Humanism Has A Broad Purpose

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A hand reaching out to another handOne area of Humanism that generates discussion and comment within the movement is what is the scope of our worldview. Should we try to solve all the problems we see in the world or should we focus on only a few narrow concerns? One primary purpose is opposing religion but a debate shows up when one wants to go beyond that one issue. Humanism should and does have a ‘broad purpose’ because humans solving human problems is a broad topic and religion could even be connected tangentially to those problems.

A recent essay caught my attention. It was written by Ed Buckner and Mandisa Thomas.

We disagree with much that has been said and written. We urge secular humanists, atheists, and others to consider these calls and to treat the ones making them with great respect, but ultimately we think they are mistaken. We think a major error underlies much of the analysis. It is an error that we’ve seen many other people commit, including people either or both of us love and respect. Among these are people deeply concerned about gun violence, devoted to securing equal rights for gay men and women and transgendered people, horrified about the treatment of Native Americans, opposed to the death penalty, concerned about animal rights, convinced that single-payer health insurance is the only reasonable solution for America, and activists on many other issues.

The error that so many commit is to think that if we all don’t attend to and agree on all issues of concern, we really don’t care about our fellow human beings—and, by extension, that an atheist or freethought organization that wants to focus primarily on promoting atheism and opposing religion is narrow-minded or defective in some important way.

Should Atheist and Humanist Organizations Broaden Their Purpose?

I am familiar with complaints that atheism needs to be more than “god doesn’t exist” and others think atheism is only about a belief in “god(s)”. These dictionary debates show up when other atheists want to address social justice issues that still other atheists don’t think are important or just don’t agree those issues need to be addressed.

PZ Meyers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and atheist blogger, said this about dictionary atheists:

In that Montreal talk, I explained that there is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it’s actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It’s a consequence, not a cause.

Now I don’t claim that my values are part of the definition of atheism — I just told you I hate those dictionary quoters — nor do I consider them universal to atheism. I’ve met plenty of atheists who are in our camp over issues of social justice — they see god-belief as a source of social evils, and that’s why they reject it. That is valid and reasonable. There are atheists who consider human well-being as the metric to use, and we call them humanists; no problem. There are also atheists who are joining the game because their cool friends (or Daniel Radcliff) are atheists; that’s a stupid reason, but they are atheists.

My point is that nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are. I think we also do a disservice to the movement when we pretend it’s solely a mob of individuals who lack a belief, rather than an organization with positive goals and values.

Why are you an atheist?

I agree with PZ that your atheism should mean more than “do you believe in god?”.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists and one of the plaintiffs in the combined precedent setting School Dist. of Abington Tp. v. Schempp (1963) US Supreme Court case, also thought atheism meant more than the god question:

An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An Atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now, here on earth, for all men together to enjoy. An Atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer, but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and enjoy it. An Atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help [both] to a life of fulfillment. He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that a deed should be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. . . . He believes that we are our brothers’ keepers, and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.”

From Murray v Curlett (1963) quoted in The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair (2005)

O’Hair was describing Humanism. In fact O’Hair served for a short time on the Board of Directors of the American Humanist Association until she had a falling out with the other members due to a claim of sexism in the organization. This is what probably led to her vehement rejection of Humanism and humanists for the rest of her life both personally and through her group, American Atheists.

Her words also describe why I became a Humanist. I wanted my atheism to do something, to accomplish something, or to solve some problem. I answered the god question and then I said “Now, what…”.

That’s why I’m confused why Ed Buckner and Mandisa Thomas included Humanism in their idea that groups should focus on narrow issues and if it does then that doesn’t mean the group doesn’t care about the other issues. Humanism, by definition, means addressing all the issues we see in the world because we are all interconnected and you can’t completely disengage religion from those issues.

I do see some people complain if the issue they care the most about is seen not to be given proper attention. That’s why the secular movement seems to birth new groups on a regular basis, because people wanted to focus on an issue more than a current group. That is where I see resources and effort being stretched thin, not in dealing with the issues but in all the new groups that are created.

I don’t blame a group if my issue gets ignored or shifted aside unless it’s an issue that must be a priority like ending sexism, homophobia, harassment, and racism within our own groups.

How can we advocate against those issues to others if our own house isn’t in order?

Buckner and Thomas claim “atheist and humanist organizations have made crucial, important, meaningful strides in addressing and correcting the racism, sexism, and homophobia within our organizations and movements” but give zero examples of what has been done.

It also doesn’t look good coming from the Center of Inquiry, who just merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Richard Dawkins has his own problems with sexism and harassment toward women that has yet to be resolved. It looks like CFI plans to look the other way, which is becoming a common occurrence when the problem people are the so-called leaders of the movement.

If you are an atheist and spending more than 50% or your time opposing religion then I don’t have a problem with that. But if you fail to use any of that other 50% to address other issues related to your atheism, like the incidents of racism, sexism, harassment, and homophobia within the movement, then we have a problem.

If you say you are a Humanist and seemed bothered having to deal with any issues beyond opposing religion then maybe you should just be an atheist instead.

Just remember that if you label yourself make sure you know what that label means in the grand scheme of things.

Humanism has and should have a broad purpose. The only limit should be how much time and effort you can spend addressing the issues we see in the world.


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