Atheism or Humanism?

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.

About Carlton Coon

CARL COON is a retired diplomat with an abiding interest in foreign lands and peoples. He graduated from Harvard in 1949 and joined the U.S. Foreign Service. He served in many places and had many assignments, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia. Carl's most recent foreign assignment was as ambassador to Nepal (1981-84). He retired in 1985 and has traveled widely since then. Carl's second book, One Planet, One People, Beyond 'Us vs. Them', was published last year by Prometheus.


Atheism or Humanism? — 4 Comments

  1. After reading this, I have to reconsider my atheism. I would have to declare myself more of a humanist than an atheist. I’m letting my children make their own choices when it comes to religion. Where I believe an atheist teaches their children that there is no sky daddy I choose to let them decide. Much like any religion, where the parents indoctrine their children into their own religion. I belive it should be a choice they should make. so far my oldest (12) is agnostic and my littlest one (10) is a Christian. Religion is good for some, just like Santa, I guess. Maybe she’ll change her view when she gets older, but I want it to be her choice. Thank you for this view.

  2. DiVerL –

    It is eminently possible to be both. I am, and my views are remarkably like yours. I think you will find that most Humanists are both, and that the same is true of most Atheists. I especially like your views on your children. I was a very involved UU for years, and our “Sunday School” was more than anything else a comparative religion course. People cannot know what choice is right for them until they have seen the choices.


  3. The Humanist Community of Palo Alto, and some other western cities, have began organizing “Sunday schools for atheists.” They’re weekly gatherings for the children on non believers to do group activities, learn moral lessons and generally build positive social ties. I think this is the kind of thing you are encouraging, and I can’t agree more. There is no reason that religion should have a monopoly on these sort of social groups, and its great to see people proving it.

  4. The Epicureans managed well enough for 800 years with their associations (300 BCE – 500 CE). Humanism, I assume, contains a philosophical core which would act as an attractor for like-minded individuals.

    Those who are characterized by what they reject — like me, the “anti-supernaturalist” are too prickly to find current secular forms of association any better than religious ones.

    The de-deification of reality is one task for the next thousand years.

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