2.9 Humanism & Atheism

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2.9.1 Are Humanists atheists? Since humanism is a naturalistic and non-religious worldview, most modern humanists tend to consider themselves either atheist or agnostic. But, while most humanists are atheists, not all atheists are humanists. As stated in the Humanist Manifesto II, "...views that merely reject theism are not equivalent to humanism. They lack commitment to the positive belief in the possibilities of human progress and to the values central to it." Humanism could therefore be looked at as a subset of atheism.

2.9.2 Although humanism and atheism are fully compatible, they are two completely different things. While Secular Humanist philosophy is a complete worldview and ethical system, atheism can be summed up in one sentence: "No belief in god/s." When an atheist talks about moral issues in a secular context or is concerned about humanity, s/he engages in humanist behavior. Atheists may be vile murderers or they may be noble and decent people. A statement about their stance on someone else’s beliefs simply does not say what it is they do believe (see 1.4 for a complete definition of atheism).

2.9.3 Why then do humanists not simply call themselves atheists? While part of the answer to this question lies in the paragraph above, there are many other reasons why humanists consider themselves as humanists first...

a) For accuracy: Many humanists are dedicated to promoting specifically humanist principles such as scientific literacy, secular ethics, education, church & state separation, human rights, etc. While atheists and atheist groups may share some of these concerns, the term "atheist" is simply not descriptive enough of what humanist groups are and what they do.

b) For identity: Humanists have no more reason to label themselves atheists as they do "a-astrologists" or "a-UFOlogists" or "a-Unicornists". By identifying themselves first as atheists, they put theism center-stage. Humanists no more care to identify themselves in terms of someone else’s superstitions, as a Christian would prefer to identify him/herself as an "A-Buddhist," thus putting Buddhism center-stage.

c) For relevance: To many (but not all) humanists who have long ago gotten over all of the "god/no god" questions and moved on, their atheism is one of the more minor aspects of who they are. While not believing in their god is a really "big deal" to believers, to many humanists it is simply a fact of life. What is more important to the involved humanist is "where do I go from here?" How do we build happy and healthy lives, values, families, and communities without the need for the primitive superstitions so much of the world seems dependent on.

d) For education: Everyone knows (or thinks they know) what atheism is. Few people realize that there is a secular philosophy that can give atheists a fulfilling, meaningful, and good life as an alternative to religion. In these times, as modernism and science begin to make it more and more difficult for the common person to accept the superstitions of religion, many humanists and humanist groups attempt to be there to let people know that they don’t have to flounder about from one superstition to the next in order to feel that they can be a good person. We hope to make humanism more known to the world - to let people know that morality and religion do not go hand in hand.

2.9.4 One of the reasons I do not call myself an atheist first is definitely NOT because it is more "politically correct" to say "humanist." The last thing I want to do is hide my non-theism. Discussing the misguided reasoning of theists is a favorite pastime at just about any humanist gathering. Much of the historical development of secular humanism came directly out of challenges to the church.

2.9.5 So what do I think of atheist organizations? Atheist organizations exist for worthy but more specific reasons than most humanist organizations. For those who prefer to focus their activities mainly on the rights of non-believers, church/state separation, biblical criticism/debate, or other such topics, the term "atheist" is much more relevant to what they are doing. Since these efforts help humanist’s agenda as well (who happen to be largely atheist), I applaud the efforts of atheist organizations and look forward to working with them on their very noble efforts. In addition, I recognize that many individuals in atheist organizations care a great deal about ethics, education, and secular living. If such groups care to occasionally participate in these humanist endeavors, humanists should welcome their actions and look forward to cooperative ventures where possible.

Continue to 2.10 Objectivism & "Collective" Humanism