Q —Can humanism be considered a religion?

A — It seems to me that there are perhaps two ways of answering this question, from a legal point of view and from a theological point of view. From a legal point of view the Federal Bureau of Prisons has come to recognize humanism as a religion after the settlement of a lawsuit brought about by a prison inmate.
In this legal context, the Federal Bureau acknowledges humanism as a “worldview”, similar to religious “worldviews”, with all the rights and privileges that flow from this acknowledgment.

From the point of view of Christian theology, however, humanism may not be considered a religion. The reason? There is no explicit reference to the transcendent reality that we know as God, or in some religious traditions “the gods,” or salvation. I think such a transcendent reference is essential to the definition of religion. I find the comments of the Scottish philosopher of religion, Ninian Smart (1927-2001) very helpful here and Smart had a broad and deep understanding of the religious traditions of the world.

This is what he wrote: “It is unrealistic to treat Marxism as a religion: though it possesses doctrines, symbols, a moral code, and even sometimes rituals, it denies the possibility of an experience with the invisible world. Neither relationship to a personal God nor the hope of an experience of salvation or nirvana can be significant for the Marxist. Likewise Humanism, because it fixes its sights on this-worldly aims, is essentially non-religious.” [Ninian Smart, “The Religious Experience of Mankind” (London: Collins, 1971), pages 22-23].