24]  Furthermore, we should reiterate that both Confucianism and Buddhism offer a significant corrective to the concept of self.  The Euro-American tendency to see the self as self-contained and self-sufficient is balanced by a Confucian-Buddhist self is social and relational, a position that some political philosophers are now calling a “situated autonomy.”  Therefore, in Nichiren Buddhism a “practice for self” is also a “practice for others.” Finally, more than any other Buddhist school, the Soka Gakkei should be praised for its refusal to dichotomize the secular and the sacred, which has led them to a firm commitment to worldly concerns and to the promotion of intercultural understanding, social justice, and world peace.



1. John Jefferson Davis, The Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 83.


2. Quoted in Charles Krauthammer, “The Humanist Phantom,” The New Republic (September 25, 1981), pp. 20-21.

3.  See N. F. Gier, "Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers" in Peter Caws, ed., Two Centuries of Philosophy in America.  Oxford:  Blackwell, 1980, pp. 22-45.

4. Robert Primack and David Asby, “The Roots of Humanism,” Educational Leadership (December, 1980), p. 225.

5. See N. F. Gier, Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000).  Parts of this paper have been excerpted from chapter 8. Parts of the introduction are taken from N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (Lanham, MD: University Press of American, 1987).

6. David J. Kalupahana, "Buddhism and Chinese Humanism," p. 11.  This paper was presented at a Symposium on Chinese Humanism, sponsored by the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy during a special session of the American Philosophical Association, March 25, 1977.

7. Ibid., p. 12.

8. See N. F. Gier and Paul Kjellberg, “Buddhism and the Freedom of the Will” in Freedom and Determinism (Seven Bridges Press, forthcoming).

9. Dayle M. Bethel, ed., Education for Creative Living: Ideas and Proposals of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, trans. Alfred Birnbaum (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989), pp. 75, 82.


10. See Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 145.


11.  Anguttara Nikaya 3.65.


12.  Cited in Radiant Mind: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts, ed. Jean Smith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 12.


13. Philip J. Ivanhoe, “Character Consequentialism: An Early Confucian Contribution to Contemporary Ethical Theory,” Journal of Religious Ethics 19:1 (Spring, 1991), p. 62.


14. Damien Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p.112; see also pp. 38-43, passim; the Croom Robertson passage is cited in Mrs. Rhys Davids, The Birth of Indian Psychology and its Development in Buddhism (London: Luzac Press, 1936), p. 268.


15. Majjhima-nikaya I.190-1, quoted in Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), p. 64.


16. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 63; Ethics in Early Buddhism, p. 44.


17. See the Shalistramba Stra, trans. N. Ross Reat (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), 3, p. 28.


18. Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p. 226.


19. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 30.


20. Joseph M. Shaw, et al., eds., Readings in Christian Humanism (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), p. 25.


21. Daisaku Ikeda, The Living Buddha: An Interpretative Biography, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Weatherhill, 1976).


22. Nichiren, “The True Aspect of All Phenomena” in The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin (Tokyo: Soka Gakkei, 1999), p. 384.


23. Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987), p. 39.


24. Daisaku Ikeda, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death: Buddhism in the Contemporary World (London: MacDonald, 1988), pp. 141-42.


Plug into the Power of Human InteractionWe understand Humanism as a universal tendency present in distinct cultures and times. In this sense it is neither a literary or academic tendency nor a philosophical position. Rather it is an attitude or disposition. Whenever this attitude appears, it always affirms allegiance to the human being over any faction, ideology or nation. It always affirms choice, responsibility, liberty and solidarity. It rejects discrimination, war and all other forms of violence in general.

Humanism is not a religious belief. Rather, it encompasses all people regardless of the religion, if any at all, that they practice.

Let's explore both Christian Humanism and then Christian Radicalism.

I. Christian Humanism

Christian Humanism is the recognition of God present in humanity. Because Jesus is 100% God and also 100% man, human-ness is not something we tolerate, but something with designed excellence, reflecting God's image, and activated with divine life through Christ.

So, we shouldn’t think "when I get to Heaven I'll shed my body and evolve into a mystical consciousness." Jesus promises us a transformed, glorified, organic existence, just as he was resurrected! The creation, incarnation and resurrection endorse the physical creation.

How does this have practical value?  There is a danger that we will miss out on profound experiences of Christ through our natural humanity and through things that aren't uniquely identifiable as "Christian."


1. By experiencing the way a mother cares for her child we can learn unique things about God’s unconditional love—regardless of whether or not the she is a Christian.

2. A friend of mine says when man landed on the moon, God smiled, because man reflected His character qualities of creativeness, perseverance, teamwork, etc.

