It seems we nontheists go by many names—atheist, secularist, freethinker, humanist, secular humanist, rationalist, agnostic, and so on—as if these differences actually mean something. I’ve heard people imply that there is some sort of ideological difference between them, as if a label automatically locks one into a specific category. I find this curiously at odds with the inherent randomness of human behavior, and rather suspect these names are often used as a mere marketing tool.
Still, names do point toward certain proclivities; agnostics tend to temper their surety, rationalists focus on rational foundations for living, freethinkers tend to focus on the pernicious aspects of religion, and humanists embody the whole life stance that a naturalistic view demands.
The genius of humanism is that it is a blend of the best of both the Enlightenment and the Romantic movements, embracing both heart and mind, reason and compassion. It seeks to use all the human tools we have available for creating a secular life. I tend to call myself a humanist without any adjectives although I will and have in certain contexts called myself any of the aforementioned names. Generally though, I’d rather be known by what I believethan what I don’t believe. I don’t want to be measured by someone else’s criteria, but by the positive humanist philosophy I aspire to and the life I lead.
We come to a nontheistic life stance in many ways. Many find humanism by observing the rational incoherence in religion. Many of us find the horrible historical results of religion to be unacceptable. Others are motivated by a youthful rebellion. Many black humanists and feminists say they found humanism as a result of their search for answers to oppression. Experientialists found the aesthetics of nature and our place in it as their motivating force. A fair number of so-called “come-outers” bring an early anger against religion that generally, but not always, matures to primarily dealing with how to live one’s life as a humanist. Some of us were never religious to begin with.
The way I see it we exhibit all of the proclivities we see in the non-theistic movement at one time or another. We all have moments where we are more rational, and others where we are more emotional; moments where we are angry at religion and others where we are more tolerant; moments where we desire to be solitary and moments where want to be nurtured by our communities; moments where we like the ritual of celebrations, and moments were we are more skeptical. We are, after all, complex human creatures—bundles of contradictions, universes within ourselves—which is why we change labels like we do.
Regardless, our orientations do matter and humanist individuals along with organized groups of humanists tend to emphasize one aspect or another in their activities. Some of us concentrate on building intentional humanist communities and others on stomping out religious intrusion into matters of state. Some of us are drawn to creating a more rational society, while others are committed to building a more caring society. I don’t consider any of the tendencies we carry as ideologies, but more like styles. It’s sort of like when we wake up in the morning and decide if we want to dress casually in jeans or dress up or even change later in the day. In the end it really means nothing, as we all ground ourselves in a naturalism that says this world is all and enough. The rest is just style.
I like to see myself as a rather balanced humanist who rejects extremes in our movement, but when I am honest with myself I know that I can flip between being a raving “village atheist” or the incurable romantic. I now think we need all the extremes in our movement as well as a moderate center that grounds us. We need the ardent rationalists to keep society from descending into the never world of pseudoscientific nonsense and we need the artists and healers to illuminate how to live our humanism. We need those who confront religious abuses directly and those who show us how to heal our relationships with the communities at large. We need those who study the intellectual underpinnings of a secular life, and those who show us by example what a lived humanism looks like. In short, we can all contribute to a more encompassing, more tolerant, more generous, more enlightened humanism.
Mike Werner is past president of the American Humanist Association and active in many humanist organizations.