Have Atheists Hijacked Humanism (And How Humanists Can to Get it Back)


Recently the American Humanist Association asked for feedback on its Facebook page, which seems to focus less on humanism, per se, than on the admittedly very worthy issues of separation of Church and State, religious extremism, and atheists' rights. Some would argue that humanism should be primarily concerned with religious issues as it impacts nonbelievers. But while I'm as concerned as the next humanist about school prayer and graven images of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn, my ask was simple: I'd just like a little more humanism in my humanism.

I get it: Atheism is having its day, with big-name mainstream figures like Richard Branson and Keira Knightley coming out as atheist without much fuss. And why should there be any? The Pew Research Center has found that one-fifth of the U.S. public - and a third of adults under 30 are on the same page. That's the highest ever in Pew's polling, and the number is growing at a rapid clip.

And it's not hard to see why. Voltaire once said: "Religion began when the first scoundrel met the first fool." But at the moment, those poll results seem to suggest the scoundrels are losing their mojo. Religion in the popular imagination has become little more than a trashy reality show, with Josh Duggar, Kim Davis, and the clowns at Westboro Baptist in starring roles. It's no wonder more and more people want nothing to do with it.

If only the religious right's influence were limited to "Pastors of LA." Unfortunately, religion still causes harm in real life. And that is what has always given atheists their sharp edge. It's not surprising that as the religious right has become more insufferable and shrill so has its opposition. There's no question the cynical coöptation of religion by those seeking political power, while not new, must be called out constantly. Luckily activist atheists never tire of pointing out the warped values of religious hucksters. But inevitably there's mockery involved, and while well-earned, it's neither humanist in tone nor does it advance understanding of humanism among those unfamiliar with it. That's fine, not all atheists are humanists.

But all humanists are atheists, right?


Even among people who consider themselves humanists there is considerable confusion about how and where atheism and humanism overlap. And the reasonable voices of humanists, like moderates in general, tend to get drowned out in our hyper-polarized public discourse. The fact is, there's a long and rich history of Christian Humanism stretching back to the roots of the religion, blossoming in the Renaissance, and bringing about the Protestant Reformation. The profound impact of humanism on Christianity through the Enlightenment is undeniable; it paved the way to modern secular society. If its long history is any indication, humanism and Christian ethics and practices are not at all incompatible. A lot of secular humanists are better Christians than the fundamentalist fringe that has hijacked American Christianity. And many progressive Christians are already practicing humanism. The truth is, humanism is in the DNA of mainline Christianity, and that's a very good thing.

I grew up in a working class Mainline Protestant household in the midwest of the 1970s, when Mainline Protestantism was still mainstream, and by the time it was eclipsed by the evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic sects that dominate what sadly passes for popular religious discourse today, I had already moved on. In high school in the mid-'80s my curiosity outgrew the Gospel, and I started to explore classical philosophy and Judaism, intrigued by dialectics, which I went on to study further in college. It wasn't hard to see how profound the influence of humanism had been in the rise of modern humanitarianism and the American Civil Rights Movement. Humanism and scientific inquiry go hand-in-hand. And of course, it is everywhere in literature and the arts. Humanism is the true lingua franca of humanity.

I understand the historical importance of atheism, too, of course, but as someone who did not come to humanism through atheism, who saw humanism given potent voice by great public men like Martin Luther King, Jr., whose message obviously transcended sectarianism, I find the obsession with the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods, which often overshadows aspects of humanism more vital for social justice, unfortunate. It's undeniably true that a professed faith in God or the divine origins of certain beliefs have led to terrible crimes against humanity. And, yes, declaring belief in a deity is often simply a way for "believers" to end any argument they can't win. I think many atheists believe that if they can destroy that foundational assumption, religion will crumble.

In fact, studies suggest that human beings are predisposed to some degree of mystical thinking, which is, frankly, and literally, wonderful. It's sort of the third dimension of a richly experienced life, encompassing what cannot be known through rational inquiry or the senses. It can be a wellspring of creativity and a source of infinite wonder. It can move us to acts of radical kindness and generosity that would be otherwise inconceivable. Of course, when exploited it can also heighten our sense of isolation or existential dread. It would be foolish for humanism to exclude inquiry into this most human dimension of our lived experience. Or to use religious belief as a means of excluding anyone from the shared insights of humanism.

Humanism recognizes and respects each individual's journey. Starting the conversation with atheism, especially with people who lack the experience or tools for inquiry, only intensifies the fear and isolation that led them to seek solace in religious dogma in the first place.

Religious extremism is real, but it requires a pre-modern mindset to really flourish. That's why extremism looks so grotesque to us. We live in a world shaped in every conceivable way, including the extraordinary protections afforded the practice of religion, by humanism. Atheists are, in a way, fighting a battle won generations ago. If we were all being honest, we would recognize that those scoundrels Voltaire talked about who exploit the freedoms we all enjoy for personal gain? They may talk about God, but their belief is cynical at best. And the ones who really do believe? They're the ones who need what humanism offers the most: empathy, education, opportunity.

Humanists should keep the focus on those.