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Is there a secular humanitarian faith?

Date:24 September 2014
Author:Religion Factor
Henry Dunant memorial created by the sculptor Charlotte Germann-Jahn, Heiden (Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Switzerland). Source: Markus Bernet. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Henry Dunant memorial created by the sculptor Charlotte Germann-Jahn, Heiden (Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Switzerland). Source: Markus Bernet. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

There’s been much discussion recently about faith-based and secular responses to humanitarian emergencies that has attempted to highlight the normative assumptions present in both. Some have even gone so far as to say that secular humanitarianism is a faith of its own in many ways. But while such a description may help to highlight that secular humanitarianism is not as neutral and universal as we have previously thought, it may not be an accurate reflection of the realities of secular humanitarianism on the ground, and may also impoverish our concept of what “faith” actually is. In today’s post, guest contributor Olivia Wilkinson explores these and other problems with describing secular humanitarianism as a faith.

What do we expect of a faith? Maybe we expect it to have a founding father, a single figure that has inspired future generations. Perhaps we think that it should have a set of guiding principles that form the basis of contemporary follower’s daily practice. Or we could expect it to encourage acts of selfless behaviour and loving kindness toward others.

It is incredibly tempting, following these expectations, to see humanitarianism as a type of faith. Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is an identifiable father figure for contemporary humanitarian action. The very idea of humanitarian actions as those which aim to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain life with dignity is imbued with potentially faith-like significance. The value of life and the need for its preservation at all costs resonates throughout. But is this enough for humanitarianism to be termed ‘faith-like’ or even a ‘secular faith’? In this post I will look at some of the arguments for and against.

Humanitarian actors arriving in a disaster hit area try to follow the humanitarian principles to ensure that they help as much as possible and avoid the creation of any more harm. The principles – humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence – are often revered as “sacrosanct”.[1] These principles aid the construction of “humanitarian space”, which is both a conceptual and physical space in which humanitarians are able to conduct their life-saving work without restriction. It is seen to be an indispensable concept of both theoretical and practical utility by humanitarian actors. It is little wonder, therefore, that humanitarians have been described as regarding this “space” as sacred.[2] The arguments for humanitarianism as a secular faith begin to emerge from this reverence for the principles and the “space” they provide. The commitment to the humanitarian principles could hold parallels to the devotion of believers to religious creeds. Likewise, the formulation of these basic standards into principles that humanitarians are meant to espouse worldwide makes them into universal commitments supposedly common to all who claim to be humanitarian. As Janice Gross Stein and Michael Barnett put it, “…religion is not the only kind of faith. The categories of religious and secular obscure the presence of numerous kinds of faith within the humanitarian community… Secular humanitarian agencies see themselves as dwelling in a moral universe that transcends the here and now, constituting a faith-based community.” [3] This paints a picture of a universalist humanitarianism governed by the four fundamental principles.

Is this the foundation of a faith? Exploration of the principles reveals further parallels. The most intriguing principle is that of ‘humanity’. Without much difficulty, one can easily see how many theological ideas might be influential. The notion that we might be compelled to put ourselves in danger to help another human being simply because of the value of their life and our horror at human suffering is imbued with theological and philosophical significance. This has prompted Jonathan Benthall to perceive some humanitarian organisations, particularly Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), as holding family resemblances to religion.[4] He mentions the moral motivation behind the humanitarian imperative to act in the face of human suffering as driving semi-religious actions. He notes the martyr-like complex of some humanitarian actors to save others even when they put their own lives at considerable risk.

This has encouraged some to see humanitarians as believing in a potentially ‘transcendent’ concept of humanity[5]. We can identify this sentiment in the responses of humanitarians to the question “Why do you do it?” Dominic Nutt, in response to the security risks posed to aid workers after the killing of David Haines in Syria, underlined his concept of a common humanity that drove him to act, saying “There was no difference between me and that dead woman, or between me and the baby who was about to die, except they were born in the wrong place, and I wasn’t.” Polly Markandya of MSF writing in The Guardian on the advantages of secular aid underlines the secularised, yet unifying notion of common humanity once again, commenting that “For me, personally, it is our sense of shared humanity that crosses geographical and cultural borders and binds so many of us together in times of crisis.” This demonstrates a reverence for life that can be identified within secular humanitarianism in which every human life is sacred and we are bound to act because of our basic shared identity as humans. Didier Fassin responds to this instinct by viewing humanitarianism as the modern, secular idea through which our “religious” impulse to value life as sacred can live on.[6] Andrea Paras and Janice Gross Stein understand it as the pervasiveness of the sacred in both secular and religious discourses in humanitarianism.[7]

