‘Problems with the humanist brand’ and why I’m not one

There’s recently been much discussion over A+/atheism plus, and whether or not it’s just humanism. Here’s something James Croft, of the Harvard Humanists, said about it:

Many seem to be responding to the “Atheism+” language more readily to the language of “Humanism” … And that speaks to some problem with the “Humanist” brand which people like me should think about carefully.

I’d like to give a personal slant on that, and talk about what puts me off saying I’m a humanist. Specifically, I want to talk about differences I’ve experienced with humanists – some of which are differences over emphasis or personal goals, which is perfectly fine, and some of which involve them doing things I wish they wouldn’t.

I warn you now: this will be a long post.

Some humanists, for example, talk about “replacing religion”. To me this seems odd. It suggests religion is some kind of vital organ, whose excision causes impairment and thus demand we put something new in its place. On the other hand, I see religion more like a tumour – something nonessential and generally harmful, despite being a product of benign natural processes, without which we’d probably be better and which doesn’t need replacing. But I do see the argument that secular communities should be supportive for their members, as churches often are, and this isn’t usually a stance that threatens my goals, so I’ll happily agree to disagree.

Some humanists, specifically, sing secular hymns. James Croft and Ian Cromwell discussed this previously, and according to its accounts from the most recent year, the British Humanist Association spent £5,518 on music. This includes on the BHA Choir, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in the flesh – but while they, perhaps like many humanist musicians, are extremely impressive, I’m personally not comfortable expressing beliefs by singing in a congregation. Again this seems determined to replace religious identity, but I’m rather glad I lost mine, and I don’t particularly want to feel now how I felt in church. Other people needn’t share my feelings, though, and if people like learning humanist hymns, I’m glad for them.

I do understand those hymns are often written for ceremonies, though, and aren’t just recreational, since some humanists have their own ceremonial rituals ­– weddings, for example, child-naming events or funerals. Compared with many skeptics, I’m not unsympathetic to symbolic ritual, but I don’t desire the former two since I’ve no desire to marry or have children. As for death, I often feel religious funerals exclude non-believers, and I wouldn’t want mine to belong to any particular worldview. In other words, I’d want it to be secular in the “non-religious” sense, but also in the “neutral” sense, so that non-humanists didn’t feel like outsiders. Again that’s just my personal response, and I can see the appeal.

I’m more uneasy when it comes to deifying Darwin, because some humanists put evolution on a pedestal. I’m talking here about using things like the “tree of life” in logos (see below), but more so about celebrating Darwin Day in humanist groups, walking a so called “biological pilgrimage” and specifically composing hymns to natural selection. (I’ve heard at least one of these from the BHA Choir. It was very well sung, but it made me wince a bit.)

I acknowledge the importance of The Origin of Species in scientific and cultural terms, and I’m no less concerned than anyone about the need to teach evolution not design. But it’s not the basis of my non-belief, something I use for ethics or otherwise a part of my ‘worldview’ – I appreciate Darwinism’s significance, but I don’t frame my life around it. That, once again, seems too religion-like. On this issue, I am concerned when other people do it, because it risks reinforcing the idea of evolution as another religion, or that atheists worship Darwin. Ultimately, I think I’m still okay with people doing this who choose to, as long as it’s presented as specific to humanists and not something that describes all nonbelievers.

These are all activities which seek to replicate the atmosphere of a congregation, and some humanists are keen on group dynamics. This was a key element of James and Ian’s discussion on the use of hymns, and it also figured heavily in his disagreements with Stephanie Zvan about humanist temples. (I confess, the phrase itself makes me fidget in my seat.) I get why group social norms can be useful tools, and why someone might desire them. Personally, I’m just not into that: I’m a stander-out by nature, the kid at school who wouldn’t answer the register, preferred stairs to escalators and wore outrageous socks – don’t try to change me. Group-centric settings have much in their favour, and more power to you if you feel at home in them. Like Stephanie, I just don’t.

Some humanists want to preach morals by discussing virtue, “goodness” and writing secular bibles – The Good Book for example, written by A.C. Grayling who seems to like discussing “the good life” and was in line for a time to be the BHA’s ceremonial president. (During the fallout when his private, £18,000-a-year university was announced, this was called off for some reason.) If that’s your goal, I’m all right with that. For me though, it’s about addressing beliefs people have for bad reasons – by no means an amoral aim, because persuading people out of those beliefs often stops them doing heinous things as a result.

Some humanists use “humanism” as a word for all ethics or empathy. This irritates me; it implies if you have any impulse in the format, “[behaviour x] is (un)desirable and should be (removed/)encouraged”, you’re a humanist and have to call yourself one. You don’t.

