Being Humanist: The Atheist “Disqualification”

Over the past few years I have been harping on the idea that movement humanism (for historical reasons) hijacked a perfectly good word, picked its pocket and left it for dead.

I’ve been thinking more about the subject recently.  Every time I return to it I am accused by at least one well-wisher of wanting to hie back to the renaissance, when ceilings were floral, swimming in cherubs,  and the living was easy.  That is, if you were a pope or a prince. Even the use of a word like “hie” tells you a lot about me.

But–and you can breathe easy–this isn’t about history, or the Medici or even Pico della Mirandolla.  Though I do like a little Pico with my daily crossword. This is really about why it’s time for humanists to kick atheists out of their house.  They’ve had squatters’ rights for fifty years and the place is looking ultra-shabby.


First of all, a lot of atheists don’t even like to be called “humanists” unless when you say the word you really mean atheist.  Secular humanists in America have felt this way for years.  British humanists, who don’t like the word secular humansim because it’s too American, just use the word “humanism” when they really mean freethought which really means atheism.  The opposite of humanist when the word is used by secular humanists is presumably Goddist.

But in both cases, it’s a cheat: an attempt to tart up a word–atheist–that used to be considered abrasive and in some cases disabling.  It was unpopular in Britain and more unpopular in America to be called an atheist.  It was relatively okay to be an ethical culturalist, a secularist, and by a stretch a “secular” humanist.  In both countries,  not believing in God was subordinated to the more positive spin that the movement now dubbed “humanism” was really about how you acted once you declared your unbelief.

Paul Kurtz, “Father” of secular humanism

The “good without God” craze that sprouted during the early days of new atheism in the early 2000’s was nothing more than a re-potting of the same idea under the illusion it was new:  You don’t need the ethics of a bunch of first millennium goat herders and their sky god to be moral, they sensibly argued.  You just need an open mind,  a clean driving record,  and science. One of the leaders of the secular humanist dribble (that’s 10,000 short of a drabble) also specified “exuberance” as a nice thing to have, because exuberance isn’t passion and thus stops short of emotion. This in turn makes you reasonable: so humanism is all about reason.

Personally, I am also into passion.  Even fully-uniformed agnostics like Bertrand Russell were.  I am not a fourth century (BC) Greek nor a twenty-first century (AD) particle physicist at CERN–not that these folk didn’t have passion too. Without passion, why bother to know anything?    I need a little emotional kick in my life, and while I share that need with unbelievers–a good wine, an evening concert at Tanglewood, the ministrations of a dark-eyed beauty who tells me I am not as old as I feel–I know that these things are irrational.  They are simply human.  They don’t mean that there is no god, just that the God of one tradition taught the human race to look out for ourselves because too much passion was sin. Was he just being reasonable?

Have you stopped to think how much this whole discussion depends on the genetics of Anglo-American values and how irrelevant it is in Catholic (that is, ex-Catholic) Europe, where passion has not been outlawed by reason.  As religion in America and Britain was puritanical, so is its atheism.  Anglo-American atheism is rigid, scholastic, dull, unartistic and naive.  Its coordinates are Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers, the gamut from ex-Anglican to ex-Lutheran.  Enough said.  Maybe Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi made mistakes during their political careers.  But being full-blooded, passionate, culture-loving humanists was not one of them.

I can watch out for myself without God’s advice.  I have for most of my adult life.  But I rather enjoy having him around. Besides, despite his mixed feelings about sex and fornication, we have got excellent poetry, music, and some fine floral ceilings out of him.  It was hard not to fall in love with someone so decisive and easily upset. Yes, yes: don’t do the secular humanist thing and remind me of the wars, the atrocity, the Inquisition, the Holocaust.

In return, I promise not to mention perfectly reasonable atheist leaders like  Stalin and Pol Pot.

And you see the problem:  If the dividing line is simply the division between atheism and religion, then the challenge is to say what is the rule and what is the exception.  Which system produces the most monsters?

In a simple humanism, the question does not arise.  It does not arise because we know what a violation of the “human spirit” would be: any gratuitous war, offense against conscience, slavish obedience to a doctrine, whether religiously-inspired or naturalistically defended.  The splitting of the atom was a thing of wonder. The using of the power derived from that event to kill thousands of people was not a humanistic act. It is not humanly defensible, so spare me the political defenses. If religion wins this sweepstakes, it is only because it had held power longer and has been more successful in subordinating human evil (yes, I believe in evil) to religious purposes. There are equally inhuman events waiting in the wings to be given the imprimatur of science and reason.

If atheism were successful in taking over humanism’s  house–not to frighten anyone– the not-God who would take the place of the God who was, and who would rule in his place,  would be equally powerless to save us from our sins. (Do I hear the nasal tones of a new atheist in the background saying: That’s just the problem–thinking that we need someone to “save” us?).  Maybe it’s just in my imagination.

The sweetness and fallacy of Christianity is that it offered for our consideration a God who thought he could save the human race, but actually couldn’t. And we know enough to know that we invented that God.  Any humanist knows that.  But many atheists will blame–what?–the credulity of  “religious people”–not themselves, for not knowing it.  Where is the logic in that? Religious people did not create that God.  The human spirit did: your own ancestors did. And they wrote the books they then ascribed to him.  Reject him as you must.  And you must. But the way to salvation is far from clear, and the militant rejection of that god does not make you a humanist.  How could it?

