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Why I do not call myself a humanist

A bit of a personal exploration here – but at last I’ve figured out why I do not see myself as a humanist. I’ve considered myself a bit churlish on this, after all I don’t disagree with any of the tenets (interesting choice of word?) and I have a great deal of respect for the actions of humanists around the world and in history. I applaud their bravery, their cause and their reasons.

In addition, it’s not that I don’t self-identify with any other ‘isms’. The first was feminism – My cousin called me a ‘feminista’ when I was 16 – it was clearly an insult and when I got back to England I looked it up. Yup! That was me! Happy to join the club! The most recent was when I realised the word ‘skeptic’ fitted me to a T. So why not humanist?

One simple reason is that I saw the term as unnecessary, this has been what I have always said, after all I don’t call myself a ‘round-earther’ or any other such obvious appellation.

But the penny dropped when I saw a recent publication called, ‘Humanism – a short course’, and the first chapter was called, ‘A good life without religion’. That to me is akin to saying ‘baking bread without concrete’. Wholly unnecessary. Worse than that, because a good life is as possible if based on religion as is good bread if based on concrete!

I know many religious people who are good people, who I admire greatly – including a JW friend. But these are people who are good, they cherry-pick their books and live the commendable bits, they are fundamentally good people, religion or no religion. The same is true for atheists – good and bad has nothing to do with belief structures. (Can someone tell me if I am right in having heard of a recent paper showing that the morals of believers are based on life and experience, not on their books?)

Humanism also incorporates a loose belief system and I struggle with belief systems. My parents were believers, but in slightly different things. I was raised on understanding of the ex-nihilo invention of the Holy Trinity, which led to the original schism between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, together with the raising of Mary to near god-like status in Catholicism to inject some sacred feminine into the masculine religion founded by  the homophobic, misogynist St Paul. It’s not surprising I’ve always understood religion to be a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ affair, so have never associated any belief system with Truth. Perhaps, for some, with searching for truth, but that’s hardly the same thing.

When I was 18 I did an essay for a general paper exam, titled something like ‘It is impossible to be moral without region. Discuss.’ It was the first time I’d had to marshal my thoughts properly on the subject, and I argued that on the contrary, it was impossible to be moral if one was religious, because one was behaving in a good way only in order to get a reward after death and to avoid punishment.  Just doing as you’re told is the lowest form of good behaviour; to be truly moral one must also want to do the right thing even if no one ever knows about it. I was opinionated even then!!

So for humanism to even think it needs to revisit such an old canard, makes me think it’s thinking is a long way from mine. I’m sure it might be helpful for people who are leaving behind a belief system, maybe it’s a step on the way to independence (that’s not meant to sound insulting, letting go of stuff always needs to done in stages). One more thing – it’s like say ‘I’m Atheist and good’, which has so many dodgy corollaries about what atheists might otherwise be like I won’t even go there!

So for me it’s just a bit of ‘so what? Yes I agree with what they say, but I agree with lots of other things that are blindingly obvious, which other people don’t quite get. Is that enough of a reason not to join a club?

9 comments to Why I do not call myself a humanist

  • Hi Clio, thank you very much for the blog post, it helped me to understand your point of view.

    I chuckled a bit at the bread without concrete comment, and thought how much i would like to go on a course about how to bake bread without concrete. Then i realised it’s not quite the same thing …

    I would say that probably almost everybody knows that bread is not made with concrete. I wouldn’t say that everybody understands that you can live a good life without religion or a deity. For some people that’s not obvious at all. I was actually surprised when i lost my religion and discovered that my moral opinions did not change in the slightest!

    I tried to think of a closer analogy and came up with “Software programming without the internet” … these days most programmers use google extensively to look up how to do things, and some people would consider it a big disadvantage to be cut off. Yet, of course, it is possible to program without the internet, and i could give some tips on how to prepare to do it. After doing the course, a programmer would be better informed and able to make up their mind about whether or not they wish to use the internet as their support system.

    I am a humanist because i want to reach the people who don’t know that you can be good without God, or who do know it, but think they would be lost without the support of their religious comminity. I want to show that there is another way.

