The Humanist Dilemma: Is there Space for Any Supernaturalism in the Humanist Circle?

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Humanist Dilemma at (subject line: Humanist Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Angels in Atheism: I became disenchanted with the church when I was a child and never looked back. But I do believe in angels, including my deceased daughter who communicates with me and with my adult son. We compare notes on her presence in our dreams and occasionally engage mediums who relay very positive messages from her. I also do tarot cards every once in a while, and I follow my horoscope regularly but not obsessively.

I’m wondering what atheism and humanism have to say about all this. I suspect these practices would be ridiculed, but I find them very comforting and uplifting. I also believe in some kind of god, even though I don’t like his “house.”

-Does This Disqualify Me?


Dear Disqualify,

First let me extend my sympathy on the loss of your daughter. The death of a child is unimaginably difficult and anything that brings you solace and eases your grief should not be dismissed.

The only thing atheism “says” on any subject is that there is no god(s). That is the literal meaning of the term: a means “without” and theism refers to the belief in the existence of god(s). Humanism, however, embraces a distinct set of concepts, and some of what is and isn’t included, such as atheism and spirituality, is hotly debated among humanists. Humanism inclines toward the rational, scientific, logical, and demonstrable, and therefore shies away from anything supernatural. It would be rare to find a humanist who espouses astrology vs. astronomy, who seeks answers from psychics rather than psychologists or psychiatrists, who considers angels as real as angles, or who learns more from mediums than media. But there is a subset of humanists who believe in some form of god and “spirituality,” whatever that may be.

Long, long ago, before I called myself an atheist or humanist, and when astrology was all the rage, I momentarily suspended disbelief and visited a couple of psychics. However, I concluded that studying one’s “sign” had zero merit after realizing I had stayed too long in incompatible relationships with men named David and Dennis because I was assured my mate’s name would start with a “D.” (Incidentally, my husband of more than two decades has not a “d” to his name.)

When you watch magicians or illusionists, you may be astonished by what they do, but you know beyond a doubt that they’re just tricks, no matter how convincing or amazing. The woman isn’t sawed in half, the rabbit doesn’t materialize within the hat, something actually is up the sleeve, or behind the back, or wherever you weren’t looking. It’s the same with these other things. Psychics and mediums are very skilled at offering observations about you that are true for most of us (e.g., “You are concerned about love, career, health”) and then they zero in on specifics based on a barrage of guesses they spew out that you react to. Astrology is no better than a fortune cookie or Magic 8-ball, tossing off predictions and observations that inevitably include some that are accurate—just as a broken clock is right twice a day.

As for angels, I would not discourage anything that enables you to have positive thoughts about the loss of your child. But I would urge you to be very cautious. Don’t allow yourself to get too immersed in paranormal practices. Instead of psychics, mediums, and astrologers, you might want to try some sessions with therapists or support groups to help you deal with your loss.

Your child is always with you as long as your memories are, alive not only through pictures and stories from the past, but also through projections of what your child would feel about things going on in your life and the world today. Keep her alive in your consciousness and you may find you don’t really need any supernatural intermediaries.