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.

Atheism's Lack of Values is a Bug, Not a Feature
Building Better Secularists?
A Humanist's Guide to Working with Clergy
Love, Lust, and the Bible: A Further Response to Matthew Vines
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.