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 HumanistNetworkNews.org 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.
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.