In Which I Come Out As A Humanist

It turns out that I really am a Humanist.

Many in the atheist community assume (or talk in ways that seem to assume) that there is simply a necessary connection between atheism and Humanism. But this assumption was far from obvious to me when I first became an atheist. I was reading Nietzsche and his harsh critiques of Enlightenment values and really didn’t know what to think.

Having just been for the first time liberated to think freely, I was not going to become immediately dogmatic about anything. And since it was Nietzsche who liberated me, I was willing to read what he said about just about anything with an open mind. I have always found it very valuable to let him antagonize me precisely on the subjects of my most cherished beliefs and values. I think my versions of those beliefs and values are quite better battle-tested and smarter than a lot of other people’s for my periods of willingness to consider them with an openness to Nietzsche’s deep suspicions. Eventually my formulations, articulations, and defenses of Enlightenment values developed to the point where they account for and incorporate and improve themselves based on everything I found important and uncompromisingly critical that Nietzsche could dish out. And as a result, they are, in many ways more than most, fairly Nietzsche proof. I would even call them Nietzschean, in their own way.

But I digress, when I was hearing out Nietzsche and thinking along with him primarily, I never saw Nietzsche as a Humanist. Maybe a transhumanist. Some read the exhortations he puts in Zarathustra’s mouth about overcoming the human being as literal. We should not merely become better humans but we should somehow help to create something literally beyond the human. What does that really mean? I still don’t know exactly. But out of my reflexive defensiveness that Nietzsche was an option and not only Humanism, I always resisted the assumption that just because I was an atheist I must be a Humanist. Maybe I did want to vigorously analyze Enlightenment values before assuming they all held up post-Christianity as before. I wanted that leeway. And Humanists tended to emphasize compassion in their moral proclamations and, again, Nietzsche had made me a bit leery of idealizing compassion as the highest virtue.

But it really struck me recently that I really am a Humanist and have been, in spite of myself, ever since I became an atheist. Because the core thing I really got from Nietzsche was his celebration of human potential–or was it superhuman potential?–and his vigorous defense of basic human nature against all the Christian vilification of it that had previously been central to my thinking. In fact, I so deeply internalized the inspiring and ecstatically optimistic side of Nietzsche that it’s hard for me to read him and see the misanthropy in him that’s so apparent to others. I would see a harsh critic of culture and people and ideas, of course, but I wouldn’t take it all as pessimistic the way others do. I took it as the discussion of what not to be that complements the discussion of what we should aspire to be.

I basically love humanity and for a long time I have been downright defensive of human nature. But even more than that. A lot of misanthropes and cynics love humanity but hate people. Not me. I don’t just love humanity the “abstraction”. I really love most individual people. I am fundamentally disposed to like each new person I meet. They have to earn my dislike, not my affection. I am basically clear eyed about our limits and flaws but I am constantly contextualizing them by pointing out how many of them are really not our fault, how very damn well most of us mean, how remarkable we are as creatures for having the aptitude to actually overcome them, and just how much extraordinary stuff we have accomplished. And it really bugs me when people put us all collectively down. I would almost say I can’t stand misanthropes but that’s not really true–even they have their charms; the lovably irascible bastards.

I have also never ever sympathized with people who make the weird leap of logic from our relative tininess of size or the brevity of our existence so far to some bizarre inference that we are therefore an insignificant part of the cosmos. We could very well be not only one of the smartest species in all the universe, we may just be the only intelligent one. Maybe a better universe could have managed a lot better than us but as far as this universe’s creativity goes, we’re some of the best it’s figured out. Even if our intellectual limits and errors tragically doom us to going extinct in one of evolution’s most epic flameout disasters. Hey, so, we’re Icarus! At least we had wings!

And though I share Nietzsche’s mistrust of pity (some of my thoughts on generosity are here), by contrast compassion construed instead simply as sympathy and empathy for others when considering them, is one of my best traits, not my worst. In fact it’s my empathy and sympathy for others themselves that always made me leery of pity. I hate the temptation of helpers to demoralize those they help by condescending to them, robbing them of their sense of their own power, and being able to control them or use their misery as an opportunity for pleasure. It was because I believe in the potential of each person that I do not want to “suffer with” others (and the Latin “com-passion” and the German Mitleid both literally mean “suffer with”) but rather empower others and celebrate with them in their strength. And when people do need empathy and sympathy, I am eager to give it if I can, but I always keep an eye on their dignity, their space, their needs, and what will constructively bring them out of it. I try to make it never about me.

