On Being a Humanist

On Being a Humanist

For most of the time I’ve spent as an atheist, I’ve also identified as a secular humanist. However, the label of “humanist” has spent most of that time in the backseat. Even though I was a humanist, I preferred to use descriptors like “skeptic” or “curious atheist”. While I am still all of these, I’m beginning to really embrace my identity as a humanist for the first time.

Reluctance to humanism

I haven’t always been all that passionate about being a humanist. Throughout the years, I have had various reasons for avoiding it. At first—before being comfortable using the word “atheist”—I used the term “positive naturalist”, which I’d learned in a college class. Being so new to all this lingo, I didn’t know at the time that no one really uses that term. I later learned that what my teacher and I called “positive naturalism” was essentially secular humanism: it meant, roughly, to be an atheist with a meaningful perspective on life rather than a nihilistic, depressing one.

Soon after that, I adopted the label “atheist”. I mean, it was my whole identity. If you remember when my blog was called The Closet Atheist, and then The Curious Atheist, then you already know. I didn’t really bother much with secular humanism. I was pretty content with the simple identity of atheist. It was most important to me to have an identity that distinguished me from my peers at my Christian college. They were Christians; I was an atheist.

Beyond that, however, I hadn’t committed to whether I would describe myself as a humanist or a nihilist. (I didn’t understand at that time that you can be both; I would say that nihilism pertains more to metaphysical belief whereas humanism deals with lifestyle and action.) You could have described me as a secular humanist, but I would have asked you to just call me an atheist instead. While the word has a negative connotation, that’s exactly why I wanted to use it: to destigmatize it. I felt that atheists who primarily called themselves secular humanists were just avoiding the word “atheist” because they were afraid of it.

I began to latch onto the identity of secular humanist more during my apologetics class in 2017. My “teacher” liked to give lectures just shitting on and misrepresenting secular humanism. I assumed that he knew so little about both secular humanism and atheism that they meant the same thing to him. (I still don’t know why he didn’t just call it atheism.) Frustrated, I dedicated my term paper to actually giving a correct and pretty objective definition of secular humanism. After standing up for humanism, I didn’t really bother with it much after that.

Beyond atheism

Fast forward to now. After my identity as an atheist doesn’t feel so paramount, I’ve been embracing the label of “skeptic” more. I know that a lot of the world’s issues involving harmful beliefs don’t necessarily stem from religion (even if there is a lot of overlap). We all know I take issue with astrology. More urgent are issues like anti-vax, Qanon, transphobia, revisionist history, racist pseudoscience, and climate change denial. I want to devote my blog and, frankly, myself to promoting skepticism and reason as means to fighting these conspiracies.

In the past year, I’ve become way more focused on values and way less focused on belief. I’ve really felt at home in the Progressive Christian and exvangelical community. I’ve become irritated with all the New Atheists and their transphobic, “anti-woke” tweets. I’ve realized that my passion for state-church separation wouldn’t mean much without solidarity from people of all faith backgrounds. I’ve realized that values like antiracism, intersectional feminism and environmentalism, and social justice in general feel like the best expressions of my identity as an atheist. But thanks to those New Atheists, I’d also realized that to be an atheist is not necessarily to be a good person. Atheism wasn’t cutting it for me anymore.

During this year, I’ve felt that “atheist” simply didn’t encompass me, my passions, and my values. I didn’t know what word might except maybe liberal. Treating them as synonyms, I’d essentially thrown out “secular humanist” along with “atheist”, not yet realizing that who I had become was best summarized by the label of secular humanist (and skeptic) after all.

Defining humanism

When I didn’t want to call myself a humanist, it was partially because I was incorrectly defining what humanism was. I thought that it was the belief that humans are inherently good, but to this day I still do not believe that. I think it can better be described, in this context, as humans being our best chance. Humans, as opposed to gods, are the beings with the means to change the world for the better. This doesn’t mean that we are doing that. It means we can, and we should. I think that humanism is better understood as a way of living than a set of beliefs; you can say you believe in secular humanism, in being good without God, but it doesn’t mean much without action.

Once again I think of the New Atheists, who are mostly older white men, who decry social justice. When the American Humanist Association revoked Richard Dawkins’ 1996 Humanist of the Year Award, I think it was the right decision. The man is still an atheist, but I don’t think that with the things he says that he still has the right to call himself a humanist. Just because you say you’re good without God doesn’t mean you are. (Remember when I said I used the word “atheist” to differentiate myself from the Christians at college? Well, now the word “humanist” is differentiating me from these anti-humanist atheist bigots.)

Humanism as a badge of honor

Perhaps we can treat the word “humanist” in a similar way to how we treat “antiracist”. In my opinion, a white person can’t just declare themselves antiracist. It’s a title you earn. If you do think that you can identify as that, then you at least have to be able to present the things that you’re actively doing to better fit that title. Are you actively fighting against racial injustice? Voting for people who oppose racist policies? Calling out your family members and coworkers on their microaggressions? Gracefully, not defensively, accepting it and apologizing when a person of color informs you that you’ve said something offensive?

As I think about it, maybe there is a more obvious reason why we should treat the label of humanist with the same honor that we give to the label antiracist. You can’t be a humanist if you’re not antiracist. And an LGBTQ ally, an intersectional feminist, an environmentalist. Yeah, being a humanist is going to be a lot harder than being an atheist.

This brings me to my final thought. I don’t think you have to be secular or an atheist to be a humanist. If we say that secular humanism is to be good without God, then humanism, simply, would mean to be good, or to put in effort to make the world a better and more equitable place for everyone.

