The difference between atheists and humanists

I’m both, but I think I oscillate. I was looking at the British Humanists’ Thought For The Commute campaign, which puts positive messages of humanist philosophy on the London Underground. I like the idea, and I like the messages. But I saw this one first and it set me back — I must be in the atheist phase of my cycle.


My first thought? We live in a perilous world that is full of ugliness, pain, and danger, and how dare you close your eyes to the suffering of humanity. I thought of Darwin and the ichneumonid wasps that horrified him so much — I don’t think they made him a humanist, but made him reject the idea of a benevolent god.

I think the natural domain of my atheist side is anger, while the humanist side lives in a world of hope — we need both, the one to drive us to break the shackles of the past, the other to give us reason to build anew. Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the great anarchist, Peter Kropotkin:

The history of human thought recalls the swinging of a pendulum which takes centuries to swing. After a long period of slumber comes a moment of awakening. Then thought frees herself from the chains with which those interested — rulers, lawyers, clerics — have carefully enwound her.

She shatters the chains. She subjects to severe criticism all that has been taught her, and lays bare the emptiness of the religious political, legal, and social prejudices amid which she has vegetated. She starts research in new paths, enriches our knowledge with new discoveries, creates new sciences.

Of course, he then goes on to point out that a period of calcification follows, in which the chains are reforged, and we need a periodic shakeup to keep everything lively.

Guess what? I’m feeling majorly atheist lately.


  1. dick says

    As a Humanist for nearly 50 years, I think it is necessary to the atheist movement, to help us achieve a just world where all the prejudices of the past can be combatted. The Humanist movement is more advanced in Europe than in North America.

    It seems that the BHA is making real progress, combating religious influences. It also has a high proportion of women involved, compared to what I see in Canada.

  2. Bob Churchill says

    If we’ve truly got our “eyes open”, then we can see the beauty, charm and adventure, as well as the ugliness, pain and danger.

    It’s so common to think of humanism as the Light side and atheism as the Dark side, but it’s very much a construct (and of course they might be used as labels of difference but most humanists are also atheists). Humanists wouldn’t be humanists if they didn’t also appreciate the suffering of humanity as PZ puts it – and the other downsides to our existence (such as facing up to the anthropogenic environmental catastrophe we’re busy unleashing). And atheists qua atheists can be just as open to the joyous side of life as to the righteous anger.

    Unfortunately I think playing off this pseudo-division between humanism and atheism – which find expression in the very same people – while it can be useful to illustrate different trends, is creating more heat than light.

  3. John Small Berries says

    We live in a perilous world that is full of ugliness, pain, and danger,

    Yes, we do. But that does not render false the statement that the world is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. Because the world is full of both sets, and more things besides.

    What you choose to notice, that’s all on you.

  4. Becca Stareyes says

    The pain and suffering make the beauty and joy even more precious, because we know they are often transitory or can be overshadowed. One has to look at the pain and suffering with eyes open, but notice that there is good in the world that makes it worth fighting for beauty and charm and adventure, rather than succumbing to despair.

    I think theists can believe in a fallen vale of tears if they also believe in a heaven for at least some people. Nontheists need some source of beauty and joy rooted in reality. Atheists might focus on the pain, but I hope for many of them it’s because they believe the world can have more joy and less pain if they fight for it.

    At least, that’s my take. It’s why I seek out stories about rescue animals and weddings and cool science things when I read a lot of the news. Because it reminds me that humanity can do both good and evil in this world, and the former is why I still read the news beyond my friends and family.

  5. Becca Stareyes says

    My kingdom for an edit post button, so I don’t have to double-post. I feel I should clarify that I identify as an atheist when it comes to ‘do you believe in a god?’, but I usually give my religious affiliation as ‘secular humanist’, for much the same reason folks here embrace Atheism Plus: we think that there should be more to a philosophical belief system than ‘I don’t believe in a deity or deities’. So whether atheists are ‘we’ or ‘they’ depends on context: since PZ set it up as atheist versus humanist, I went with a ‘they’.

    (Come to think about it, I might use ‘atheist plus’ as my religious affiliation, even if I then have to explain what it means.)

  6. Sastra says

    As mentioned above, secular humanism is a subset of atheism, a type of atheist, so talking about which “side” you’re on makes no sense. It sounds more to me like you’re exploring the division between optimism and pessimism.

