Who Can We Call a Humanist?

November 7, 2018

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The following article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 edition of The American Rationalist.


Mel Gibson claims that the pope is not a Catholic. The pope claims that he is a Catholic.

Supporters of Ian Paisley’s Protestant sect claim that the pope is not a Christian. The pope claims that he is a Christian.

The late president of England’s British Society of Medical Hypnotists claimed that Christian Scientists are not Christians. Christian Scientists claim that they are Christians.

Tea Party dogmatists claim that anyone who supports Barack Obama’s desire to provide all Americans with an economic safety net is not a Republican. The persons denounced as RINO (Republican in name only) are adamant that they are Republicans.

Opponents of Christopher Hitchens’s willingness to resort to war in order to resist an oppressor, if that is what proves necessary, have claimed that Hitchens is not a humanist. Hitchens claims that he is a humanist.

So which are right?

First, let me express my own opinion that a Catholic is anyone who believes he or she is a Catholic—including Mel Gibson. I reject the hypothesis that a Catholic is someone who conforms to some other person’s definition of a Catholic.

A Christian is anyone who believes he or she is a Christian. A Republican is anyone who believes he or she is a Republican.

And a humanist is anyone who believes he or she is a humanist—provided he or she uses the word to mean one who believes that this planet’s highest decision makers are humans, not any imagined metaphysical higher life-form. No matter how humanistic or humane his philosophy, a person who believes in one or more lawmaking gods is not a humanist. Pope Benedict XVI has claimed that the Catholic Church is humanist. That would be as if enforcers of the compulsory birth of millions of babies who will die of starvation because their mothers cannot feed them were to call themselves “right to life.” The Catholic Church is as humanist as Hitler’s Nazis.

Can a humanist believe that disbelief in gods is what makes a humanist and values, such as believing in the inherent goodness of fellow humans and respecting their right to disagree, are merely icing on the cake? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that values, as much as disbelief in gods, are what make a humanist? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that the nonexistence of God (as opposed to gods as a class) cannot be proven? Yes. But he or she thereby reveals either unawareness of the relevant evidence or the inability to recognize when a conclusion has been logically proven.

Can a humanist believe that the nonexistence of God has been fully proven? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that no such person as Jesus of Galilee ever lived? Yes.

Can a humanist believe there was a historical Jesus onto whose biography the Christian fairy tales were posthumously grafted? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that religion is an inaccurate belief system that deserves as much respect as any other belief system (e.g., that vegetarianism is a healthier lifestyle than omnivorism) that he or she knows to be inaccurate? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that religion is so incompatible with human reason that its apologists deserve no more respect than believers in a flat Earth, astrology, alien abductions, or Scientology? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that the cause of humanism is best served by being scrupulously polite even to the most inflexible and incurably godphuqt? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that a century of politeness has not worked, and it is time to state unequivocally that there are only four kinds of god-worshippers: the educationally challenged, the intellectually challenged, the rationally challenged, and the intestinally challenged? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that a humanist periodical should resemble a chess club newsletter, printing nothing more profound than the minutes of the last meeting and making no attempt to dispute the validity of religion? Clearly yes, since a recent editor of Humanitie (Scotland) believed exactly that.

Can a humanist believe that a humanist periodical that does not focus on justifying humanism and demonstrating the falseness of religion is a waste of a perfectly good tree? You bet your sweet arse I do.

Can a humanist be a Republican (or a Conservative in Canada or the UK)? Yes—if he is unaware that those parties are wholly owned subsidiaries of the god delusion.

Can a humanist believe that nothing is immoral unless it unnecessarily hurts a nonconsenting victim? Yes.

Can a humanist be culturally conditioned into believing in the taboos the polis believes in, because he does not grasp that some of them could be valid only if the priestly caste that invented them really did speak for a lawgiving god? Yes.

Can a humanist be a pacifist, one who believes that all wars are indefensible—even wars of self-defense? Yes.

Can a humanist believe that pacifists, so defined, pose as great a threat to humankind’s survival as the most fanatical god cultists? Yes.

So what is the bottom line? Do persons who identify themselves as humanists, rationalists, naturalists, agnostics, atheists, nontheists, or brights dispute that those designations are interchangeable and that they all disbelieve the same things? Anyone who does is splitting hairs. A humanist is a nontheist, and a nontheist whose values coincide with those of humanists is a humanist. (That lets out Joseph Stalin.) A humanist can be morally evolved or morally retarded, dogmatic or pragmatic, learned or simply raised to believe what his or her parents believed. As long as a person does not consider him- or herself the domesticated livestock of a lawgiver in the sky, he or she  is entitled to call himself a humanist.