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Posted by on Jan 4, 2013 in Humanism, Humanist | 24 comments

Why I Prefer Humanism Over Atheism.

As Ricky Gervais accurately put it “we shouldn’t even need the word “atheism”. If people didn’t invent ridiculous imaginary Gods, rational people wouldn’t have to deny them.” This captures one of my problems with the term atheism: it does not state what I am, it merely states what I am not. It doesn’t actually say anything about me aside from the bare minimum: I do not believe in any gods. That is fine to some degree as it serves its function in a world where the majority of the populace are theists. However, my atheism doesn’t inform my ethics or beliefs. In fact, my atheism is a consequence of my beliefs and ethics. I am an atheist because I am a sceptic, because I am a proponent for LGBT rights,  because I support gender and racial equality etc. All these things, and more, led me to my atheism, not the other way around. So to describe myself as an atheist is somewhat disingenuous as it isn’t a “motivator” if you will, there are no pathways between my atheism and my actions; however, there is a pathway between my ethics and my actions. So my atheism is, if you’d pardon the pun, a non-entity in the manner which I lead my life. So I find the use of the term atheism as a personal descriptor to be wholly inadequate. This is when I began reading about Humanism. I found that the Humanistic philosophy perfectly encapsulated my ethics and worldview.

At its simplest, Humanism articulates a value system centred on mankind and on our world: it does not depend on a divinity for its justification. Humanism is a philosophy, not a theology and (like religions) it is a way of thinking about humanity, this earth, the universe beyond, in an attempt to makes sense of what we see around us. Humanism is also an ethical system rooted simply in the common condition of humanity; ethics based on reason, compassion and integrity, offering guideline – not rules.

At the World Humanist Conference in 2002, an assembly of Humanist organisations agreed upon a set of fundamental principles which concisely define Humanism:

Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.

Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.

Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process. of observation, evaluation and revision.

Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

I very  much doubt you would find many atheists who would disagree with these principles, yet people still prefer to adopt the atheist label. Personally, there is only one reason that I continue to use the term atheist, and that is because the term holds a certain stigma and vilification to it, so it must be used in order to remove such preconceived bias. Aside from that, I see no reason to prefer the term atheist over Humanist.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I don’t think we need to choose. I call myself an atheist when I want or need to say that I don’t believe in God, like when someone asks “what religion are you?” or says “God has a plan for you” and so on.

    I wouldn’t call myself an atheist as an answer to requests like “tell me about yourself”, for the reasons you state (although I like arguing about theism – mainly as a hobby – so I might talk about atheism in that context).

    I like ‘atheism’ because it’s specific (aside from the squabble about whether it relies on certainty or probability), while ‘humanism’ is fairly vague, so rather than calling myself a ‘humanist’ I prefer to just give my opinions about whatever we happen to be talking about at the time.

    • Syn

      Humanism is not vague at all. It is quite specific in what it stands for. There are no real variations in it because any variety in the concept would involve it not being Humanism anymore.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

        Well, what if you support everything above, but you don’t agree with democracy? What if you’re a monarchist? I’m not, but I know people who would call themselves ‘humanist’ and also ‘monarchist’. Either humanism must admit that variation or deny that monarchists can be humanists.

        • Syn

          .. Alright. Following that line of reasoning, let’s say I identify myself as Christian, but don’t believe in that specific God (rather, I believe in Allah but follow the rules of the Bible). Can I still call myself Christian? Can I be recognized as such? I’d hazard a guess that no, you can’t. I mean, sure, you can call yourself a Christian, but you aren’t actually a Christian. When identifying with a label it’s important to first find out whether or not you fit in with the label.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

            That seems strange to me – that humanism and monarchism are logically contradictory. Also, what about ‘Christian humanism’? Is that an oxymoron?

          • http://www.skepticink.com/humanisticas/ Peter Ferguson

            Ah, see there is Humanism and humanism. The Humanism with a capital h has a far more specific meaning than the non-capitalised version. Humanism (with cap H) is strictly atheistic.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

            Ah right, my mistake!

          • Syn

            A little, yes. As an explanation, Monarchy doesn’t uphold humanist values. For example. “Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

            Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.”

            Monarchy doesn’t have either of those things. In a strict sense, Monarchy (not when combined with democracy/republics and the like. So giving the Commonwealth argument really doesn’t count) is based around holding a certain bloodline above the value of every other person. It requires a sense of independence to be robbed of the common populace in order to appease the royalty. This goes against humanism.