We have been largely on our own since then.  You don’t need to be religious to know that.  You don’t need to be an atheist to accept it.  The biblical lord-god of hosts whose name is holy and who numbered his enemies in the tens of thousands has been quietly rejected, not just by atheists but by anyone who is paying attention.  In fact (I will pay a price for saying  this) he was rejected by Jesus.

He was not exposed as a monstrous fraud by science, but by religion.  In fact I worry about the people who think that news of this first hit the headlines with Richard Dawkins.   It was old news when Nietzsche wrote that “faith is not wanting to know what is true.”

And I don’t like the idea that if I call myself a humanist, I am really saying that I am an atheist and therefore can’t have God around.  Over time, humanists have  been religious, skeptical, spiritual…and atheists. They have been criminals and derelicts, rich popes and poor scholars,  lazy bastards like Nietzsche and hyperachievers like Fermi, geniuses like da Vinci and paedophiles like il Divino.  If you don’t know who il Divino was, stop reading this instantly and join the American Humanist Association where you can talk about how fucked up the idea of God is over beer and hotdogs.

I therefore plant my flag here:  I am a humanist. I respect my atheist brothers and sisters, but I do not have their confidence and I do not like their script.   My humanism is not a moral testing ground for how to live my life without intrusions from above or dogmas from below.  I believe that the reduction of humanism to some naturalistic calculus for some idiotic phrase like “meaning and value” is brainless and penniless. I believe that the phrase “secular humanism” confuses matters that are merely political, and explicitly American, with questions that can never be decided by religion or politics.

Above all, I regard it as foppish, ignorant and vain to allow “religious” persons to engage in a dialogue with  “humanists.”  Howso? In the hope that they will be “brought along”–enlightened, persuaded to see the error of their ways?

Humanism is not atheism.  It is not religion. And it is not a camp meeting to bring the factions together, or a writ of indulgence given by one side to the other. It is our natural assumption of the obligations the gods once performed on our behalf–pain and triumph, poetry and art, celebration and mourning–war and peace.

Below the surface stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say and feel — below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel, there flows
With noiseless current, strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.  (Matthew Arnold, 1870)

If an atheist reader does not recognize herself in that verse, it is clearly time to change lodging.

Humanism is not atheism, and atheism disguised as humanism is not atheism either.

68 thoughts on “Being Humanist: The Atheist “Disqualification”

  1. These rants against this (completely imaginary) “new atheism” remind me of the guys I used to know in my youth who always got annoyed whenever one of their favorite, underground bands actually got popular. Atheism is getting a little more hip (thanks to the internet far more than Dawkins et al), so now it’s not cool anymore.

    I also think you have it backwards. Humanism is religious. Atheism is simply an absence of theism. Atheism is not an ideology, contains no beliefs and can produce no “leaders.” It has no “script,” and requires no “confidence,’ because it’s not a belief. Religion is spare change, and atheism is an empty pocket. Humanism is “religious” in that it is an ideology predicated on philosophical assumptions about ethical duties. Atheism contains no ethical assumptions, it’s just a trivial absence of a single nonsensical belief.

    It is also doing no harm to anybody anywhere that atheists are starting to feel a little more free to simply admit to being atheists. I can remember having to carry that around in the deep south and in the military like a shameful secret. We were presented with mini-Bibles our first day of Basic Training and forced to participate in group prayers.

    That was an incredibly minor inconvenience in the scope of religion’s illustrious career, yet atheism has never even done that much.

    I reject Stalin as an atheist. He was a Communist, and Communism is a religion.

    • I think it’s too easy to tar communism as a religion in an attempt to say its vile record can be attributed to vile tendencies especially patent to religion. Organizationally, religion looks like a lot of other things–especially like the state structure it was modeled on in Roman times, and there are vicious aspects about the Roman state too. My point is that religion and all human institutions, godded and ungodded produce beasts and beasts do beastly things. Were Nazis who did beastly things doing them as Nazis, or Christians, or just as diminished human beings? You see the dilemma: and I said this should not be a score-keeping game. I do not believe atheism OR religion saves anyone from beastliness, and I can see aspects of each that may actually encourage it. I cannot point to an officially religious state that hasn’t produced atrocities, of some degree, and I can’t point to any officially secular or atheist state that hasn’t done the same thing. Do you still want to argue that the trouble is “religion” or that humanism should not be carefully distinguished from both?

      • I agree with you about human institutions in general, and I don’t think the trouble is THEISTIC (sorry for the shouty caps, I don’t know how to code italics) religion, I think the problem is magical thinking. That, as Christopher Hitchens phrases it, is what “makes good people do wicked things.” I’m not anti-religion in general (my wife and children are baptized, church going Catholics), nor do I blame religion for the evils of the world, but no one has ever gotten people to commit mass murder without the use of some kind of magical thinking – a blurring of reality with fantasy, some kind of supernatural or magical narrative.

        Nazi-ism was very much a religion based on magical assumptions about race and about Jews. Communism, likewise, has a magical narrative.

