Atheism+, Humanism, and Religion

Edit: Some of the responses to this article have taken the view that I was here attempting to speak for all Humanists in the descriptive passages toward the end of the post. This was not my intention. I decided a long time ago to assume my readers would be clear that writing on my personal blog reflects my personal judgment. Therefore, when I use a phrase like “Humanists believe” it should not be read as  “All Humanists believe” – if I ever mean to say that I will write that. Rather, it is shorthand for “In my judgment, the mainstream of Humanist thought on this topic is as follows”. No one speaks for all Humanists. To make it clear I’m speaking for myself, I’m going to replace “Humanists believe” in this post with “I believe”.

In the ongoing discussions around Atheism+ and its relationship with Humanism one issue crops up again and again: the perception that Humanists – at least some Humanists – have an attitude toward religion which the atheists who are excited by Atheism+ do not share. This is often expressed as a reason why a given blogger does not identify as a Humanist, or why they prefer the Atheism+ label to Humanism.

Some examples:

Jen McCreight says:

one of the reasons I don’t personally use the label “humanist” is because the humanist community puts a lot of focus on replicating church-like communities and having chaplaincies. That’s totally cool if that’s what you want, but I personally don’t feel like it applies to me.

Greta Christina says:

Humanism is also more engaged with creating secular replacements for the rituals and structures of religious communities… and while many atheists are cool with this idea and are even engaged with it themselves, there are many other atheists who are profoundly turned off by it…

Like it or not, atheism and humanism are perceived very differently — both within the broader godless/ secularist/ whatever you want to call it movement, and outside of it. Like it or not, the reality is that “atheism” is generally perceived as being more confrontational. More defiant. More in-your-face. More about visibility. More actively opposed to religion. More actively engaged in trying to persuade religious believers out of it.

Humanism, on the other hand, is generally perceived as more diplomatic. More easy-going. Less interested in debating differences, and more interested in finding common ground. More accepting of religion and religious believers, as long as they accept us. More interested in doing interfaith/ alliance work with believers. [emphasis mine]

Dan Fincke says:

I refuse in this primary designation concerning religious and ethical matters to be possibly lumped in with non-atheists (as humanists broadly might be) as though the gods question was only one of secondary concern to me in matters of socio-religious identity, belief, and values.

Alex Gabriel says:

Some humanists, for example, talk about ‘replacing religion’. To me, this seems odd. It suggests religion is some kind of vital organ, whose excision causes impairment and thus demand we put something new in its place. On the other hand, I see religion more like a societal tumour – something nonessential and generally harmful, despite being a product of benign natural processes, without which we’d probably be better and which doesn’t need replacing.

Some humanists, specifically, sing secular hymns. James Croft and Ian Cromwell discussed this previously, and according to its accounts from the most recent year, the British Humanist Association spent £5,518 on music. This includes on the BHA Choir, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in the flesh – but while they, perhaps like many humanist musicians, are extremely impressive, I’m personally not comfortable expressing beliefs by singing in a congregation. Again this seems determined to replace religious identity, but I’m rather glad I lost mine, and I don’t particularly want to feel now how I felt in church. [emphasis mine]

PZ Myers says:

there is the influence of the Harvard Humanists [on how Humanism is perceived in the USA], who infuriate a lot of us atheists: there is the perception that they want to shape humanism to ape religion. Most of us atheists are post-religionists, and we want nothing to do with a movement that borrows so heavily from religious traditions…look at the Harvard Humanists, or Alain de Botton, if you want to see a religious mentality.

Clearly, in the minds of these bloggers there is something troubling about Humanism’s perceived relationship with religion, and perhaps particularly of the approach taken by the Humanist Community at Harvard, where I work. This makes sense if, as Dan Fincke suggests, Atheism+ is not just “atheism plus social justice” but “New Atheism plus social justice”: the new movement will naturally take on the distinctive view of religion which characterizes New Atheism.

But what is the relationship of Humanism with religion, and are these critics (most of whom are expressing their personal perceptions of the term “Humanism”, to which they are perfectly entitled) giving Humanism a fair shot? Is it really true that there is a significant difference in view between Atheism+ people and Humanists like myself in this regard? In order to try to answer this question I’m going to attempt to make a series of statements regarding how I understand the relationship between Humanism and religion, and I invite self-identified Atheism+ people to come give their views on the same points. Perhaps there is a real difference if view here, but perhaps the differences are overstated.

Humanists I see religion as human-made

Humanists see religion as a human-made phenomenon. Religious texts were written by human hands, religious ideas were generated by human minds, religious practices developed in human communities. There’s not a jot of divine revelation anywhere. We made this.

