I like humanism. I support humanism. I think humanism is important. I even call myself, among many other names, a humanist.
But Atheism Plus isn’t humanism.
As most readers here probably know by now, Jen McCreight recently proposed a new wave of atheism — an “atheism plus” wave that explicitly focuses, not just on atheism, but on the intersections between atheism and racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other social justice issues — externally in what issues we take on, and internally in how we deal with our own stuff.
This has generated a lot of conversation and debate. Some of it productive, some not so much. And one of the questions that keeps coming up is, “Why do you have to invent a new thing and a new name… when humanism already exists? Isn’t ‘Atheism plus social justice’ just another term for humanism?”
I don’t think it is. But I do think this question is worth addressing. I’ve been a little surprised at some of the nasty, spiteful ugliness that’s sometimes been accompanying the question (humanism — you’re doing it wrong!). But many people are asking it sincerely, and I want to try to answer.
Very important note: I’m not arguing here for why Atheism Plus is better than humanism. I’m not trying to argue any humanists into abandoning humanism and calling themselves Atheists Plus instead. I like humanism; I support humanism; I think humanism is important; I’m happy that there are humanists in the world; I even call myself, among many other names, a humanist. This isn’t about why you should be an Atheist Plus instead of a humanist. This is about why I, personally, see myself as an atheist — and as an Atheist Plus — more than I see myself as a humanist. There is a great deal of overlap between humanism and Atheism Plus… but I don’t think they’re the same. And I want to explain why.
For one thing: “Humanist” doesn’t necessarily mean “godless.” There are religious humanists. So if I’m trying to define myself as “someone who doesn’t believe in God” — and if I’m trying to align myself with a community and a movement that is primarily organized around godlessness — humanism is not going to work for me. (CORRECTION/UPDATE AT END OF POST) Humanism is also more engaged with creating secular replacements for the rituals and structures of religious communities… and while many atheists are cool with this idea and are even engaged with it themselves, there are many other atheists who are profoundly turned off by it. And many humanists are actively hostile to the word “atheist.” It’s not just that they don’t choose to use the word themselves. They don’t want anyone else to use it, either. So that puts another damper on the whole “Atheism Plus is just humanism re-branded” thing.
These are important differences. But they’re not the only ones, and I’m not sure they’re the key ones. Because even if the strict, literal meanings of “humanism” and “atheism plus” were the same — which I don’t think they are — the reality is that the words “atheism” and “humanism” have come to imply substantially different things. They have different associations. Different vibes. As my middle school English teacher would say, the connotations have significant differences, even if the denotations are very similar.
Like it or not, atheism and humanism are perceived very differently — both within the broader godless/ secularist/ whatever you want to call it movement, and outside of it. Like it or not, the reality is that “atheism” is generally perceived as being more confrontational. More defiant. More in-your-face. More about visibility. More actively opposed to religion. More actively engaged in trying to persuade religious believers out of it.
Humanism, on the other hand, is generally perceived as more diplomatic. More easy-going. Less interested in debating differences, and more interested in finding common ground. More accepting of religion and religious believers, as long as they accept us. More interested in doing interfaith/ alliance work with believers.
All of these qualities are important and valuable. But they are not the same qualities. People who are inspired by the goals and methods and styles of atheism are not always going to be inspired by the goals and methods and styles of humanism… and vice versa. Atheism is a slap in the face that wakes people up. Humanism holds people’s hands. Holding people’s hands is a valuable thing to do, I respect and encourage people who want to do it, I even sometimes do it myself. But it is not how I see my primary role in this movement. My primary role in this movement is to slap people in the face — metaphorically, of course, not literally — and wake them up. So the primary name I give myself in this movement is “Atheist.”
And then there’s the matter of public perception, and public understanding. The word “atheism” is clear. It’s confrontational largely because it is so clear. People know what atheism means. They have myths and misconceptions about its implications — but they basically understand that it means “person who doesn’t believe in any gods.”
The word “humanism” isn’t nearly as well-understood. Lots of people don’t even know what it means.
