In a recent comment, Hugo brought up the fact that there are different factions within the community of humanism/freethought/atheism/brights/etc (the multitude of labels kind of says it all). And it can be difficult to bring us all together under one tent long enough to do something constructive.
In our little fledgling student society here in
If you (as a humanist) come across someone who self-identifies as Christian, but who acknowledges that God’s existence is not absolutely certain, and whose actions embody values you share – honesty, care for human beings, respect for science, concern for the environment – what is your attitude to that person?
(a) feel they are being intellectually dishonest or inconsistent? If they are Christians, they should believe the Bible as it is written, not just take the “nice” bits and ignore the rest. If they can’t swallow the Bible whole, then they shouldn’t call themselves Christians at all. They should pick a belief system and be consistent, rather than trying to straddle incompatible worldviews.
Or do you:
(b) rejoice that, though religious, this person is not a threat to the secular society or to the things you most value as a humanist? You want a world where people uphold values like honesty, respect, and all the rest. It doesn’t matter if they do that while calling themselves humanists or Christians or Muslims or Pastafarians or whatever.
I hereby dub those who prefer option (a) the conversionists. The label matters as much as the beliefs, because sensible people using the label “Christian” simply provide cover for the nutcases who also use that label. If the content of their beliefs is humanist, they should convert to calling themselves “humanist” rather than “Christian”.
Those who take option (b) are the substantivists. It does not matter that someone calls herself a Christian, so long as the substance – her actual beliefs, values, and actions – include honesty, care for others, respect for science, and so on.
I tend to take the substantivist position. Our student humanist group had Christian students signing our form (we needed 20 student signatures) so we could become an official university society. “I’m not a humanist, but I support you in forming your society.” If they can do that without becoming humanists, then I think we can cooperate on other fronts too without feeling as though we need to convert them.
On the other hand, the conversionist idea that labels are important becomes very attractive to me when I’m told that my humanist values amount to belief in a god. (I’ve had this from a believer and from a non-believer). They don’t. A god is a very particular kind of being: omnipresent, powerful, intelligent, conscious. I don’t believe such a being exists. Trying to redefine god to prove that everyone believes in one is insulting both to most believers (who believe in something more than an amorphous “whatever” god) and to most nonbelievers (who tend to have well-considered reasons for their position).
My humanist friends here at both ends of the scale seem to agree with me that this distinction is useful. What do you think? Is it informative and helpful to identify conversionist and substantivist influences in the humanist community (or in yourself)? Or is this simply another way to divide us into smaller, weaker groups?