    There is plenty of both in secular humanism. One can be a grouchy, grumpy humanist with no contradiction. You just can’t be outright misanthropic — wanting to destroy the whole human race, for example.

  7. AnatomyProf says

    I think that statements that direct us only to the positive make some of us think of accommodationism and bending over backwards to avoid confrontation where it needs to be had. Some of us are more attracted to tearing down the walls than others. Some are more attracted to building bridges. Humans simply vary in how they see the world. To me, atheism makes it is easier to see that many of the problems lie in long-held traditions and that there is nothing sacred to hold on to. Humanism requires me to act on this recognition and to fight injustice where it intersects my life, even though it generally makes my life more difficult to do so. I have found that the bonds of the past make building something positive difficult so my focus has always been on breaking them. As they fall it gets easier to build and easier to see the positive aspects of the world. I however fear that focusing to much on the positive may lead to complacency.

  8. Roberto Aguirre Maturana says

    Really? I din’t knew that the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” phrase was part of a humanist campaign. How was it called? ah, yes, the humanist bus…

  9. Roberto Aguirre Maturana says

    Really? then I guess the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” phrase was part of a humanist campaign. How was it called? ah, yes, the humanist bus…

  10. Alverant says

    Yes there is pain and ugliness and injustice in the world. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the beauty and charm and adventure it contains.

  11. Ed Seedhouse says

    Technically of course the world in itself is neither beautiful nor ugly. These are categories of human thought, which we project onto the world. As it is said beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but then so does ugliness.

    Myself I have the perfect body type to impress the ladies, except that the ladies in question would be gorilla ladies. However I have far too little hair to excite them.

  12. azhael says

    I’m fine with either label, but i don’t usually use humanist all that much because of two reason. One is the rather trivial fact that there is something that annoys me about some self-identified secular humanists and it is their insistence that it is a superior label. Don’t call yourself an atheist, call yourself a humanist. Don’t say you are a feminist, say you are a humanist. Why can’t i be all three at once?
    The other is that i’m afraid there are people out there that think it is enough to just call yourself a humanist….but don’t actually act in a way that is consistent with it. This bothers me because using the label gives the impression that i, or others, are active in any impactful way, when in fact we do very little…It’s a bit like saying you are a philanthropist because you taught your niece to tie her shoes.

  13. Athywren says

    I like to think of kitty-cats.
    Gorgeous little balls of playful fluff, driven by a psychopathic urge to rend little birdies limb from befeathered limb and offer up the gory remains as a present to the funny furless cats who share their meat jelly.
    We live in a cat-like world.
    Cats are the answer to everything.

    I think the good thing about the interplay between hope and rage is that, if we can somehow harness the two forces, being mutually opposed to one another, we could all create perpetual motion machines in our minds and solve the problem of carbon emissions almost overnight.

  14. Enkidum says

    Orwell’s essay Politics vs. Literature – An Examination of Gulliver’s Travel’s seems pertinent here:

    “Swift is a diseased writer. He remains permanently in a depressed mood which in most people is only intermittent, rather as though someone suffering from jaundice or the after-effects of influenza should have the energy to write books. But we all know that mood, and something in us responds to the expression of it. […] Swift falsifies his picture of the world by refusing to see anything in human life except dirt, folly and wickedness, but the part which he abstracts from the whole does exist, and it is something which we all know about while shrinking from mentioning it. Part of our minds — in any normal person it is the dominant part — believes that man is a noble animal and life is worth living: but there is also a sort of inner self which at least intermittently stands aghast at the horror of existence.[…] Swift is not actually inventing anything, he is merely leaving something out. Human behaviour, too, especially in politics, is as he describes it, although it contains other more important factors which he refuses to admit. So far as we can see, both horror and pain are necessary to the continuance of life on this planet, and it is therefore open to pessimists like Swift to say : ‘If horror and pain must always be with us, how can life be significantly improved?’ His attitude is in effect the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a ‘next world’ — which, however, probably has less hold upon the minds of believers than the conviction that this world is a vale of tears and the grave is a place of rest. It is, I am certain, a wrong attitude, and one which could have harmful effects upon behaviour; but something in us responds to it, as it responds to the gloomy words of the burial service and the sweetish smell of corpses in a country church.”

  15. says

    Despite its one mention of God, the poem Desiderata expresses what I think Nehru meant:

    With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

    We must not ignore life’s ugliness. Neither should we ignore its beauty.

