This post is about how atheistic humanists should go about presenting their relationship to religion when asked about it for the first time by different people. In another post, I’ll raise challenging questions of how atheistic humanists should present ourselves collectively in certain public contexts. I am not, in what follows, assuming that all atheists are humanists. I won’t even decide for anyone that they can’t be both a theist and a humanist. But this post is about atheistic humanists. This includes atheistic secular humanists and atheistic religious humanists. I hope people who identify at either place along the spectrum between those two poles of humanism find this discussion useful. This post is inspired and informed by just the latest of many wonderful class discussions in my online philosophy class, Philosophy for Atheists. Let me take this chance to thank the incisive students from that class up front.
So, inevitably in conversations–sometimes with new acquaintances, sometimes with colleagues, sometimes even with friends, family members, and romantic interests–the topics of religion and God come up. Let me first note–these are distinguishable topics. You can be an atheist and religious and you can be a theist and irreligious. But culturally they’re lumped together and the statistically probable default assumption about any given person is that they affirm some sort of belief in God and have at least some religious identification, however much or little they practice their religion. So, if you are an atheistic humanist, you are going to break with the theist norm. Either if you are a secular humanist or even the kind of religious humanist who wants to make clear your idea of religion is qualitatively different than faith-based kinds, you are also going to break with the standard religious norm.
So, when you are asked about your identification outright or asked the kind of question that requires clarifying you’re atheistic or irreligious or not a person of faith, and you reach for a label that conveys your stance–which should it be? Atheist? Humanist? Atheistic Humanist? Secular Humanist? Religious Humanist?
There are several–sometimes conflicting–reasons to say “Actually, I’m an atheist.”
For one thing, some of us some of us feel very passionately about identifying as an atheist as a matter of making our dissent from the hegemony of theism or of faith-based religion clear. This might be because we are apostates whose deconversions were arduous personal, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual journeys out of lies, manipulation, and, in some cases, even abuse. We are the kinds of unbelievers for whom explicitly and unequivocally saying No to faith-based theistic religion is a crucial matter of conscience. It is a vitally liberating gesture. It can be an empowering assertion of self and conscience.
We want to undermine the narrative that all people have faith in God. We want to change the world from being one where most people have faith in supernaturalistic beings or belief in woo. If, thanks to religious privilege, both the religiously devout, the religiously nominal, and the atheists who believe faith is a harmless or beneficial nicety are all scandalized by our blunt rejection of belief in God, our supposed audacity in claiming not to believe in God, then good. If they will be made uncomfortable by something that should be so trivial and so obviously true, then they should be made uncomfortable, be made to examine their prejudices, be made to confront the reality that there are those out there who are not on board with God.
And so we are willing to drop the A-bomb, say we’re an atheist and if they take the bait and react offended or try to deny we are really atheists (which happens stunningly often) or argue with us about the existence of God, then we have the confrontation that we enjoy.
But that’s not the only reason some people identify as an atheist. Some don’t want to get into philosophical-theological scraps with people. Or even those of us who do, don’t always want to.
The other major reason to identify as an atheist is in some ways the exact opposite of, but also in some ways complementary to, identifying in order to scandalize the believer or the faith-loving atheist. This other reason to identify as an atheist is simply for the sake of honesty. This is what we really think. We want to be able to express our real views and not conform to social expectations or even let others make standard social assumptions because we were evasive or prone to key omissions. I am reminded of a close gay friend who has been out for decades. Being from an older generation especially, she doesn’t want to push the issue of homosexuality with people uncomfortable with it and she will take the inevitable barrage of routine heteronormative microaggressions from straight people as usually unintended and not worth starting conflict over. But if they say something outright homophobic it’s vital to her to genially but firmly let them know she’s gay. And if anyone asks she is always out.
There are atheists like this, they don’t want to have overt confrontations often (or at all) but it matters to them that atheists not be disparaged and it matters to them that they are true to themselves. They can roll with being a minority and all the crap of dealing with regular unconscious sleights and implications that that entails, but they just won’t be closeted or treated with conscious and explicit contempt. They’ll be polite as possible, but stand up for their dignity.
There are others who might not just be honest and identify as “atheists” further because they want to destigmatize atheism. They want to take a page from the LGBT movement’s winning handbook and make atheists visible. Because the more people know a self-identifying person from a demonized and marginalized group the likelier they are to shed prejudices about that group. So, rather than embracing atheism as something scandalizing they want through their simple act of being matter of factly atheistic make clear its ordinariness. Some such people may not even want to have the challenging effect on theists that apostates do. They just want it all to be a non-issue. Identifying as an atheist is only useful to helping that happen.
