In the Shadow of Other Stories: Atheist History, Humanist Present

In the Shadow of Other Stories: Atheist History, Humanist Present March 8, 2020

Tom Barrett,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. This is a distillation of the first conversation I often have with people when they find out I write and publish science fiction:

“Oh, cool! I love science fiction!”

To which I say,

“Oh, cool! What sort of authors do you like?”

To which they pause and say, “Do you know… Asimov?”

And I smile. “Yes, Asimov is one of the Golden-Age majors, along with Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, and about a dozen more. Some of us call them the ‘ABCs’ of science-fiction history, though that’s a little unfair to Heinlein, all the way out at ‘H’.”

“Woah! Well, yeah, that’s it, then. Asimov’s my favourite.”

I nod along, noting that they haven’t really mentioned a favourite story or idea in relation to this assertion of Asimov being their favourite SF author. “Anyone more recent?”

But there the conversation–for many–falters. Maybe if I’m being generous I’ll remind them that they’ve probably enjoyed the works of, say, William Gibson, Ted Chiang, and Jeff VanderMeer in filmic form. Probably we’ll shift the conversation to TV and filmic SF in general. But if I mention any of the stellar short-story and novel-length SF writers of the current moment, most will blank on every single name.

Now, the occasional person then becomes sincere enough about their interest to try to look up contemporary SF, but there they can get confused again. “I read a recent Nebula Awards anthology…” more than one person has told me, later. “But I wasn’t really taken by any of them? And there weren’t many real SF stories there to begin with?”

Well, yes, that can happen: the Nebula Awards are like our Oscars, voted on by writers and editors published in SFWA-qualifying venues, so they’re more a measure of what writers liked. And “writers’ writers” won’t always resonate as well for everyone else. For general readers, though? Watch the Hugos, voted on by genre fans, after registering the prior year. Or, heck, pick up an anthology by someone like John Joseph Adams, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Rich Horton, or Neil Clarke! There you should find a wide range of recent SF tales, from experimental lyricism straight to hard-SF.

But this isn’t an essay about science-fiction. Rather, it’s an essay about how the struggle for a humanism of the present moment is by no means unique in the field of human storytelling. In every field of human knowledge, we have these annoyingly persistent and antiquated notions of what the field even is. These giant shadows from past eras, that often obscure all our efforts to develop something truly of the present, and something to take us into a better future still.

What would it look like, I wonder, if we could imagine a humanism truly of the present? Without relentlessly hashing out all these shadows come before?

The Atheist-to-Humanist Leap out of the Shadows

In the secular-humanist realm, I have a similar “Asimov” problem. Someone finds out I’m a humanist, and…

  1. They don’t really understand the difference between humanism and basic atheism; and
  2. They assume that as a humanist I must “love” Dawkins, and launch into mockery of religious persons invoking some of his and other famous atheist catch-phrases.

Now, the first issue is interesting. I drew a little flak last year (and I’m okay with that!) from noting that some of the people who identify as “humanist” on Patheos follow a rather simplistic “let’s make fun of religious inanity” model for their posts here.

But then again, I also once saw a mass-murderer’s Facebook page list him as a “secular humanist.” So, for sure, I know that “humanist” is just a label any of us can slap onto ourselves. (Just as “Christian” is a label anyone can slap onto themselves.)

And also, I understand the appeal of using “humanism.” It sounds fancier than “atheism,” no? And it doesn’t carry all the baggage of “atheism”, either. So why not use the label, even if it doesn’t mean anything different than “atheist” to you?

I will, however, always try to outline the difference between atheism and humanism.

And advance it in the hope that a clear linguistic divide will eventually become obvious.

Because empirical knowledge, which is so critical to our ability to effect meaningful policies as human agents, is not just about the likes of evolutionary biology, geology, cosmology, stellar evolution, archaeology, early-Earth biochemistry, and anthropology. It also includes a rigorous awareness of disciplines studying human behaviour in the here-and-now (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology), and related literary, philosophical, and historical subfields.

And if you include empirical data from those fields–fields, that is, studying how people think, how people form tribes, how people react to fear, how people change their minds (if they change their minds)–then the kind of supposed “humanism” that spends its time mocking people from different “tribes” just won’t pass muster anymore.

Why? Because empathy isn’t a frill in the practice of empirically moored humanism. If you’re including a comprehensive data set about the nature of the human condition and its environmental context… empathy should become a humanist default instead.

And yet, even now, atheists in my life still send me memes and related content making fun of “silly” spiritualists, and touting the people who made a later-life public career of condemning the same. Do they understand the dangerous tribalism they’re playing into when they post such material? The self-congratulatory in-group/out-group reinforcement, which can have serious consequences in the political sphere?