Humanists I reject all supernatural elements of religious beliefs

Humanism is an explicitly naturalistic worldview which rejects all supernatural elements of religious beliefs. Prayers don’t do anything magic, faith healing doesn’t work, meditation doesn’t alter your consciousness in a wooish way, your spirit doesn’t have an aura, dancing cannot bring the rain.

Humanists I believe that many religious beliefs and practices are harmful

Many religious beliefs and practices are inhumane and damaging. Homophobia in the USA is significantly worsened by religious beliefs regarding homosexuality, just as sexism is worsened by religious beliefs about women. People are concretely harmed by religious beliefs regarding vaccination and blood transfusion. Millions have been harmed by the Catholic Church’s stance on the use of condoms. Religious groups can be seen at the forefront of pretty much every regressive social movement around today, from opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights to opposition to proper science education and sex education in schools.

Humanists believe that it is their responsibility to challenge these beliefs and practices in order to prevent the harm they cause. Humanists have been staunch religious critics since the start of modern Humanism, and many of the most widely recognized religious critics of the 21st Century identify as Humanists: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for example.

Humanists I recognize that there are forms of oppression and sources of harm which are not religious

As strong as the Humanist commitment to religious skepticism and criticism is, Humanists recognize that there are other forms of oppression in the world which demand our attention. In our desire to promote human welfare we may sometimes prioritize critique of religious forms of harm, while at other times concerning ourselves with other matters. Religion is not always the problem, and there are forms of injustice and harm which are not most closely caused by religion. Humanists have a responsibility to balance our commitment to religious skepticism against other moral commitments in an intelligent way, such that religious criticism does not become the only form of social activism we engage in.

Humanists I believe in secular government

Humanists believe in democratic governance and a secular society in which religious arguments are not privileged in any way above nonreligious ones. We do not believe that religious perspectives should be entirely excluded from the public square – that would be an unacceptable infringement on the right of free speech – but we do believe that public policy should be based on secular reasoning accessible, in principle, to all people regardless of their religious perspective. “Because my religion says so” is insufficient reason to impose one’s view on others.

Humanists I believe that people can derive experiences of real value from religious communities

Humanists recognize that some religious communities can provide valuable and life-enhancing experiences for their congregants, even though those experiences are surrounded by a metaphysical framework we consider to be inaccurate. Since religion is human-created it is not surprising that some aspects of religious practice respond effectively to real human needs. These needs do not necessary disappear once people give up the religious beliefs which grew up around them.

Some people find truly welcoming communities in religious spaces, when they have been rejected elsewhere (this is true of many LGBTQ people I know, for instance). Some people value the opportunity to explore moral questions which a weekly sermon provides. Some use their religious community as a base for activism and social change. Others simply enjoy the experience of a weekly set of practices which take them out of their work and home life.

While Humanists need not embrace the exact nature or justification of these practices, we recognize that some people do derive legitimate satisfaction and value from them. This does not mean we should withhold principled criticism, but it does mean that we should recognize that there is some value for some people in certain religious practices. If there are ways of secularizing the practices of religion which people find value, extracting any Inhumane elements while maintaining pieces of value, then Humanists recognize this as a legitimate choice for some. We also understand that many will not wish to do this, which is also a legitimate choice.

Humanists I approach collaboration with the religious in a way consistent with other Humanist values

Humanists do not take a one-size-fits-all approach to collaboration with the religious. Rather we assess each situation on its merits, understanding that on some occasions it may advance Humanist aims to collaborate with religious people or organizations, while on others it will not. If Humanists can collaborate in ways which promote compassion – marching together in a gay pride rally, for instance – it makes sense to do so. If collaboration would traduce Humanist principles, however, we would not seek to participate.

So – now about it, A+ people? Are there any real differences in values here? I’m happy to respond to comments and to update this post with issues that might arise.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Jim Farmelant

    My impression is that people are sort of reinventing the wheel here. As James knows we have had the discussion of religious humanism versus secular humanism before (for example, see: To a large extent, Atheism+ replays the issues that secular humanists have long had with religious humanists. Nothing particularly new about that.

    I guess what’s new about Atheism+, I think is that they retain the anger and militancy associated with the New Atheists, while also trying to bring in broader social concerns. I also see other factors at work here too. While no doubt, Rebecca and Jen are legitimately angry at Richard Dawkins and other atheist (and apparently some humanist leaders as well) for slighting gender issues within the atheist movement, it also seems to me to be the case that we are also seeing what are almost certainly the inevitable clashes that arise within a growing movement as new leaders emerge, especially when those new leaders come from different social backgrounds than the older leadership.

  • Robert Dobbs (YeOldeBlacksmith)

    Good summation of the Humanist position. Thanks for that.

    I would like to point out that, in every quote you presented, the comment is regarding perception. The Humanists are perceived in those ways. Seems to me that somewhere there is a breakdown of message if so many humanists (little h, of which I count myself one) have this perception.

