This blog has primarily been about what I do not believe and what I am not. The entire premise of the blog is about my deconversion and letting go of faith. But as has been said before by myself and others, saying “I am an atheist,” tells you almost nothing about me. In technical terms it tells you one and only one thing: I lack a belief in god(s). My recent (poorly named) series Communities of Unbelief has focused on ways I do not identify myself with titles like “Why I Am Not …”
This blog post, however, is about what I do believe in and how I do identify myself. I am a humanist. First and foremost, this means that people are more important than ideologies: religious, political or otherwise. It means the thing I believe in is quite down to Earth: people. I believe in humanity. I believe that human connection is the most precious commodity in the universe.
It is quite easy to slip into cloying platitudes when attempting to describe humanism. I’ll do my best to avoid this, but feel free to call me out if I fail in this endeavour.
How about this for a start, I have always said, even in my Christian days, that all moral or ethical discussions should begin with confession. So, I’ll start by saying, that I am not a very good humanist. I aspire to have the needs of others in mind. I aspire to empathy for those outside of my tribe. But I often fall short of these ideals. I can tend toward the misanthropic and the local. I relate, probably more than is healthy, with the character of the doctor in The Brothers Karamozov:
I would state it like this:
The problem with humanism?
People are difficult. People are fallible. People may break your heart. As a Christian professor of mine rightly used to say:
Love necessarily involves pain
How is that for cloying platitudes?
Basis for morality and ethics
Who on Earth would base their morals, ethics and source of meaning on human beings? We already do.
Humanism is not new. Humanism is actually the basis of all religious moral frameworks. The evolution of religious and moral philosophy can be traced back to evolution itself. There was some benefit to homo sapiens (and our ancestors) cooperating. Beginning with the small family unit. Just like modern families there were rules of behavior. As families grouped together into tribes, more behavioral rules needed to be established for the benefit of the whole group. This process continues growing and expanding as groups got bigger and bigger. The concept of an observer helped enforce the rules when group members were out of sight. God becomes an extremely effective concept to keep group members in line. Eventually we get formal religions. Over time religions add on dogma and doctrine to ensure no rules are broken. Leading ultimately to the complicated religious structures of today.
From this short description you can see a god and religion do not come into play until late in the game. We have developed our moral and ethical codes based on how we treat each other as humans. How we treat each other IS morality.
What religions do really well is facilitate community and a sense of belonging and the creation of a moral tribe. Is it the supernatural or the connection with other people that causes that sense of belonging and purpose? My argument is that it is the connection with people. This is what I call Secular Grace. The concept of Secular Grace acknowledges that there is nothing more valuable, moral or ethical than people loving and accepting one another.
The world is shrinking by the day. With modern communications borders are becoming weaker and weaker. We must learn to work with each other across national, cultural and religious boundaries. We must work with each other as people united in humanity.
If one of the most significance aspects of religion is morality, it is worth noting the utter failure of religious morality in the modern world. Attempting to apply the first century (and older) morality of the Judeo Christian scriptures is a futile effort. This form of morality has been on the wrong side of history time and time again.
There is a simple reason this is true. Any moral system that looks backward in history without evolving with the present environment will fail. We are not first century Aramaic speaking Jewish fishermen from a small town. We are a vast complex web of humanity that is coping with 21st century moral and ethical challenges.
Humanism recognizes this and focuses on human dignity. Regardless of one’s gender, sexual orientation, cultural background or nationality, one deserves respect, dignity and care just for being human. Inalienable rights are grounded on common humanity and not from a mythical god.
Humanism encompasses all the best of the social gospel without the supernatural and archaic moral baggage. Much of what attracted me to the Jesus of the New Testament was how he treated people. I am still attracted to that. If Jesus existed today, he would be a humanist.
We are meaning makers
Why are we here? The big question. We want desperately for there to be an external answer to that. There may not be one, in fact, if I am being honest, I do not think there is. But since we are here, maybe not the answer, but an answer is to be with each other.
There may be no meaning or purpose to the universe.
But my purpose is to make meaning and purpose.
That is the most human thing to do.
To be homo sapien is to make meaning. It may be the quintessential human activity. Rather than looking for meaning from an external source like a god, we must recognize the creation of meaning is the essence of humanity.
The Copernican principle has taught us that we are not the center of the universe. We live on an average planet, next to an average star, in an average arm of the spiral galaxy, in an average part of the universe.
Though this is true, it is also true that consciousness is exceedingly rare in the universe. As far as we know, we are the only conscious beings in the universe. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, “humanity is the cosmos aware of itself.”