  • Clio

    I see where you’re coming from – but my 18 year old contention was much stronger that you imply. You actually can write software without the internet, but you can’t be moral if you are religious. I wouldn’t go that far now(!) but the idea still has merit for the reasons I described.
    I also get the idea now of needing to replace a lifelong religious habit and community, and I understand the importance of what people are doing.
    It’s just not for me, it’s one ‘belonging’ I just don’t need.

  • Ever since I came to consider myself an atheist (that’s many decades ago now) I’ve maintained that my atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in any gods. My atheism is not a worldview, though my worldview is necessarily derived from atheism — and I find humanism is the closest fit to that worldview. The “good without God” issue is a clear and straightforward one for me now, though I struggled for a long time with the persistent notion that my moral grounding had to be rooted in Christianity. These days I consider the idea of moral values being based on scripture to be an admission of moral failure — that blindly and unquestioningly following rules handed down from above is an abdication of moral responsibility. It’s far better, in my view, to examine moral decisions based on context and consequences, even if such decisions flout so-called moral rules.

    The point about “humanism” being the obvious default stance is a valid one, but humanism as a consensus view needs to be seen in the light of what it’s up against. This is especially important in relation to the question of morality. The Christian view, in this officially Christian country, is that it may well be true that one can live a good life without religion, but that the ability to discern good from evil (even when atheists do it) is only possible because of religion (or to use the jargon — because everyone, even an atheist, is made in the image of God). It’s this erroneous view that humanism endeavours to correct, and why I’m happy to label myself a humanist.

  • Clio

    What seems to be emerging, from a small and possibly unrepresentative sample, is humanism as an alternative to religion. I’d be very interested to know if the majority of humanists were once people of faith, with the opposite being true for atheists who do not identify as humanist.
    Both aimee and Paul make a good case for the ‘ world view’, it makes a lot of sense, but for me, personally, I don’t see the need for it.
    Straw poll please readers!

  • Morgan

    The reason I became a humanist, and remain one, that that my atheism is one of the most important ways I define myself. It is important for me that this is not a cynical, negative rejectionist position. By understanding the humanist position, and identifying strongly with it, this means that my atheism is positive and affirming, rather than just a rejection of theism. I’ve taken that space and put something great into it. I can explain myself as having a positive worldview, rather than just a rejection of someone else’s. I don’t want my personality to be defined as ‘not like this other person.’ I don’t care what the Christian, Muslim or Jew believes, because I don’t need to compare myself to them every time someone asks me who I am. I’m a humanist, which will exist long after religion is gone. Atheism dies with theism, because it defines itself by what it’s not. Humanism stands on its own.

  • Richard

    It seems impossible to find any concise, consistent or comprehensible definition of either “humanist” or “humanism” (at least without recourse to the humanism’s own meaningless neologism “lifestance”). However, if any one thing characterizes humanism, it is the humanist motto: “Good without God”, the response to the theist claim: “Without God, there is no morality”.

    But, far from refuting the theist claim, I grant it. As philosopher Joel Marks wrote in “An Amoral Manifesto (Part II)”:-

    “I claim that morality does not exist. But what is morality? It is not possible to settle any dispute about whether something exists without knowing the nature of the entity in question. Clearly there is a sense in which morality does exist; for example, defined as a code of behaviour whose violation is considered to merit punishment (legal, social, or psychological), morality is to be found in every society. So when I assert that morality does not exist, I must have something else in mind. And certainly I do, namely, morality conceived as a universal injunction external to our desires. Thus, for example, even if the code of our society deemed homosexual behaviour as such to be morally permissible, and even if you personally wished to engage in it, Morality might pronounce it Wrong. The morality I now reject is therefore a metaphysical one, as opposed to the sociological kind; the latter is a fact of our empirical environment, while the former is a figment of our wishful or fearful imagination. For all that, metaphysical morality is widely accepted as real.”

    “Atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ … A ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ are softies of this kind.