    Also, i think it important to point out that the conflict between Atheism+ and Humanism was initially brought up by many many people telling us we can’t/shouldn’t support Atheism+ because the Humanists were already doing what we are trying to do. I, for one, am capable of being/supporting both. Apparently, some others are not.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I am aware that these are matters of perception. My question was whether there are also more fundamental differences in values. I myself have noted in previous posts that there seems to have been poor communication of Humanists values by Humanists f these perceptions persist, so no disagreement there. As I’ve noted in my other reply, I have never made the argument that anyone “can’t/shouldn’t support Atheism+ because the Humanists were already doing what we are trying to do”. I am very happy with people identifying as they wish, including with using multiple identifiers. That’s why I’m posting on the A+ forums already, offering what assistance I can.

  • Tom Flynn

    This generally well-reasoned post goes a bit off the rails when James declares: “Humanists believe that people can derive experiences of real value from religious communities.” Well, yes and no.

    The problem is that James is wielding “Humanism” with a capital H as though it refers to a unitary phenomenon. It doesn’t.

    With or without the initial cap, “humanism” denotes no single thing clearly until it is modified by an adjective. For starters, there are Renaissance humanism, literary humanism, even Christian humanism. Once we’ve dispensed with the many kinds of humanism that have no clear link to nontheism, we need to distinguish between religious humanists and secular humanists. (Yes, one can be religious yet nontheist, at least on the pragmatic definition of “religion” I prefer, but that’s all blog war all its own.)

    If we want real rigor, we need to go one step further, and distinguish those religious humanists who actually hold some proposition whose acceptance requires the exercise of faith from those who simply enjoy practices drawn from congregational life. The folks whose humanism involves faith (say, those who truly believe that the eventual triumph of humanity is inevitable) are the real religious humanists. They assent to something that’s at least effectively supernatural, in that no one can legitimately attain their level of certainty based on the evidence available in the world of common experience.

    The ones who enjoy congregational practices might better be known as “churchy” humanists (I’d welcome a less flip term if someone can suggest one).

    In practice, however, when most people talk about “religious humanism” they usually mean the group that includes both humanists of faith and the churchy humanists.

    The point is that when James declares “Humanists believe that people can derive experiences of real value from religious communities,” he is making a statement that’s true about religious humanists, but untrue about secular humanists.

    Indeed, one of the principal distinctions between religious and secular humanists is that the former find value in some congregational practices while the latter do not. In fact, secular humanists are usually eager to emancipate themselves fully from the practices of congregational life, preferring a more individualistic model that relies on the smallest possible number of intermediates between the free person and the larger culture.

    FWIW I think Greta Christina makes the same error when she describes humanists (generally) as “More accepting of religion and religious believers, as long as they accept us. More interested in doing interfaith/ alliance work with believers.” Again this is true of religious humanists, untrue of secular humanists.

    Labels matter, and it’s amazing how much mischief can result when one insists on using a label that’s too short.

    Tom Flynn
    Editor, FREE INQUIRY

    • Per Smith

      Tom, I’m not entirely sure how widespread the distinction you draw between secular and religious humanists is, and if that fact may render it problematic as a tool for communicating about these ideas. As you point out, Christian humanism exists — as does humanistic Judaism, humanistic Buddhism, and even Islamic humanism in fact. I think many, if not most, outside of the Humanist movement think of those traditions as “religious humanism,” and indeed many Atheism+ proponents have made that “mistake.” But scholars also make that “mistake,” in writing about religious (Christian) humanism, so this isn’t just a problem in mass culture.

      I also wonder how salient of a distinction it was historically. From today’s vantage point writers will say that “both religious and secular humanists” signed the Humanist Manifesto I (1933) for instance. OK, but the Humanist Manifesto I explicitly states that it is providing “theses of religious humanism.” It’s hard to imagine that figures who we would now consider “secular humanists” would have signed onto such a document if the secular/religious distinction had been terribly meaningful to them. My personal opinion is that this distinction has become more meaningful to Humanists over the course of the 20th century for a variety of reasons…but even the reasons aren’t particularly clear to me.

      When Felix Adler founded Ethical Culture (which is now considered firmly within the religious humanistic camp) he opposed ritual and ceremony, though the movement quickly grew to incorporate such practices. And while I know you have distinguished between churchy Humanists who “enjoy congregational practices” and “real religious Humanists” who have faith in “eventual triumph of humanity,” you then seem to backtrack a bit by putting both groups into the “religious humanists,” pile. This seems to be the case in other writings I’ve come across that discuss the distinctions as well. But if that is true then what of the fact that the AHA and the CFI (and the BHA, etc.) have all, like Ethical Culture, come to embrace the Western life-cycle rituals that we usually associate with religious institutions? I know from other writings that you do not embrace these personally, but it very much seems like most self-identifying “secular humanists” are represented by these institutions and agree with their views. No?

