Atheist and humanist groups

by Michael Nugent on November 5, 2008

How do Atheist groups differ from Humanist groups? And how can we best work together to promote a rational, ethical and secular society?

This article examines the aims of American Atheists, Atheist Alliance International, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and ten Atheist or Humanist groups in various countries around the world, and concludes:

(1) The labels are unimportant in themselves. Most atheists and most humanists share most of the same fundamental beliefs and values. We reject the idea that gods exist and all that follows from that idea, and we usually support rational enquiry into the nature of reality, mutual empathy as the basis of ethical relations, and secular equality as the basis of civic government.

(2) The labels are useful in practice. They enable independently-minded people to socialise and bond together using whatever self-description that we each feel most comfortable with, and whatever nuances of emphasis that we each prefer. They can also enable us to promote our aims using whatever label we feel is most useful in different circumstances, whether that be atheist, humanist, secularist, rationalist, skeptical or freethought.

(3) If we are to achieve a rational, ethical, secular society, then all people and groups who reject the idea that gods exist should work together, in a series of shifting alliances, on a series of issue-based campaigns and projects, at whatever level of involvement we feel most comfortable. We should find ways to use our differences in emphasis to jointly promote our shared aims.

In this article, I examine: What is atheism? What is humanism? How do atheism and humanism differ? What do Atheist groups want? What do Humanist groups want? How do Atheist and Humanist groups differ? And how can we best work together to promote a rational, ethical, secular society?

1. What is Atheism?

Many people define atheism in different ways, but all atheists reject the idea that gods exist. Some people define weak atheists as people who lack a belief that gods exist, and strong atheists as people who have a belief that gods do not exist. Some people define agnosticism as a subset of atheism, because agnostics lack a belief that gods exist. And some pragmatic atheists simply ignore the idea of gods as being in practice irrelevant to their lives.

But how do active atheists define themselves? American Atheists, which was founded in 1963, is an umbrella network for over sixty affiliated Atheist groups. It grew out of two legal cases related to separation of church and state. In those cases, they defined Atheism as including: “An Atheist seeks to know his fellow man rather than to know a god. An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death… He wants an ethical way of life… He believes that we are our brothers’ keepers, and are keepers of our own lives, that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.”

Atheist Alliance International, which was founded in 1991, is another umbrella network for almost sixty Atheist groups, most in the United States and the rest in ten other countries. Atheist Alliance International promotes these beliefs and values: (1) Atheism is living one’s life without the supernatural. (2) Every human being is entitled to freedom of conscience. (3) Scientific inquiry has proved the best process for improving the physical welfare of humankind. (4) Human compassion and empathy are crucial to improving the human condition. (5) Reason and cooperation are essential to meeting the challenges that confront humankind. (6) We are responsible for humane interaction with other animals and for the preservation of our habitable planet. (7) Humanistic atheists work toward fostering cooperative diversity among humans.

2. What is Humanism?

Many people define humanism in different ways, and some may call themselves secular humanists or even religious humanists. The International Humanist and Ethical Union, which was founded in 1952, promotes one set of widely accepted definitions. The IHEU brings together over 100 Humanist and related groups in more than 40 countries. (The IHEU call their life-stance Humanist, with a capital H and no qualifying adjectives. I follow this custom in this article.)

All member groups of the IHEU must agree this minimum statement: “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life-stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

In Amsterdam in 2002, the IHEU adopted these points as defining world Humanism: (1) Humanism is ethical. (2) Humanism is rational. (3) Humanism supports democracy and human rights. (4) Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. (5) Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. (6) Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. (7) Humanism is a life stance aiming at the maximum possible fulfillment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living.

3. How do Atheism and Humanism differ?

Technically, Humanists include some but not all atheists. Some people say atheism is simply the absence of a belief in gods, while Humanism is a specific naturalistic life-stance. (Humanists coined the word life-stance to describe a person’s relationship with whatever they accept as being of ultimate importance. The word life-stance can be applied, neutrally, to religion and alternatives to religion). So let us examine this proposition.

