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  • Humanism and Religious Naturalism in Carol Wayne White’s “Sacred Humanity”: A Span Too Wide to Bridge?
  • Scot Yoder (bio)

In Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism, Carol Wayne White sets out to develop a new religious ideal for African American culture by bringing two unlikely partners, African American religiosity and religious naturalism, into conversation. This is an ambitious project given the prominent role that supernaturalistic theism plays in African American religiosity and the paucity of attention that contemporary religious naturalism has given to cultural issues such as race. She attempts to bridge the two through the concept of “sacred humanity,” a radical version of religious humanism, which, she argues, is foreshadowed in African American religious tradition on the one hand, and grounded in contemporary religious naturalism on the other. Her project can be conceived of as building the bridge in two separate segments joined together by sacred humanity at the apex. The first segment connects African American religiosity and the concept of sacred humanity, while the other connects this concept with contemporary religious naturalism.

To build the segment between African American religiosity and sacred humanity, White argues that, given a naturalistic reinterpretation, African American religiosity can be seen as expressing a type of humanism. To make this argument, she draws on a variety of material, including a functional account of religion, critical theory, and the work of three iconic African American thinkers. While recognizing the role that theism has played, she argues that from a functional perspective we can look at the evolution of African American religious traditions as an attempt on the part of African Americans to affirm and assert their full humanity in the face of racist attitudes and policies that have sought to dehumanize them. This quest to achieve full humanity reflects a type of religious humanism that she believes should be more fully developed as a religious ideal within the African American culture. She positions this ideal as a plausible alternative to traditional theistic African American religiosity by showing how important elements of it are foreshadowed in the works of Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin.

Building this first segment presents significant challenges, but they should not be overstated. On the one hand, White must show that African American [End Page 19] religiosity can plausibly be reinterpreted naturalistically as a type of humanism without losing anything of critical importance, and she must also do so in a way that is fair to the historical figures upon whom she draws. On the other hand, because her audience is not composed of committed traditional theists, but “a generation of scientifically oriented African Americans in search of newer, compelling views of religiosity,”1 she need only show that her reinterpretation is plausible, not singularly correct.

To build the segment between religious naturalism and sacred humanity, White draws primarily on the work of religious naturalists Loyal Rue, Donald Crosby, and Ursula Goodenough. At the heart of their religious naturalism, she argues, is the conviction that “any truths we are ever going to discover and any meaning in life we should uncover, are revealed to us through the natural order.”2 Using this naturalistic framework, she develops an account of humanity that sees humans as “interconnected, social, value-laden organisms in constant search of meaning (cognition), enamored of value (goodness, love, justice), and instilled with a sense of purpose (telos).”3 The sacredness of humanity comes not from a contrast between humans or nature, a contrast between the sacred and profane, nor the connection to a transcendent reality, but from the recognition of the ultimate relationality of nature and our connectedness to all other living beings.4

While the overall success of her project depends on the construction of both of these segments, in this paper I will not look at the span between African American religiosity and sacred humanity, leaving that project to those with a much greater knowledge of African American religiosity and the historical figures upon whom White draws. Instead, I will explore the span between religious naturalism and sacred humanity. White’s book stands apart from most other recent work in religious naturalism in that it...