Atheist or Humanist? Well, It Depends…

The money quotation from Mark Melady‘s article about a campus atheist group in Massachusetts:

Activist secular college students from the Boston area said here last night that campus secularism is on the rise even if most nonbelievers are unlikely to advocate against the supernatural and are unsure what to call themselves.

“If I’m in a hurry, I say I’m an atheist,” Byung Min, founder of the Secular Student Alliance at Bentley College told the Greater Worcester Humanists. “If I have some time, I say I’m a non-theist and if I have a lot of time for a long conversation I say I’m a humanist.”

The line did get a laugh from the Humanist audience, but there’s a lot of truth to it. Tom Flynn of Free Inquiry has also written about how saying one is a Humanist requires some elaboration when speaking to reporters lest he be called an atheist.

The article also highlighted an ongoing debate between college atheists:

The students disagreed about whether their groups should aggressively push their beliefs or passively offer themselves as an alternative to traditional campus religious organizations.

“Very few of us are going to grow up to be atheist evangelists,” said Christopher Ray of Bates.

“We don’t want to abolish religion,” Mr. Min said, “but we want our views to be as acceptable as their views. We don’t want to eradicate religion just religious influence.”

As religious influence fades, hopefully religious beliefs and irrational religious thinking will follow.

This is a bit of a tangent from that remark, but it is sad that relatively few people stick with their activist ways post-college. You rarely see middle-aged people in the atheist world… it seems like so many people get passionate about the subject in college (when it’s new and religion is surrounding you) and in retirement (when you have more time to dedicate to it).

It shouldn’t be that way. It’s not like the wall of separation is only under attack at certain periods in your life. It also doesn’t mean your entire life has to be about preaching atheism. Speaking out in favor of it doesn’t take much effort. You also don’t have to be aggressive in a “Christian evangelist” sort of way.

You can criticize religion without being personally insulting, you can tell people you are an atheist when the situation presents itself, and you can speak up when Christian fundamentalists try to impose their views on everyone.

One of the goals of college atheist groups should be to empower members to continue their activism after they graduate.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Mriana

    Being the Bible Belt, I don’t say anything unless I’m directly asked, then I either say non-theist or Humanist. On campus I don’t have too many problems, except with one woman, but there are some Evangelicals off campus that act like it’s a crime and want to chop your head off.

    University students seem less religious than others around here and it maybe because not all of them are from here or if they are, they don’t buy into what the Evangelcals preach. However, two profs, both males, admitted to being atheists and many students say they are against established religion. Interesting statement that one is- “against established religion”. I’m not sure what that means, exactly. Are they atheists, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, religious but don’t attend any church? I never asked when I hear that one, esp because such admissions come up during class when the piece of literature we are reading is of a religious nature or similar topic.

    At the same time, getting a Secular group started is difficult. Another student with less responsibilities than I have is trying now. Not sure how well he is succeeding, except it’s been slow.

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com Efrique

    To me “atheist or humanist” is like saying “left-handed or Italian”.

    Atheism is absence of god-belief. End of story.
    It contains no normative elements (though many atheists
    will then produce normative statements, none of these
    seem necessary to atheism).

    Humanism is largely normative.

    They’re labels that relate to different things.

  • Christopher Ray

    I’d like to clarify my comment since unfortunately it is the only quote of mine that made it into the final story. The quote that appears is only the first part of the sentence. For the rest of the sentence, I essentially said “but some of us will,” meaning that I described how we are all on the cusp of the entering professional employment and so we will become the new public face of atheism, and as such it is our responsibility to aggressively defend our views and the fact that we are perfectly good and productive US citizens. I more or less appealed to future atheists to use the water-cooler discussion to normalize atheism and humanism, given that we don’t have the convenient social sidearm of a pulpit or a ministry to let us all just sit around all day and be professional atheists. I’d hate to be presented in atheist media as that guy who wants us to keep our insight to ourselves.