I am an atheist. I am also a humanist. Being a humanist is actually far more important to my worldview than being an atheist is. In fact, the reason I care about religion and atheism is because I am a humanist. In my opinion, organized religion is responsible for many evils in the world, a lot of which come down to human nature and the nature of large organizations, but many of which are made far worse by the nature of religion itself. I support gay rights, I am a feminist, I am against the drug war, I am for social support systems and changing the way the world treats the poor — all of these things I am because I live my life from a humanist perspective. Imperfectly, no doubt, but that is where I am coming from.
And yet, if asked how I define myself, I say “atheist” rather than “humanist”. Why would I choose to define myself as part of this newly christened “atheist+” movement rather than the “humanist” movement?
It’s a completely legitimate question – if you go look at the American Humanist Association, you’ll see a group that does almost everything I could want a movement to do (and I support the AHA gladly and whole-heartedly). It’s just that it doesn’t do one thing that is really important to me: make it clear that I am an atheist.
I guess it could be a small thing for some people, but it’s not for me, because where I am from, being an atheist is not really OK. People face serious discrimination, people in my local atheist groups fear for their jobs if they come out. The emails from the local atheist billboard campaign were truly horrific. And what many atheists face from their families, even families who aren’t extremely religious, it painful and can lead to lifelong rifts.
As a longtime participant in the gay rights movement, I have been taught that self-definition is incredibly important; it matters a great deal that you should be able to label yourself as gay or straight, male or female, somewhere in between, or to eschew labels altogether. When those labels automatically mean you are going to be treated badly, it becomes an important political act to stand up and insist that you are not undeserving of equal treatment just because you don’t identify with a different label. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in gods, but I call myself an atheist because being an atheist means I get treated like shit by some people and that is not OK.
The desire to hold on to “atheism” rather than use the term “humanism” isn’t from a fundamental difference of goals and beliefs, but from a difference of self-definition. I personally like “atheism+” because it’s more confrontational, embraces a minority position that is loathed by many, and it is more transparent about the belief that religion is one of the root causes of many social injustices. My humanism is more than just secular, it is anti-religion.
Beyond that, the social justice issues that “atheism+” care about include issues specifically about atheists as a group. We are committed to is the pursuit of equality for atheists, a public acknowledgement of our existence, and a political voice for the godless. It’s not that humanism doesn’t believe in equality for atheists, of course it does, but that’s not the focus. ”Atheism+” is not my favorite of titles, I’d have gone with Atheist Humanism, but I don’t think that humanism, secular humanism, and “atheism+” are the same thing. Huge overlaps? Yes, absolutely. But so long as I’m going to be treated as a social pariah for being a non-believer, I feel it is important for me to not be afraid to be out of the closet and loud about that label.
There is a difference between a self-defined humanist doing something good for mankind and a self-defined atheist doing it, simply because of the massive amount of stigma associated with atheism. Proving that atheists care about other people and making the world a better place is important. I think that “atheism+” is a way to bring the philosophy of humanism more strongly to the fight for atheist equality, and vice versa.
Calling myself part of the atheist — +, humanist, or otherwise — movement is a meaningful political act, and one not worth dropping to join something incredibly similar, but different.