Humanism as a Codeword for Atheism
By Michael McGehee at Jan 16, 2009
As an atheist and someone profoundly impacted by Complimentary Holism (the social theory advanced in the book Liberating Theory by Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent and Holly Sklar) I find Humanism as meaningful, inspirational and a possible bridge between diverse cultures.
I have also, it is sad to say, found that many who claim to be humanists are abusing the word by making it a codeword for atheism.
I confronted one of the biggest humanist organzations, International Humanist and Ethical Union, about this and decided to post my initial email, the response I got back and my follow-up email.
While I think Jeremy, the person who responded to me, means well I also think he is being unnecessarily defensive about a definition that should be seriously considered for revision.
Here is my first email:
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."
As an atheist I have to say that while this is a great statement the last sentence seems counter-productive and even contradictory to what preceded it. Humanism could be more productive and effective if it didnt intentionally cut itself off from the religious community. Rejecting a huge part of the world based on their views is unethical.
Obviously theistic beliefs and beliefs in the supernatural can result in unethical behavior but it does not follow to say that all such beliefs do too. Even secular beliefs can result in unethical behavior. This organization would be better served by opening itself up to religious institutions in ways that do not undermine all that preceded the last sentence of the quotation responded to.
Respectfully and constructively critical, Michael
This was the response I got:
Thank you for a more-than-usually interesting message.
Humanism has no dogma, and at any meeting of Humanists you can usually find two who will "agree to disagree" on most issues. (I started by writing "nearly everything".)
But Humanists do have some things in common. Personally, I like "rationalism in the service of compassion" (Hans Eysenck).
The "minimum statement" -- which since 1996 is what member organizations are asked to accept before joining IHEU -- is also widely accepted outside IHEU as a basic definition of Humanism.
I don't think this statement rejects people because of their views. I think it does say that people with theistic or supernatural beliefs are not Humanists. That doesn't mean that they aren't ethical: many (perhaps most) people with unshakeable religious convictions live good, ethical lives. But you can be good without God: that's what Humanists try to do.
By the way, we _do_ work with religious organizations on matters of common interest. Two recent examples: joint statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council; and our joint "Vision for Europe" campaign.
Thanks again for your message.
International Humanist and Ethical Union
Here is my response to his response:
I am an atheist. But I have got to say that when you or organizations like IHEU assert that "people with theistic or supernatural beliefs are not Humanists" that pretty much confirms two things in the minds of theists and supernaturalists:
1. Humanism is a code word for atheism.
2. Ethics is second to atheism.
What is also disturbing in this concept of "Humanism" is that the root of the word "human" DOES exclude the majority of humans, and not based on their ethical behavior or their sense of "humanity" but because they, in our eyes, believe certain silly things.
I see humanism as everything but that last sentence:
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. [reject]It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.[/reject]"
If "Humanism... affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives" then why does it exclude the vast majority of the world from its ranks because of how they "give meaning and shape to their own lives"? Not only do I think this stance, regardless of how well accepted, is unethical with its exclusion and contradiction, but that it is counter-productive.
I think Humanism has lots to offer people and can be an effective bridge for cultural diversity and the advancement of democratic and ethical practices, but it has some internal shortcomings that will need to be addressed.
I don’t know if anything will come out of this, but hopefully something productive does.