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Does atheism lead to humanism?

Atheism according to Merriam-Webster Online defines atheism,

1) a disbelief in the existence of deity 2) the doctrine that there is no deity

The Skeptic’s Dictionary defines atheism much less succintly but does add,

This definition does not capture the atheism of many atheists, which is based on an indifference to the issue of God’s existence.

Why do I bring these things up? I guess this line of thought came to me after I read Nica Lalli’s book Nothing and the discussions my wife and I have had surrounding the book. The author prefers to refer to herself as a “Nothing” not an “Atheist”.  It’s actually a less confrontational way of saying the same thing which seems to fit her personality. As an atheist you often here that “Atheism is very negative. What makes you so sure that everyone else is wrong?” I like to think that what’s being asked or stated here is that Atheism doesn’t stand “for” something it’s simply a stand against or indifference toward something, specifically a god.

I have beliefs. Atheism is NOT an expression of those beliefs. I don’t define my life as an atheist and therefore have an atheistic outlook on life and go to an atheist church. I don’t do or have that because atheism is not a positive statement of belief. I think atheism is so disturbing to some people because they don’t know how to define or judge what you are.

That might not be clear enough. As an example, I was setting up a time for my oldest son and his friend to get together over a weekend and I (quite foolishly) proposed that I could come pick up their son on Sunday morning around 9 or 10. The mother asked if that would really work for me and I said, “Sure we don’t go to church or anything so it’ll be no problem. ” Of course, there was a kind of hesitant pause before she agreed and I could tell that she was processing this information. I could only imagine what was going through her head. She probably had an idea of what we were like through the fairly casual encounters we have had exchanging children and that I had just challenged that idea. I doubt she thinks we’re horrible people but you could just tell that she all of sudden had to redefine her idea or stereotype of what we were really like.

So I’ve kind of beat the what-is-atheism horse to death here (at least as I see it) that opens the next question. In fact, my wife asked this question just tonight. “What do you believe in?”. Of course, being the jerk that I am I gave the sufficiently jerk response, “Tinkerbell”. That would be funnier if you were in on a particular inside joke. I did however honestly reply that I believe in all kinds of different things but if you had to put a name on it it would likely be called humanism.

Of course, humanism is about as easy to pin down as Jell-O as far as a specific set of beliefs is concerned. But I did say that my over all belief is that humanity is responsible for its current problems, that it is solely responsible for fixing those problems and that we should use our reason and a proper scientific worldview to achieve those solutions. There are no cop-outs of personal responsibility to a diety or devil and there are no excuses or exceptions for immoral behavior.

Does atheism lead to humanism? For me yes but I don’t know if the 2 are really the same kind of thing and I’m not entirely sure humanism can be so easily defined. Atheism essentially freed me to think critically and rationally about everything. As a Christian would I have had the kind of freedom to stumble across humanism probably not because I would have already had all the answers in convenient book format. I know there are a number of liberal religious groups who would probably identify with a religious humanism (I’m thinking Liberation Theology) but the foundations of their beliefs are still supernatural.   

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Filed under: Religion, Skeptic

4 Responses

  1. faithfool says:

    Atheism, at its best, should lead to humanism. It is wise that you have found a positive set of beliefs to attach yourself to. So many people are afraid of being labeled!

    You are right about many Christians looking to one “convenient book” for all the answers. Many open the Bible to Revelation and start marking in their day-planners… while the rest of us shake our heads. Most of the Bible isn’t a how-to manual, it’s a story: how it all began, what went wrong, and how God has been working through people to make it right.

    Where do you turn for your story, identity, and history? What is human nature? What happens if we fail?

  2. Skeptigator says:

    Honestly you will be labeled no matter what you do. That’s just what people do. It’s humanities shortcut to understanding someone since we can’t really know everyone we ever meet or interact with in any kind of meaningful way.

    I figure if I’m going to be labeled I might as well define what that label is. Although humanist is pretty vague label and can be made to mean alot of things.

