“Humanism” and “Atheism+”: What’s the Difference?

“Humanism” and “Atheism+”: What’s the Difference? August 20, 2012

Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that there are portions of the atheist community that are sexist, misogynist  homophobic, and transphobic. Those atheists who care about feminism and LGBTQ rights have become increasingly upset as this has played out. Many have been wondering where we go from here. Blogger Natalie Reed and I both wrote posts on this issue last week: here and here. Now blogger Jen of Blag Hag has weighed in calling for a third wave of atheism.

“It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.”

It’s funny, because I predicted this almost perfectly in my own post:

“Now, having said all this, there are those in the atheist community who appear to be working to draw the lines slightly differently. They seem to want an atheist community where the lines are based on a lack of belief in God but also on a commitment to social justice, especially when it comes to issues of race, sex, sexual identity, and class. The groups I know of offhand who appear to be working on this goal most tirelessly are the bloggers at FreeThought Blogs and Skepchick. And I’m glad of that. I would feel completely comfortable joining a group or attending a conference that was united not simply by a lack of belief in God but also by a commitment to humanist values and social justice issues. I do have to wonder, though. Is such a group simply “an atheist group,” or is it something more, something that perhaps needs a new label with a definitive definition that includes humanism and social justice issues? Because that I could get behind equivocally.”

Jen received 500 comments in twenty-four hours, almost all of them positive, agreeing with her assessment. In fact, her readers even suggested a name for this third wave: Atheism+. I read both of Jen’s posts with excitement, and I’m still excited. I like the idea of an atheist community where I will feel safe, and where others will share my values. I think that’s great.

But as I read Jen’s posts, something just kept niggling at me. I finally distilled what was bothering me into two points, and I’ll share them here.

Don’t We Already Have Humanism?

In her post on Atheism+, Jen explains the label as follows:

We are…

Atheists plus we care about social justice,

Atheists plus we support women’s rights,

Atheists plus we protest racism,

Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,

Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? Except, I have to admit, at this point I’m just a little bit confused. See, I thought we already had a term for this: Humanism.

The philosophy or life stance secular humanism (alternatively known by adherents as Humanism, specifically with a capital H to distinguish it from other forms of humanism) embraces human reasonethicssocial justicephilosophical naturalism, while specifically rejecting religious dogmasupernaturalism,pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.

I mean, goodness, if you go to the website of the American Humanist Association and click on “issues,” you’ll find this listing:

Secular Government

Scientific Integrity

Human Rights for All

Promoting Peace

Reproductive Freedom

Women’s Rights

LGBT Rights

Civil Rights in America

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I understand what Jen is trying to do. PZ has spoken before about “dictionary atheists,” where atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god or gods and that is it. PZ and Jen and others want atheism to be more than that. I get that. But technically, the term “atheist” means, well, what the dictionary says. Adding a “+” onto the end of it is a neat way to make it mean more, but why not just switch to the term “Humanist,” which already means everything “atheism+” is meant to mean?

Is Religion the Root of All Evil?

As I turned over and over in my mind the question of labels, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to a comment a reader left on Jen’s first post, a comment she quoted in her second post. I think this comment may help explain the reasons for choosing “Atheism+” rather than going with “Humanism.”

Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained?

I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism. I’m for getting rid of all the garbage.

In other words, racism, sexism, etc., are the natural products of religion, and equality, feminism, etc., are the natural products of atheism. If you accept that idea, you can see how turning the term “atheism” into a sort of umbrella term under which to place all of these other causes makes sense – it’s as if they flow from atheism.

Except that they don’t.

If feminism flows from atheism, why are there Christian feminists? If sexism flows from religion, why are there sexist atheists? Religion is the product of humans. It’s not some force that magically generates sexism. Religion is sexist because humans are sexist. It’s not the other way around. And there are religious traditions that aren’t sexist. Religion is as good or as bad as the humans that create and follow it.

While religion can and often does help perpetuate things like sexism and racism, it can also be used to fight those things. In antebellum America, the abolitionists were by and large motivated by their religious beliefs. The rest of the country thought they were crazy, but they carried on with a holy zeal. I’m not saying they were perfect. I’m not saying that religion was necessary to end slavery (it wasn’t) – or that religion wasn’t also used to perpetuate it (it was). I’m simply pointing out that it’s disingenuous and simplistic to simply blame sexism on religion when we’re busy fighting sexism within atheism and there are Christian feminists busy using their religious beliefs to fight sexism within Christianity.

Summing It All Up

If we claim that all things good flow from atheism and all things bad flow from religion, we risk both compromising our claim to critical thinking and alienating those who could be our allies in fighting sexism and racism. At the same time, I am firmly convinced that people who believe in God are believing in a figment of their imaginations, and I have seen religion cause a great many problems and a great deal of harm, often directly through its claims to infallibility, which make change difficult.

As I see it, the reality is this: If our goal is to promote reason and eliminate superstition, then religious individuals are not our allies. If our goal is to promote feminism and LGBTQ rights, then some religious individuals are our allies. But what if our goal is both? That, I think, is the problem.

I personally would rather have a religious world where women and LGBTQ individuals are true equals than a world without religion or superstition where women and LGBTQ individuals are discriminated and oppressed. My point is simply that my number one enemy is not religion, but sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Now of course, there are many who will assert that in a world without religion or superstition, sexism and other discrimination would disappear. In other words, that defeating sexism and homophobia would be the natural consequence of rooting out religion. Unfortunately, I don’t think this would be the case at all, as I think the recent conflict in the atheist community makes clear. I suppose in some sense I see opposing superstition and promoting reason on the one hand, and promoting feminism, LGBTQ rights, etc., on the other hand, as two different fights with two different sets of allies.

That said, I’m excited about the idea of making atheist and skeptic groups, conferences, and online communities more universally committed to the ideals of Humanism, whatever we call it. And for that reason, I’m extremely glad for Jen’s call for a third wave. My critiques are meant as suggestions and food for thought, not an attempt to overthrow or invalidate her entire idea.

It’s just that when it comes to issues like social justice, feminism, and LGBTQ rights, I personally am ready and willing to work with religious humanists and to see them as my allies. I don’t see religion disappearing in the foreseeable future, and I’m glad there are religious individuals out there working to eliminate sexism and homophobia from religion just as we work together to eliminate them from society. The way I see it, it doesn’t take atheism to eliminate sexism and homophobia, and it doesn’t take religion either. It takes people.

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