I don’t think they do. I think they probably find such joking harmless, because it’s no different than what many recent “greats” of atheistic discourse often did. And so 21st-century humanism still walks under this shadow of preceding tribalist giants–both in the public eye and among atheists–when it really doesn’t need to anymore.

A Humanism Raised Up from New Roots

Many self-described secular humanists still live and breathe a history of contemporary atheism that involves using the shelter of popular atheist “authorities” to crack potshots at religious folks.

But as with SF, the invocation of prominent atheist authorities from another era also reflects a huge disconnect between an understanding of humanism’s surrounding history, and its present.

After all, even those who can only think of “Asimov” (and the rest of the Golden Age ABCs), when asked about science fiction, are still swimming every day in science-fiction storytelling. It’s not just on their TVs, or in their videogames and movies, but also in everyday household gadgets and technology, as well as in the futurist storytelling that their society’s science-and-tech innovators use to stay on the cutting edge. We all exist in a culture that will live to simultaneously cheer and roll its eyes at Martian colonists, while also struggling to innovate our way out of environmental collapse and exact even more incredible ingenuity out of 3D-printing and similar recent advancements.

That is to say: We talk science-fiction into reality every single day.

Likewise, even though a direct discussion about humanism will often default to atheist “authorities” from the turn-of-the-century, most people, spiritual and atheist alike, are just… living their humanism. Day by day, they’re acting on the intel they have about the needs of fellow human beings, in light of their tacit knowledge that humans are the most critical agents of daily action and social change.

Oh, sure, if you pin down a deeply religious person in discussion, they will probably tell you that they could do nothing if not by the grace of their god.

But they still go to work, the grocery store, the gas station, and the voting station because they know that the human being is still centrally tasked to move within this world.

One of my own family members, for instance, is a deeply religious YEC. And yet, even though our cosmologies differ wildly; even though her understanding of the natural world’s history is… almost without overlap to my own… the majority of the time she spends alive and in motion through the world is no different than the majority of time I spend alive and in motion through the world. She cares for and is present for people in her community. She loves her critters and takes them to the vet when needed. She tries to make a difference, and appreciates when others tell her that positive difference is felt.

When I think about the difference between atheism and humanism, I think a lot about her–because the stereotypical atheist, the atheist most people think of when they think of our “field”, might find this person deserving of relentless criticism for her beliefs. Until she gives up her erroneous cosmology, what possible good can she do in the world?

In the process, though, of atheists spending so much time making fun of religious people with empirically ill-informed cosmologies… we’re also entrenching ourselves in an ignorance of whole bodies of vita empirical data about human behaviour. We’re refusing to pay attention to the psychology, especially, of individual decision-making and groupthink reinforcement. In this way, we become lesser empiricists ourselves, when we spend our lives mocking the scientific illiteracy of others.

Now, this is 100% not to suggest that we secular folk should never criticize spiritual beliefs. Rather, it’s to suggest that secular humanists have a better chance of achieving our goals by following the evidence, and focussing our criticism of toxic spiritual beliefs on sites removed from the individual. When it comes to secular politics, for instance, absolutely, criticize any policy advanced on the basis of religious stories at odds with empirical science! Fight to keep our schools secular, and our libraries, and any other sites of public discourse critical to maintaining access-to-opportunity for all our citizens!

This strategy becomes more difficult to enforce, of course, among family. How exhausting and painful it can be when family, friends, coworkers, and neighbours foist religious beliefs on you out of insecurity (usually) for your lack of belief in their presence of their own. As if your mere existence is a threat to their cosmology!

But that’s why it’s so important to step out of the shadows of preceding discourse.

Because it’s not about getting your religious family to come to the side of Dawkins, say.

It’s about getting them to see you.

You Cast Your Own Shadow in the World

Every humanist, secular and spiritual alike, advances their own discourse, and their own stories, with the actions they choose to take in the world every day.

Each and every one of you leaves an imprint on other lives, and that imprint serves as a reflection of your cosmology and its potential outcomes.

Ergo, we do not need to invoke past authorities to tell good stories about humanism today.

Nor do we need to mock other people for their beliefs in order to assert both the urgency and the efficacy of an empirically moored focus on the agency of fellow human beings.

Just as science-fiction is a storytelling field rfilled today with authors simply doing the work for those who wish to read and engage in the work with them… so too is humanism.

Religious, spiritual, and secular humanists: We are all already doing the work.

So don’t for a second think that we need to fall back on the shadows of our secular forebears to keep the good work going on. We can learn to do this work better with one another instead: with everyone, that is, willing to be present for the cause of improving human agency to solve the human problems of today.

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