Another key destigmatization goal is to destigmatize atheism for other non-believers and doubters. There are an amazing number of people who essentially don’t believe but either don’t realize their views are essentially atheism or who don’t really get that there are other atheists out there or who feel ashamed of their doubts or in some other way simply don’t realize that being an atheist is a viable possible identification. Role modeling “out of the closet” normal everyday person atheism helps the doubters, the apostates, and the never-believers own their atheism and be comfortable with who they are and what they really think and feel. It shows them they’re not just some weird anomaly or a “nothing” or someone with a deficiency for not having faith like so many others around them.
And of course, all these goals can be harmonized. Personally, when I express my atheism to people, it’s out of an honest inability to conceal my real feelings and identity. It’s out of a pleasing feeling of defiance against false intellectual, moral, and institutional authorities that once wrongly dominated my life and hold socially hegemonic sway. It’s out of a desire to normalize atheism for fellow atheists and for believers. It’s out of a willingness to provoke religious struggles in people and philosophical conversations if they choose to respond to my declaration by inquiring further. Basically, I just like being me and expressing myself and I leave it up to other people to get what they want or need from that self-expression. I’m happy to either destigmatize or scandalize as the case might be. That’s all about my interlocutor and what their philosophical and social journey is. As long as I’m not pushy about roping people into full blown discussions against their will or emotionally bullying them, etc., I’m happy to provoke them with my civil, genial, honest self-expression.
And finally let me note that being a forthright atheist, it’s not all scandalized attempts to deny my identity or argue with me (though these are notably frequent and sometimes jarring). I wind up having so many people who take me as someone safe to express their doubts and vent their frustrations with religion to. I think most people like to find an emotional agreement with others if they can. If you are confidently presenting yourself as a skeptic, that means for some people they’ll be inclined to open up that side of themselves (and everyone has a side like this) and be on the same page with you.
But, for all the value in these various reasons to identify as an atheist, some people argue that it’s better to forefront one’s humanism instead. Here is the case I can make for that.
In basically tolerant, multicultural cultures, most people get that not everyone is going to share their own particular faith tradition. If they’re Christian and you say you’re Jewish or Muslim or a Hindu, they’re not going to faint. They’re not going to say (what they shockingly say to atheists some times) “no you’re not!” In fact in most cases they won’t launch into an attempt to argue with you or lecture you on why you’re wrong, why you must live a hopeless and empty life, etc. as both conservative and even nominal believers might do. Even if they try to proselytize, it would usually be with a greater sensitivity that they’re dealing with someone who already comes from a developed worldview and is representing their own culture, etc.
I think many 21st Century Western people (including many scholars), whether implicitly or explicitly, judge that longstanding cultural traditions have validity from their endurance. If a people has held to and developed a tradition of beliefs, values, and practices, over a long period of time then it must be a way of life that they feel works for them. While it may not make sense from the outside, within their own tradition it must have all sorts of compensating benefits for its apparent downsides from an outsider’s perspective. “That’s just their way of life and how can anyone judge it from the outside, by their own culture’s standards, values, and expectations?”
Essentially they’re cultural relativists. Even many people who are strongly invested in their own religion as the ultimate truth when thinking religiously can shift into an amazingly inconsistent cultural relativism sometimes.
And related to this there is a view, whether implicitly operating or explicitly owned, that if people belong to a faith-tradition, any faith tradition, this will moor them morally. My guess is that identification with a religion marks you as someone adequately socially loyal. And social loyalty is what is vital to morality. So not only are they implicitly hoping you believe in a God watching you so that you won’t do bad things when no one is looking, they are implicitly hoping you adequately acknowledge some faith tradition that can make moral demands of you and teach you how to be morally trustworthy. They are reflexively suspicious of someone who is a socially defiant lone wolf who doesn’t believe they’re being watched. Because, I speculate, they associate moral restraint with accountability and accountability is communal. A faith-community can hold you accountable. Identifying with a faith signifies to them potential conscientiousness, a potential sense of accountability to a group. And belief in God is the ultimate fail safe of accountability. Even if you believe you can escape all social human accountability, if you believe God is watching, you will be good even when no one is looking. (For more of my speculative analysis of how this dynamic might work, check out my post on “the threatening abomination of the faithless”.)
There’s a ton wrong with all these assumptions. I could write numerous paragraphs debunking the ideas that faith itself is a virtue, that having faith itself increases one’s likelihood to be generally moral, that faiths necessarily promulgate only good values, that not believing in a God or having a faith community makes atheists worthy of suspicion, etc.