Some humanists insist morality’s objective and that morals exist the way hydrogen does. I don’t agree. That’s fine. (Incidentally, if believers are reading: I still wouldn’t agree if a god existed.)

But some imply you have no standards if you dispute that ­– i.e. that if you’re unconvinced there are “moral facts”, you can have no objection to acid attacks on little girls. This isn’t a post about that discussion, but please, don’t suggest that.

Some aspire to be “good without God”. If that’s right for them, cool. But some of us are fine being bad without God. I don’t feel a need to gain people’s approval who claim to love the god of the Bible – someone with a fetish for baby-killing, genital mutilation and genocide, to name a few things. If you see me as a bad person and this is your idea of goodness incarnate, I can’t say I’m worried for my image.

Certain humanists are uncritically nice about Jesus, and some humanists are fond of platitudes and abstractions. I generally don’t like aphorisms – the so called golden rule, for example, strikes me as highly overrated. (Why do to others as you’d have them to do you, when not everyone wants to be treated as you do?) And when I hear things like “It is love that makes sex human“, I feel like vomiting. I see why truisms and maxims appeal to some, but in general I like putting things as plainly as I can.

One major gripe for me: some humanists want everything to be about humanism. I’ve heard humanists say non-humanist groups need to change their names (and indeed pressure those groups to that effect), dismiss the work of non-humanist identified groups – the National Secular Society, for example – and generally insist all discussion and action taken be centred around their own worldview. I often get the sense humanism is rather insular, with groups like the BHA, the Humanist Society of Scotland and the International Humanist and Ethical Union sticking mainly to themselves and not interacting much with other bodies – but that’s just my subjective view, and it may be wrong, or specifically a European issue. In any case, humanists don’t get to set the agenda for all sceptical or secular discourse, and consistently I’ve run into ones who feel they should, as if godless activism at large is just a subset of humanism and not the other way around.

As a recent post of Greta’s just pointed out, some humanists have huge diversity problems – more so than atheism at large – and moreover, don’t seem to acknowledge them as problems. The Humanist Society of Scotland’s conference last year, I’m told, was “mainly old white men”; the AHS (‘supported and facilitated’ and non-independent of the BHA financially and logistically, thus a humanist body in terms of this post) has a terrible diversity record at its past conventions and conferences. More than once I’ve brought this up with humanist officials and they’ve ignored it. More than once, I’ve heard other people say that happened with them.

Some humanists are political liberals. This is, I think, more typical of British humanists, and I use the word “liberal” in its European sense, i.e. what tends to be called “libertarian” in the U.S., and certainly nowhere near me on the political spectrum. I personally don’t agree with the BHA line on marriage reform, for example – I think we should scrap the civil register and marriage as a legally defined state institution, something much more easily done in Britain the U.S.A. – and the promotional video of the Campaign for Equal Marriage (vocally supported by the BHA and its leaders), made every queer and left wing part of me wretch. This isn’t the position of all humanists, especially not North Americans ones from what I can tell, and everyone can have their own opinions, but it’s still a negative association which helps stop humanism from attracting me.

Some humanists need everything to be “positive” – for them, it’s vital to discuss what they do value and believe in, rather than what they don’t. (Specifically, religion.) Again, different strokes for different folks: I understand why, but I’m all about addressing bad beliefs, which requires me to say “I’m against [x]”. It’s wholly okay to stick with smiley, happy humanism if that floats your boat. Just don’t tell everybody else, as some humanists will, that they have to do the same. What other people emphasise is their decision.

Some humanists focus on civil secularism, and I’m glad they do. In my eyes, the BHA’s most valuable and important contribution to activism is their work to remove bishops from the House of Lords, oppose state-maintained faith schools and separate church from state in general. In terms of where I put my time and energy, these are not the goals to which I’m personally most drawn: I want to contribute to a reduction of religious belief, help people leave their religions if that’s their choice, build communities of atheists and spread skepticism in general. This is partly because of my personal background, partly because of the skill set I think I have and partly because of other factors – because these are all personal things, I’ve no objection to humanists working differently, and I’m positively happy that they do, at least in this respect.

However: some don’t see different goals as valid, when pursued by other people. I’ve heard Atheism UK, the British branch of AAI whose work involves “challenging religious faith” and supporting “the advancement of atheism”, criticised by a professional humanist because “they take a very anti-theist line”. I think persuading people out of religion, and supporting a reduction in irrationality, is highly desirable in and of itself, and will aid humanists’ and secularists’ causes. We don’t all have to be accommodationists, and we don’t all have to do things the way humanists do.

