Tag Archives: group politics

Atheism a trap for Humanism – Update

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Humanist Network News published my letter to the editor based on reaction to the essay published last week titled “Humanists and the Trap of Atheism”

Here is my letter. Which is the text of my post on this issue.

At the end of the letters responding to that essay was this editor’s note:

Editor’s Note: Acclaimed skeptic Michael Shermer tackled the topic of “aggressive atheism” in “An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens” just published in the September edition of Scientific American.

Setting aside the unnecessary fighting word “aggressive atheism” the editor used lets look at what Shermer says:

Unlike Narain’s essay Shermer at least tries to express something positive and makes a few points that could apply to anyone. He just doesn’t say “atheism bad humanism good”.

Although I will point out I disagree with his first point as it applies it to atheism.

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”

Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens

Atheism isn’t “anti” anything and giving rational reasoned arguments opposed to some conventional thinking – like theism or religious belief – is not being “anti” anything either. Just because I can express some arguments against a flat earth doesn’t make me “anti-flat earth”. If it did then that would give validity to a wrong view of the earth that it didn’t deserve.

Atheists are fighting for something that we want to achieve – a rational non-theistic world. We might fail but not because we are “anti” anything but because we have to try and undo 2000 years of indoctrination and religious brainwashing.

Shermer ends his essay with:

As King, in addition, noted: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

Of course no atheist that I know is advocating taking any person’s freedom away nor do we distrust all religious people. Unlike most believers and the general public, atheists are able to separate the beliefs from the people who hold them and oppose the beliefs and actions that result.

Just a Humanist

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By Jennifer Hancock

I am a Humanist. I am proud of that fact and I do not hesitate to label myself as a Humanist. Over the past few years I have met a lot of people who share my values as a Humanist, but who had just never encountered anyone who is willing to talk to them about Humanist values before.

Perhaps the main reason people have never come across the term “Humanist” before is because most Humanists don’t like to call themselves Humanists, preferring any number of other terms instead. And this isn’t just a problem we have in public, it is the basis of an ongoing debate in our movement regarding how best to conduct our outreach and of course, what we should call ourselves.

Personally, I think this internal debate is a waste of time. People are going to call themselves whatever they want regardless. Despite personally finding this debate rather silly, I recognize that it has negatively impacted our ability to share our philosophy with others. If we aren’t proud enough of our philosophy to call ourselves Humanists, we shouldn’t be surprised that the public’s knowledge about our philosophy is utterly lacking.

There are various reasons why Humanists shy away from using the word “Humanist” to describe themselves. First, we often treat words such as “atheist,” freethinker,” and Humanist” as interchangeable even though they aren’t. This co-mingling of meanings only causes confusion and leaves us, as individuals, to wonder which word will have a positive impact on our listeners? In my experience, one of the main reasons Humanists might choose to use another word, like “freethinker” instead of Humanist, is because they incorrectly think that “Humanist” carries negative connotations. And finally, there is the problem of confusing adjectives. Many Humanists are simply unaware that you can just be a Humanist, without the adjectives.

I think Humanism is a truly wonderful philosophy and I am hoping I can help others find peace with the word “Humanist.” After all, if we can’t convince our fellow Humanists to call themselves Humanists, then how can we hope to entice others to join our movement?

Our perception that the public at large regards Humanism negatively is simply untrue. Very few people I have met have heard the term before. And when people do hear the word “Humanist” for the first time, they will do what most people do when encountering an unfamiliar word, they guess at its meaning. You may be surprised to know that when people guess at the meaning of the word “Humanist” they almost always give it a positive connotation. After all, they are humans, so how bad could “Humanism” be.

Telling people I am Humanist has led to many wonderful conversations with complete strangers about all the positive attributes of our philosophy. I have had these conversations in supermarkets, fast food restaurants, bars, and children’s play groups. I have never experienced a negative response to the word Humanist; although mentioning Humanism does then obligate me to answer many follow up questions about the philosophy and what we value. Since most people have never heard the term before they normally just want to know more. For the few people who have heard the term, they are usually just confused about what exactly the philosophy is.

My personal experience with “Humanist” has been so positive that I would definitely recommend to other Humanists that they make it their word of choice when describing their personal views.

When it comes to adding an adjective I advise against it. The various adjectives people use to describe their humanism take the focus off of Humanist values and onto the connotations of the adjective itself. As far as I am concerned, if what is important is Humanism then we should simple talk about Humanism.