But for now, let’s realize that assumptions like this seem very common. Atheism is misheard as nihilism. It’s misheard as a spit in the face to the whole idea of these accountability-holding traditions. It’s misheard as an arrogant individualism and know-it-all attitude. The common indignant reply we get, “Who are you to just decide you know there is no God?!” is closely related to the attitude, “Who are you to think you can live without the wisdom or constraints of a faith tradition?”
Atheism also sounds like a negative position on things they hold dear. Saying I’m an atheist is often heard as “you’re wrong about your most intimate beliefs and values and the faith tradition that informs your entire life is bogus”. Worse, in their awareness of how silly their beliefs sound from the outside, they fear the atheist is someone who thinks people in faith traditions are stupid or delusional. So, they get defensive on that score too. You might also be a threat to some of their most visceral, survival instinct desires to live forever. On and on and on, just saying “I’m an atheist” is a more fundamental challenge to who they are than saying, “I belong to a faith tradition like you, just we shuffle the same cards in the deck you’re playing with differently.”
Finally, saying you’re an atheist not only sets yourself up as a challenge to them to reject what they do believe in, it doesn’t signal to them a possible replacement alternative. And people are resistant to change because they know the benefits of how things are for them and are much murkier on the upsides of a new scenario. There may be negatives to faith that they’re aware of but “better the devil you know than the one you don’t”. Many people are, ironically, pragmatic about faith. They’re less interested in truth than what works. If identifying with their faith works for them, they need a positive pitch that something else might be better to even consider switching over.
So, given all these sorts of prejudices, attachments, and ways of hearing us, here’s why saying “I’m a humanist” first might be best.
1. It signals that you too have a tradition. This is normalizing to conservative people. It shows that you care about identifying with a positive tradition and worldview and community. It puts the focus on your belonging to a values-based group. It might just signal “I am an accountable person” in the necessary way to preempt fears. And when they ask what “humanism” is you can have a conversation about thinkers and artists and ideas and political movements stretching back millennia to at least Western antiquity if you want to reclaim the classical tradition that the original self-identifying humanists of the Renaissance were themselves trying to revivify. We can in this way dispel the myth that we have no tradition.
2. It focuses on what you positively affirm and value rather than invalidating what they positively affirm and value. This makes you less threatening. This makes you more like them, someone who affirms and values things than unlike them (someone who rejects what they affirm and value). This makes it easier for them to build rapport with you in many cases. And it builds common ground.
3. If you emphasize the shared values that humanism has that overlap with mainstream Western values, your views will sound amenable to most religious people (barring the fundamentalists who’ve been tipped to your devious atheistic worldview in advance, of course). A big part of persuasion involves first forming common ground with people. (Look at the structure of this blog post…) It involves showing how you share their values before you suggest any radical changes to them. This makes them much more likely to see you as a fellow traveler with advice to be open to rather than a threat to the order and the values they strongly identify with. If you lead with your humanism and an explanation of it in terms of values they also identify with, then when later on it is appropriate to mention that this involves atheism, they may be more receptive. It’s the “but you’re such a good person!” phenomenon. First you let someone form positive opinions about you and then you let them know you’re a member of that scary group of people they’ve been taught to mistrust. That blows their minds. Identifying up front risks sometimes activating people’s prejudices so they won’t even be able to see how awesome you are and judge you fairly.
4. A world in which it is a well known thing that humanism is part of the spectrum of social, moral, intellectual groups that someone can identify with alongside faith-based religions is normalizing. It means atheism isn’t seen as the threat of the end of all social cohesion and of the group-based moral formation that people are reflexively invested in seeing preserved.
5. Identifying primarily as a humanist is constructive and forward looking. It rejects definition by opposition to theism. It puts the emphasis on the manifold of things one actually believes and values rather than this one thing one rejects. I certainly get that there is a lot of value in making clear one’s rejection of theism and theistic religion and faith based religion and, so, in identifying around what you don’t believe. The question is whether making it one’s first emphasis gets you misinterpreted as only existing around this negation and not around the positive things you actually live for. If someone’s question about your religion or stance on God is actually asking for your positive worldview and you give an account of only your passionate, justified antagonisms, then you may be accidentally sending the message you only have antagonism and nothing constructive and reinforce the prejudices about us being nihilists who have no meaning in life.
So, those are the reasons I see for leading off by identifying as an atheist and for leading off by identifying as a humanist. I find every argument I’ve laid out, even the ones contradicting the others, very compelling. I welcome your insights.
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