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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.