The other reason not to add an adjective in front of the word “Humanist” is because they are often confusing and in some cases, scary. “Secular Humanist” is a case in point. I personally think that “secular” is a wonderful word. Unfortunately, while “Secular Humanist” is one of the most popular adjective pairings, it is in reality, one of the worst words you can pair with “Humanist” in terms of its affect on your listener.

I once did some field testing of some phrases for an outreach piece I was working on and I was surprised to find out that not only do most people not know what the word “secular” means, their guesses at its meaning would frighten any Humanist. The people I talked to thought that “secular” is related to “sect.” And when paired with an “ist’ or “ism,” they assume it has to do with some sort of cult. Obviously, cults are not something any rational person wants to be involved with. This mass misinterpretation of the term, “secular Humanism” also explains how the religious right has so easily turned “secular Humanists” into their all purpose bogeyman.

Since most people think “secular” means sect, it is best to avoid it entirely. We certainly don’t want our Humanist movement paired in people’s mind with some sort of cult. For this reason I advocate against using the terms “secular humanism” or “secular humanist” to describe our philosophy or ourselves. Not only will the simpler “Humanist” suffice; it has the added benefits of eliciting very positive connotations for our audience.

We have enough hurdles to overcome without putting self-imposed obstacles in our way. If we really want to talk to others about Humanism we must start talking about Humanist values and not just about “Freethought, or “Atheism” or “secularism.” Humanism is worth talking about in its own. Further, if we are to grow our movement, we need to start talking about what really matters, and that is our ethics and our values as Humanists.

If we are to succeed, we must conduct our outreach in a way that gets people interested in what we are talking about while trying not to scare them or confuse them. Only labeling us as Humanists, plain and simple can accomplish this. Everything else is distracting and potential harmful to our cause. I am a Humanist. How about you?

Jennifer Hancock is a writer and Humanist activist. Her website, http://www.sumogirl.com/ contains the thoughts, opinions and creative pursuits of Jennifer Hancock, Gentlewoman. Included on the site are her Humanist counter to the advice given by televangelist Billy Graham and a weekly podcast “Humanist thought of the Week.”

Atheism a trap for Humanism?

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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.

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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Vague Theism Threatens Humanism

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Ten years ago, when I finally settled on Humanism as my world outlook (that I finally found a label for the view I had) and I joined my local Humanist group, The Humanist Community of Central Ohio, and I got really involved by joining the Board of Trustees of the group and editing the member’s newsletter. It was at that time I was exposed to the internal politics of the Humanist movement.

All movements have factions. They all have a common goal but different beliefs and methods to get that goal. These internal conflicts tend to hold back the movement as people make power plays to try and get their agenda to the top. Each side is so involved in the internal fighting that they miss the goal right in front of them.

In Humanism the factions are Religious Humanists and Secular Humanists. Religious Humanists tend to still keep the structure and function of a church while Secular Humanists, in general, throw anything “religious” out.

Religious Humanism was the initial flavor of the Modern Humanist movement and most if not all the signers of the first Humanist Manifesto, in 1933, were religious Humanists. The Manifesto and Modern Humanism were based within the Unitarian-Universialist church tradition.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a faith with no creedal requirements imposed on its members. It values religious pluralism and respects diverse traditions within the movement and often within the same congregation. Many see it as a syncretic religion, as personal beliefs and religious services draw from more than one faith tradition. Even when one faith tradition is primary within a particular setting, Unitarian Universalists are unlikely to assert that theirs is the “only” or even the “best” way possible to discern meaning or theological truths. There is even a popular adult UU course called “Building Your Own Theology”.

Many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves humanists, while others hold to Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, natural theist, atheist, agnostic, pantheist, pagan, or other beliefs. Some choose to attach no particular theological label to their own idiosyncratic combination of beliefs. This diversity of views is usually considered a strength by those in the Unitarian Universalist movement, since the emphasis is on the common search for meaning among its members rather than adherence to any particular doctrine.

Unitarian Universalism

In regard to religion, the Humanist Manifesto (1933) states:

The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes. Science and economic change have disrupted the old beliefs. Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience. In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism. In order that religious humanism may be better understood we, the undersigned, desire to make certain affirmations which we believe the facts of our contemporary life demonstrate.

Humanist Manifesto (1933)

Secular Humanism, as a label, came into the vernacular of the Humanist Movement during the 1970’s as opposition to Religious Humanism. The term Secular Humanism:

…was embraced by some humanists who, although critical of religion in its various guises, were deliberately non-religious, as opposed to anti-religious, which means that their humanism has nothing to do with spiritual, religious, or ecclesiastical doctrines, beliefs, or power structures. This is how “secular humanism” is most commonly understood by humanists today.

