2016 Humanism

Photo courtesy of Red Rooster Group Photo courtesy of Red Rooster Group

THE RISING TIDE OF NONRELIGIOUS people in the United States is accompanied by an intense focus on the “New Atheism,” which, rightly or wrongly, is critiqued as being not vocal enough or downright anti-progressive when it comes to social justice issues like women’s rights, racial equality, and the environment. Those familiar with the movement understand that when one declares themselves to be an “atheist,” they’re simply saying that they don’t believe in any gods; it doesn’t naturally imply a commitment to any particular social contract, whereas “humanist” means something additional. Atheism is what we don’t believe; humanism is what we do believe.

Humanists are cultural progressives. When you make decisions based on rationality and scientific research, with an added dose of empathy, the effective answers to the issues of our day are the progressive answers. Science-based sex education is proven to be more effective than abstinence-based sex education. A strong middle class is best for a stable, resilient economy. Healthcare for all extends quality of life and strengthens economies. The civil rights of all must be protected because the only justification for seeing women and racial minority groups as inferior comes from bronze-age holy books and other outdated ideas. People who support progressive ideals most often do so because they see positive results and understand cause and effect.

While atheists and humanists reject the existence of any gods for lack of evidence, atheism and humanism are not synonymous. Many atheists and humanists are good people, but atheism in and of itself is not supported by an ethical system to guide behavior. Not all those who don’t believe in a god have fully moved past societal prejudices and old programming—and not all have cultivated empathy in a way that engenders compassion for others and builds a sense of egalitarianism.

Those who criticize the nontheistic movement for not being more engaged with progressive issues may have valid points about our need to do more, but they may also be falling into the trap of thinking that all flavors of nontheist are indeed the same—that “atheist” and “humanist” are synonyms. Statistically, the majority of us are progressives who eschew bigotry, economic injustice, and unbridled destruction of the environment. The majority of atheists and other nontheists hold humanist values even if they don’t use that word to self-identify. Those nontheists who don’t embrace humanist values can sometimes generate the most noise within the larger community.

We humanists are certainly doing our share of “good.” We just aren’t often visible. Over the decades those of us who fit the secular “progressive activist” label have joined, contributed to, and worked within the organizations that focus on each of our particular interests: the Sierra Club, Black Lives Matter, Greenpeace, the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and many more. We participate in peace rallies, gay pride parades, and civil rights marches. We join protests like Occupy Wall Street. The list goes on. We are there doing the work but may be unrecognized for our secularism, for our humanism.

Our next step as a movement, especially within the American Humanist Association (AHA) is to achieve acceptance, which can be an uphill battle in the face of historical discrimination against nontheists. For example, a few years ago the Stiefel Freethought Foundation wanted to make a substantial donation to the American Cancer Society. Those humanist funds were apparently rejected because the American Cancer Society didn’t want to be associated with “atheists.” Somehow it’s seen as a threat if we receive recognition as contributors to good deeds and humanitarian efforts. It’s a challenge to some peoples’ faith when we demonstrate that you can be good without a god, showing that belief in the divine is unnecessary to being a good person. Believe if you want to, but it’s not a requirement for goodness, just as being a believer is not a guarantee of good behavior.

Our culture would benefit from a greater recognition of humanism and the role it plays within the nontheistic movement. The American Humanist Association defines humanism as follows:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Unpacking that statement a bit, several points become evident, not just about what humanists don’t believe, but what we do believe. Humanists hold progressive views about society and daily living. Humanists don’t believe in gods. Humanists believe that humans are capable of living meaningful, ethical lives. Humanists believe in our human power to change the world for the better. We also believe in our responsibility to use the abilities we have for the betterment of ourselves and our world.

When writers and thinkers began discussing the “New Atheism” as an alternative to existing establishments, the focus was on rejecting religious belief, criticizing irrational thinking, and debunking outrageous claims. What was sometimes lost was a sense of why it’s important to do these things: magical thinking writ large impairs a community’s best thinking. Standards for ethical behavior were too often absent from much of the dialogue within New Atheism. The rights of those historically subjugated and the moral standards for interpersonal behavior were left to individual conscience.

The American Humanist Association’s humanism is an alternative, re-energized for achieving social justice and renewed in our passion for every person’s right to self-actualization and dignity. The focus of the recent strategic planning efforts undertaken by the AHA board of directors isn’t on telling the world the positive things we believe, but on showing it through our actions and through our achievements.