Consciousness is so painfully rare that even if you were stuck on a deserted island thinking your thoughts in isolation your consciousness would be the most precious thing in the universe.
But most of us are not stranded on a deserted island. We have the great privilege to experience relationship with other conscious human beings. And that is meaningful.
Humanism’s focus on people allows us to derive meaning from each other. I do not know why we are here, but since we are here we should enjoy each other. We have everything we need for meaning, purpose and awe in nature and each other.
No supernatural confusion
Humanism rejects supernatural explanations for phenomenon. It embraces science and a naturalistic view of reality. Free from the need to justify belief without evidence humanism can focus on rationality, evidence and the scientific method. I have written about how freeing an epistemology based on evidence rather than faith can be.
I have also written in this series about why I am not a liberal Christian. To summarize that article, more of Christianity has to be thrown away than kept. Using terms like god that can be defined a thousand ways is more confusing than it is helpful.
The ABCs of secular “spirituality”
Awe, belonging, connection
It is much simpler to say I am a humanist. It conveys both that I care about people and that I reject the supernatural. I particularly love Jennifer Michael Hecht’s term, humanism is a “graceful life philosophy.”
For me, humanism was the answer to the question, “what next?” after I deconverted from Christianity and became an atheist. It gave me a way to ground my morality, ethics and purpose.
I have started the hashtag #HumanismIsPeople to highlight people who exemplify humanism. It is also a reminder that people do miracles not myths.
A few years after deconversion I am still asking what next? As in what can I do that is good for the world? I am currently obsessed with trying to figure out what unites us as a secular community. Many have died on this particular hill before me. Atheists, skeptics, free thinkers and humanists are not joiners by nature. It is like herding cats trying to get everyone in the same room, let alone on the same page.
However, just because you have walked away from religion, does not mean you no longer need human connection and belonging. These are fundamental hard wired human needs. These needs often were met in the past by religion and now need a replacement.
What would bring us together and unite us with a sense of belonging?
I am particularly concerned for those leading up to, going through and recently passed through the deconversion process. It can be incredibly isolating and lonely when you first realize you no longer believe. It may cost you your entire social support structure. What can we do as a community to ease that process and provide opportunities for all of us to have a sense of belonging?
I am interested in building community. I am considering ways to bring people together online. There is no substituent for in person connectivity, but for many that is not always possible. The secular community can be sparse in some areas of the country.
Face to face hangouts would be a possible substitute that would allow people to tell their stories and grow a support group of humanists. Let me know if you are interested by commenting or emailing me at gracefulatheist at gmail dot com.
2 thoughts on “Why I am a Humanist”
Just curious, what are your thoughts about animal rights?
In principle, of course, there is no conflict between humanism and animal rights: we can pursue both goals. And arguably we need to care for the environment and the ecosystem to make a secure future for humanity’s health (and happiness – I’m a keen hiker, myself). In practice, though, sometimes we have to choose between them.
At one extreme, some in the animal rights movement make it seem like human over-population is getting in the way and we should just decrease the surplus population or even extinct ourselves for the good of the world. At the other extreme, we could say “If a few more species have to die to bring needy humans out of poverty, so be it”.
It is one area many deconverts have to reconsider as part of understanding a new world.
I’ve seen some who have become “animals are people too”, go vegan, condemn hunting, etc.
Others who have gone “Now I no longer have a god to worry about, life can be all about me”. (fortunately this is not as common as many Christians seem to think, though I recognise I probably have a little more tendency to it than I used to).
Still others who single out humans: “We need to care most about humans, because it’s only humans who building impressive structures, solving difficult problems, creating great art and literature, and fundamentally increasing our understanding of the universe”.
I’m not sure where I fall yet. In principle I’m probably closest to my final option, human exceptionalism, though again as a hiker I wouldn’t want to do anything to limit the many birds and animals I see and hear and admire as I wander.
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It seems you don’t even realize how often you revert to seemingly objective moral claims.
“Rather than looking for meaning from an external source like a god, we must recognize the creation of meaning is the essence of humanity.”
Really? Moral meaning?
“If one of the most significance aspects of religion is morality, it is worth noting the utter failure of religious morality in the modern world. Attempting to apply the first century (and older) morality of the Judeo Christian scriptures is a futile effort. This form of morality has been on the wrong side of history time and time again.”
Again what do you mean by “failure” and “wrong”? Do you mean Christian morality is factually incorrect? Do you mean Christian morality advances conclusions different than yours? Do you mean they came to a conclusion different than some group that you think decides these matters?
This is the sort of incoherent mishmash of moral philosophy atheists seem ok swallowing but many Christians find unappetizing.