    “Note the analogy to Darwinism. It used to be a standard argument for God’s existence that the obvious and abundant design of the universe, as manifested particularly in the elegant fit of organisms to their environments, indicated the existence of a divine designer. Now we know that biological evolution can account for this fit perfectly without recourse to God. Hence, no Designer, no Design; there is only the appearance of design in nature (excepting such artefacts as beaver dams, bird nests, and architects’ blueprints). Just so, there are no moral commands but only the appearance of them, which can be explained by selection (by the natural environment, culture, family, etc.) of behaviour and motives (‘moral intuitions’ or ‘conscience’) that best promote survival of the organism. There need be no recourse to Morality any more than to God to account for these phenomena.”

  • William

    Some excellent points, within an excellent debate.

    I am with Clio in that I see no point to Humanism, and for much the same reasons. And yet I go further in rejecting the term atheist. I have no religion, and see no need for a label for that state in religious terms, nor any other for that state. “Atheist” is a theist term in its origins, to describe a state which some believers cannot comprehend in non-theist terms. I do not collect stamps. To some that would make me an aphilatelist, yet I do not find that term useful either.

    For some self-professed atheists, their atheism appears to be a surrogate belief system, not unlike Humanism, particularly when it is used to attack religion. I do not attack religion, save where it impinges on the freedom of non-adherents, or on public policy.

    In the Judaeo-Christian tradition that most readers of this blog would have been raised within, the Old Testament does not provide unquestionably good moral guidance. As has been mentioned already, good people pick and mix; they match their morality to the bits of their religious tradition they find acceptable. Bad religious people hurl excrement and abuse at young children, as recounted in a recent news item from Israel.

    Although I was brought up to follow the belief system of the CoE, I don’t think I ever actually did believe, once past the point where one follows what one is told without question. I remember a time quite early in childhood when I thought I should believe, yet struggled to actually do so, before actively rejecting such beliefs when my thinking had developed enough to do so.

    Morality is not even the exclusive preserve of any one religion, nor is it necessarily excluded from any. So it must be something more inherent in human nature that transcends all belief systems.

  • Clio

    I’m with Will on the morality thing – and perhaps it’s time the let the term atheist be as meaningless to me as I should have realised long ago.
    I disagree with you, Richard, although you put your case well.
    I believe we have morality, based probably on evolved altruism plus disgust. The former can be warped and the latter can be shaped. In addition there is might is right, and those with power can use the Stockholm syndrome to their advantage. I read of a tribe in whom it was said that homosexuality was the norm – only to find that it’s only young boys giving blow jobs to old men which is allowed!! Children and women give in to anything if the alternative is the wrath of those bigger and stronger!
    So morality is complicated, it is innate plus inculcated. We’re all better off when we all play the game, and worse off when none of us do. But when most do, the few who don’t come out on top. Hence disapproprobrium is appropriate!

  • Malcolm

    Clio – a wonderfully thoughtful post, (and some equally thoughtful responses). You’ve articulated a number of feelings of mine that have been bubbling under, struggling to surface.

    I first came across Humanism some 15 years ago when I was revising my will. I was trying to explain to a solicitor that I wanted a non-religious ceremony, and she wrote down that I wanted a Humanist one. I was a little puzzled at the time, but I let it go; the other details seemed more pressing. Humanism sounded a little too close to a my tiny experiences of a church, and that made me ever so slightly uncomfortable.

    I have an aversion to (many) labels. For me, labels have two drawbacks. The first is that I know people who get directed by what the label encompasses, rather than what they feel is right. As an example, look at Richard’s quote from Joel Marks: “Atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality.” (I suppose that is a quote-mine, since he expands on this later. But the principle stands.)

    The second point is that I detest the common dismissing of a person on the basis of a label. Some labels attract all kinds of undeserved baggage. Why do I even have to provide a label for my lack of belief in a particular deity? Or explain why I can be moral without that belief? (What a ridiculous question!) Or even to find another more positive label to explain my worldview?

    I am an individual. I have a variety of opinions and beliefs. I like to think I have arrived at these after thoughtful contemplation, and I neither want to be constrained nor dismissed by labels.

    I identify with pretty well all that Humanism entails; how on earth could I not?

    But, at least for now, I think that I shall support Humanism from the outside, rather than support it from the inside.