Wednesday, 5 September 2007

A humanist continuum

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 Edinburgh, we have few active members but they are scattered across the spectrum. One illustration of some of the more incendiary differences is how we view liberal believers.

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?

Do you:

(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?


  1. I'm definitely in category (b). My gradual walk to humanism was via the "emerging church movement" and liberal Christianity.

    I still feel liberal Christianity has the best chance of reaching some fundamentalists, and I have held on to the "Christian" label for quite a long time on the grounds that I thought I could make more of a difference that way.

    Under inspiration of your posts about celebrities and advertising humanism, I strongly suspect I might be advertising my humanism before the end of the year. It remains a tough call though, having fundamentalists in my extended family and circle of friends means it will most likely bear some consequences. (Luckily my Christian background prepared me for that? Hehe.)

  2. Can I put myself down as a mix of A and B? I do appreciate people of any religion or not who follow my same values and concerns, but at the same time, I do think there is a problem with believers in the Bible who ignore (or occasionally are unaware of) the problems in the Bible. I wouldn't necessarily demand them call themselves by a different label, but I have asked friends before why they go by the Christian label when the sum of their beliefs weren't necessarily Christian (ie: "I don't believe in Jesus but I do think there is a God watching over us".) Purely from the perspective of a former Christian, I do think that a person's Christianity is weak if they don't at least try to explain why there are so many problems and so much hatred in their book. It seems to me that it is an important part of a person's walk to look into this.

  3. I'm not sure I can really get behind your "conversionist" example, because it muddles two independent attitudes.

    One might think, "Even though I recognize that there are many different degrees of Christianity, this person's beliefs are too liberal for him to be usefully called a 'Christian.' He should call himself something else."

    One might also think, "This person's beliefs are liberal, but still not fully connected to reality. I should demonstrate that even liberal ideas about god are--like biblical literalism--unsupported by evidence and reality."

    Note that you can think one without necessarily thinking the other.

  4. Thanks for the comments so far - very thought-provoking.

    I know people who, like Hugo, call themselves Christian despite having only the most tenuous philosophical ties to Christianity as I understand it.

    Jen, never having self-identified as a Christian, I do not feel qualified to judge whose definition of "Christian" is appropriate. Here's my feeling about the definition argument... Many people define their Christianity as "following the teachings of Jesus". They are not committed to Biblical inerrancy, and are free to treat Jesus as a legendary character, without (in my mind) losing the right to call themselves Christians.

    Aaron, you are right that there are multiple beliefs tied up in this continuum. All I intended the conversionist-substantivist contrast to highlight was how we respond to liberal believers. I'd suggest all humanists find the theism of even the most inoffensive liberal believer to be faulty. What I meant to highlight was whether we choose to focus on that fault in their reasoning and beliefs, or on the practical consequences of the values they tend to share with us.

    - Tim -

  5. Yep yep. I just wasn't sure whether your "conversionist" was focusing on "this person's beliefs are silly" or "this person doesn't fit the definition of 'Christian.'" I figured you mean the former, but I wanted to make sure.

    But even given your clarification, the more I think about it, the harder it is to assign myself to a category. One one hand, I may be largely a conversionist, in the sense that I'll jump on an opportunity to discuss religion. But I definitely don't think ill of a liberal theist with whom I share most of my other values... so I guess that makes me a substantialist.

    So I'm going to keep being a pain and suggest another distinction. You speak of "whether we choose to focus on that fault in their reasoning and beliefs": do you mean in conversation, or in judgment?

    I love to talk about religion and such, so all else being equal I wouldn't mind focusing conversation on their beliefs. But I wouldn't hold their flawed judgment in this one specific area against them in any sort of general sense.

    Conversely, I imagine there are those who look upon even liberal theists with disdain, but don't care to bother trying to convert them.

    I'm guessing from your original post that you're focusing more on our judgments of people... in which case, you might want to consider a different term than "conversionist," since not every negative judgment is accompanied by a plea for conversion (and vice versa).

  6. We had our meeting. The problem is an excessive emphasis on conversionist, so much so that the substantivists can feel unwelcome...

    The anti-theism runs deep enough that they don't even want to hear the "J-word" (that is, Jesus) in the meetings. I'm hoping this is just a phase, and they relax about it, else it doesn't sound very "free thinking" to me. (Yes, "freethinking" is not the same as "free thinking", but anyway.) They don't want to talk about religion at all... while I love discussing religion.

    Tim, I like your summary of the liberal Christian perspective. Some people call themselves Christian because they follow the teachings of Jesus as they reconstruct it using higher criticism of the Bible. They might not even believe in the resurrection.

    This is where it might get terribly misleading though, and one could point out that the "Christ" part should then be dropped?

    So here's another perspective: Jesus was a humanist (not a secular one, but anyway) - and when some people call themselves "Christian", what they really mean is "humanist"...?

  7. Hugo,

    I understand your dilemma. It will probably be an ongoing struggle to maintain a constructive balance between the substantivist and the conversionist elements in the society. (Like Hawkeye, I am even divided within myself sometimes.)

    I hope you are lucky enough (as we are) to have people scattered throughout the continuum, so nobody feels like they're the odd one out.

    I honestly don't have much advice to give you. Our group is a good mix, so nobody feels left out or marginalized. We'll see if that holds up after next week's recruiting madness.

    We've consciously sought out different venues to attract a variety of different students. We have a Freethought Fair where the more Dawkinsian members will be presenting humanist beliefs and comparing them to the religious alternatives (with lots of cool stuff to go with it). We're attending a Chaplaincy event designed to foster interfaith dialogue and harmony, which should appeal to the Hemant Mehta type of humanists. And there's the standard student fair, where everyone will come by and we won't have much space to do anything fancy.

    A lot does depend on who's in the core group - the first members, the people who will be most active.

    Good luck. Let us know how it goes.

  8. Anti-theism does appear to run strong in our founding group. It is hard to know though, haven't had the opportunity to chat in depth about strategic issues - the meetings had business to attend to (e.g. writing the constitution). Most of the "stronger" statements might have been made more in jest.

    One of the issues mentioned, was fighting prayer at the start of various meetings or functions. I didn't like their approach to it very much, I don't think it is useful to challenge it that directly. Well, at least not yet. It would be stigmatising our position, rather than de-stigmatising it. We'll have to figure such things out later. (I don't exactly see the harm in prayer, in our context.)

    I am noticing that those that appeared militant might be less so than I thought (and vice versa). ;)


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