            In the same regard for Christian humanism, Christians most often believe in ‘original sin’ and also believe that everything we do should be for God, that everything we can do is because of God, and that the greatest challenge of all is to remain faithful in God. It robs us, again, of independence, and in the end, this mantra goes against the definition of humanism, which includes;

            “Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

            Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process. of observation, evaluation and revision.”

            Like I said, you can certainly identify yourself and call yourself a Christian humanist, or a Monarchist humanist, but this will inevitably be an entirely separate movement from the strict humanist one.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/humanisticas/ Peter Ferguson

          Democracy and Monarchy aren’t mutually exclusive. You should know that Notung, ain’t you British :)

          • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

            Yep – I had an absolute monarchy in mind! Or feel free to swap in any other non-democratic view.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/humanisticas/ Peter Ferguson

            Well then I would have to say no, a “monarchist” in that sense could not label themselves a Humanist. At least not by the standards described above. “Humanism supports democracy and human rights”

        • http://twitter.com/TreeroyWoW Keir

          I see where you’re coming from and do agree to an extent, but it is bordering on No True Scotsman.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

        I think what I’m trying to get at is that the more separate principles a movement has, the more difficult it is to fully identify with that movement.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/humanisticas/ Peter Ferguson

      Agreed we don’t need to choose, I too switch from one to the other depending on the situation. The post is more about the personal preference and will hopefully encourage others to use the Humanist/Humanism epithet more often. I think it is underused in the atheistic discourse.

  • http://twitter.com/64bitwar 64bitwar

    If someone asks something vague like what I believe, I would identify as, and say that I’m a naturalist. Which actually says what I believe, and to quote Julia Sweeney “I believe in a wholly natural universe, that makes religious people, in my mind, a-naturalists.” So they are defined on natures terms rather than me being defined on religious terms.

    Most people who aren’t primitive or insane behave morally with or without this “humanist” label. Personally, I don’t see the point in identifying with a set of moral ideals, especially one holding humans up to such high standards. Democracy is a nice idea, as is the idea of every person being upright, strong, and compassionate. It’s a bit like, I like the idea of a having wings and a sword to fly around slaying dragons, but I don’t call myself a dragon-slayer.

  • postmormongirl

    I call myself a non-theist when I need to defend myself against people trying to push me back into religion. (Which I have had a lot of trouble with, given my background) But yes, I do identify as a humanist and for a lot of the reasons you describe.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/humanisticas/ Peter Ferguson

      Isn’t non-theist and atheist the exact same, at least as regards definition.

  • rg57

    I think atheism and humanism can be represented as four quadrants much like I’ve recently seen done with atheism and agnosticism. They describe independent things. I prefer the atheist label. While it’s not unusual to be for ethics, rationality, democracy, and art, it’s still unusual to be atheist, and that’s why it’s important.

  • http://twitter.com/SomeProfessor Tenure Hell

    I really like this post. I completely agree with what you wrote. If asked if I’m an atheist, I answer yes, but I like to follow that up with by clarifying that I don’t believe in anything supernatural. I give examples such as the virgin birth, astrology, reincarnation, and of course God/gods, etc.

    I usually tell people that I am a Humanist when asked about religious belief. Most don’t know what it is and that’s one of the reasons that I like that response so I can then briefly explain what it means. My “elevator speech” is typically “Humanism is an ethical system that seeks to good without religion and God/supernatural beliefs” (or something like that). If the person is still interested, I send them to sites and information like you provide in your post above.

  • http://twitter.com/Ga1act0r Graeme Lawton

    There really isn’t any “ism” in atheist. Where you go in leading your life after drawing the conclusions that the claims made by theists are nonsense is utterly detached from your conclusion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Human-Ape/100001623230964 Human Ape

    “Humanism is a philosophy,”

    All philosophy is bullshit.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/humanisticas/ Peter Ferguson

      Thank you for your very erudite comment.

  • Reganee

    I was recently at an Atheist luncheon in New York City and heard someone say, humanism is the belief and life stance of people after they realize they are atheists.
    I am happy to see that many Humanists now say “a god” instead of God.
    I’ve been saying “which god” for at least 20 years, when people ask me, “you really don’t believe in god.?

  • Vivisectus

    I do describe myself as an Atheist, but I do agree that it is not an entirely satisfying term. After all, I can hardly be defined by my non-belief in gods: lots of religious people share that with me. The only difference between them and me is not our disbelief in 99.9% of gods, but that I also don’t believe in the last 0.1%.