I Say "Atheist," for Several Good Reasons
By Bobbie Kirkhart
Aug. 22, 2007
I’m a humanist, sure. Who in the freethought community isn't? Okay, a few curmudgeons, but humanism, to give a simple definition, means that we have human values, not divine ones. It only makes sense. And I’m not lackadaisical about my humanism. I'm proud to be a life member of the American Humanist Association and a board member of the Institute for Humanist Studies, which publishes this e-zine. I work hard for freethought, and much of that is with humanist groups.
But when people ask about my philosophy, I rarely say "humanist;" I say
"atheist" for several good reasons. First, there is the obvious: The word "humanist" is usually misunderstood. The Los Angeles Times once printed an article saluting Pope John Paul as a humanist.
People know what an atheist is. They may think we have some illogical certainty, as last week’s guest columnist in Humanist Network News opined that a strong atheist says, "I do not know, or care, what your concept of God is, I hold it to be false." Others think we are intolerant of all religion, as some of us are. So are some humanists.
It is mostly people in the religious community who think that we have absolutely no morality. In spite of all these silly misconceptions and propaganda, almost everyone does know that we somehow manage to live our lives without a god belief, and when they see us living, laughing and loving as open atheists, they will likely be disabused of the fictions about us. In countries where god-belief is causing great damage, as it is in the U.S., we must model a life fulfilled without faith.
Many humanists point out that the word atheist does not suggest any particular morality. Of course, they are right. I think most atheists are, as I am, positive atheists, who hold the same values that humanists claim, although the rationale is different. The humanist says that being pacifist, egalitarian and benevolent is morally right. The positive atheist says that these values are natural, and we deviate from them as a reaction to oppression, including the oppression of religion. I prefer to emphasize that right is natural, noting that these two ideas are mutually reinforcing, and refuting those destructive religious concepts that define humans as innately "sinful."
Possibly my upbringing in the Bible Belt has influenced my thinking. I have heard many people boast "I'm a Christian," claiming that this identification bestows on them a halo of righteousness not shared by those of us whose beliefs are different from theirs. I see the same religious zeal in humanists who disparage us atheists. While this is a minority in the community, it is not as rare as it should be. It takes all kinds, of course, and some atheists do criticize humanists as being "wimpy" in their nonbelief. I have never, however, heard this from the speaker at an atheist meeting nor read an article in an atheist publication telling readers they should avoid the term. I've heard humanist leaders use the power of the podium to tell me I should not use the term atheist, not only in humanist meetings, but also in atheist meetings. This goes well beyond a philosophical difference; it reflects the religious idea that some words are taboo.
Those who attack us often claim that they are simply concerned about the baggage that comes with the word atheist. Indeed, there is baggage, and by silencing some and making others more confrontational, it damages our movement, both atheist and humanist. When our fellow freethinkers show the same prejudices, they reinforce society's bigotry. I have no quarrel with the many good people who attribute their ethics to a humanist philosophy. The variety in American Christianity is a major reason this country has so many Christians, and we would do well to emulate that in the community of reason. I think we can and should to do this without also mimicking the intolerance of their certainty that they have found the one way.