      The fact is that religious people (and I mean clearly religious people, not Humanists) are by no means monolithic when it comes to these same questions (faith/beleif, attending congregations, participating in rituals, etc.). Yet we consider it meaningful to simply call them religious for some reason…of course interestingly there is a new movement in American Christianity to reject the “religion” label altogether. Anyway, my point is that I’m not sure this secular/religious distinction clarifies more than it confuses because it suggests a bright line that in reality is probably a fuzzy gradient, and in doing so emphasizes a distinction between groups of people who are really quite similar…much more similar to each other perhaps than those who might also call themselves “secular” or “religious.” Cheers.

      • Per Smith

        CORRECTION: One very significant typo – Ethical Culture is “NOW considered firmly within the religious humanistic camp.” My typo of “not” has rendered the opposite meaning. James if you can edit the original you can also delete this correction. Cheers.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          I have made the desired edit :)

      • TempleoftheFuture

        I like the idea of a “fuzzy gradient”. I increasingly feel that the thinking around religion in the atheist movement – about what it is, how it works, and whether there are any aspects of value – is very confused, constrained by a knee-jerk opposition which prevents intelligent discussion of these ideas. I’m going to be exploring this idea in some future posts.

      • Kate Lovelady

        Greetings–Not sure this is important to any of your points, which all seem good to me, but Felix Adler did not reject ritual and ceremony itself; he rejected existing rituals and ceremonies. He said that Ethical Culture should in time create its own new and unique rituals and ceremonies reflective of its values. Whether we have succeeding in doing that yet or are still borrowing too much from traditional religious forms is something I wonder about; I think this a problem for humanists in general who seek, for instance, to celebrate common human events such as marriages and the change of seasons–how to do such things in meaningful ways that aren’t just traditional religious events with certain words taken out.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I actually use the terms “humanist” and “Humanist” to denote different concepts, and I have decided to reject the distinction commonly posed between “religious” and “secular” Humanists. I find it actually confuses more than it clarifies. Perhaps someday you and I should sit down and discuss these issues at length, Tom! I mutely appreciate your contribution to these discussions, as someone who has had long experience in the Humanist movment.

  • Waffler

    For this person sympathetic to “A+” (and also a humanist, but probably not aligned with the approach of the Harvard Humanists) I take exception most, perhaps only, to your point #6 (“Humanists believe that people can derive experiences of real value from religious communities”). To the extent that religious communities are communities of humans, there is of course the possibility of deriving value, in the form of friendship and mutual support. But there is no reason to create communities that look like religious communities (with false authority figures and the like), and strong reasons not to, i.e., to create communities that look distinctly different from religious communities.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      The position you’ve outlined is in fact exactly my position as someone who works at the Humanist Community at Harvard. Did you think we thought something different? ;)

  • Alex Gabriel

    As I imagine you’re aware, my post was really about me not calling myself a humanist due to connotations (as well as denotations) the term has. That said, I like the comment from Dan that you quote; I don’t want to make my atheism secondary.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Yes, I thought I had made this clear in my post.

  • Henry

    I see secular humanism and Atheism+ as groups that have come to the same conclusions from different directions. The labels are meaningless when it comes to policy and intention, but crucial when it comes to identity. Speaking of which, I think Tom Flynn is being too dogmatic in declaring that a “secular humanist” (like me) who believes that people can derive experiences of real value from religious communities is by definition a “religious humanist.” Nonsense. I appreciate religion as a technology for binding groups together, but faith can go suck it.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I think this is a great point – I have an upcoming post exploring these issues in precisely that way: two different routes to the same conclusion.

  • Ian

    James, you are quickly becoming my favourite Humanist. :-)

    • TempleoftheFuture

      A d you have just become my favorite commenter ;P

  • SG

    I think you are basically right: As far as I can tell, Atheism+ is almost the same thing as secular humanism, but maybe moving the “atheism” part of it right out front where everyone can see it. And maybe at the same time moving the importance of ritual and ceremony to the back seat.

    But I don’t think this is a reason to create a schism between A+ and humanists who like a bit of secular religion. While I am not interested in attending weekly ceremonies, I’m also not interested in professional sports or going to dance clubs. So if you start an atheist group involving those, I probably won’t join them either.

    On the other hand, I doubt that most A+ folks really reject all ritual and ceremony. Do many A+ folks reject the idea of weddings, funerals, graduations, etc? It’s fine with me if they do, I just haven’t heard much about it.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I don’t want a schism either – I’m very supportive of the A+ idea.