    As for the need of a story, identity or history. I assume what you mean is when a Christian refers to a biblical parable to illustrate some particular moral concept or whatever. While I do try to stay away from biblical references with my kids, we do talk about some of them but I’ve relied on stories about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Thomas Jefferson/George Washington. It just depends on the circumstance or point that I’m trying to make.

    What is human nature? Are we fundamentally flawed because of original sin or are we inherently good? I just don’t see that as valid kind of question. It assumes that there are a given set of “natures” that mankind could have and that I’m being asked which one it is. I guess I need more elaboration on that one to figure out what you are looking for.

    What happens if we fail? At what? Running an 8 minute mile? I just try harder next time. I have a feeling that’s not what you are looking for though 😉 It depends on what we fail at. Sometimes the consequence of failing would be disappointment in the outcome of your life, unhappiness with yourself, prison. I guess I need more on that one too.

  3. faithfool says:

    Clarifications:

    By “story,” I’m asking, what sources do you turn to for your sense of where you fit into history? (“meta-narrative”)

    By “human nature,” I’m asking: is it more natural for people to do good or to do evil? Or some combination? (The source of that nature (given, in-born, or conditioned) is not what I’m asking… and you might not see as valid. Regardless, a follow-up question: On what basis do you decide what good is? Or is there no basis?)

    By “if we fail,” I mean: What if we destroy the planet and all of human life? We have the potential to do it. Is that a legitimate danger? (Or not, depending on your view of human nature?)

    Thanks for your thoroughness. My apologies for the delay… I’m new at this mode of communication.

  4. Skeptigator says:

    I don’t feel compelled to have a meta narrative on how I fit into history. I just use stories from American or world history in particular to help (typically my children) understand some particular event. I do usually try to cast religious events in a more historical context and I do treat biblical events as stories and not real events.

    I don’t think human nature as something that can be just defined as a blanket statement. I know this is the comforting thing for many to do. It helps people understand everyone if they can just say “it’s not your fault you are fallen by nature because of Original Sin (or some other meta-narrative). Just do your best and try to be like Christ”.

    I assume each person has a nature that is nurtured in a particular way. My two sons are perfect examples. My eldest has always had a very loud conscience he’ll do something wrong and feel so guilty he will rat himself out. My youngest on the other hand doesn’t feel so compelled to rat himself out.

    Each requires a different kind of “correction”. I can simply explain how disappointed I am with my eldest and he will take that to heart, the guilt or shame is enough. My youngest almost always has a much harsher penalty, we always explain our disappointment and what the correct choice should have been but he usually needs those points reinforced through some kind of consequence (a timeout or loss of tv/video game time).

    What’s my point? My point is to paint even my children with a blanket “nature” would be pointless that to expand that to all of humanity would be folly. And therein lies a problem with religion in general. It attempts to make sweeping statements about humanity.

    As for the question of “if we fail” I guess I reject the idea of “human nature” and even if I thought we were inherently good and more inclined to the right thing I don’t think that would preclude us from ever just wiping ourselves off this planet. I once read (but I can’t remember where) that 4 nuclear bombs of WWII strength (and those are nothing compared to today’s nukes) detonated anywhere in the temperate zones of the world (the American north, and particularly Europe) would so radically alter the the political and environmental landscape of the world that we would not recognize the new world created. They made a very compelling case. Wish I could remember where I read that, I may have just made that up.

    What basis do I decide what good is? That’s a very, very good question. That’s an awesome and complicated question isn’t it? In fact, isn’t that The Question for an atheist/humanist? Or more importantly isn’t that The Question for someone who is unhappy with dogmatic religions and yet when evaluating humanism as an alternate belief structure can’t quite shake the feeling of moral relativism? I think I may post separately on that one point alone because it such a big one.

    Actually if you wouldn’t mind collaborating on a new post maybe in a point/counterpoint style email me.

    skeptigator at gmail

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