Humanism and Atheism

April 22, 2010

A blog post that I wrote a short time ago regarding Paul Kurtz’s Neo-Humanist Statement generated a number of interesting comments. One commenter asked, in light of my criticism of the Neo-Humanist Statement, why I identify myself as a humanist in addition to identifying myself as an atheist. What does the humanist label add? It’s a fair question.

I began calling myself a secular humanist about 28 years ago, after I first became acquainted with the Secular Humanist Declaration. (The SHD was, of course, drafted by Paul Kurtz.) I found I agreed with the key ethical views set forth in the SHD, as well as the general approach that was outlined for resolving, or at least narrowing, disagreements and disputes, not only in ethics but in other areas. The SHD advocated use of critical reasoning and science, while carefully avoiding an embrace of scientism, that is, the view that every genuine question can be resolved by science. And, of course, the SHD unequivocally rejected the position that claims about reality can be based on appeals to mysticism, revelation or religious or ideological dogma.

I still find myself agreeing with most of the assertions of the SHD. Of course, the SHD was overbroad, at times hopelessly vague, and, in general, too wordy. (Paul Kurtz is a good writer. At times, he is a great writer. But no one ever accused Paul of being terse.) Those are common faults of manifestos and declarations. But in the main, it concentrated on relevant matter and set forth in reasonably clear terms the key features of a secular humanist outlook. With respect to ethics, this includes a commitment to free expression and free inquiry and respect for individual autonomy (which has obvious implications for secular humanist views on assisted dying and reproductive choice). With respect to politics, this includes a commitment to democracy, a secular society, and equal civil rights for all.

Accordingly, the term "humanist" or "secular humanist" implies that in addition to rejecting belief in the supernatural, one accepts certain methods of inquiry as legitimate and also accepts certain ethical and political principles.

But are the principles I have mentioned really "humanist" principles? If one means ethical or public policy precepts to which only humanists subscribe, the answer is obviously "no." Many religious people might accept some, if not all, of these principles. However, if they do, they will usually do so for the wrong reason: because their religious beliefs require them to accept these principles. Humanists maintain these principles can be rationally justified and defended. And, importantly, they can be questioned and challenged. There is no dogma, metaphysical, ethical, or political, in humanism.

Of course, there may be atheists who accept these principles as well and who, for whatever reason, prefer not to identify as humanists. Unlike our religious friends, however, if they do accept these principles, they typically do so after applying critical reasoning and, like secular humanists, they regard ethical principles as subject to challenge and revision.

Which is one reason I was so dismayed by the Neo-Humanist Statement. It goes out of its way to pick a fight with atheism, as though atheists were necessarily opponents of humanism. To the contrary, even atheists who shy away from the humanist label are likely to be allies of humanists on key issues, including key methodological issues. One can fashion an ethics that is responsive to human interests and needs only if one first rejects religious dogma and revelation as a source of ethical knowledge. On this fundamental point there is usually no disagreement between atheists and humanists. (Granted, there are some atheists who reject the institution of morality, but nihilists are few and far between.)

So to those who question how I can describe myself as a humanist when I reject the Neo-Humanist Statement, the answer is simple: the Neo-Humanist Statement, although it makes some valid points, is a seriously flawed document. There is another document that I believe better captures the essence of secular humanism, namely the SHD. Although dated in its references, its principal points retain their validity and vitality.

Sometimes the earlier model is better.