I am a fan of human beings. I have rational confidence in our potential. I think we are far better and more wonderful than our flaws. I have good rational reasons to believe that maximizing the flourishing for all of us as much as possible, and minimizing the suffering of the worst off of us as much as possible, is the good. I also believe in developing reason based ethical communities that meet the needs for ritual, community, self-conscious personal formation, values development, identity, and philosophical debate, all in integrated, life-enhancing ways that can take over the work religions have tried to do but always been too mired in supernaturalism, authoritarianism, and traditionalism to ever really get right. I realize I want this to be under the banner of Humanism. It is time I linked up with and explicitly embraced being part of the longest and deepest tradition of positive atheism in our culture and history.

It’s time I just came out to myself as a Humanist. It is time I admit, I have been one all along. And what better moment to do so than World Humanist Day. Happy Humanist Day!

Your Thoughts? 

The Point of Humanist Chaplains (and other clergy equivalents)
City on a Hill
Atheism Is Not A Religion. But There Should Be Atheistic Religions.
“Why Do We Need Feminism, Shouldn’t We Just Be Humanists and Equalists?”
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Michael Jacobsen

    Thanks for sharing this, Dan! I have been an atheist my whole adult life, but deciding to adopt the label of Humanist, which I did a few years back, was just a matter of admitting to myself what I had believed and had been living all along. I believe there are plenty of things to work against in this world, but Humanism to me means that there are also plenty of things, important things, to work for. Happy Humanist Day!

  • raytheist

    Cool. I try to be natively kindly disposed to people, especially meeting new people. I work to remember that whatever they present in public, or in whatever state they are currently in, they got their by following the path they followed, whether it was my path or not. Everyone has a story, and until I know the story, I can’t very well judge them, so I have to pretty much take them at face value until I learn more.

    But being kind to people does not mean I embrace, trust, or love them right off. My path has taught me to hold people at arm’s length until they’v proven they deserve to come closer. I like people, and individuals, but I trust few, and love even fewer.

  • Dhoelscher

    I share neither your highly positive view of humanity nor your great admiration for Nietzsche, but I enjoyed the post anyway.

    “I would almost say I can’t stand misanthropes but that’s not really true–even they have their charms; the lovably irascible bastards.” Cute; I like that.

    Your comments about compassion are interesting and for me thought-provoking.

    “Even if our intellectual limits and errors tragically doom us to going
    extinct in one of evolution’s most epic flameout disasters.” I think you’re unduly denying our agency here. Our coming self-caused extinction won’t happen because of our intellectual limits; it will happen because of the choices we’ve collectively made, motivated by greed, apathy, selfishness, and, very significantly, a widespread lack of compassion, without which most people, most of the time, are never going to get around to your step of helping to empower others.

    Enlightenment values have never been the problem. Our love of instrumental reasoning and lack of conscientiousness are what will do us in.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      But I believe all that is just so much ignorance at its core.

    • Dhoelscher

      Socrates lives. :-)

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers


  • Shira Coffee

    You are very wise to distinguish pity from compassion, I think. In Buddhist thought, pity is considered the “near enemy” of compassion, as opposed to the “distant enemy”, which is cruelty. (A near enemy is a state that is superficially similar to or easily mistaken for the virtuous state, but which is, with careful observation, seen to be inimical.)

    For me, being a humanist is first and foremost about agency, though, rather than compassion. A humanist, in my lexicon, is a person who believes that humans can and must choose their own actions and deal with the consequences of their actions, because there simply IS no other responsible party. I suppose it would be possible to be an atheist and not (by my definition) a humanist, for instance, by believing that there is no free will and we are all simply acting out a pre-ordained script. I also suppose it would be possible to be a theist (for instance, a deist) and a humanist; in fact, I guess that was the stance of many enlightenment thinkers. But it seems to me even Calvinism offers an opportunity for humanism: if salvation is not something one can choose, then couldn’t one choose one’s actions simply on the basis of their observable results?