        Magical thinking makes it easier to manipulate people into doing things they would not already do. Heavenly rewards (what Rodney Stark calls “otherworldly compensators”) are only one way to do this. Another way is to convince people that a target group is invisibly demonic or evil. The key is changing reality. Reality is not what it seems. It makes the intolerable appear necessary. Suicide bombers are groomed to believe they are heroic martyrs committing a necessary sacrifice against evil people.

        To me, this is the danger, this subsumption into fantasy. It’s not strictly just a conventional religious thing. I think all organized ideologies tend to move in this direction.

        Raw atheism is not an ideology, Humanism is.

    • The problem isn’t “religion” per se. It’s deifying a belief structure to the point that it becomes a crime to point out anything negative about it. Neither atheism nor theism, naturalism or supernaturalism, are safe from that human tendency. Which seems to be some sort of halo effect on steroids.

      I’m not sure magical thinking is the appropriate term to use here, since what we’re talking about is an idea so true that it’s wrong to criticize any argument that supports it. This is what happened with Communism and with state sanction Christianity. But it could also happen to “democracy”. Or the USA. Or baseball. It would be a category error to claim any of those things as religions; there’s nothing inherent about Communism that makes it any more prone to leading to death camps than democracy. Human psychology being what it is, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened more often.

      And the opposite of that — an idea so false that it’s a crime to point out anything good about it — seems to have some modern examples as well.

      • It would therefore be an error to establish a category so broad pars pro toto that its distinguishing characteristics were turned to slush. The extreme atheist usage of the term “religion” does just that, especially when it reduces it to ‘belief in the supernatural,” a mistake that would get you a D on a mid-term anthropology exam. I don’t doubt that people need to do this kind of generalizing for purposes of debate and polemic, but historians and people with an interest in precision need to fight against it.

      • J. Quinton,

        It’s deifying a belief structure to the point that it becomes a crime to point out anything negative about it.

        Not just “deifying a belief structure” but simply making it the be-all-and-end-all: groupthink. And all or virtually all groups are essentially fascist, the emblem of which is the bundle of sticks with an ax in it which was a symbol of the Roman magistrates and the Roman Republic. Lots of benefits to it: “united we stand; divided we fall”, E Pluribus Unum; but lots of disadvantages: “power corrupts …”

  2. A very nice, impassioned defense of Humanism. Still, there are things about Humanism that continue to worry me. Especially: what’s to keep a humanist from grandiloquent Self indulgence? From narcissism? If “man is the measure of all things.” For me, what helps that is precisely the sense of an external and slightly alien governing Nature, that we get from Science.

  3. ‘Humanism is not atheism. It is not religion. And it is not a camp meeting to bring the factions together, or a writ of indulgence given by one side to the other.’

    Indeed. It appears that humanism is, in this case, er, not to be unkind, what joseph would like it to be. 🙂

  4. ‘Humanism is not atheism…’

    Sure. Of course it isn’t.

    ‘…..and atheism disguised as humanism is not atheism either.’

    I don’t see why not. I don’t see why an atheist can’t be a humanist, if he/she wants to self-describe that way.

    The whole schmoodle about atheists being anti-feeling/emotion is overstated, I think. Though there may be a growing number who are more assertive about wholeheartedly not being religious one iota, but this anti-theism is not the same as anti-passion, though that seems to be the gist of the objections.

  5. Pingback: Quote of the Day | eChurch Blog

    • “Humanism is going”? Who makes it go? This was not a rant against the new atheism; it is a defense of a broader humanism than the kind that limits itself to God bashing, and I think that this tendency is fair game for commentary, don’t you? If people do not think the tendency exists then they missed the part where P Z Myers was chosen AHA Humanist of the Year a couple of years back. Myers spends a lot of his time not just bashing God but people who defend religion (moronic, imbecilic… the list is not quite complete, but you can visit his site). I also find it curious that when I write these little critiques, the reactions are always pretty vicious-of the “Get out of Dodge if you don’t like it here” variety. I wonder why a movement that has always been immature in the American intellectual context continues to have tantrums when it’s corrected?

      • I don’t know (or lose much sleep over) ‘where Humanism is going’, but I was addressing someone who seems to think it is going wrong.

        Of course, reacting to God bashing is understandable, but I think you take it too far. ‘Atheism’ (new or otherwize) is not a little idea, even if Myers and a few others are indeed rude and abraisive. You generalize far too much, IMO. It amounts to strawmanning.

      • I think I said that particle physicists fall in love and have passion too, and I have no idea what percentage of them love PZ Myers or wine–or are atheists. The point of any essay is to argue an opinion; that’s what the word “essay” means, I think–not to lay down laws governing human behavior. But the argument is plain enough: the reduction of a term like humanism to atheism and its effects is a disservice to the idea of humanism as a perspective that resists reduction. Making humanism a “movement” (like “secular humanism” or other organized humanisms) deprives it of a certain independence and “veridical” status in relation to religion and irreligion–and other movements and moral systems. Movement humanism has encouraged this reduction and caused a clear “pejoration” (linguists like that word) of humanism. You can certainly be an atheist and a humanist. But I don’t think being a humanist presupposes unbelief, and any attempt to limit the definition to atheism would disqualify it, in my book. Don’t worry: my book has a little “b”. Anyway, I must have written half a dozen posts on the subject in the last three years including a fairly meaty one about how secular humanism came to be–so troll away and toss aside any straw men that litter the way.

