Are atheists more religious than humanists?

If you are an atheist, and find the title of this essay provocative, it is not entirely an accident. I have a point, and now that I have your attention perhaps you will listen while I make it.

Religions have survived over the millennia because they thrive on boundaries between the “us” and the “them”. This applies in spades to the three great monotheistic ones. Christianity and Islam not only have evolved elaborate rituals and behavioral requirements to provide instant identification, they have provided motivations for some of the bloodiest wars of all times, against each other and others. They proselytize vigorously, and maintain severe sanctions against anyone who renounces their faith. Judaism doesn’t proselytize outside its own turf but strenuously maintains its separate identity, and has lately evolved one of the more toxic forms of religious separatism, in Israel. Other religions are less successful at proselytizing and sometimes are less consistently combative, but in virtually every case they demand faith from the individuals comprising their following. What that faith consists of varies widely but in all cases it rests on this assertion: I know such-and-such is true, even though I cannot prove it!.

All right. The most important difference between atheists and humanists, for me at least, is that atheists know that there is no God, while humanists adopt more of a “show me” attitude. As a humanist, I have always remained unconvinced by miracles and persuaded that the articles of faith demanded by the world religions are hogwash. But I am convinced that despite our success in figuring out how the world around us works, we still don’t know enough to be sure there is nothing further that can fundamentally alter our understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit. If someone produces something that appears to be a genuine miracle I shall approach it with great skepticism and wait for the experts to prove it a fake. If such proof is not forthcoming right away I’ll remain skeptical while we dig ever deeper for rational explanations. Meanwhile, if someone like Teilhard de Chardin comes along with a serious effort to reconcile faith with non-faith by speculating about that which we do not yet understand, I’ll respect his or her intentions even though I’ll probably misdoubt the conclusions.

The atheist movement in our country is beginning to flourish, especially among younger Americans, because it clearly identifies “us” as not just non-believers, but also as deniers. Atheists are certain about the non-existence of God, and wear it as a badge of their identity. Their non-belief is an article of faith and as such serves much the same purpose as the more positive beliefs of the Xtians or Muslims. It’s a specific fact that members of a group rally around to prove they all belong.

We humanists by contrast are comparatively wishy-washy. We don’t “believe” in much of anything, but we are correspondingly reluctant to insist on the impossibility of anything either. Except, most importantly, the biological fact of our common humanity, which we accept as basic to our world view. We do have a home team, we will root for it, but it isn’t just a portion of our species, it’s all of us.

From an evolutionary point of view, we humanists have the best long-term chances to survive and eventually take over. Let the atheists have their fun denying. Atheism is, in the long view, just an adolescent form of humanism.


Are atheists more religious than humanists? — 6 Comments

  1. Carlton Coon writes, “Atheists are certain about the non-existence of God, and wear it as a badge of their identity. Their non-belief is an article of faith and as such serves much the same purpose as the more positive beliefs of the Xtians or Muslims.”
    I am an atheist when it comes to the God of Abraham (the God of the three Abramhamic religions) because that God makes no sense. I take exception to Mr. Coons saying my atheism is an “article of faith”. By the same token, I do not believe in unicorns, again, not as an “article of faith” but from a lack of evidence and logic.

  2. As I have noted several times recently herein, I am an Atheist from the viewpoint of most believers, since I am very sure that I do not believe in their particular god, whomever that may be. That is an artifact left over from my decision that all known formal religions were invented by man for the profit of man.

    From the viewpoint of an unbeliever, I would likely appear to be an Agnostic, since I know I do not have all the relevant data on the god object, and also since the very concept of so superior an entity defines me as unable to identify such a being should I come across one.

    I’m not sure how all that defines me from the viewpoint of the Humanist. Part of that may be what Carlton identifies as the innate wishy-washiness of the Humanist; the Humanist viewpoint is so broad that it defies clear and easy definition, leaving little to push back upon.

    For the time being, I believe that I am at once an Atheist, an Agnostic, and a Humanist, by turns, depending upon who is looking. I don’t see much conflict internally, since I know exactly who and what I am. At this moment, I believe that my stance is stable, since it stands on three legs, and well balanced, since those legs are both strong and supple.

    For now, I like what I am, at least in these terms.

  3. Michael,
    I note your comment, “the innate wishy-washiness of the Humanist” which has been a problem for me also.
    The first Humanist Manifesto (1933) was not wishy-washy when it came to rejecting supernaturalism. They were very clear about that, but then, IMHO, they made a huge strategic mistake by referring to their’s as “religious humanism”.
    The second Humanist Manifesto put out by officials from the AHA (early 2000’s) was a total wishy-washy mess.
    The same impulse to try to cast so wide a net as to include everyone has been the downfall of the Unitarians. The AHA has cleaned up their act to suit the times and are doing well, but the Unitarians have doubled down on UU the “Religious Faith” and are floundering and sinking.

  4. I would say, Timothy, that the Atheist-Agnostic-Humanist triad truly needs a sharpened edge in some situations. The Humanists have, in some ways blunted their sword, probably intentionally. Agnostics have perhaps shortened their sword by admitting a lack of knowledge. That leaves it for Atheists to be on point. Unless my memory of Sun Tzu fails me, that is where the young and the brave are placed in any conflict.

  5. I’m afraid I like numbering my points to stop things running together, please don’t read this as aggressively as such numbering can often appear!
    1) Atheism is simply lack of belief in God. This does not necessarily mean a strong belief there is no God or there can be no God, and many atheists simply believe it is improbable, far from your own definition. Such a lack of belief could never be a faith-like factor, which is why we never come across accusations that unicorn-deniers are people of faith, despite the fact they also appear in the bible.
    2) Humanism, actually, is far more like a religion than the mere position of being an atheist. It has moral guidelines, it places an ethical and philosophical emphasis on humanity, and places faith on humanity’s ability to be morally good as a whole. It actually sounds a lot like more diluted forms of Buddhism.
    3) Per 1 and 2, I would like to reverse your point. Humanism is actually far closer to being religious in nature than atheism, which by definition, is a lack of being religious (or at least of the form involving Gods). The vast majority of humanists are also atheists, as are all children before they go to Church. I would hardly call a child’s lack of belief a form of innate religiousness.

  6. Tristan Gray lists a number of things humanism has in common with religion, the implication seeming to be that humanism is a form of religion.
    1. Because things have points in common does not make them the same. Men and women have much in common, for example, but they are not the same. If they were the same there would be no logic in having different definitions of each. Humanism is not religion.
    2. The Postmodern idea that any belief system is a religion is silliness. Would those proposing this idea think that a life devoted to sado masochism was a religious life? It is good communication to say that the Marquis de Sade was the high priest of sado mascochism but that does not make him a religious priest.
    3. The primary definition of religion concerns service to a god or gods. To the extent we get away from that definition is the extent to which we are creating an intellectual fog. Doing so only serves religious apologists.

    (–Some forms of Buddhism have gods, many gods, and can be called religions. Other forms of Buddhism do not entail belief in the supernatural and are not religions.)

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