Atheism a trap for Humanism?

Vir Narain, chairman of the Indian Humanist Union and editor of its quarterly journal, The Humanist Outlook, had a column published this week in the e-mail newsletter which is published by the Institute for Humanist Studies. The title made me whince. It was called Humanists and the Trap of Atheism. I knew from the start that I would not be happy with the article and I was right.

Here is what set me off:

Although it is perhaps true that a large proportion of humanists would describe themselves as atheists, the humanist movement has never considered atheism (construed as a rejection of all concepts of God) as a necessary part of the humanist outlook. According to the Minimum Statement adopted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives…. It is not theistic. It does not accept a supernatural view of reality.”

The sentence “It is not theistic” needs elaboration, and it has been suggested that it should be recast, “It is not theistic, in the sense that it ignores the various claims about the existence of God as having no relevance to the practical conduct of human affairs, except that it categorically rejects the idea of a rewarding and punishing God who intervenes in human affairs.”

In other words, the humanist movement rejects the God of the moralists while ignoring the God of the philosophers as having no relevance to the conduct of human affairs.

The so-called “strong atheist” movement proposes, “I do not know, or care, what your concept of God is, I hold it to be false.” This smacks of a dogmatism quite alien to the humanist ethos. It can perhaps best be described as aggressive atheism.

Humanists and the Trap of Atheism

I was extremely disappointed with the essay. For someone who claims to be a member of a Humanist organization, Narain makes several factual errors and broad assumptions.

The whole “New Humanism” vs “New Atheism” tripe is itself a strawman argument and counterproductive. It’s disappointing to continually read articles from Humanists who promote such divisiveness as an advert for “positive” Humanism. It’s absurd to complain about dogmatism and “aggressive atheism” while using negative and provocative language and claiming it is better.

“New Atheism” is a nonexistent boogeyman. The current media focus on atheism shines a light on the same ideas about atheism that has existed for years. The only part that is new is that common people are paying attention for once.

Nontheism has one meaning and it rejects theistic belief in a personal god, and any belief in a personal or impersonal god. Humanism *IS* a nontheistic life stance and has been at least since the first manifesto in 1933. It said in the sixth point: “We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of “new thought”.” All the redefining Narain wants to do with the term doesn’t change what nontheism is really about.

Atheism isn’t a trap for Humanism. The trap is the anti-intellectual, irrational, anti-science, homophobic, neo-con Troglodyte and if we continue to waste our limited time and resources fighting with each other that is the trap we will be caught in and we will all lose.

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I think the thing to remember here is that while Humanism is not theistic in its approach and concerns, which makes it effectively atheist as you point out, the real problem is that the organized Humanist movement does not share the same agenda as the organized atheist movement.

The humanist movement is concerned with spreading a philosophy and value system. And this is worthwhile. The atheist movement, depending on the organization, is concerned with securing equal rights for the non-religious, and providing socializing opportunities for atheists to get together – or at least that is the stated agenda of most atheist groups.

I have spoken in front of different atheist groups and while some are humanists, some aren’t.

The point is, while there is a portion of the different agenda’s that overlaps, the entire atheist agenda does not overlap with the humanist agenda and vice versa.

Where you see that it must be the Humanists who are divisive, from my perspective, I would say actually, the problem lies with atheists being upset that some Humanists actually want to promote Humanism for a change, which is quite a different thing from promoting atheism.

From my perspective both agenda’s need to be worked on equally. But that means that both need to be worked on and it isn’t a betrayal of Atheism to focus on Humanism exclusively. Someone has to. Both approaches are needed and help us move forward collectively.

My article, as reproduced, left out a crucial quote from Sir Hermann Bondi; perhaps that led to its being so widely misinterpreted. The point one tried to make was that Humanists, qua Humanists, need not get involved in a debate on the existence or non-existence of God – except that it is necessary to reject the concept of a rewarding-and-punishing God (a RAP God) since it is incompatible with Humanist values. I describe myself as an atheist, but do not prescribe it for others. Nor do I find it necessary to condemn those who have other views.

Considering the sharpening debate about atheism it seems necessary to
remind ourselves as humanists (it is perhaps different for those who
are committed to atheism as such) of the advice given by Sir Hermann
Bondi in 2002. He said: “I think in this country we are too impressed
by the concept of God. Many religions, like Buddhism and Confucianism,
don’t have a God at all. On the other hand, Communism in its heyday
had a ‘sacred text’ which were the writings of Marx and Lenin, and you
justified an argument by referring to these writings. So it seems to
me that the important thing is not the concept of God – indeed we
cannot quarrel with an undefined God, for how can we disagree with a
concept that is undefined. No, what makes a religion is a
“revelation”. And it is the belief in a revealed truth that is the
source of religious problems – that the Koran is the word of God, or
the Holy Bible is the judge of everything. So in arguments with
Christians, when you come to the word God you have already lost the
battle. You must stress the revelation, that’s where the real
disagreement lies, because if you are driven to a position where you
have to deny the existence of an undefined quantity you are in a
logical absurdity.”

As Bondi said, in the fight against dogmatic religions the right
target to attack is revelation. And the point about ‘logical
absurdity’ cannot be brushed aside.

Vir Narain