  • KG

    Atheism+, as far as it is anything definite yet, is explicitly anti-religious; which you yourself said in discussion on Pharyngula, at least your strand of Humanism is not. I work for and would love to see a world without any religion at all. While I’m happy to cooperate with religious individuals on a case-by-case basis, I am very chary of cooperating with religious organizations. Greg Epstein explicitly contrasts his approach with that of the “New Atheists” (which Atheism+ inherits). So yes, there are real differences, and that has been stressed from your side.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      When you say “a world without any religion at all”, can you say what you mean by “religion” there? Depending on how you’re using the term I might agree, or not.

      • KG

        Any reasonable interpretation of the word “religion” will do. I see nothing whatever of value in religion, under any interpretation that any significant number of people would recognise as accurate, that does not also exist outside religion. Specifically, I see no point whatever in so-called “atheist religion” and find de Botton’s maunderings rather revolting.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          ” see nothing whatever of value in religion, under any interpretation that any significant number of people would recognise as accurate, that does not also exist outside religion.”

          I think I would agree with this statement if it were slightly rephrased, to read:

          ” see nothing whatever of value in religion, under any interpretation that any significant number of people would recognise as accurate, that COULD not also exist outside religion.”

          For instance, in many areas across the USA, the only values-based community of any size and clout is a religious one. That doesn’t mean a non-religious one could not in principle exist, but it does mean that it does not exist as an option for an individual living in that town at that time.

          • KG

            1) What do you mean by a “values-based community”?

            2) I did not say everything of value exists everywhere, and that’s simply a silly interpretation of my statement.

          • TempleoftheFuture

            When I say “values-based community” – a term which I haven’t seen defined clearly so I’m not sure if it has an accepted meaning – what I mean is a community which is centered around a particular set of values which the members are expected to endorse, and which the community is dedicated to fostering.

            This is the main way in which I see religious and Humanist communities being similar: religious communities are fundamentally centered on values (and not, in my view, theology – at least not today in the USA), and Humanist communities would also be centered on values – just different values.

            I find this construction extremely helpful because it enables me to draw both parallels and distinctions between religious and nonreligious communities. Your question has actually inspired me to write about that particular phrase, since it’s central to my thinking and I haven’t explicitly articulated it yet.

            As for your construction, I wasn’t suggesting you were saying that “everything of value exists everywhere”. I just wanted to make it clearer that to say that “X valuable thing exists outside religion” is not particularly helpful to a given individual if what you mean by that is “somewhere in the world X valuable thing exists outside religion, but not where you live.”

          • KG

            A central value of religious communities is the value of faith: commitment to beliefs that either cannot be, or are not to be, subjected to systematic rational critique. A central value of any “community of values” I would want to be part of is precisely the rejection of and uncompromising opposition to faith. Religion is dangerous and pernicious precisely because it has no reality-check, and this is as true of kumbaya religious liberals as of fundamentalists.

            “I just wanted to make it clearer that to say that “X valuable thing exists outside religion” is not particularly helpful to a given individual if what you mean by that is “somewhere in the world X valuable thing exists outside religion, but not where you live.””

            That is not consonant with your statement that you would modify mine to:
            “see nothing whatever of value in religion, under any interpretation that any significant number of people would recognise as accurate, that COULD not also exist outside religion”

            If it exists anywhere outside religion, then it DOES exist outside religion. Either you think there are things of value that currently ONLY exist within religion, or you don’t. Which is it?

          • TempleoftheFuture

            “A central value of religious communities is the value of faith: commitment to beliefs that either cannot be, or are not to be, subjected to systematic rational critique. A central value of any “community of values” I would want to be part of is precisely the rejection of and uncompromising opposition to faith. ”

            Errrrr, sure. You won’t get any disagreement from me. “Reason” is the top value listed on our “list of values” at HCH. Its staunch opposition to faith and faith-based thinking is one of the things I like the best about the community!

            “Religion is dangerous and pernicious precisely because it has no reality-check, and this is as true of kumbaya religious liberals as of fundamentalists.”

            This is an argument I’ve seen Greta Christina make, but it isn’t accurate in practice. Faith-based thinking is always potentially dangerous, yes, but there are also degrees of faith-based thinking. Some people open more of their views up to rational scrutiny than others.

            I would have thought my answer regarding “does” and “could” obvious from the way I described my small change to your position: for any given benefit, in some cases it “does” exist in an accessible form for an individual and in other cases it only “could” exist in an accessible form. Clearly I don’t hold that there is anything of real value that can ONLY EVER be provided by religion – I would never make such a claim. But, just as clearly, in many locales around the world (perhaps most) some of the real benefits religious communities provide are not provided in any other form.

          • KG

            No, it was not clear. If you want to change “does” to “could”, you imply that at present the thing in question does not exist at all, anywhere, for anyone. How could I possibly be interpreted as saying that alternatives to everything religion currently provides for anyone exists everywhere?