  16. Tethys says

    I thought of Darwin and the ichneumonid wasps that horrified him so much

    Oddly enough, I find this entire family of wasps and their complex reproduction strategies to be a source of amazement and wonder. They are important beneficial insects who have very specific hosts such as aphids, and wood borers. Many of them feature metallic iridescent bodies and lovely patterns. They fascinate me in the same way that spiders do.

  17. says

    Ed Seedhouse @ 18 said he’s not hairy enough to excite gorilla ladies (on phone, HTML difficult): my response is, ‘Citation needed.’

    Have you collected the actual data, Ed? Maybe some gorilladies like their partners less hairy, but rarely get a chance to indulge their preference. You should apply for a grant.

  18. melw says

    It’s this beautiful, charming, adventurous world that affords us the luxuries of horror and disgust. If our lives were tougher, we’d be looking at that photo from the other day and saying “I bet that leech is 100% meat.”

  19. says

    I am not into nihilism in general, but I do like the nihilist aesthetic. The world is not full of anything in particular. It is neither beautiful nor ugly. There is beauty in the meaningless of it all, and ugliness in our imposition of subjective values onto everything. This is why I don’t like the humanist aesthetic, though I suppose it has nothing to do with whether humanism is correct.

  20. Dark Jaguar says

    I sometimes like to see the vast world and it’s pirate ships of opportunity on the curved horizon of freedom.

    Other times I kinda get into a “everything is probably bulltonk” funk.

    The latter generally doesn’t actually result in me taking action. Actually, neither does the former. I just sorta… exist in the lowest energy state I can manage (except death, I hate that stuff). I guess I’m lazy, and I want a quick and easy fix to that, but everyone tells me that doing hard work is the only way to get out of that, and talk about your catch 22! (No seriously, IS there some DSMV or whatever recognized mental disorder where one lacks the ability to act on their dreams? Is there a drug? I mean it!)

    But anyway, I am just a bit less hopeful on this whole “pendulum” thing. Generally people have their “beliefies” they like to hold and even if those shift, I think only the people who actually GOT the culture to shift actually really TRULY care about it, and everyone else just sorta kinda accepts it as a sort of cultural inertia, never actually thinking about WHY it’s wrong to murder people or keep slaves, it just sorta is. (Yes, they’re basically wrong, and I think I can put very simply why, but some don’t even seem to go that far.) I see numerous psychological studies showing just how terrible we humans are and how our own current moral values are actually constantly fighting with our own broken minds. Modern morals are good, certainly better than what we had in the past, but frankly the way our minds evolved is not really ideally set for such thinking, and it shows when, psychologically, we see debates as “fights” with a winner and a loser FAR more often than the ideal of two sides cooperating to get closer to the truth. I think it’s foolish that so many of our movements seem to disregard these experimental facts about how terrible we are in favor of just hoping as hard as they can that people will change their mind if we just shout loud enough (to be fair, I haven’t got a clue, and SOME aspect of our shouting does seem to be effective, I’m just not sure it’s working for the reasons we like to assume they are, and that people are changing to our position mostly out of taking the intellectual “path of least resistance” (whatever keeps me out of a nasty argument this Thanksgiving…). Heck, get an uncle drunk and prepare for a horrible racist rant that directly contradicts their “I hold people to be equals” speech they gave when the rest of the world was looking. Does that make it not worthwhile? Not at all. Even THAT is a step in the right direction, in that it prevents violent actions from being overlooked as easily.

    I have no idea what this rant comes to, except that I feel the human brain is the cause of all of life’s problems, and it may be best if we work towards our replacements. A next generation that thinks just plain “better” than us, so we can say “your turn” and finally shuffle off.

  21. 2kittehs says

    Athywren @17

    Cats are the answer to everything.


    Enkidum @18, I hadn’t read that Orwell piece, it’s very interesting. I’m inclined to agree with him.

    I don’t think of myself as a humanist (I still think of that name as applied to Erasmus et al) and I’m no atheist, but I’m of the same attitude to this as many people have already said: yes, the world has horrific and ugly things in it, and astonishing, beautiful things too. Though I’d apply heartbreaking to natural things, like some animal behaviour, or natural disasters, because that’s about empathy for the victims. It’s not ugly, to me. Ugly is for human behaviour.

  22. Alex says

    I don’t know… With atheist, I have the feeling I get to define the broader meaning and details of my worldview for myself, while the Humanist thing to me always has that aftertaste of joining some club with set rules which I might or might not like.