      • Ha. I am not sure I want an elaboration on that. 🙂

        Anyhows, I don’t know Myers much, but if he uses the term ‘imbeciles’ for theists, then I would disagree with him, obviously. Same for Dennet’s patronizing (if not plain dud) suggestion of using ‘brights’ instead of ‘atheists’. Same for Dawkins saying (though to be fair I’m not sure if he did, explicitly) that religion is the root of all evil. Same for hundreds if not thousands of atheists on atheist forums being unnecessarily rude towards theists (have to hold my hand up here, shamefully).

        Perhaps I, understandably, can excuse them a bit more than you.

    • It does and you’re right. It’s just not what this post is about. See a previous post for example:

      “At the beginning of the renaissance, the humanist thinker Pico della Mirandola was censured by Pope Innocent VIII for “certain propositions” contained in his Oration on the Dignity of Man—the first true humanist manifesto.

      “In the Oration, Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation)…”

      • Technically steph, that’s an oxymoron. 🙂

        Anyhows, apologies for crisscrossing, but here’s what you said at another (related, i hope) thread:

        ‘David it’s about ideology and not about simplistic quotes out of context. Neither is it only about ‘new atheists’ who claim the name humanism. Our concern is with the hijacking of humanism.’

        Of course, strictly speaking, one can only hijack something if it belongs to someone else and is going to where the passengers have paid tickets to get to. Unfortunately for humanism, or more specifically your preferred version, this is not the case.

        This whole topic reminds me, in many ways, of a subject in which I am arguably better qualified to have an opinion on than either humanism or religion, which is architecture.

        Mies Van de Rohe coined the phrase ‘less is more’ (not sure when, but he died in 1969 aged 83, so presumably it was before that). He is also, incidentally, attributed with saying , ‘God is in the details’.

        Rowan Atkinson (aka mr Bean in another incarnation) once quipped that if this (less being more) was the case, how come so many ‘modern’ buildings look like dustbins with an old bicycle on top. 🙂

        Me, I think that sometimes, less is just less. Not always, mind you.

        So, I do understand (I think) what your objections, and joseph’s, are to atheism ‘hijacking’ humanism. Broadly speaking, I agree.

        If I ever have seemed to disagree or poke (harmless I hope, that is the intention) fun, it’s only because, well, I’m a proud new atheist, and I sometimes think that the sort of atheists you object to are only a proportion of atheists, and that even with them, it feels like there is a certain amount of over-simplification going on.

        But, hey, if I was in your position, or joseph’s position, I might be saying exactly the same things.

      • Just while I’m on the topic, did you see ‘How to build a Cathedral’ on BBC 4 last night. Highly recommendable, I thought, for many varied reasons.

        Reminded me of ‘The Spire’ by William Golding, in some ways. Now, there’s a man ‘of letters’, if ever there was one, who tried to tackle the big issues surrounding his own religious beliefs, or lack of. Not sure he ever arrived at a settled opinion. 🙂

      • Do you need me to be literal? Piquant Pico di Gallo without the Guacamole or any meaty intruders, served with a glass of dry Merlot. That is Pico Piquant on it’s own with a glass of dry Merlot. Not “technically an oxymoron”.

      • It’s about hijacking a term humanism David. It doesn’t belong to anyone. It is a term describing a tradition that has been abused. That’s the point. It’s not a matter of discussing preferences. It’s a matter of saying what humanism means. And it has never been about unbelief. The unbelievers have hijacked a term to justify themselves. We aren’t speaking for ourselves. We’re speaking for humanism and we are not alone.

  6. Undoubtedly there is no trace of open atheism in Pico’s humanism – because as a humanist in heavily Catholic Italy, Pico was already in trouble with the pope. Any strong, overt move toward atheism would immediately have brought down not just verbal condemnation from Church, but probably also imprisonment and even severe corporal punishment.

    The basis of the Pope’s argument against Pico in fact, seems to be a logical assumption: that increasing emphasis on the human being, taking the human as the source or center of everything, necessarily, logically, crowded out God as the center.

    For that matter, aside from the Pope, there’s a related reason why an atheist might also object to some extreme forms of humanism too: in spite of today’s atheism, and its claim that it it is simply lack of belief in God, when someone becomes an atheist and loses God, there tends to be a compensating increase in say, Reason and Science. To fill the gap (as in Dawkins, etc.).

    To a science-oriented atheist, Humanism, puts too much emphasis on Man and his hopelessly fallible humanity. As Human-ism crowds out too much of science, the external universe. As Humanism begins to destroy objectivity.

  7. Humanism, as has been stated is about life, learning and studying the human heart. Most scientists seem uncomfortable with studying the human heart because it’s so broad and deep and won’t allow itself to be confined or micro-managed.