          • TempleoftheFuture

            I was merely clarifying how I myself would express the idea you presented. I choose “could” instead of “does” to make it clear that in some cases such benefits might exist in principle but not in practice. And I feel that is important to note.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      What do you mean by “anti-religious”?

      • KG

        Active opposition to all religious ideas, religious bases for morality, religious organizations and forms of organization, religious language including that around “spirituality”, treatment of religious leaders as though they had any legitimate position of authority or expertise. Of course I am not talking about either violence or legal sanctions against religion or religious people, but as far as possible I want religion out of the public sphere.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          So, when you say you’re against “all…religious organizations” that would include groups like Dignity Boston, which works to make the catholic church more friendly toward gay people, or Believe Out Loud, which seeks to do the same for the wider Christian community?

          • KG

            Yes. I think such efforts are a complete waste of time, and those in them would be much more effective opponents of homophobic bigotry if they left religion and concentrated on persuading others to do so, and opposing the influence religion has on culture and society. The homophobia and misogyny of Christianity – and indeed, all the Abrahamic religions – are very deep-rooted, and the homophobes and misogynists within those religions have their scriptures on their side.

          • KG

            Further to that, I think such organizations are based on a completely false premise; their members are fooling themselves that there is some pristine version of their religion that is free of homophobia. More generally, of course, all religion is based on deception or self-deception: that there are ways of discovering truths about the world other than systematic empirical enquiry. I don’t believe self-deception is a sound basis for effective activism.

          • TempleoftheFuture

            Well I think we might have an actual disagreement, then. I used to think as you do – that those who want to reform religions from within were better off outside the tradition working from without. Now, understanding a lot more about human psychology – particularly the psychology of changing minds – I recognize that it is highly unlikely that work from without will transform these institutions as fast and as effectively as work from within.

            Indeed there is zero evidence that you are correct in your assertion that these activists “would be much more effective opponents of homophobic bigotry if they left religion and concentrated on persuading others to do so”, and plenty of evidence against the assertion that “such efforts are a complete waste of time”. Hardly a year goes by without yet another religious group or organization endorsing gay rights (for instance) and the proportion of open and affirming churches increases yearly. Even within large evangelical churches the movement is definitely in the right direction, with opposition to homosexuality now effectively sidelined in many.

            It is naive, in my view, to think that an outsider to any tradition can have as much or more influence on that tradition as a principled insider who refuses to leave but works for change. Obviously people who no longer hold their religious beliefs should leave, but if you are genuinely a Catholic and also genuinely in support of gay rights, the best option open to you to make a change is to work for change within the church.

            You are way off base in your empirical claims.

          • KG

            I have a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology and a doctorate in cognitive sciences, and have until recently been leading an international project on changing behaviour (although not in this area), and am an experienced campaigner; so I’m far from naive in these matters. In the area of gay rights, religious organizations are responding to changes which they have most certainly not initiated – that was done by militant LGBT campaigners. I cannot think of an important liberatory campaign that has succeeded by working primarily within the framework of existing organizations.

            If you’re a Catholic who also believes in gay rights, then you are deeply, deeply confused.

          • TempleoftheFuture

            You can’t be serious – you honestly think that it was primarily the influence of, for instance, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom which encouraged the Presbyterians to accept ordination of gay ministers more than those inside the church? Clearly it’s a complex social process with many moving parts, but I don’t think you could provide any study whatsoever which would support that view of mind-changing mechanisms.

          • KG

            I made quite clear what I meant, and you are distorting it. I said that “religious organizations are responding to changes which they have most certainly not initiated – that was done by militant LGBT campaigners”. The churches that have ordained gay ministers have done so because societal views at large have changed, and that change was initiated by militant LGBT campaigners – the churches are merely playing catch-up, and might do so even faster if the non-homophobes were leaving faster – above all, churches want to keep bums on pews, and money flowing in from the deluded. In places where there has been no broader societal change – in most of Africa, for example – the churches remain as homophobic as ever, if not more so. The same is true even in North America and Europe of the churches that have a strong central authority, such as the Catholics and Mormons. There (at least in the first case, I know little of the Mormons), the laity have shifted along with the rest of society; but in both the hierarchy remains resolute in its bigotry, and spends large sums on propagandising for it. Anyone remaining in those organizations is colluding in that bigotry.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          I don’t agree with your analysis, partly because it would fly in the face of all the evidence I know regarding how people’s views actually change on issues like these. It’s an extremely challenging process to untangle all the different possible causal factors which have led to social change, but I doubt that the view you seem to be advocating is fully accurate.

          One question which might bring greater clarity: do you not think these organizations are valuable for people currently in the given denomination who are struggling to accept themselves? I know many such people personally who feel as if their life has literally been saved by these organizations. What would you do with them?