3. When we experience its corruption in culture, there is a danger that we can withdraw too far from it. Though man is corrupted by sin, he is a defaced masterpiece. There remain elements of greatness that reflect God which we should rightly recognize, develop and promote. For instance, in his love sonnet 129, Shakespeare—not known to be a Christian—warns against the false promise of lust:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

As a master of the English language and an accurate observer of human life, Shakespeare gives one of the most powerful descriptions of lust's madness ever written. To disregard this simply because it isn't labeled "Christian" is tragic.

Photo of people being human at an amusement parkA person who disregards their humanity can be said to suffer from "superspiritualism" which means emphasizing spiritual things to the exclusion of physical things. (The prefix "super" is not used in the sense of excellence, but excessive.) Though God will never sacrifice a spiritual good for a physical good, that doesn't mean that the physical world is valueless. It's value is simply subordinate, the back half of the same coin.

So, what are clues we’re being superspiritual? It might be present if:

  • We neglect exercise and sports because they are "unimportant."
  • We cannot be social in an environment that isn't explicitly Christian.
  • We suppress our emotions, rather than steer them.
  • We make broad, overly-judgmental generalizations about society's corruption.
  • Christian radio and books take priority over Christian relationships.
  • We neglect development of our intellect because "all we need is faith."
  • We downplay physicians because we think it indicates a lack of faith.
  • We cannot relax or enjoy life because "there's too much service to be done."
  • We don't see our job as important to God's because it's not a direct ministry.
  • We love "humanity" as a concept, but don't love the person right next to us.
  • We easily believe Christ is in Heaven; but not inside ourselves—right now.
  • We view Heaven more in terms of bright lights than a large, real, tangible flesh-and-blood family.

To remedy superspiritualism, pray about the humanity of Jesus. Also, prioritize time for sports, art, music and good reading. Lighten up and emphasize relationships over religious tasks. Your humanity is not just earthly baggage until you reach Heaven. It’s God's intentional design. The Bible says your body is where the Holy Spirit dwells, the temple of God; so getting in touch with humanity is a key way God manifests Himself. There are many ways to profoundly experience God in the natural: through your spouse, friends, children, walks in the country, etc.

Consider this. Why did Jesus have to walk from town to town? Didn't he have enough faith for the Father to "beam" him over? Silliness. If his life were only supernatural Jesus would've denied his own human nature. He did many things not unique to Christianity: He was a carpenter. He attended weddings, dinners, funerals. He wept, became tired, grew in wisdom, drank wine and played with kids.

Jesus is our model. Now let's experience another side of him.

II. Christian Radicalism

God is found in natural human activities, such as throwing birthday parties, having babies, looking for new house bargains, taking classes, giving your friend a lift to the airport, holding fundraisers, etc. However, if our Christianity is limited to this, we're missing out on the higher dimension of God's blessing. (Besides, if we only live as non-Christians, then why be Christian?)

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeatedly promises rewards in Heaven when we go beyond what the non-Christians do. He said, "If you love only those who love you, where is your reward? Don’t the unbelievers do that?"  Jesus drives home the point: "if you only do what is natural, you won’t have a reward in Heaven." In addition to being natural, we must also be unnatural, radical, courageous, even heroic.


  • Taking a risk based on what God spoke to you in prayer.
  • Showing mercy to someone because of Jesus' mercy to you.
  • Having faith that results in tangible miracles.
  • Boldly sharing your Christ in you with others.
  • Being able to suffer joyfully because of your trust in God.
  • Returning good for evil because of Jesus' promise to provide for you.
  • Dedicating your life to celibacy to directly build the Kingdom of God.
  • Depending on the Lord through prayer, especially fasting.
  • Meditating on Christ on the cross as a means of growing closer to him.
  • Uninhibited praise and worship of Jesus.
  • Exercising charismatic gifts (e.g., praying in tongues, prophecy, visions).
  • Loving those you’re not naturally drawn to because Christ is in them.
  • Giving with no expectation of return in this life.
  • Water baptism.
  • Expelling evil spirits.
  • Or taking any action based on a promise that Jesus made in scripture, such as the reward for visiting those in prison because Christ is in them.

Note that it is Christian Radicalism. You can be radical, without being radical for Christ, but it doesn't bring Christ's promised rewards. 

Often we seek radical blessings without a radical investment. There's a price, but the Bible is clear. For example, the apostle Paul talks about Christians being viewed by non-Christians as "fools for Christ," "scum of the earth," and the "refuse of the world."  In fact, the word "church" in Greek (ekklesia) means "called out of" or "set apart from."

A name given for those neglecting radical things is "carnal" meaning "focused on the flesh, over the Spirit." My life as a Christian shouldn’t make sense unless it’s clear that I'm investing in Heaven. A carnal Christian sacrifices some temporal goods for eternal goods. True Christianity is impossible without being radical because living in faith means going against natural inclinations. "We live by faith, not by sight."

