Sunday, 17 February 2008

Humanism and atheism - an analogy

Just came up with this, and thought I'd ask for some feedback. What do you think of this analogy?
Calling a humanist an atheist is like describing a Christian as someone who believes Leviticus is the word of God. It may almost always be true, but if that's all you know it'll be hopelessly inadequate and almost invariably misleading as a description of the person.


  1. Samuel Skinner
    Humanism is your worldview, atheism is a fact it is based on.

  2. Emphatically no.

    Humanism is my worldview; it includes basic values and tools for determining facts about the world.

    Atheism is one fact that I have discovered using those tools.

    Actually, the analogy is very apt in this case. I suspect that few if any Christians began by believing in the divine inspiration of Leviticus, and moved from their to Christianity. They would not say that their Christianity is based on the fact of the divine inspiration of Leviticus. Most probably became Christians based on upbringing, the teachings of Jesus, or the New Testament more broadly. Having come to a belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible, they then got belief in Leviticus as a consequence.

    As I've said before, if someone were able to produce philosophical or empirical proof of the existence of a god, I would (I hope) cease to be an atheist, but I would remain a Humanist.

    Having said that, I accept that their are probably some (many?) Humanists who did start with atheism and build up to Humanism. That simply isn't the way I came to it.

  3. While I'm more than happy for religious believers to describe themselves as humanist, I do think there's a real contradiction at the heart of such a worldview.

    Humanism, for me, is simply a worldview based upon the value of rationality and compassion. (I realise this is a pretty broad definition, and I describe myself as a humanist with a lowercase h). There is no (or nearly no) rational support for religious belief, and so religious humanists ultimately have to turn to some form or revelation - which lies in direct contradiction to the valuing of rationality.

  4. I don’t know what your definition of an atheist is. From your analogy here, I'm not sure it’s a positive one.

    An atheist is simply someone who lacks a belief in God. I'd say that most humanists happen to be atheists but it’s not required of a humanist to be an atheist.

    I’ll share my favorite analogy for Atheism…Atheism is to Theology as Non-Smoking is to Smoking.

    Anybody who doesn’t smoke is a non-smoker. Anyone who hasn’t started smoking is a non-smoker, any one who has quit smoking is a non-smoker and even those who enjoy a good cigar from time to time, can consider themselves non-smokers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t refer to yourself as a non-smoker; it doesn’t matter if you’ve never even heard of smoking, you are a non-smoker. We are non-smokers by default, we are non-smokers by birth. Most of the time, your non-smoker position doesn’t even matter unless you are surrounded by smokers and some of them are blowing it in your face. You can be a non-smoker even if you don’t mind other people smoking or you can be the most anti-smoking activist of the face of the planet, you may even enjoy the smell of smoke and still be a non-smoker.

    The only requirement to be a non-smoker is to not smoke just as the only requirement to be an atheist is to not believe in a theology. (A-theo-ism=without-god-belief) All other factors are extraneous.

    To me to call a humanist an atheist is to assume that everyone who is into a healthy lifestyle is a non-smoker. It may be true for most, but I’m sure there are some who still smoke even though they are into a healthy lifestyle.

    Humanism is a complete worldview, atheist is a stance (or a lack of a stance) on a particular subject just as a healthy living is a complete lifestyle and non-smoking is, well…not smoking.

  5. A humanism definition like Dale's:

    “A humanist is somebody who thinks that people should all take care of each other, and that even if there is a heaven or a god, we should spend our time making this life and this world better.”

    ...does not make any claim with regards to existence or non-existence of "God". I would agree you can be a humanist without being an atheist. (How many people play with words like "post-theist"? I like the implied acceptance of a theistic past, I find it less negative.)

    But anyway, you know me, my definitions are rather twisted and enigmatic. (My definition of "God" is informed by the local theological faculty though. Fundies call many theologians atheists... makes you think?...)


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