          • KG

            I notice you don’t actually produce any evidence, nor any specific criticisms of my analysis. If you actually have any such evidence or criticisms, do so and I will consider them.

            What do you mean: “What would I do with them”? I wouldn’t do anything with them. As to what I’d advise them to do if they asked, I’d advise them to abandon the beliefs that are making it hard for them to accept themselves, and if possible the denomination that is oppressing them. The faster people leave homophobic organizations, especially those that are actively engaged in persecuting LGBTQ people, the better.

  • Smhll

    Good article. I also found Tom’s comment very informative.

    My take is that A plusers and Humanist are in strong agreement on most stuff, and that the disagreement is packaging and trappings.

    I think those two groups will find common cause and work together on causes a lot. They may not group up together on Sunday mornings. A few people from each group may want to avoid confronting each other on quirky personal beliefs, in the interest of working together respectfully. (For the record, I’m a nonconfrontationalist who grew up lightly UU.)

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I agree that there is a whole lot of overlap. Apart from the name I struggle to see the difference.

      • KG

        That’s because you’ve got your hands over your eyes. As I’ve already noted, Greg Epstein made a point of contrasting his approach with that of New Atheism – and Atheism+ shares its attitude to religion with New Atheism. Have you explained to Greg that in your view, he’s completely wrong?

        • TempleoftheFuture

          I think the perceived difference here is down to the fact that when I say “religion” and when you say “religion” we think of different things.

          • KG

            You’re wrong. I have made quite clear that I oppose religion under any definition that would be accepted by any significant number of people. You also fail to answer my question: have you told Greg Epstein that in your view, he’s completely wrong?

          • TempleoftheFuture

            Then say what you mean by the term, because Greg and I don’t disagree, and I don’t actually think I an the New Atheists disagree that much either.

          • KG

            You’re being absurd. You claim that you agree with Epstein, and disagree hardly at all with the New Atheists. Yet Epstein says:
            “The New Humanism is produced by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and is named after the 30th anniversary conference our organization held in April 2007. At that event, the title was chosen to contrast with “The New Atheism,” as the media have dubbed the work of writers such as Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins, Stanford doctoral student Sam Harris, and journalist Christopher Hitchens, each of whom had recently published a bestselling book promoting atheism. The intention was to use our conference to draw attention to the idea that Humanism, like atheism, is nontheistic and not traditionally religious, but unlike some popular atheism, Humanism is not necessarily an antireligious ideology. We also hoped our conference could serve as an exploration of the best ways in which Humanism can be more positive and constructive than what the general public had been seeing in the New Atheism. Our speakers, topics, and other conference events were chosen in order to highlight these distinctions.”
            It is quite evident that Epstein does not agree with the New Atheists. So either you disagree with him, or with the New Atheists – or of course, both.

            At Pharyngula you defined religion as everything religious organizations or individuals do, but did not respond – unless I missed it – to my question as to whether brushing your teeth is religious, as religious individuals certainly do that. Your definition was risible, and you have not given one at all here. In fact, of course, no succinct definition of the term “religion” is possible, as you know as well as I do: the term covers beliefs, practices and social formations, and in all cases the boundaries are vague. Exactly the same is true of, for example, fascism, yet you would have no problem with me saying I am against fascism, or with understanding what I meant by that. You are simply quibbling in order to avoid admitting that you disagree with the New Atheists, and hence, with Atheism+.

          • TempleoftheFuture

            “Contrast” does not necessarily mean “disagree over core values”. I accept there is a difference in strategy and presentation, but my entire point here is that I do not believe there is a huge difference in core values.

            In terms of whether I disagree with the New Atheists and Atheism+, I don’t believe I do. You certainly have not articulated a disagreement and I do not believe I can find one. Do you have anything to share on that front, or is it all bluster?

  • Ian

    Of course the real misunderstanding here is that no one has defined what they mean by “religion.” I think the differences between Tom Flynn’s extreme anti-religious position and the Harvard Humanist’s almost pro-religious position (I realize that I’m grossly simplifying both sides) would be much smaller if we actually said what we were talking about.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Indeed – that’s one of the points I’m trying to pull out. I don’t know what people mean by religion. And that causes some real misunderstandings.

  • Ocean

    I too am one of those atheists who dislikes the humanist label and humanism as I have understood it (and also its association with Atheism+). Among my reasons are the last two points in your blog post. Another is the word itself, which suggests to me a glorification of humanity. In many of the definitions of humanism I’ve seen, including Humanist Manifesto III, there is that suggestion, as though ‘God’ has simply been replaced by ‘Humankind’:

    “We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose.”

    There’s a teleological suggestion there that I find disturbing.

    And here, at the opening:

    “Humanism … affirms our ability responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

    What about other species? The planet?

