Atheist vs Humanist

As you’ve noticed, Patheos has rolled out a site-wide redesign, and the best changes have come to the new ‘Channel‘ pages (previously ‘Portals’) for the different religious groups on the site.  The old portal was kind of a placeholder, and they were holding off on major updates til the redesign.  One question that came up in consultations with bloggers before the rollout was whether our section should be under the heading “Atheist” or “Humanist.”  It used to be “Humanist” and I’m quite glad we switched the names.

Humanist is a pretty vague word.  To me, it just suggests to me an interest in human nature and human purpose and it doesn’t necessarily preclude a belief in the spiritual or supernatural.  Note that a lot of people in the atheist community feel the need to insert the word ‘secular’ before humanist when they use it to refer to themselves.

Another personal frustration with ‘humanism’: it sounds like it’s got more of a creed attached to it than ‘atheism’ (which is just the absence of theism), but humanism tends to be very vaguely and variably defined.  I’d rather take diffuse definitions like ‘humanist’ off the table, so people can’t avoid getting their feet held to the fire during debates. Atheists are often (and fairly) asked to talk about what they do believe, instead of just talking about what they reject. Humanists have a tendency to confuse their interlocutors, who can’t remember whether there’s any there there.


So, three questions for you all:

Have you ever heard an interesting/compelling definition of ‘humanism?’

If you are an atheist, what goes in your atheism and ______ slot?

Any feedback on the redesign that you want me to pass on to Patheos Central?


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  • Maiki

    I would define humanism as “there is value to all human persons equally above other forms of life or other conglomerations of matter. As such, our ethics framework should begin with that premise.”

    Whether particular humanists are intellectually honest or thorough with the conclusions thereof, I cannot say. But, basically, I would describe humanists as those who see mankind as the highest good.

  • Cous

    Layout feedback: they should move the “Recent Posts” and “Recent Comments” sections much higher, like into that empty space at the top of the sidebar. And speaking of that empty section, I don’t understand why Patheos would want to waste prime real-estate like that on every single one of their pages in the first place.

    • I suppose those slots will soon be filled by ads. (In fact I thought they already were, but disabling adblock shows them still empty.) But if the blogroll is gone for good, the useful parts should surely be before the “more from the channel” stuff.

      Unrelatedly, because I’m too lazy to write a second comment: Can we get a link to the comments at the end of each post? Putting it at the beginning really doesn’t make sense.

  • When I think of “Humanism” I always add the silent “Secular” in front of it. Wiki has a good definition for Secular Humanism which is: “Secular Humanism, alternatively known as Humanism … is a secular philosophy. It embraces human reason, ethics, and justice while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.
    Without the “Secular” I see Humanism as a kind of religion that worships humans – and despite our technology and our arts and all other accomplishments, we’re still a bunch of vicious animals unworthy of worship.
    As for atheism and ___. “Atheism and Evangelical Anti-religionist”.

    • leahlibresco

      But “Atheism and Evangelical Anti-religionist” doesn’t tell me very much about what you believe is true, just how dangerous you think certain false beliefs are. If I went around saying I was Atheist and Anti-Randian, that would be a lot less helpful than saying I’m Atheist and Pro-Virtue Ethics in a Pretty Aristotelian/MacIntyrian Way. I was wondering if you have something positive to put in the fill in the blank.

      I’m all on board with loving reason, ethics, and justice, but enough people have laid claim to those words that you have to specify (a la MacIntyre) Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

  • Simon

    The Council for Secular Humanism has a good definition:

  • Tom

    I guess I think of humanism as both ethical and more generally axiological or aretological, comprising two claims:
    (1) Humans and human needs are of primary ethical importance. (“Ethical” meaning moral (how should we act) and axiological (what sorts of things are good).)
    (2) Human beings are (so far as we know) the most impressive or Aristotelianly excellent things in the world. In turn, that would mean we don’t need to give any consideration to any deities.
    (Claim (1) doesn’t have to say that (e.g.) animals are not ethically important; it just allows us to sacrifice an animal interest of weight w for a human interest of weight w or greater.)

    As for my atheism “and …”, it’s idiosyncratic. I’ve devoted a lot of my time both professionally and on various blogs (including the one linked in my name) to defending atheism and a host of positions one doesn’t usually find with atheism, such as epistemological rationalism, compatibilism about free will, robust ethical realism, methodological nonnaturalism, ontological “profligatism,” dualism about the mind, and anti-scientism. I defend those positions because I think they’re true, or at least not obviously false.

  • Heartfout

    On a slight tangent, related to the rejig…any idea when the atheism library page is going up? It still has the “Under Construction, ready in 24 hours” thing from when they switched over. Is this going to be another “It’ll be ready by the end of 2011” in March of 2012 thing?

    • leahlibresco

      No idea. And I’m not exactly sure what that section is supposed to be when it exists.

  • Patrick

    On one hand, humanism does tell you more about the bloggers in question. On the other… humanism isn’t inherently a secular idea. So if the bloggers in the humanist section are by design all atheists, you’re sort of taking away information with that label as well. At least call it “secular humanism” if you want that section of the site to be the atheist zone.