  8. Just yesterday I was insulted heavily by an atheist who lost his cool after an argument on the subject of weak human nature, that doesn’t obey sides, religious, or atheist, or any other ideology, for that matter, since no label can claim a better human nature, than another one, since it is not a matter of congregating under a label, with like minded individuals, but of the individual to choose his behavior, at any given situation, were thoughts, and ideas are not the issue, but our actions, good, or bad, ironically by his outburst, he just become the example of my point.

  9. Theburning:

    No doubt 1) some Science-oriented atheists lack some useful knowledge of human behavior, and are geeky, nerdy, socially awkward, and so forth. On the other hand though, equally: 2) one-sided Humanists, who center exclusively on the purely human, can begin to wallow in human subjectivity too much. Then soon enough they begin wallowing in the more petty, all-too-human emotions. Like say, hedonism.

    For that reason, some kind of reconciliation between the more scientific-athetistic side of Atheism and Humanism, and the more sentimental side, would be useful.

    It’s a matter of balance.

    Hoffmann here makes an interesting and passionately extravagant attempt to read atheism out of Humanism. But the New Atheism has a lot of science in it; and the Arts and Humanities graduate needs more science, among other things. And a cool, dispassionate sense of things, often.

    • Agony aka Bretton Garcia aka Woodbridge aka Anon etc etc

      Most scientists are not new atheists and many are not atheists, which isn’t to say they are necessarily religious, or believe in a biblical or Quranic God or gods or hold beliefs which interfere or contradict their research and obstructs evidence where it leads. Many arts and humanities graduates have broad degrees including or in the sciences and sometimes even, as is the case with a colleague, graduates go on to get two (or more) PhDs, as he is both a nuclear physicist and Professor of Religion. Human beings are capable of multiple emotions depending on the circumstances and a humanist most certainly is.

    • Agonist,

      2) one-sided Humanists, who center exclusively on the purely human, can begin to wallow in human subjectivity too much.

      Yes, quite agree. At its worst akin to speciesism which tends to entail some problematic dimensions of willful blindness and hubris. Mankind is certainly a wonder to behold, but it is probably wise to keep in mind that we are unlikely to be, in actuality or potentiality, the pinnacle of evolution.

  10. David sed: “…one can only hijack something if it belongs to someone else and is going to where the passengers have paid tickets to get to. Unfortunately for humanism, or more specifically your preferred version, this is not the case.”

    The thief’s argument that “You weren’t using it, so it’s mine now.”

    Humanism is a sensibility for our species, planet and lives – what the Renaissance signified and celebrated. It’s not quite exhausted yet as a concept.,.do you know?

    Saying that is “not the case” and that humanism was rudderless and up for grabs may be a confession of spiritual poverty – and likely the daily rosary of many an atheist priest.

    Atheism is alike mopeds and fat ladies – fun to ride but you don’t want your friends to know. Ergo the raiment of humanism over your tatoos..

    • Still, wouldn’t a dogmatic, inflexible Humanism that refuses Atheists, also refuse the eclectic and liberal freedom that is close to the heart of Humanism?

      Isn’t Atheism a human experience? So why read this one out?

      • I beg to differ. What, in that case, is ‘an atheist disqualification’, exactly?

        And what is, ‘atheists including humanists’? I don’t understand what you mean.

        What I see is some people, whose definiton of ‘humanism’ seems to exclude atheism. I’m fine with that. people are allowed to express their preferences. I just think it depends on first choosing a definition of humanism, and there ain’t one single one. Check it out. Look up dictionaries. look up definitions given by ‘Movement’ (?) Humanist organizations. read what different people, throughout history and up to the present day, think humanism means. Report back with your findings. 🙂

      • Both, as a border line Vancouverite. It’s my long term ambition to have my picture taken at McDonalds.

        But in anticipation of your reply, I’m seriously saying that it would be quite all right if atheists just left humanism alone. Forget we never knew each other. It’s truncating and diverting a serious vein in human aspiration.

      • Well, Dwight (and for some reason my more substantive reply to you has gone awol, the above post of mine being just an add-on to it)…

        For those who are anti-atheist, I’m sure it must be a pain in the ass. I can’t help thinking that it involves misrepresenting atheists as somehow, ‘unfeeling’ or somesuch.

        In any case, you may not like it, but an atheist can be a humanist. It’s that simple. Personally, I wouldn’t describe myself as such, and don’t really have a horse in this race.

      • Also, Dwight, when you said:

        ‘Atheism is alike mopeds and fat ladies – fun to ride but you don’t want your friends to know. Ergo the raiment of humanism over your tatoos.’

        What did you mean?

      • David,

        Also, Dwight, when you said: ‘Atheism is alike mopeds and fat ladies – fun to ride but you don’t want your friends to know. Ergo the raiment of humanism over your tatoos.’ What did you mean?

        Methinks somewhat of a convoluted way of saying that atheists are, more or less, knuckle-dragging, beer-drinking, hot-dog eating philistines.

      • Dwight Jones,

        I’m seriously saying that it would be quite all right if atheists just left humanism alone.

        Considering that Wikipedia at least suggests that “humanism” is a rather broad term – encompassing secular, religious and renaissance (aka mythopoeic) varieties – I would say it is perfectly reasonable that all sorts of people are justified, if not entitled, to qualify or emphasize the word with virtually any adjective that has any passing familial relationship or correlation with that broader concept.

