What Should Atheists and Humanists Stand For?

"Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?" - Benedicta Cipolla, Religion News Service Saturday, Washington Post, May 26, 2007

Benedicta Cipolla writes: Despite its minority status, atheism has enjoyed the spotlight of late, with several books that feature vehement arguments against religion topping the bestseller lists. But some now say secularists should embrace more than the strident rhetoric poured out in such books as "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris.

At a recent conference marking the 30th anniversary of Harvard's humanist chaplaincy, organizers sought to distance the "new humanism" from the "new atheism." Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein said "At times they've made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism," Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. "What we need now is a voice that says, 'That is not all there is to atheism.'"

"Atheists are somewhat focused on the one issue of atheism, not looking at how to move forward," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association. While he appreciates the way the new atheists have raised the profile of nonbelievers, he said humanists differ by their willingness to collaborate with religious leaders on various issues. "Working with religion," he said, "is not what [atheists] are about." Even as he complimented the "military wing of secularism" for combating the intrusion of dogma into political and private life, he told his audience that religious people "are more likely to pay attention to that hand of friendship offered to them . . . than to have suggested to them, let us say, Richard Dawkins's 'The God Delusion,' which sets out to carpet-bomb all religion."

The suggestion that atheists may be fundamentalists in their own right has, unsurprisingly, ruffled feathers."We're not a unified group," said Christopher Hitchens, author of the latest atheist bestseller, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." "But we're of one mind on this: The only thing that counts is free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason, irony, humor and literature, things of this kind. Just because we hold these convictions rather strongly does not mean this attitude can be classified as fundamentalist," Hitchens said.

The humanists are taking advantage of renewed interest in atheism -- in effect riding the coattails of Dawkins and Harris into the mainstream -- to gain attention for their big-tent model. While only a small portion of the nearly 30 million "unaffiliateds" might describe themselves as atheist, Epstein, from Harvard, sees humanism appealing to skeptics, agnostics and those who maintain only cultural aspects of religion.

A common critique of the new atheism is that it conflates belief with religiosity. In his research, Zuckerman has found that people may be outwardly religious not simply because they believe, but also because they're looking for community and solace within congregations. More than a kinder, gentler strain of atheism, humanism seeks to propose a more expansive worldview. "Atheists don't really ask the question, what are the vital needs that religion meets? They give you the sense that religion is the enemy, which is absurd," said Ronald Aronson, professor of humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit.

"There are some questions we secularists have to answer: Who am I, what am I, what can I know? Unless we can answer these questions adequately for ourselves and for others, we can't expect people to even begin to be interested in living without God."

Atheists and Secular Humanists: Who are they, what are they, what can they know?

Posted May 26, 2007


Elizabeth Murray said...

A good answer to the question ‘What an Atheist Should Stand For’ was given by Richard Carrier. I recommend that you read the whole article but a couple of points from what he said are as follows and I quote:

There is a common and justifiable lament that atheists are so preoccupied by naming and arguing what they are against, that people rarely hear what atheists are for. This is not only heard from the religious critics of atheism, but can be found in the voices and private thoughts of atheists themselves. Even the very names we take emphasize what we are against rather than for: atheist, agnostic, nonreligious, etc.

There has long been a solution to the above problem that too few have taken advantage of. The term "Secular Humanism" is a clear statement of what one stands for as well as against: being secular, one stands apart from religion, but being a humanist, one stands for humanity. Naturally, religionists have maligned and cursed and slandered this term beyond all measure, and have so equated it with atheism that even the public at large cannot see any difference between the two. Since too few have successfully defended the term and what it stands for, the advantage of the name has been lost in public discourse. But more importantly, it is incorrect to assume that all secular humanists are atheists. Being against religious solutions to our problems is not quite the same thing as not believing there is a god.

I want to talk about atheists, in as general a sense as I can -- it is possible to describe what certain atheists stand for, and I have in mind the garden variety American atheist whom I have met many times in my life. It is also possible to suggest what all atheists ought to stand for. "What do you stand for?" it is helpful to have a ready answer to that question.

