Despite the fact that this blog is meant to, if not designed to, cater to a particular audience, it occurred to me that there very likely could be some fraction of readers who are simply happening by without having any real context about what humanism is. Indeed, even the particular audience itself might be a little shaky on such things.
As for myself, the question of how humanism differed from atheism was of particular importance when I was first learning about the terms and how I and my thoughts and beliefs related to them. For the sake of narrowing things down, we’ll assume that most readers can relate to this comparison and take it from there.
When I first gave up on my Christian faith, I wasn’t very quick to find another label to slap on my forehead once finally freed from a rather strict and heavily dogmatic religion. Surely I was somewhat anxious to learn more about myself away from the parameters that the church had set up for me, but the world of possibilities seemed to be a little too limited if I started using umbrella terms. At most, I knew what I wasn’t. I knew I was no longer a Lutheran. And I knew I was no longer a Christian. And after a brief period, I realized that I wasn’t even religious anymore.
A lot of the literature that I was reading with my newfound free-thought was from the so-called New Atheists. Curiously, the phrase isn’t one that any of the New Atheists themselves coined, or even really used all that much, but one is soon enough to find with a little study of cultural movements in history that the people doing the most interesting things hardly name themselves. My favorite example is the Beat Poets; the name was given to a group of writers in the ‘50s initially as a slam against them, but the name stuck and was quickly used endearingly. Allen Ginsberg himself, arguably the most well-known of the Beats, famously said, “There is no Beat Generation. Just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” So too is the case with the New Atheists; it’s just a bunch of people who, like so many before them, don’t believe in god.
And that was something that I realized I didn’t do as well! Since I was more in the market of describing what I wasn’t in the early days of my apostasy, the term “atheist” seemed to almost perfectly embody what I was looking for for myself, as it fully described the central element of the big change in my life, yet did nothing to describe anything else about me. After all, looking strictly at the dictionary definition of the word, it simply meant “did not believe in god.” The world was too big to try to narrow anything down too small just yet. I was 27-years deep into a mode of thinking that severely limited my individualism, and there was far more exploring to do before I accepted a label to describe anything further than what I wasn’t.
I was quick to discover, though, that the term “atheist” has a much larger cultural definition than its simple dictionary definition. With special thanks to the New Atheists, a movement of questioning religious dogma and calling out superstitious bullshit was gathering steam, complete with more books, editorials, blogs, and events with the purpose of furthering the political goal of fighting the encroachment of church within the state and ending faith-based bullying and privilege. Though I aligned myself with these courageous men and women, I didn’t really feel that I fit in line with their club, so to speak. In the town that I live, Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a community atheist group was even founded in the past few years to organize the non-believing for social and political reasons; and even amongst these people, I’m not an active member (I’m a lay member, in that I’m on their email list and they know who I am).
The problem with a term like atheist is very much why I liked it to begin with; it doesn’t actually describe anything about me. I’d like to think that there are much more interesting things about me than the fact I don’t believe in a god. And what’s more, I at times quite resent this term for the fact that it’s a religiously-based term to describe a person without a religion. The need for the term, in and of itself, is somewhat insulting. After all, I’m not a professional sports player, but no one calls me an antithetic.
When I first heard the term humanist, it was in the context of trying to find a word to describe those without religion with a word other than atheist, not so much because of the reasons given above, but because it also has a long history of stigma against it. So humanist, along with agnostic, nontheist, and (the much detested and fortunately short-lived verbal substitute) bright, was introduced to me as a palatable synonym for atheist. Because of that, none of these terms really attracted me since they all seemed like a weaselly way to try to sugarcoat a pill that, let’s face it, just might have to be hard to swallow (it wasn’t easy for me, but it’s the difficulty of the process which helps to make one proud of their accomplishments). Such was the way things were.
I don’t recall specifically when this was, but a time eventually came when I thought further about the term humanist, and realized that it had far more to offer by means of describing one in the positive rather than strictly the negative. As a matter of fact, it’s used primarily by people who don’t believe in god, but there’s no saying that a humanist has to be an atheist. As a belief, humanism stresses the the value and goodness of human beings, and using rational means to solve worldly problems. There’s not a lot of room for stringent fundamentalists within Christianity or Islam to be called humanists, but there’s no saying that causal adherents to either faith tradition couldn’t be thoroughly good humanists as well. That said, if you hear someone refer to themselves as a humanist, it is probably a safe bet that this person doesn’t believe in a god.
Given this new outlook on the terms in my arsenal, humanism seemed a much more accurate term to describe myself given its accentuation on the means by which we can live in the world. And yet, I still never really used it.
All things considered, I’m largely not a fan of describing myself so simply. Like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said on the matter, “the only ‘ist’ I am is a ‘scientist,’” meaning that he doesn’t like getting lumped together with others based on ideology. Though if I’m talking religion with someone who is Christian, I openly accept the label atheist as a means of defining ourselves within the topic at hand. But beyond that, I think there are far more interesting and telling ways of describing myself.
To date, my favorite is “writer.”