        Somewhat elitist – at best, I would say, to suggest otherwise.

      • Joseph,

        Who cares what he meant: I liked it.

        Certainly somewhat of a clever insult: only atheists have “tattoos” that they might be somewhat embarrassed to show in polite company and so wish to hide with the ethereal raiment of “humanism”.

        But somewhat wasted if it isn’t clear what he meant by it – not everyone is going to be familiar with every last bit of world-wide current and ancient idiom

      • Big whoop for those who liked Dwight’s statement. I honestly can’t think why. The first part was possibly the most bizarre sentiment I have heard on the subject (and the part which puzzled me) since it implies someone finding atheism in some way attractive, but only shamefully.

        The second part didn’t need much deciphering. It was a straight up anti-atheist misrepresentation. As one person’s opinion (or should I say several people’s, adding those who applauded it) it’s perfectly fine by me. But it is, sadly, nothing more than the inverse of the sort of anti-theism one finds at some atheist websites. Those who think that stooping to the level of the intolerance of others is a laudable strategy for fighting back against their intolerance are fooling themselves that they are any better.

        Ciao. I have a feeling this may be my last post at this little outpost of anti-atheism. I’d like to say it was fun, or just stimulating…..

  11. @Dwight J

    “It’s not humanists refusing atheists. It’s atheists including humanists”

    You hit the nail on the head here(: Been trying to explain this to some theist friends, but right now it’s an uphill battle.

  12. Apparently, there is a very striking marble staue in Ranger’s House in London called ‘The Loves of Angels’. I don’t know a lot about it, other than that i saw it featured on ‘Bargain Hunt’ earlier today. Not a progamme I normally clear my schedules so as not to miss, you understand.

    The sculptor was, I believe, a person (probably a man) named Bergonzoli, who may or may not also have made cheese, for all I know.

    The statue depicts a semi-clothed/naked woman about to be kissed by an angel (both life size as it happens) who seems to be lifting her off the ground in preparation for the clincher.The way the sculptor has achieved this illusion is remarkable, right down to giving the fingers on the left hand of the angel the appearance, in stone, of pressing gently into the woman’s left side, below her underarm. I believe the backstory is that the angel has ‘fallen’ for an earthly mortal woman, so maybe his wings are going to ‘drop off’ if they consumate, not entirely unlike in the film ‘City of Angels’ (no not the one with Nicholas Cage). Incidentally, on a boringly, aka no doubt typically atheist technical note, the wings are attached (one can see the joins) and only the remainder of the statue is carved from a single block, so the idea that they might fall off is perhaps unintentionally reinforced by this.

    Here is a youtube video featuring the statue, accompanied by some very lovely music. I believe it is the ‘Love theme’ from the film Cinema Paradiso, and there are two versions used in the video, the first being a guitar instrumental by Pat Metheny and the other with a full orchestra, which I think is the version used in the film.

    I only offer this for the enjoyment of theists and agnostic humanists, obviously, since it’s out of the question that an atheist would be even slightly interested, human spirit crusher that he/she is, and even if he/she were to volunteer a passing response, it would undoubtedly be something about how the molecular structure of marble allows for high quality dissection.

    It is absurd to imagine that an atheist could think to linger on the little crease in the angels heel, or the shape of the space between his midriff and the woman’s back, (and incidentally how the curls of the woman’s hair partially fill this, giving the illusion that they are hardly touching).

    Worst of all, but entirely unsurprisingly, the atheist is going to entirely miss the point of how wonderful love is, as an ideal, and how comforting it must be to believe that no matter how shitty life can be, at times, there are angels, and we might get to meet them after we shuffle off, and they will make everything ok, a bit like for Laura Palmer at the end of ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ (as I understood it, but of course it is dangerous to think one understands David Lynch). No, an atheist isn’t even going to see that as poignant. he’s just going to think it’s silly and stupid.

    • Exactly. In between munching on his [or her] hot-dogs and swilling his/her/their beer ….

      But nice convoluted “rant” … 🙂

      And the video [within the post and on YouTube] is accessible here in Canada – thanks ….

      • Jim,

        ‘Mike: Do you feel that spirituality plays a large part in your musical development and ability to perform and do you have specific spiritual beliefs at all?

        Pat (Metheney): I don’t have specific spiritual beliefs other than that I know I believe in music itself and, to me, within that world alone is an infinite world of itself and that’s the world that I, kind of, choose to live in. You know, music is a constant source of fascination and mystery for mean its something that I always approach with a lot of respect and humility because I see belief in music as something that comes from a place outside of our regular consciousness. You know, when I read about religion and these people that are very religious, it seems in a lot of ways, more about ego to me. More about, like, people trying to make sure they get into Heaven, or something or that they’re cool when they die. There’s a lot of, like, well, we know this, but, you don’t know that, kind of thing. The thing about music that I like is that it is very inviting to everybody and it sort of, it really functions as a mirror for people and I think that religion as its best can do that, too. So, I think they’re very similar.’