Having said this, there are several problems with these arguments. The first point is to highlight the need for careful use of language. Descriptions of life as ‘sacred’, of commitment to the humanitarian principles as ‘devotion’, and of the humanitarian principles as ‘dogma’ or ‘creed’, are useful in that they display the level of importance of these ideas for humanitarians, but are ultimately misleading as they overemphasise a link to religion without any theological grounding. This underlines the fundamental problem with the term ‘sacred’, for example, as it is interpreted, on one hand, by the secular humanitarian and, on the other hand, by the religiously motivated humanitarian. While arguments about a ‘transcendent’ idea of humanity might be momentarily compelling, ultimately the idea of what constitutes the transcendent is very different for both perspectives. Peter Redfield succinctly points out that, [8] in fact, secular humanitarians have no notion of human life as being worthy in anything other than the temporal and physical. He notes that, “Any transcendence [humanitarianism] might claim would remain temporal and essentially attached to the figure of the human. Although at times their efforts might suggest something like a sacred value to life, the terms of evaluation are intrinsically medical: the relative health of bodies and well-being of minds remains unquestionably paramount, the only legitimate measures for relative success or failure.” As Charles Taylor would underline,[9] there is a difference between a self-sufficing human flourishing contained within a secular mindset and then a transcendental view of flourishing beyond the human contained in a more religious mindset.

This also removes any notion of sanctity from the humanitarian principles. They are operational directives, not borne out of the desire to express potentially transcendent concepts, but the need to codify some basic best practices and allow access to vulnerable populations. They are also highly contested concepts that are certainly not revered by all. It is therefore hard to find anyone or any organisation that unquestionably embodies humanitarianism as a secular faith. Most international NGOs are much more operationally focused – their interests are mundane and profane rather than transcendent or sacred. The essentialisation of the concept of humanitarianism needed for it to be described as a secular faith is in denial of the depth and breadth of opinions and motivations present in the humanitarian field. Furthermore, a generalised statement about humanitarianism as a secular faith undermines the role of religious faith in humanitarian action. Religious motivations and principles are influential in many actors’ decisions to work in the sector and provide critical help for those in most need. Finally, the role of intention should be regarded as particularly important as secular actors do not identify themselves as part of a transcendent ideal. As Polly Markandya stated in the same article, “There’s no monopoly on altruism, nor only one inspiration for empathy.”

So who benefits from conceptualising humanitarianism as a secular faith? In a sector in which lines are still drawn between faith-based and secular agencies, it may be helpful to bridge some divides by highlighting the similarities in approaches and value systems rather than the differences. The blurring of the lines between the religious and secular is particularly noteworthy and serves to demonstrate that our stereotypical notions of each side of this binary may be incorrect. As Cecelia Lynch notes, they are sometimes entirely reversed: “…humanitarian actions done in the name of charity, dignity, or the preservation of communal traditions cannot be deemed exclusively religious; likewise, proselytizing serves to advance market liberalism and participatory democracy, as well as to promote particularly religious beliefs and practices.” [10] By confining ourselves to preconceived notions of the secular and the faith-based obstructive conflicts may arise and opportunities could be missed.

Yet while humanitarianism may be faith-like in some circumstances, there are very few who would see it as a secular faith. By essentialising humanitarianism to call it a secular faith, complex culturally and historically defined notions of faith and religion encountered in disasters may be marginalised. Commentators increasingly emphasise the dominance of the secular mindset in international humanitarianism that can lead to marginalisation of the religious, as noted by Erin Wilson in an earlier blog post on this site. The discussion in this post has ultimately highlighted that much research remains to be done in order to give fuller accounts of the range of meanings and perceptions embedded in secular humanitarian approaches and the effects they may have on the appropriateness, relevance, and effectiveness of humanitarian action.

Olivia Wilkinson is a PhD Candidate at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin and a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar.

[1] ECHO (2011) in Andrea Paras and Janice Gross Stein, “Bridging the Sacred and the Profane in Humanitarian Life,” in Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2012), 214.

[2] Paras and Stein, “Bridging the Sacred and the Profane in Humanitarian Life,” 213.

[3] Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein, “Introduction: The Secularization and Sanctification of Humanitarianism,” in Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism, ed. Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2012), 23.

[4] Jonathan Benthall, Returning to Religion: Why a Secular Age Is Haunted by Faith (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2008).

[5] Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism(Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2011), 103.

[6] Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present Times (Berkeley, Calif. ; London: University of California Press, 2012), 249.

[7] Paras and Stein, “Bridging the Sacred and the Profane in Humanitarian Life,” 214.

[8] Peter Redfield, “Secular Humanitarianism and the Value of Life,” in What Matters?: Ethnographies of Value in a Not so Secular Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 144–78.

[9] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[10] Cecelia Lynch, “Religious Humanitarianism and the Global Politics of Secularism,” in Rethinking Secularism, ed. Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan Van Antwerpen (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011), 221.


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