1) Inquiry and doubt are essential checks against deception, self deception, and error. 2) Logic and proper empirical method is the only way the whole world can arrive at an agreement on the truth about anything. 3) It is better to be good to each other and to build on what we all agree to be true, than to insist that we all think alike.

The values that play the most important role in any person's life are those which stem from the meaning they have found in their lives. It is the standard rhetoric of the religious that only god gives life meaning. The ultimate meaning of life is to live it. There is no big mystery about that. Happiness is the ultimate value that all atheists stand for. Happiness comes from understanding and accomplishment, and the wise atheist stands for these two things as surely as anything else. Happiness comes from perceiving what is both good and easily obtained, such as the experience of love and beauty and friendship, and the joy of many other simple pleasures, and from seeking and following the various ways we can have these things in our lives. Happiness comes, also, from perceiving how evils and obstacles can be removed or avoided, and from acting on that knowledge.

Morality is the favorite watchword of the religious. It is also a popular polemic to equate atheism with the complete absence of morality. The question of what is good, what is moral, is complicated by the fact that we are ignorant of most of the things we would need to know to answer the question. The complexity of moral thought, like the complexity of other crafts and enterprises, is thus often replaced with rules which various experts have learned to be the most useful or universal. But just as no man can be good at anything simply by learning the rules, true morality cannot be found in them. Rather, it is found in wisdom and a skilled intuition. Atheists seek moral truth not in rules, which are merely man-made expedients devised for those cases when one must act without thinking. They seek it in broader principles. Every atheist I have known has always fallen back upon the one concept echoed worldwide, and taught by religious and secular leaders throughout all time: the famous "Golden Rule." Jesus said: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and Confucius was recording an old Chinese saying when he wrote "Do not do to others what you would not want done to you." All atheist systems of morality seem to derive in various ways from this core principle, and so it would be appropriate to say that atheists stand for the Golden Rule in its fullest meaning and significance.

Atheists ought to stand for inquiry and doubt. They ought to stand for logic and sound empirical method as the only things capable of sorting true facts from false, to every reasonable person's satisfaction. They ought to stand for the humility to admit ignorance, and the wisdom to not assume too much, as well as the consequent political reality that finding common ground and negotiating differences is far wiser, and better for all, than maintaining adamant opposition on matters that do not even warrant an adamant opinion in the first place. The atheist ought to stand for using faith as justification for inquiry rather than belief. And the atheist ought to stand for happiness, and the understanding and accomplishment that are needed to achieve it. Above all, the atheist ought to stand for being a hero to himself and his fellow humans, rather than a villain. I believe that when the reasons for these values are truly understood, any man would hold to them and keep them, even if god himself appeared and ended all dispute as to his existence. Indeed, I believe an atheist ought to live her life so she can say with all sincerity, "even if God's existence were proven, I would change only my understanding of the facts, and not the values by which I guide my conduct and thought."

Again I recommend you read the full summary of atheism which Carrier gives.

Reason rules!

Peter said...

I look up what the humanists over here say they believe. There is a group in Belfast which has their ‘mission statement’ on their website and I have copied their ‘beliefs’ below.


“Many people today find traditional religious beliefs untenable. Humanism presents an alternative outlook on life which accepts the scientific account of the origins of planet Earth and of all the species which inhabit it. Leading Humanists like Professors Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Lewis Wolpert promote Evolution as good scientific explanation, against the religious claims of Creation and Intelligent Design. Religions revere some ancient writings as holy scripture, but to Humanists they are merely ancient texts which are sometimes true, but are often biased or erroneous. Our knowledge of the world should be based on evidence and experience, not on idolatry of ancient texts. Humanists base their morality, not on the likes and dislikes of an alleged deity, nor on the arbitrary assertions of ancient writers, but on our knowledge of the world we inhabit and the human rights of all of us sharing this planet. Morality is the Highway Code of our social life and our laws must enable us to enjoy the maximum freedom that is compatible with the freedom of others. Humanists agree with Christians on many moral values, but can disagree over Dying with Dignity, contraception, stem cell research and segregated education, among other issues. Humanists also object to the privileged status that Christianity enjoys in our society and in many Western societies. Due to tradition and social inertia, religion has influence and power in many social institutions, eg. the education system, the media, the House of Lords.”