In reality, atheism is more than simply the absence of a belief in gods. If you reject the idea that gods exist, you automatically also reject the ideas that gods are responsible for revealing truths about reality, or creating ethical judgments, or governing our lives. So you automatically accept that we as humans are responsible for self-determining these aspects of our lives. This is not an added positive belief, separate from atheism: it is a necessary part of atheism to automatically adopt a positive naturalistic life-stance.

What, then, of the specific principles of the life-stance labelled Humanist? For most atheists, they are simply the type of principles that flow naturally from the type of thinking that led us to atheism in the first place: rational enquiry into the nature of reality, mutual empathy as the basis of ethical relations, and secular equality as the basis of civic government. The life-stance of most atheists is broadly the same as the life-stance of most Humanists.

Atheism and Humanism are, therefore, in most cases, two different labels for the same thing: rejecting the idea that gods exist and adopting broadly the same naturalistic life-stance under one or other label. So why do some people prefer one label over the other? Is it merely because of the etymology of the labels? Or is there a serious difference of emphasis? To examine this further, let’s look at the aims of ten sample groups in different countries.

4. What do Atheist groups want?

Explicitly ‘Atheist’ groups share a broadly similar core of aims, adapted to local circumstances. As one example of the many such groups in the USA, the Atheist Coalition of San Diego has these aims: (1) To keep a firm, tall, and wide wall separating church and state. (2) To promote atheism as a worthwhile and wholesome point of view. (3) To promote science literacy.

The IBKA in Germany has these aims: (1) To represent the political interests of non-religious, agnostics and atheists. (2) To support human rights, rational thinking, individual self-determination and tolerance. (3) To support the separation of church and state. (4) To criticize religion as an ideology, and the socio-political role of the churches.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia has these aims: (1) To encourage informed free-thought on philosophical and social issues. (2) To safeguard the rights of all non-religious people. (3) To serve as a focal point for the fellowship of non-religious people. (4) To offer reliable information in place of superstition and to offer the methodology of reason in place of faith. (5) To promote atheism.

Atheist Centre in India has two broad sets of aims: (1) To counsel victims of, and to challenge, issues such as the untouchability and caste systems, superstitions, witchcraft and sorcery. (2) To promote issues such as science, ecology, environment, social cohesion, sex education, family planning, and secular and humanist education, art and culture.

The Atheist Association of Finland has these aims: (1) To protect the legal and cultural interests of atheists. (2) To separate the state from both state churches. (3) To enlighten and educate citizens. (4) To promote freedom of atheism, religion, belief and civil rights. (5) To promote secular and atheistic culture. (6) To investigate scientific atheism.

5. What do Humanist groups want?

Explicitly ‘Humanist’ groups also share a broadly similar core of aims, again adapted to local circumstances. The American Humanist Association has these aims: (1) To be a clear, democratic voice for Humanism. (2) To increase public awareness and acceptance of Humanism. (3) To establish, protect and promote the position of Humanists in society. (4) To develop and advance Humanist thought and action.

The Society for Humanism Nepal has these aims: (1) A rational society wherein all enjoy equal status as human beings. (2) To influence people from all walks of life. (3) To promote a scientific way of life. (4) To promote democracy and justice with a Humanist bias. (5) To promote Humanistic ethical practices. (6) To raise awareness about human obligation.

The Humanist Society of South Australia has these aims: (1) To promote a Humanist approach to personal living and society. (2) To facilitate Humanist interaction and communication. (3) To lobby State and Federal Governments about important issues of the day. (4) To tackle issues on which politicians have a “conscience vote”. (5) To hold social events and outings.

The British Humanist Association has these aims: (1) To promote Humanism. (2) To support and represent people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. (3) To work for an open and inclusive society with freedom of belief and speech. (4) To work for an end to the privileged position of religion – and Christianity in particular – in society.

