Atheists and humanists are united in the conclusion that the supernatural isn’t real. This means that both are without a belief in a god or gods and both hold that people have to take final responsibility for their actions. The buck stops here. In this regard, both also see themselves as at least as capable to lead sane and moral lives as people who believe in confession, absolution, and an afterlife. And by their fruits we know them: the large number of atheists and humanists who count as significant contributors to society in such diverse fields as science, the arts, and social action make this clear.
As a practical matter, atheists and humanists in the United States are also united by the circumstance that they belong to an unpopular minority, ranking at the bottom of the heap in public opinion: well below gays, African Americans and other minorities who are breaking through the social barriers that used to exclude them from the mainstream. Since atheists and humanists are still a long way from achieving parity with other minorities, both share the important goal of establishing a place at the table along with the rest of the diverse groups that constitute our heterogeneous nation.
This fundamental agreement on principles and purpose doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement on tactics, however. It would be surprising if it did. The world’s major religions started out agreeing on doctrine and goals and soon split into a myriad of sects. Nontheists (atheists and agnostics) are much the same—only they don’t have religious dogmas to tie them together.
Right now there are over a dozen national organizations, and a larger number of local ones, representing elements of the nontheistic community. The groups that emphasize atheism over humanism tend to oppose all organized religion. The ones that call themselves humanist, like the American Humanist Association, work shoulder to shoulder with all who are willing to set theology aside for a moment for the greater public good.
This isn’t so different from the current spectrum within the U.S. Christian community. On what might be called the far right there are groups that insist on the literal truth of the Bible while at the other end of the spectrum are groups like the United Church of Christ and liberal Episcopalians. Although the religious right puts atheists and humanists into the same pot (usually labeled “secular humanism”) and attacks everything they do or say as the work of the devil, liberal and even mainline Christians have a less hostile and more sophisticated view.
So there is really only one spectrum operating here, not two, and it extends from flat-out atheism to the hostile position of the religious right. I could say, a pox on both extremes, let’s go for the sensible middle way–if it weren’t for my underlying conviction that the atheists are basically correct in their cosmic outlook and that the religious right is wrong. Our present world civilization depends not on some god’s bounty; in fact it has nothing to do with religious doctrine and everything to do with what we have won through the application of science. And humanists as well as atheists subscribe to the scientific method as the best way to establish facts about the world we inhabit.
Still, rather than lean toward a strident atheism, humanists are better advised to take a benign view of the more progressive religious communities. Humanists need more of the kinds of programs, including music and rites of passage, which bind people to a community. Humanism can become as much a force as religion has been if it can do a better job of building a spirit of togetherness and cooperation within groups. That’s where there’s work yet to be done.