As I said, I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of Progressive Christians who do this. Why wouldn’t we call them Christian humanists? And if you use the word “secular” to describe a society in which state and church are separate, then the Progressive Christians I know would stand for this, too. Perhaps us atheists keeping the word humanist for ourselves is too exclusive. We should not imply that Muslims or Jews cannot also be working to make the world a better place. Anyone can be a humanist if they understand that it is only us, not someone else, who can save us.

7 thoughts on “On Being a Humanist

  • July 4, 2021 at 8:36 am

    Humanism is indeed the only way forward since it refers to life stance centered on human agency and looking to science and reason rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world.

  • July 4, 2021 at 9:12 am

    The term atheist is very narrow and shouldn’t be used to define someone. Theists like to address the class of atheists which is fine but as to defining ourselves as atheists, I’d rather not, because “too narrow.” Being a humanist is not all that narrow. (I assume you have read the Humanist Manifestos, but some of your readers may not have so the link is here: https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/.)

    Also, there are some other aspects of this topic. We can’t really define ourselves in less than a book length manner. I am a husband, father, scientist, author, editor, carpenter, atheist, prankster . . . (I could go on, but won’t). Each of these is a role I play in my life. So, atheist is one of those roles (I am not talking about acting roles, but actual roles).

    And, a small point, theists seem to think that being an atheist involves their god somehow, yet it is one step removed from that. What we reject is the theist’s claim that their god exists or does this or that. We do not deny or hate or anything those gods because we are not convince they exist. What we deny is their claim, their argument, etc. So, being an atheist says nothing about a relationship with any god, it says something about being unconvinced. Maybe we should call ourselves The Unconvinced.

  • July 4, 2021 at 9:24 am

    That you are a humanist has been clear all along — I base this on reading your blog since back in the “closet atheist” days.

    Conservative Christianity has been strongly opposed to secular humanism. That’s probably what influenced you to be hesitant to call yourself a humanist.

    I’m glad to hear that you are now embracing that term.

  • July 4, 2021 at 9:59 am

    It always seemed to me to be more productive to define yourself by what you do believe in, rather than by what you don’t believe in.

  • July 6, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Interesting. As an old white guy “boomer,” I did flinch a bit at your willing stereotyping and “guilting.” I’m uncertain if my crime is being old, male, or Irish (white). But your point is basically correct. I am unoffended.

    I see some “no true Scotsman” logic in your post, but it is otherwise still a good one. I think I can relate to much of it. The problem I have always had with labels for me is that we are all different and much the same, simultaneously.
    Since I do not believe any god exists, I embrace the identity of “atheist.” It is not a philosophy or world view. I also find a variety of philosophical tenets within humanism and nihilism that I agree with, some I do not. However, my mind remains changeable.

    As far as offending people, that seems easy to do these days. Maybe it always was. Many folks are offended when I say, “there are no gods.” So what?

    In his book, ‘Straw Dogs,” John Gray makes some interesting points regarding humanism. It may be time for me to re-read it.

  • July 7, 2021 at 1:41 am

    “Humans, as opposed to gods, are the beings with the means to change the world for the better.”

    “The only sin would be to pretend.”

    When I quit trying to be a Christian, I was not looking for a new word to identify by. Not atheist and surely not a nihilist. One of the charges against me was that I had never been a real Christian, which is a popular charge from apologists. So I am charged with never being what I thought was. The sin of pretension.

    Now I am an Atheist. My explanation of atheist is that I do not believe there is/are any supernatural beings. I see that several posts have tried to skew that simple definition to be other things. It is somewhat like having a conversation with Christian apologists who is convinced there can be no heretics, even while he is calling me a heretic. I have been an atheist longer than you have lived. Being an atheist I have always understood that I am also a Humanist. I’m not going to haggle over those definitions. Most people who identify as either one or both, probably understand who they are.

    I don’t know how these New Atheists came by that moniker, but I don’t think it was their idea. I don’t know their stance on social justice but maybe you have read enough of their work to make that determination. If you’ve labored under the notion that atheists or humanists or any other group you look at are good or evil simply because of their chosen identity, then…oops. My thoughts are that atheists and humanists, and a few more sects simply think that religion has no special claim to good or evil. Just compare the history of Christianity with that of Communism and you will be hard put to find one is more evil or more good than the other.

    Meanwhile, back on the ranch…

    Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s chief political strategist and, after Trump, the most powerful man in Washington, once declared proudly: “I am a Leninist.” He was talking to a New York University academic who had written extensively on communism and the former Soviet Union. “What on earth do you mean?” the professor asked him. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too,” replied Bannon. “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

    Bannon also went public with this, more than once, but it got little press. What Bannon had in mind is now the agenda of the GOP and the Christian Nationalists. Bannon announced their intention early in the campaign and the Christian religion instantly hooked their lot into the Trump plan. Project Blitz is a real thing but we are splitting hairs over the differences between atheists and humanists. None of us heretics are depending on some supernatural being to come along and save us from our own failings.

    Baratunde Thurston. “This shit ain’t over.”

    I’m old white straight progressive liberal atheist humanist.

    “Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”

  • July 13, 2021 at 9:34 pm

    Yes, as a Jewish humanist I believe in our Savior-Self. The Savior is not one person or a supernatural being (in my opinion)…it’s many individuals from all walks of life. It’s up to us to work together to heal our societies and our planet.


What do you think?