What are some of the major differences between the religious and secular definitions for the word human? Which of the two definitions is dominant as determined by the way most people understand the word human

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Your question is tagged with the topic of "humanism" but simply asks about the definition of the word human. Perhaps addressing both aspects will help give the most complete answer.

Humanism a philosophy which says man is basically good and can rely on his own reason to solve all problems without any religious influence or belief. Humanism is a worldview, a lens through which all decisions are made, all actions are determined, and all thoughts are filtered. Secular Humanism is a branch of humanism which decrees that science and reason are the final determiners of reality, and Secular Humanists generally do not believe in God, or at least they do not believe that God created man. In this worldview, man is basically good and therefore has no need for salvation. Even more, adherents do not believe in any kind of afterlife--no eternal reward or punishment. Because of that, the only thing that matters is what humans accomplish in this life. There is no evil and there is no cause for suffering except for the random elements of bad luck and chance. 

This philosophy creates an rather odd dichotomy in which Secular Humanists work for the betterment of mankind as a whole yet cannot, based on their own belief system, place significant value on individual humans because they are not seen as created beings who have an eternal soul.

In contrast to Secular Humanists, those who are considered "religious people" believe that God created all things, including humans. This simple fact, according to people of faith, imbues humans with value and worth. Because God literally breathed life into man, he has value; because he has a soul which does not die, he has an eternal destination. This view of humans, then, is centered around the condition of the soul as much as the condition of the body, and people of faith work for the salvation of the former and the betterment of the latter. 

Now to another, less philosophical definition or the word human. To those with a secular perspective, a human might be defined in a rather scientific and rational way, such as the following:

Humans are self-aware social mammals generally possessing the ability to reason, speak, and use complex tools.

To those who profess religious faith, a human might be defined primarily by his relation to his Creator; he might be referred to as a child of God who has been "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14).

Your second question is difficult to answer definitively, as there are all manner of people who do not believe either of these views completely but have developed their own views about man and his place in this world. In the most general terms and using the two ends of the spectrum, Secular Humanism and religious faith, I believe society demonstrates a tendency to favor the humanist view. Here are a few examples which might support this statement:

  • Abortion and our view of life: a contrast between the belief that a baby is given rights as a human being once it is born and the belief that life begins at conception and a child in the womb is a God-created being. Generally, the law represents the humanist position.
  • Creation versus Evolution: a contrast between a scientific rationale for how the world began and how man evolved and a religious view of a God-created universe and the God-breathed creation of man. The dominant thinking on this, as evidence by textbooks and teaching, is the humanist view.

Clearly there are exceptions to both worldviews, however, making the discussion quite complex. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team