The Nigerian Humanist Movement has these aims: (1) A rational, constructive approach to human affairs. (2) To offer a positive alternative to all religious and dogmatic creeds. (3) To uphold and defend the human rights of Humanists and of the general public. (4) To improve social conditions. (5) To support the widest conception of education and enlightenment.

6. How do Atheist and Humanist groups differ?

Most Atheist and Humanist groups share broadly the same fundamental aims, though each group phrases them differently. They usually support rational enquiry into the nature of reality, mutual empathy as the basis of ethical relations, and secular equality as the basis of civic government. And they usually campaign to promote these aims within society.

There are some differences in emphasis. Some groups that label themselves as Atheist can be more assertive in how they campaign, and less deterred by how others might perceive the word atheist. Some groups that label themselves as Humanist can be more focused on creating a common Humanist identity as an alternative to religion, and may conduct secular services for weddings, baby-naming and funerals.

But these differences in emphasis do not depend on the labels. Any of the above groups could conduct their activities with integrity under the label Atheist or Humanist, or indeed Secularist, Rationalist, Skeptical, Freethought or Freedom from Religion. In practice, the labels and activities of each group reflect the diversity of personalities and self-definitions among independent thinkers, and the historical and social circumstances in which each group operates.

For example, Britain has three main national groups that have been active since Victorian times. The National Secular Society, founded in 1866, campaigns against religious influence in government, education and public life. The British Humanist Association, founded in 1896, campaigns on the same issues, and also conducts secular funerals, weddings and baby-namings. The Rationalist Association, founded in 1899, supports and promotes humanism and rational enquiry and opposes religious dogma, primarily through publishing.

In other countries, similar groups were formed in different times, in different circumstances, and with different labels. However, while the labels are unimportant in themselves, they are useful in practice. They enable independently-minded people to socialise and bond together using whatever self-description that we each feel most comfortable with, and whatever nuances of emphasis that we each prefer. And they can enable us to work together on shared aims, using whatever label they feel is most useful in different circumstances.

7. How can we best work together?

Here are ten things that people who reject the idea that gods exist can do together to promote a rational, ethical and secular society, whether or not we choose to join an organised group. Naturally, as we are independently-minded people, each of us will do only whatever combination of these things that we feel comfortable with. But we should find ways to use our differences in emphasis to jointly promote our shared aims.

1. Act as an individual to support relevant groups and campaigns.

2. Join any group or groups that reflect your own preferred self-description.

3. Establish a new group or groups with like-minded people. The group can be based on a shared geographic area, or a shared interest in a specific topic.

4. Don’t try to represent all of the people who reject the idea that gods exist. Just set a specific set of aims for your group, and work to promote those specific aims.

5. Keep the aims and structure simple. Keep the focus outward, on promoting your aims within society. Encourage initiative and avoid complicated approval procedures for activities.

6. Build alliances of small autonomous groups, if necessary with with overlapping memberships. If a group gets too big to function effectively, split it into two groups. Join relevant umbrella networks, whatever label they may use.

7. Respond to relevant issues as they arise. Write to or telephone the media. Question politicians and institutions. Discuss topical issues with friends and colleagues.

8. Run specific pro-active campaigns or projects on specific issues. Each campaign or project can be jointly organised by any combination of groups and or individuals.

9. Brand each campaign or project distinctly, so that it can be supported by people who may not agree on other issues that are distinct from that specific campaign. Have specific, measurable and achievable goals. Keep your focus on a manageable number of projects at a time.

10. Each campaign or project could focus on one specific aspect of: (a) promoting scientific enquiry and challenging dogmatic creeds about the nature of reality; (b) promoting mutual empathy and challenging supernatural commands as the basis of ethical relations; or (c) promoting secular equality and challenging religious control as the basis of civic society.

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