That doesn’t mean one word is automatically better than the other. It just means they’re different, and it doesn’t make sense to insist that they’re the same. If you identify primarily as a humanist, if that’s the term that most accurately defines you, then that’s the word you should use, and I support you in that — just as I want you to support me in using “atheist” and “atheist plus.” In fact, for some people, the ambiguity of the word “humanism” is actually a useful and positive thing. I think some people see it as a conversation starter, a door opener (“Humanist? What’s that?”) in a way that “atheist” often isn’t (“Atheist?” [freeze]). And for some people, the fact that it’s more ambiguous makes it safer to use publicly. As Jen McCreight wrote in Why Atheism+ and not Humanism?:
I used to use the label “secular humanist” a lot when I lived in Indiana and was too scared to out myself. No one had a clue what it meant and never wanted to appear stupid by asking me to explain. But now I want to keep using the word atheist until it becomes destigmatized.
Which brings me to another point. As many others have pointed out, there is tremendous bigotry and discrimination against atheists. In many parts of the U.S. and the world, atheists are rejected, abused, and reviled — and coming out as atheist, proudly claiming the word, is a way to stand with these people, to make things easier for them, to help create a snowball effect and make it easier for other atheists to come out. That’s somewhat true for the term “humanist” — especially for the term “secular humanist,” which had a very ugly notoriety in the Reagan years — but it’s less true now than it used to be, and it’s less true than it is for the term “atheist.” As Ashley F. Miller wrote in The difference between “atheism+” and humanism:
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.
And speaking of political acts:
The reality is that people — especially young people — have been rallying under the banner of “atheism,” in a way that they simply haven’t been under the banner of “humanism.” Atheism is getting lots of people excited, invigorated, mobilized, and motivated to take action. Humanism has been doing this, too — but not nearly as much.
And atheism has been getting visibility. Atheism is getting people talking: in news stories, in op-ed pieces, at water coolers, in online forums, at family dinner tables. Humanism has not been doing this nearly as much. The New York Times just did a story on Jerry DeWitt (Recovering from Religion, Clergy Project), headlined, “From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader.” That grabs attention, gets people talking. Would “From Bible-Belt Pastor to Humanist Leader” have had the same impact? Would the story even have been written? I really don’t think so.
The atheist movement already exists. It is powerful. It is a name and an identity that many people feel strongly about. It is a name and an identity that many people have done extraordinary things done for. Many of us have grown to love it. We see value in it, and we don’t want to abandon it. We want to form a subset of it that makes it better: a subset that is specifically devoted to making atheism more welcoming to women, people of color, poor people, working class people, trans people, and other marginalized groups, and that is specifically devoted to doing work in the places where atheism and other social justice issues intersect. As Jason Thibeault wrote in What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually.:
And people can claim that we’re trying to rebrand atheism to make it more pleasant, but really we’re simply naming the part of the community we’ve already carved out for ourselves where mere disbelief in a god or gods isn’t our only unifying factor. We recognize that being an atheist is insufficient to determine that you’re a decent human being. We’ve defined all those things that we care about, and we’re signalling to others that this movement is about those things in concert. Atheism informs all other aspects of our philosophies, so it is at the core of the name. The plus signals simultaneously inclusiveness, the drive to bring repressed underclasses and unprivileged folks into the fold not only as tokens but to better ourselves and improve our philosophies of humanism and social justice.
I would like to point out that humanism is hardly immune to the problems we’ve been talking about here — the problems that Atheism Plus is working to address.
Many humanist groups have a huge diversity problem. Many humanist groups are overwhelmingly made up of older, middle-class, college educated white men — and while the groups typically embrace the idea of diversity in theory, some individuals in them can be very resistant to the idea that maybe their lack of diversity is partly their responsibility, and that they should maybe consider changing the way they do things. And I can’t tell you how many humanists I’ve talked with who have been total douchebags about feminism: insisting that humanism is superior to and more important than feminism, that feminism is exclusionary and anti-male, that they “don’t see gender” and anyone who does is the real sexist, and that the best way to make sexism disappear is to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. Humanism in theory is on board with social justice — but the practice can be very different indeed. If every atheist who’s sick of sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement picked up their stakes and moved to humanism, it wouldn’t make these problems magically disappear.
There is a great deal of overlap between humanism and Atheism Plus. They are very similar ideas, very similar visions. There is great value in both. I suspect that many people will call themselves both, and I look forward to the two movements working in alliance for many years to come. But I don’t think they’re the same. And I think it’s reasonable for some people to identify primarily as one, and some primarily as the other.
CORRECTION/UPDATE: Several people who are more familiar with humanism than I am have informed me that Christian Humanism is not, in fact, humanism, and that a basic principle of humanism is non-theism. I stand corrected. (You have to admit that that’s pretty confusing.) The rest of my post still stands; but I apologize for the error.