What Is Secular Humanism?

Basically Secular Humanists don’t have a church, don’t sing hymns, and don’t support or use “god” talk.

The internal conflict between Religious and Secular flavors of Humanism came about because of disagreements on “god” talk, rituals, and criticism of religion in general.

Religious Humanists seem to find any criticism of religion to be an attack on religious people and indirectly on them while Secular Humanists find Religious Humanists stuck in the mud – clinging onto the functions of religion.

Also increasing the conflict is a trend in UU churches to move away from Humanism as a foundation to more of what Marilyn Westfall, founder of UU Infidels, calls “vague theism.”

Given that only 20% of the ministers self-identified as humanists, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that they also had a weak affiliation with the UU source of humanist teachings. There are five sources for the tradition of UUism (these are included on the handout); and in the survey of ministers, humanist sources ranked 5th out of the five sources. The complete wording of the humanist source is as follows: [We covenant to affirm and promote] “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” The highest-ranked source, by the way, was the first: “Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder …”

From Humanism and UUism: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

For many years the Unitarian Universalism Association – the central governing body of the church – has certified many former Christian ministers as pastors of UU churches. That and the move toward “vague theism” has led to an obvious move away from the science and reason basis of knowledge as the following quote from Westfall’s talk points out:

[Recent UU seminary graduate named Matthew Gatheringwater said:] My school used to be notable for innovations in religious humanist theology. We used to be at the forefront of efforts [to] reconcile science and religion [my emphases]; now, visiting scientists reported that seminarians lacked basic scientific education. Humanist was a word often used in a derogatory sense in my UU classes and it was more often than not preceded by adjectives like “old”, “crusty”, “corpse-cold”, “bloodless”, and “unfeeling.” It was creepy to hear people use expressions like, “the congregation is waiting for the old humanists to die off before it changes the order of service.” It was more popular among students to be a Universalist … than a Unitarian, a feeler than a thinker, a prophet than a pastor, a theist than an atheist, and anything but a humanist.

UUs at local church here Columbus also expressed those same kind of negative views of Humanists and also Atheists when they called a friend of mine names such as “bigot” and “arrogant” when he questioned some religious “god” talk at what was suppose to be a free discussion at the church.

When I was President of HCCO and I gave a talk at the same church I had a debate with a member who claimed that because science didn’t have all the answers then its value wasn’t any better than someone who didn’t use science to get to the truth. It was the first time I had experienced the postmodern thinking infecting the UU church.

Recent conflict has been as a reaction to the rise of certain Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University Greg Epstein, in a news report about the 30th Anniversary of the Chaplainacy at Harvard, said:

“At times they’ve [atheists] made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism,” Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. “What we need now is a voice that says, ‘That is not all there is to atheism.’ ”

Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?

As a Secular Humanist those kinds of negative comments bother me as I am also an Atheist.

The problem is that people like Epstein continue the wrong assumption that Atheism is a world view. All Atheism is, is a lack of a belief in a “god”. I am a Secular Humanist because it provides me a frame work for my world view.

My atheism is my view on “god” and humanism is my philosophy on life.

It is simply sad when Religious Humanists fall for the same trap that god believers fall into when they try to paint Atheism as some kind of satanic negative religion. It also doesn’t seem ethical to complain about intolerance by being intolerant.

I want to work with Religious Humanists but as they move further away from science and reason, I find it harder to work with them on issues we agree on.

Dawn of a new era

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I have been an official Humanist for more than 10 years. To clarify I am a proud Secular Humanist. Secular because I am an Atheist and have no need for any religious type of traditions like going to “church”, singing hymns, or believing that God Talk can be a poetic metaphor. I’m past all of that.

Since the founding in 1999, iHumanism has been a source for those lone wolf Humanists who either can’t find others locally to meet up with or who refuse to join any kind of group. For that reason articles that have been posted here tended to be neutral or positive toward Humanism. I have tried to avoid any kind of inter-group politics.

Today that is going to change.

I have decided to add to the fabric of iHumanism and post my thoughts and ideas on what we call Modern Humanism. I will include the “dirty laundry” of the movement. For example I will write and comment on the political correction gone amuck within the national movement, the efforts of religious Humanists to silence the atheist side of Humanism, the conflicts between the various national groups, attempts to redefine or rename Humanism in an effort to dilute our message, and even the lack of knowledge of Humanism even by so-called Humanists..

I am a proud Secular Humanist, but I get distressed with the office politics involved within the movement of Humanism. I think it is important to stop the infighting and to sell our message in a united effort. There is room for many flavors of Humanism and each bring good ideas to the table.

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