  13. The whole discussion takes me back to the Bush years when Republicans had a very annoying habit of equating their party with patriotism and “supporting the troops” and being a “real American.” A Republican can be a patriot, but a patriot and a Republican are not one and the same. Plenty of Democrats who considered themselves patriots and who supported the troops greatly resented those Republicans who tried to claim that turf all to themselves. At the same time, there were Republicans who not only claimed that the mantle of patriotism belonged to them exclusively, but who also supported a lot of what many of us might call un-American policies (such as the ironically named USA Patriot Act, torture, warrantless wiretapping, denying due process to terror suspects, and the like). So what you ended up with was an unfortunate dulling of the distinction between “Republicans” and “proud American patriots who support the troops” (you can be both, but the two groups are not necessarily the same) AND you had some Republicans who were so off the deep end that they themselves hardly resembled the freedom-loving American patriots that they claimed they were BY DEFINITION. What I’m getting at should be obvious by now, but let’s spell it out: atheism is not humanism in the same way that being a Republican is not patriotism. You can be both, but DO NOT confuse the two. The distinction is extremely important, because it is actually possible for theists to be humanists (rare these days, I know, but if you don’t believe that, look into the history of humanism and you will see that it begins with Christian Renaissance scholars like Erasmus). On the other hand, there are SOME atheists who arguably should not be called humanists just as there are Republicans who aren’t worthy to be called patriots. These non-humanist atheists are the anti-passion Reason-Bots the author refers to and loathes so much. They are not humanists, because they want to squeeze the humanity out of us by reducing the human species to a collection of data-gathering scientific instruments instead of, you know, people! These are often the same humps who want us to believe that atheism and humanism are 100-percent equivalent…We can debate about how many atheists actually deserve to be characterized this way (and I have a feeling I would disagree with the author a bit here) just as we can debate how many Republicans should be characterized as un-American. I hope you find this analogy illuminating.

  14. I’m part of movement humanism, and I think it is a good thing. I’ll try to tackle some straw men in the article and the comments in this post.

    1. I’m an atheist, and the group I belong to is a secular humanist group which just calls itself ‘humanist’. We do so without compunction because we are not an atheist-qua-atheist group. We do align ourselves both with the historical legacy of humanism and do not focus on atheism or religion-bashing. That said, we are heavily influenced by the AHA, even though we are in a different country.

    2. We are a movement, so things get dirty and impure. We are people that use language, and so the language gets messy. Language is like that, when it is used to generate discourse and new ideas, this activity changes what the words meant. When you try to share ideas with others, not everyone can be an expert, and some people understand things crudely. We try our best, but life is more a manicured bush than a carved stone.

    3. I think having a movement is a good thing. Yes, you can keep things cloistered and pure by restricting membership, but there is a tangible poetry and joie-de-vivre in seeing ideas spread in a community with shared values, and in participating in this process.

    4. Sure it becomes something else, but that is also part of the process of any idea over time. The split betweeen secular and spiritual/religious humanism has been part of that process: the people involved have time and again split themselves quasi-naturally into these groups, and seem to gravitate together along religious/non-religious lines. To deny either group access to their heritage or use of the word would be wrong. Humanism today can never be the same as humanism in the 18th century because it is no longer the 18th century.

    5. There are a lot of strawmen here. First: discussing how bad of an idea God is over beer and hotdogs. You know what we talk about most of the time? Our lives and our ideas. We appreciate what is good in life and share it. We argue and debate constantly but amicably. Yes, sometimes we have beer and hot dogs and make jokes about what you would call ‘movement religion’, but more often we also have fine wine and cheeses and discuss the latest Chopin Society’s performance. We’re people with varied interests and backgrounds.

    6. To davidjohnmills and the trope that atheists somehow don’t appreciate love/arts/beauty. This is categorically false. I watched your video and felt the emotion behind it. I often compose music in my head as I walk in the forest and playfully imagine reality with extra poetical flourish in ways far beyond what a single religion could offer. I am certainly not alone in enjoying life, enjoying art, and enjoying feeling itself in our group, at as high a level as you can imagine.

    7. It might be possible to get this impression because many of us atheist-rationalists (especially from a science background) care very much about trying to make as little mistake as possible in our understanding of reality. We very much see the poignancy of some beliefs and religious or spiritual arts, and often imagine ourselves in such worlds for their added poignancy and artistry to better experience the moment, but we also simultaneously call it silly to actually believe or idolize the ideation.

    8. I’ll also address the trope that atheists in the humanist movement harp on religion because they are bitter. Although not mentioned directly, it is implied. This does happen to some extent, but the large majority (of at least our group) of the small majority of ex-religious members left their religion primarily because they felt that core aspects were simply wrong, and their integrity could not support their staying. Many of us harbour no personal hatred towards religion, and have infrequent debates with the anti-theists among us. Many of us would rather not discuss religion or atheism-qua-atheism at all, though it does come up often enough as news items and action items concerning civil liberties.

    In short: I’m a secular humanist, and yes, I’m bastardizing your precious conception of the term humanism. However, I refuse to let it go since I believe much of that beauty is still there at the core of the secular humanist movement. As dirty as you’d like the see its exterior, I’d like to think that our heart still shines through. To continue to metaphor, you could say we’ve thrown humanism in the mud, but that mud is not mud, it is people, people whose lives have been enriched by humanism and what it has become.