Not a lot to go on I’m afraid.

Take care,

Joan Ferguson said...

I liked the picture of poor old Russell! Bit of a dear even if he is somewhat outdated. I think Dawkins, Hitchens et al have not done better than Russell’s ‘What I Believe’ which is much shorter than their tomes and a lot easier to read.

It’s amazing how quickly things I thought were permanent ‘facts’ have turned out to be not so. Russell once said that he thought the source of courage might be determined by comparing the blood of a rabbit with that of a cat. At one time I was convinced of that!

Poor me!


PRD said...

The best statement I have seen of what secular humanists stand for is the Secular Humanist Declaration issued In 1980 by The Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (now the Council for Secular Humanism).

It deals in great detail with the following points: 1) Free Inquiry; 2) Separation Of Church And State; 3) The Ideal Of Freedom; 4) Ethics Based On Critical Intelligence; 5) Moral Education; 6) Religious Skepticism; 7) Reason; 8) Science And Technology; 9) Evolution and 10) Education.

Check it out.

Elizabeth Murray said...

PRD – You might also take a look at the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Amsterdam declaration of 2002 which states that:

Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world's great thinkers and creative artists and gave rise to science itself. The fundamentals of modern Humanism are as follows:

Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world's problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.

Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.

Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world's major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process. of observation, evaluation and revision.

Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

Our primary task is to make human beings aware in the simplest terms of what Humanism can mean to them and what it commits them to. By utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us all. We call upon all who share this conviction to associate themselves with us in this endeavour.

IHEU Congress 2002.

Reason rules!

Avid Reader said...


Russell also said: One of the most painful circumstances of recent advances in science is that each one of them makes us know less than we thought we did.

This is why I think atheists and secular humanists should quit the religion bashing business until they come up with a scientific answer on how we came to be here.


Joan Ferguson said...

DM - I agree. The one thing that I think that these two groups do wrongly is to identify themselves as against something (religion, or God, or the Supernatural). They should stick to the positive statements of their beliefs.

As to the scientific answer why we are here I would love to see them address issues such as the irreducible complexity arguments. Dawkins did some of this but not enough.

In some cases I think the irreducible complexity arguments are very strong on the intelligent design side. I saw the birth of some pigs the other day and it suddenly struck me the that here we have another example of irreducible complexity - there is a feeding mechanism already available once the pigs entered the world. How does evolution explain the evolution of the birth process paralleled with the evolution of breasts as a feeding system.


Brenda Moorhead said...

Someone help me out with an explanation of irreducible complexity arguments or give me a link to a good reference


Arthur McCorry said...

Brenda: Michael Behe is the key proponent of this and basically what he says is that many structures are too complex at the biochemical level to be adequately explained as a result of evolutionary mechanisms.

In a November 8, 1996 interview Richard Dawkins said of Behe: "He's a straightforward creationist. What he has done is to take a standard argument which dates back to the 19th century, the argument of irreducible complexity, the argument that there are certain organs, certain systems in which all the bits have to be there together or the whole system won't work like the eye. But maybe he shouldn't have bothered. Maybe what he should have said is...maybe you're too thick to think of a reason why the eye could have come about by gradual steps, but perhaps you should go away and think a bit harder."


Peter said...

I think that when you look at what Secular Humanists, Atheists, and Religionists stand for you will find that they agree of about 90% of everything. Seems to me therefore that given the problems in the world there is much more that everyone can do in concentrating on this 90% and let the other 10% work itself out in the due course of time.

What difference does it make if I think the world was created and you think it just happened with a big bang. Big deal!

I think that Secular Humanists and Atheists do not like fundamentalism in religion which is where the danger lies (as it does with fundamentalism anywhere else including science) and I can also agree with that.

Take care,