  • “Humanism” as a term arose in English in the early modern period (1500s and 1600s) to designate neo-Aristotelian and Classical philosophy rather than neo-Platonic and medieval Christian philosophy. Humanists (such as Sir Philip Sidney, if you would like a name) tended to value Classical Greek and Latin literature, especially Aristotle, as much as Biblical sources when writing art and doing philosophy; they prefered the notion that truth is made through rhetoric rather than divinely revealed. Instead of believing that that word was somehow intrinsically connected to their referents, they believed that words were conventionally connected to their referents. They believed that being a good person, being a good courtier, and being a good Christian all depended on a strong education, including the arts (“poesy” may have been even more important than philosophy or history, depending on the humanist you were talking to). The set of subjects known collectively as the humanities get their name from humanism.

    To summarize, humanism originally refered to a semi-Aristotelian and explicitly Christian philosophy that valued the formation of the human through an especially arts-focused and neo-Classical education that reinforced courtly and academic conventions, and situated itself in opposition to the medieval neo-Platonist monastical philosophers. To the best of my knowledge contemporary humanism descended from this; the conception of humanism as being somehow related to atheism came later (around the Enlightenment, I would suppose; Voltaire comes to mind). The term seems to carry a history that I don’t think atheists (or secular humanists) would necessarily want attached to their name. At any rate, this is what I think of when I see “humanist.”

  • James

    I’ve never found a satisfactory defination, or even rough outline, of Humanism.(Tom’s above is easily the best I’ve read) Once divorced from any implied athiest or sceptic all Humanism seems to really mean is a rather vague kind of assurance the speaker still thinks human lives and concerns are in some sense valuable to some degree. The problem I have with Humanism is that if that is all it means it hardly seems worth saying or defining, it is simply the default view of humanity. In my ears calling yourself a Humanist sounds like calling youself a Moon-ist or an Ocean-ist or walking into a room and loudly proclaiming that you are sane. It sounds like the kind of thing you might say to convince people you aren’t a lunatic. Such as when a negative eugenicist begins by talking about the value of human life before discussing how many babies really ought to die, or how a calvinist might talk about the need to do our best to be good before talking about total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistable grace. Calling oneself a humanist skeptic or a humanist athiest tells me a lot about what either the speaker or their audience thinks about skepticism or athiesm, but almost nothing else.

    Seconded on having a link to comments after posts, and I really like having the search bar for this blog so much closer to the top. It is much more convenient that way.

  • anon atheist

    I think it is good that the section is called “atheist” since you can be a theist and a humanist. Hence the term “secular humanist”. For me it would be atheist and skeptic. But I would not call the section atheism and skepticism.

  • leahlibresco

    Housekeeping update: moving the comments link back to the bottom of posts and restoring the comment preview snippets in the recent comments sidebar are now on the to-do list for the tech team!

  • Michael R

    AC Grayling: “Humanism in the modern sense of the term is the view that whatever your ethical system, it derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world. This means that it does not, in its thinking about the good and about our responsibilities to ourselves and one another, premise putative data from astrology, fairy tales, supernaturalistic beliefs, animism, polytheism, or any other inheritances from the ages of humankind’s remote and more ignorant past.”
    This broad definition just means reliable beliefs in servitude to human values. No waffling statement about humanity.
    I usually use both humanist and atheist when describing myself.
    I guess I could say “atheist and emotivist” or “atheist and hedonist” but neither I nor my audience know exactly what those terms mean, and people think they imply selfishness/impulsiveness.
    So, I just use Grayling’s definition of humanism and reclaim the word.

  • @b

    >>interesting/compelling definition of ‘humanism’

    Good Without God,

    “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

    >>atheism and ACADEMIA

    >>feedback on the redesign to pass on to Patheos Central

    Collapsable comment treads please 🙂

    • @b

      Adding “Secular” implies the humanist does not accept religions that are atheistic or naturalistic.

      And it stands for church/state seperation (as per the First Ammendment).

      A note on secularism: atheists like Steve Zara point out that the intended “state neutrality towards religion” (historically a Catholic-Protestant ceasefire) is insufficient to prevent religious lobbying that results in church laws becoming state laws binding on non-churchgoers.

  • SAK7

    Isn’t it a bit disappointing to define yourself based not upon what you are and believe in, but rather by pointing across the room and saying…”not that”? OK, so an a-theist is someone who rejects theism. Fine and dandy. So what. Tell me what you accept please. At least the humanist label as weak as it is speaks from the position of definition of self. Me? I’m an aelephant. See how wanting this approach is?

  • Rjbowlin

    For me humanism is a devotion to improve the human condition. To create an environment where the greatest possible amount of people experience the greatest possible health, maturity, experience and achievement. That their accomplishment of said goals require the understanding and appreciation of the interdependence of the individual with it’s society, and that society with all of humanity. The key to the accomplishment of these goals relies upon this interdepence, as well as critical thinking, creativity, and science.
    Humanism opposes any object, addiction or obsession that is held above humanity. Theism is just one of these.