Opportunities to be radical help grow our love for God. It's easy to love when it costs nothing, when love is natural, but loved is proved when we have to make a choice to sacrifice our comfort. However, with God radical investment brings radical rewards. Is that true? What does your experience indicate?


Photo of a glass of Cabernet SauvignonIn creating good wine, a winemaker strives for excellence by properly blending both the softening elements (fruit, sweetness, etc.) and the hardening elements (acidity, tannin, etc.). If it is rich in fruit, but lacks acidity and tannin, it may taste flimsy, like Kool-Aid. On the other hand, if the wine contains hardening elements, but lacks fruit and sweetness it will be lifeless, insipid, and unattractive. God strives to produce a full, pleasing blend; Christian Humanism flavors life, while Christian Radicalism brings it strength.

  • The person tending towards Christian radicalism may wonder why certain needs in his life aren't being met, despite his valiant faith and efforts. Sometimes his life lacks color and joy. Often this is simply because he needs to be more human, more real, more practical and down-to-earth in his approach to his faith. He is too oblivious to God meeting his needs through natural means.
  • The person tending to be more of a Christian humanist may wonder why he doesn't experience more miracles, such as physical healings. Often he lacks a more radical commitment to Christ. He needs to be more open to doing unnatural things, especially when it appears foolish to others. If we are willing to do the ridiculous, God is ready to do the miraculous.

But how we should emphasize these two areas in our day-to-day living? This knowledge can only come through Jesus in daily prayer. Christianity is a relationship.

To experience the full richness of Christ in our lives, we need both portions of Christianity, the natural and the supernatural, yet too often we are open to one area and not the other. To fully live both means to fully live as Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of God lives in bodily form.
Colossians 2:9

Not all atheists have the same world view, but the one I like best is Secular Humanism. You might already be a Humanist. Check the list below to find out!

(The following has been adapted for kids from the Council for Secular Humanism's Affirmations of Humanism).

A Humanist Kid believes these 16 things:

  1. Be the best person you can be.

  2. What is right or wrong depends on how it affects people. Hurting people is wrong, and helping people is good.
    We should be honest because lies can hurt people. It keeps them from knowing the truth and it may cause them to not trust you. We should be responsible so that we do not burden others. We should respect people's privacy because it makes people feel badly when we don't.

  3. Optimism (seeing the good in things), hope, learning, truth, joy, tolerance for people's differences, love, compassion, inner beauty and reason are all good things.

  4. People should talk their problems out instead of fighting.

  5. Everyone should have the same basic rights.
    We should be fair and nice to everyone, including people who are different from us.

  6. We should be both respectful and helpful to the physically disabled.
    If someone looks like (s)he needs help, offer to help, but always ask first because sometimes a disabled person wants to do things for him or herself.

  7. Life should be fun for everyone.
    Life is not a test run, or a preparation for something else. We should enjoy it now.

  8. We want to keep the Earth nice.
    Do not litter. We should recycle or reuse items when we can.

  9. We should be both kind and careful with animals.
    When handling a pet, be very gentle. Do not approach wild animals or pets you do not know. You might scare them and they could hurt you.

  10. The arts (which are art, drama, writing, poetry, music and dancing) are important.
    The audience enjoys them, and they let artists, writers, poets and muscians and dancers express their feelings.

  11. Find out what you can do best, and do your best at it.
    Another way to say this is you should develope your talents or strive to reach your potential.

  12. The government and schools should not tell anyone what to believe about religion.

  13. We should not believe everything we are told, jump to conclusions or be afraid of new ideas.
    Be sure you have all the facts and test something against reality to see if it is true.

  14. Science is the best way to find out about stuff and it makes our world better.
    For example, it helps discover medicines that cure or treat sickness. It also makes buildings and bridges safer.

  15. Everything follows natural laws. Magic is not real. There are no magical gods, angels, devils, or ghosts.
    Stage magicians pretend to do magic by playing tricks that are fun to watch.

  16. We are all part of the universe and want to learn about it.

If you think you may have trouble remembering it all if a friend were to ask you what Humanism is, this shorter version may be helpful.

  • Be the best person you can be.
  • Hurting people is wrong, and helping people is good.
  • Be nice and fair to everyone, including people who are different from you.
  • Be kind and careful with animals.
  • Take care of the Earth.
  • The arts are important for sharing how we feel and for developing talents.
  • Get all the facts. (Test claims against reality, don't let others tell you what is true, and don't jump to conclusions.)
  • Science is the best way to find out about stuff and it makes our world better.
  • Everything that exists follows natural laws and is not magical.

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