  • Editor B

    Funny, though I’m a humanist too I never connected humanism with loving humanity. I always thought it meant we identified humanity (rather than some transcendent other) as the source of value and purpose and meaning. Happy solstice!

  • Captain Cassidy

    There ya go. See, that wasn’t too hard. I don’t think humanism is any one religion or that it even depends upon any particular religious mindset. Welcome to the pool!

  • Pofarmer

    That certainly made more sense than a long screed of Catholic Theology. Thanks for that.

  • Ariel

    It was really nice to read it. Funny, but it was nice even though I don’t recognize myself in various fragments of the OP. I can’t say e.g. that I “love humanity” and I’m afraid I wouldn’t even know where to start. But the fragment I can really relate to is this one:

    I am fundamentally disposed to like each new person I meet. They have to earn my dislike, not my affection. I am basically clear eyed about our limits and flaws but I am constantly contextualizing them by pointing out how many of them are really not our fault, how very damn well most of us mean

    Seeing the good sides of the people you meet; in problematic situations trying to appeal to the good sides rather than hollering against misdemeanor; strong dislike for demonization and excess – I guess it all follows from such an attitude and yes, I can definitely relate to this. I usually go in the same direction, at least in my social contacts on the web (RL social contacts are different and much more difficult to me). I’m afraid however that it doesn’t make me a humanist. Only too often I see my approach as inefficient and futile. Yes, we have the aptitude to overcome our flaws. But we have also a ‘great potential’ for following those who are loud enough while painting a simple picture. Dan, don’t you have sometimes this impression that nuances are for the losers?

    Thanks for writing this.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Dan, don’t you have sometimes this impression that nuances are for the losers?

      Yes, in the short term. I am thinking about how the important nuances slowly over time do get incorporated into the mass consciousness, meme by meme, as people become more and more ready. I like to think that the public consciousness can learn, even if it is one nuance memed at a time.

  • Verbose Stoic

    The problem I’ve always had with humanism is that I’ve never really been sure of what it actually espouses. When I ask about it, I usually get pointed to a set of principles that are all either things that most Western cultures just accept, or which are debatable, or both. But I want the basic principle, what allows us to derive those principles so that I can evaluate that. And usually I get claims about how wonderful human nature is and that we should celebrate humanity and human nature, and make human nature the foundation of all morality. Well, in a very large sense I disagree with that, because I don’t think that human nature is unvarnished or even mostly good. There are a lot of things in our natures that drive us to be selfish, self-centered, shallow and all sorts of other bad things. So if we are to judge morality by human nature as it is, I disagree with that quite strongly.

    But here you go on to say that you see the flaws in human nature and think that we have the potential to overcome them. Again, though, what principle or principles do we appeal to to separate the good parts from the bad parts? What is the ideal human nature? At this point, humanism starts to look somewhat similar to what the Ancient Greeks (particularly Aristotle and the Stoics) advocated: we have a nature that derives from what we are as people, and our moral goal is to achieve that. But this seems both too limiting and too vague. While the Stoics and Aristotleans might be able to be subsumed under this and called humanists, Utilitarians likely won’t and Kantians probably couldn’t either. Other the other hand, your view is this:

    I have good rational reasons to believe that maximizing the flourishing
    for all of us as much as possible, and minimizing the suffering of the
    worst off of us as much as possible, is the good.

    Which the Stoics, for example, will not agree with unless you allow for flourishing to take wildly varying values (which is where Sam Harris, for example, goes wrong with his notion of well-being; in one sense, you can say that the Stoics and Sam Harris both base their views on well-being, but their views of what counts as well-being are so different that you might as well not even talk about that). But, of course, Utilitarians accept that idea but probably don’t accept your base principle.

    At which point I find myself still confused. Am I, as someone who is Stoic-leaning, mixing Kant in, and starting from agency like someone else in the comments mentioned, a humanist? I don’t start from the elevation of humanity in any way, but instead start from moral agents, which I think humans are. As such, humans have the potential to be moral, and so I accept that part … but is that enough to be a humanist? And if it is, does that make the term “humanist” so broad as to be meaningless?