On the contrary, I don’t think it aids secularism that some humanists want to share religion’s privilege, not abolish it. I’m thinking here of humanist chaplaincies on campus and in local government, funded through tax; of humanism’s status (according, again, to a humanist campaigner who spoke to me) as a “protected belief” under British law; of the humanist, worldview-promoting BHA accepting public money; of its famous, otherwise excellent promotional adverts on buses owned by Transport for London, a local government body; its campaign to “make humanist weddings legal marriages“, rather than removing any legal powers based on worldviews?

None of these seem to me compatible with separating church and state, as I understand it. We shouldn’t want government to treat us how it treats religion. It shouldn’t treat any belief group how it treats religion. If humanist groups (or indeed atheist ones) are taking public money or tax-supported adspace, it makes it easy for people like Joanne Bogle to say – entirely fairly – that in name of neutrality, religions should get the same. If humanist celebrants have legally recognised marital powers and views somehow “protected” by the state, it makes it easy for minority religions to say – entirely fairly – that so should they. I’m just one person on the internet, and not an influential public figure or mass lobby group, but as a secularist I’m categorically against this.

I’m not saying everyone must be a firebrand. I’m happy not everyone is. Some humanists like being non-confrontational and “friendly”, which is perfectly fine. This is, I think, why many identify that way and not as “atheists”.

Like Jen McCreight, I personally want to “keep using the word atheist until it becomes destigmatized“, but that I get that not everyone does. People’s attitudes are different, and there are contexts where avoiding it’s very understandable. Debbie Goddard’s organisation, African Americans for Humanism, is an obvious example: it targets a community known widely for religiosity, which therefore could reasonably be expected not to react well to “atheists”. I like to be direct about my non-belief, and lots of A+ people have said they like that label more than ‘humanist’ because it’s direct. But if “humanist” is a label you prefer, I won’t get in your way.

I’d ask though that you give me the same respect, since some humanists object to others calling themselves atheists before all else. They’ll say it’s “meaningless” because it isn’t an entire worldview or a positive statement of values – which, for me and many others – it doesn’t mean to be, or imply there’s no significant thing such as “atheist activism“, like helping people come out, helping them recover from religious abuse or putting the claims of believers to the test. Humanists, don’t do that. We let you use the labels you want.

Some humanists call all non-believers humanists, or apply their own label to those who don’t self-identify that way. The BHA, for example, claimed at one point that there were “17 million humanists in Britain”, based on answers people gave in a Mori poll about their attitudes.

I imagine that if you asked them, most of those people wouldn’t describe themselves that way – I imagine many wouldn’t even know what a humanist was. In fact, I imagine if you asked 1000 people in central London if they knew what atheists and humanists were, you’d get a “yes” for the former much more often; using “humanists” as shorthand for “secular people” speaks to some humanists’ need, mentioned above, to make humanism far more central and important to non-belief in general than it is or needs to be. And if humanists are going to campaign for things I don’t necessarily agree with, I don’t want to be co-opted by being named a humanist.

Some humanists even tell us we’re humanists too, even if we say otherwise. Let us alone, already. If we don’t want to call ourselves that, we don’t have to.

This has been a long list. (To be fair, I did warn you.) There are two responses I can already predict certain humanists will have. Both make me uneasy, and both make me laugh.

The first is outrage. From my experience of the UK humanist community, I feel sure some people will read this post, or parts of it, and feel I’ve been incredibly rude – some people, I’ve no doubt, will think this is disrespectful, childish, tribalistic or whatever else. I’ve observed that however mild your criticism of groups like the BHA, or however fine you are with other people being humanists even though you’re not, certain people will stop being your friend if you’re not In The Club.

The second is the “no true humanist” argument. Few if any of the things I list here is true of all humanists, and some of it applies to very limited numbers, so I’m sure people will turn to a Humanist Manifesto – hello, James Croft, if you’re reading – and declare “That’s not in accordance with proper humanism.”

To start with, I’m don’t really care. This is about my feelings toward a ‘brand’, and that means everything I associate with the word “humanist” – whether those associations are rationally justified or not. Like it or not, that’s the baggage the term has. For another thing, I don’t want to have that discussion. I’m not interested in arguing doctrine; in disputing how manifestos should be interpreted, or which humanists are “doing it right”. I like the “atheist” label precisely because it’s not a worldview. I don’t have to be concerned with principles and how to apply them, or what the ideal reading of a certain text is. For me, that discussion would be counterproductive – it would distract me from the sceptical activism I want to focus on.

In case you’ve skipped to the last paragraph then, reader, and not read the list: I’m a non-humanist, and I’m fine with other people being humanists. I just wish they always felt the same.

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