While we’ll never stand silent in the face of threats to the rights of nontheists to articulate our views freely, as a movement we’re reaching the critical mass where we can now accompany our historical individual activism with organizational action. By working hand-in-hand to improve the lives of our fellow human beings, and by actively working to increase the dignity afforded each one of us, we strive for a society in which humanist views are widely available and publicly respected. New Atheists are great at exposing more people to the idea that living without a god is possible. It’s up to us humanists and our allies to make sure that we create a desirable, fair, and just world to live in.

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  • Karen R. Koenig

    Nicely said. One point–rather than saying that Humanists don’t believe in God (as if God exists), I find it more accurate and stronger to say, Humanists believe there is no God.

    • I prefer to stick with “have no belief in a god”. The problem with “believing there is no god” is that “god” is such a poorly defined term. As soon as you make that positive assertion, the Sophistimicated Theologians will start re-defining god into some vague “ground of being” or some such weak concept. And it’s fine by me if some humanists want to believe in the possibility of some nebulous god-ish thing existing, as long as we are in agreement on goals and values.

      Now when it comes to specific human-created gods, like the Fundamentalists’ biblegod, yes I’d agree we could say we believe that one doesn’t exist.

  • slowe11

    “we are almost always there—we just do it in the camouflage of the crowd, which is incorrectly presumed by these writers to be solely people of faith. Humanist contributions frequently go ignored.” THis is no better illustrated that with the Humanist support and advocacy for LGBT rights and acceptance of Humanists of homosexuals. Humanists, and atheists organizations have ALWAYS been, not only welcoming but, downright supportive and activist towards homosexual rights. The gay press does not see this and has not reported this even though they will report about some religions and churches as causing harm to LGBTs and, report on those churches or congregations who are “welcoming” and supportive of gays. I have never seen a story about how non-believers, Humanists, Freethinkers, the Nones, etc. support gay rights ALL THE TIME. I suggest that the Communications Directors of the Humanists and Atheists organizations, each or together, create a press release or story summarizing and listing ALL the supportive stories, action alerts, awards, etc. they have produced in their publications and by their members over the past two decades. This story about the history of LGBT support by each Humanist organization should be documented and published. The world should know what Humanists have done. They should get credit from the gay community for all their efforts over the years. The Humanists organizations should get an award from the gay press and advocacy organizations like HRC, GLAD, PFLAG, SAGE, and many others. I also think it could drive new members from the gay or gay-supportive population to these organizations. It could increase membership.

  • JeffB

    “What was sometimes lost was a sense of why it’s important to do these things: magical thinking writ large impairs a community from its best thinking.” Bravo. This is a challenge for many fellow UU humanists who have seen a subtle (some say not so subtle) decline in the emphasis on reason and critical thinking of “religious” belief from the UU Association leadership.

  • Ken

    I have a problem with AHA members declaring that there is no God.
    The universe and its contents may have been created by some God like entity or entities.
    I wish AHA members would just focus on exposing the Bible as being a book of lies.
    The stories in the Bible are referred to as parables, which is another word for lies.

    • ClarenceMokgotho

      So you want Humanists to become creationists?

  • johndowdle

    I think another point to make relating to humanists is that we find religious practices and beliefs to be completely irrelevant to our everyday lives. We have no need of religion for anything at all. We now have humanist celebrants to take care of rite de passage rituals such as birth, majority, love and death.
    Religious clerics are no longer necessary for normal functioning for normal people in a normal society.
    Looking to the future – as all humanists should – we should envisage a future society free of religion, prejudice and bigotry, and contrast it with the appalling nature of a present society riddled with religions.
    We should point out to all who listen how much of a relief it will be when future societies find themselves freed from the intolerable burden of religion – what a weight off all of our mental shoulders it will be!
    Free at last – free at last; thank human goodness we will all be free at last! – to adapt a phrase.
    That is the promise of our humanist future.

  • Rick Harms

    I see the phrase “social justice” and my blood runs cold. With all the drama occurring with the “social justice warriors” as displayed by recent college antics, I do not want to be associated with the term, “social justice”. Social justice, yes, outright hatred for the “patriarchy”, blaming white males (which I am one), and violence displayed by these people, no.

  • Not all those who don’t believe in a god have fully moved past societal prejudices and old programming—and not all have cultivated empathy in a way that engenders compassion for others and builds a sense of egalitarianism.

    Well said! For this nonbeliever, the problem with contemporary humanism is that there’s far too much overlap with a New Atheism that doesn’t uphold the notion that there’s something unique and meaningful about human existence. Lawrence Krauss tells us in every speech how “insignificant” and “irrelevant” we are, as if macho nihilism is any better than religious demagoguery.

  • Dom of Ebb & Flowmotion

    “It’s up to us humanists and our allies to make sure that we create a desirable, fair, and just world to live in.”~Yes!