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I think there might be some legitimate concerns here about how Humanism is portrayed, especially in terms of our relationship to the planet and other animals. I don’t think the “glorification of humanist” piece is fair, because there is explicit recognition by Humanist philosophers that human beings are just animals and, in a sense, nothing special.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    See, it’s not just me that sees your humanism as religion without gods. Your buddy, the grand poohbah of the Harvard Humanist CHAPLAINCY Greg Epstein, goes so far as to specifically ape various religious rituals in the belief they enhance something or other he feels needs enhancement.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Can you give an example? And can you say what on earth this has to do with the post?

  • Kate Lovelady

    Great post. As a religious humanist and an Ethical Humanist, this is a summation I agree with.

    There seems to be concern among some atheists that humanists want to convert them to Humanism, and concern among some humanists that atheists want to convert them to Atheism, etc. While it’s true that there are proselytizers among nontheists (many of whom have blogs, for obvious reasons), I believe most of us are happy to let other nontheists have whatever focus/beliefs/practices/language they want.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I too am quite happy to let people use the terms which feel right for them. I think the reason some have thought otherwise is that PZ’s post which linked to this wrongly suggested I had some problem with A+.

  • fatpie42

    “Humanists believe that people can derive experiences of real value from religious communities”

    If you look at Alain De Botton’s approach to this idea you might see why some atheists feel threatened. He insists that it is imperative for atheists to benefit from the ‘wisdom’ of religious communities and that atheists are somehow lacking if they do not.

    I don’t think you need to be upset by PZ Myers’ comments if you are moving away from the idea of Humanism as some kind of a religion. Naturally atheists will wish to explore the human condition, but the idea of creating more man-made ceremonies is counter-productive.

    It seems to me that Atheism+ is helping more people to engage with the same issues of social justice that secular humanists would normally engage with. If there is some reason why they are unkeen on labelling themselves secular humanists and Atheism+ can allow them to get around that, it sounds like a good thing. And you’ll no doubt have seen by now that PZ sees himself as both a secular humanist AND a supporter of Atheism+.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I think PZ’s inaccurate analysis of my post created a number of confusions, one amongst them is that somehow I think the is a problem with people identifying as “A+”. I don’t have any problem with this at all, actually.

      My view on religion is similar but not identical to de Botton’s. I believe there are many valuable things we can learn from religious communities and practices, but I do not believe that it would be impossible to generate nonreligious communities without looking to religious models.

      Whether there is any value in ceremony seems to me to depend on the ceremony and the situation – sometimes I think they could be extremely valuable.

  • fatpie42


    “There’s a teleological suggestion there that I find disturbing.”

    I accept that ‘deep sense of purpose’ is an odd way to put it. I’ve generally preferred the expression “creating meaning for ourselves”. A robot is given purpose by its creator. A human being finds their own purpose.

    “What about other species? The planet?”

    Human beings clearly need the planet and as for other species, we benefit from them too. I think the focus on humans is because firstly humanists generally think a human being is more important than a frog, and secondly because humanists are not all necessarily vegans.

  • Mary Becker

    Mr. Croft, I do believe that I met and talked to you at a humanist convention in San Diego a couple of years ago. We were seated for dinner at a table with Jason Frye. I do remember that you were talking to us about the fact that, although you felt well rid of the religion of your childhood, you did miss some of the trappings of it, such as the candles and the music. Having been brought up in a non religious family, this was a sort of revelation to me, because I had not previously considered that formerly religious individuals would have experienced anything of value worth holding onto, after jettisoning their religious faith. I realized right then, that these trappings were the hooks by which religions keep hold of some of their otherwise disaffected congregates. So I can see why it is that you understand that, for certain non religious people, there is comfort in knowing that moving into a nonreligious community need not be a movement into a cold, hard, exclusively intellectualized space. I am a secular humanist who has recently organized a new regional group, and because of my conversation with you, that group will have a different form than I would have given it, previous to our conversation. It is strictly a secular group, but at least I realize the need to be sensitive to the needs of some of the group’s membership for warmth, community and some form of secular celebration. Thank you, for what you bring to this conversation.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Mary – I do remember the discussion and I appreciate you bringing it up! Thank you for commenting! One clarification: I was actually never raised religious. I just hung around a lot in churches as a choirboy. I do certainly think that there is some real value in some practices which are associated with religion and that a clear view of these practices would reveal this value.

  • ImRike

    I had a good friend who was an atheist. When her husband died, she moved to a small community and joined the church there. When I asked her why she would do such a thing, she said that she loved to sing and enjoyed singing in the church choir. She was still as convinced an atheist as ever.

    • James Croft

      This makes total sense to me. I think that many if the communal forms if expression religious spaces offer can be very life-affirming for people.