    • Thanks for your comment; we disagree, but you state your case very nicely. However, I wouldn’t say that the things critiqued are “straw men” (a word that seems to be the first listing under “S” in the New Atheist manual). My impression of the agenda of movement humanism even juding from their websites, ad campaigns, award process, projects, all trend strongly towwards atheism. That cannot be a straw man; there is simply too much to support the contention. If your group does not conform to national averages, then you are an exception to the rule. Sorry about the hotdogs, but in the UK (there is more to humanism outside the US after all), the most successful grouping is called Skeptics in the Pub.

      • I apologize for the use of the word straw man – it is overused lately and I had originally thought to make my post more about the anti-atheist positions I found on other articles on the site.

        It is taken as established wisdom on our corner of the world that with the decline of deism and rise of evangelicals, humanists are much more likely to be atheist/agnostic than otherwise. From a demographic standpoint, and from the observed fact before that groups tend to split on theist/atheist lines, it makes sense to skew some of the agenda towards atheism as a hook (many more people have heard of atheism than humanism, and a very large proportion of atheists end up being friendly towards humanism). We’ve seen that groups that push the atheism angle tend to be much more successful. With the data I’ve seen, even humanist groups that are careful to try to be atheist/theist agnostic end up with something like an 80/20 split in atheist/theist membership.

        If I’m right in judging, this marketing push, or the fact that larger groups tend to focus a bit more on atheism, is likely the nacent cause of most of your concerns with secular humanism.

        Maybe we have this all wrong, and maybe there is room for growth of new movements of Christian or Muslim Humanism like there is for Jewish Humanism. However, in a sense, nonsecular humanism has mostly given up the title of humanism to the secular humanists in this region as those that tend towards a more spiritual outlook group together under the umbrella of Unitarians/Universalists before calling themselves humanists.

        Maybe we are wrong, and using humanism as a social focusing point is wrongheaded as you imply, but there does seem to be a demand for it.

      • Humanism has never been about the supernatural. Humanism has never been about personal belief, non religious or otherwise. Most people, religious or not, want to live in a secular society with secular education and government. This exists in the Antipodes and some parts of Europe and should be so in the UK were it not for muddiness in some quarters of education and government including the ‘House of Lords’. Humanism has never been about secularism until it was hijacked in the 1970s. Then it became branded with special flavours: pick and choose. And now you have a new atheist Dawkins, heading the BHA. But humanism has always been about the critical spirit of culture and learning and celeberating the achievements in the arts, crafts, ethics and sciences, of human beings. It has always been about critical thinking. There are many people in the world with different personal beliefs or ‘none’, who are humanists, but who don’t join movements because they are compromised by political causes, ideological positions and social movements, and focused on scientific achievement put forward by some self-styled “secular humanist” organizations. In its historical evolution as a mind-set, the humanist spirit contributed to the development of science, but science is not its end or goal. It has muddied and eroded the traditional and the modern senses of humanism. The association of humanism and secularism has eroded the positive meaning of the term even further. And the efforts of some groups to equate humanism with special ideologies and interests has had a corrupting and limiting effect which, in significant ways, runs counter to the critical spirit which humanism has always fostered.

    • @ Mclean Edwards,

      Excellent post, IMO.

      Personally, I’m not a Humanist, that is to say, I haven’t gotten around to joining the movement, though I keep meaning to, but don’t, for a host of practical reasons (busy busy life, live out in the country etc).

      i do have some small reservations, but they would be extremely churlish. Ultimately, I am not a ‘joiner of isms’. 🙂

      That Humanism is becoming more and more secular, that is to say gradually leaving anything to do with the supernatural behind, seems to me to be an entirely natural arguably inevitable process. I think it might even be possible to make the case that any brand of humanism which still has the supernatural in it is not really Humanism, almost by definition.

      Personally, I wouldn’t overtly bring any anti-theism into my humanism (small h) or into my Humanism, if and when I join. It’s a question of my personal take on ‘manners’. If there were theists or agnostics in my local group, I don’t think I would bat much of an eyelid. Having said that, I can quite understand if others prefer to stick to wholly secular.

  15. Hm, guess I missed this nearly two years ago. Well just a quickie note. As a fully hard core atheist, I fully agree with you! I have zero love for what people erroneously adore and call human accomplishments, as species we are extremely destructive. This is my main reason for disliking Humanism (capital H the official Humanist manifestos). As a never-been-indoctrinated atheist I am from old-stock atheists, not this new new-atheist fad which I fully again agree with you regarding the puritanical straightness. You have your wording of this sentiment, I simply call the present day Secular Humanists WASPs (minus P’s god), but the attitude to life is pretty much the same… minus homophobia. But now that gays have pushed so hard to be accepted within religion, even the homosexuality fad within atheist politics will pass. It’s also why I NEVER use the word atheism, because it leads the mind to thinking about a philosophy or mindset, so I find atheistic a much better use of the greek root of the word. I’m always reluctant to consider PZ Myers a “Humanist” to me, he’s simply a vocal biologist, and there should be a lot more vocal scientists. I find PZ Myers to not be WASPy at all, unlike the 4 horsemen of new atheism.
    Anyway, always fun to read you, even the older stuff 🙂

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