Friday, December 21, 2012


On Conceptions of Humanism, Freethought, Atheism, Rationalism, Skepticism, etc.


By Norm R. Allen Jr.


For many atheists, atheism means much more than simply “without a belief in God or gods.” For many freethinkers, freethought means much more than thinking about religion unencumbered by the confines of religious dogma.

Word definitions evolve, so it is not surprising that such terms can expand in meaning. However, what has become problematic is that many non-theists insist that there can only be strict, narrow definitions for non-theists, and that there is only one way to be a true atheist, humanist, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, etc.

One of the biggest challenges facing organized non-theists is that many of them believe that every conception of non-theism must have some social justice component. This is problematic. After all, there are obviously different kinds of religionists. Some of them focus on charity, conservative politics and activism, etc. Others focus on social justice and progressive politics and activism, etc. They have disagreed among themselves about practically everything - slavery, women’s rights, LGBT rights, civil rights, gun control, abortion, birth control, euthanasia, etc. However, they are all theists. If theists that believe in an infallible God with perfect knowledge and wisdom can disagree among themselves, certainly non-theists that know better can disagree among themselves.

Some people are especially insistent that there can only be one way to be a humanist, for example. Longtime humanist activist Barry Seidman defines humanism so narrowly that only a libertarian socialist (or anarcho-socialist) can be truly said to be a humanist. Some humanists believe that genuine humanism inevitably leads to socialism. Others believes only capitalists can be true humanists.

Among African American non-theists, the situation is even more complicated. The Black Atheists of Atlanta are Afrocentric. They believe that any organization with the word “Black” in it has to be all Black. White people should not feel welcome at such gatherings. Furthermore, the Black Atheists of Atlanta believe that it is dishonest and misleading for a Black organization to be welcoming of Whites.

Most people do not agree with the Black Atheists of Atlanta on this point. For this Atlanta group, Black atheists must necessarily be reactionary and Afrocentric. However, rather than simply having such a narrow conception of atheism, they could do everyone a huge favor. Rather than calling themselves the Black atheists, they could call themselves the Afrocentric atheists, the African-centered atheists, the Black militant atheists, the Black nationalist atheists, or something along those lines. That way people would know whether they want to approach the group, and they would have at least some idea as to what the group represents.

There are other groups throughout the world that understand this. The Black Panthers were clearly secular, and they promoted “revolutionary humanism.” India has the Radical Humanist Association. In the U.S., many atheists are attracted to the Atheism Plus movement.

Those groups that are primarily interested in promoting atheism, freethought, skepticism and rationalism should have wording in their title if they plan to go far beyond atheism, freethought, skepticism, and rationalism. It wards off confusion and saves everyone a lot of disappointment.

The term humanist causes a lot of confusion among non-theists. Many humanists focus primarily on atheism, freethought, and rationalism. However, politically, they rend to be liberal or progressive. This causes much consternation among conservatives, libertarians and others that attend humanist gatherings. Yet unlike most of the other terms that non-theists use to describe themselves, humanism means a belief in humanity, and implies caring and concern for human beings, which usually translates into support for progressive social, political and economic programs. Conservatives, libertarians, and others might want to exercise caution when considering becoming involved with a humanist organization.

Many non-theists are simply interested in promoting non-theism. They are not interested in promoting progressive politics, extending charity to their fellow human beings, etc. They simply want to engage in reasoned debates on the existence of God, write and speak about atheism, rationalism and freethought, etc.

Others are interested in promoting mere atheism, freethought, skepticism, and atheism within groups dedicated to such pursuits. They acknowledge that to focus to a great extent on social justice, for example, would alienate many non-theists that might not want to go down that road. They understand that trying to organize freethinkers is like herding cats, and that becoming overly political would decrease their numbers. Yet these non-theists are heavily involved in social justice pursuits in other secular organizations that have social justice as their chief objective.

There is nothing wrong with this. Not everyone is an activist, and not all non-theists are progressive. There is no one-size-fits-all garment for non- theists. Those that are not activists or progressive still have a lot to contribute to the stock of the world’s ideas, and they should feel welcome to do so.

On the other hand, it is important to recognize the important activists among non-theists that have contributed greatly to humanity. The great non-theist Periyar of India was one of his nation’s leading social reformers. The Atheist Center in India has been known more for charity, fighting for women’s rights and providing medical care for the poor, than for the promotion of atheism. Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), founded by Jim Christopher of Los Angeles, has helped rehabilitate thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts throughout the world.

It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round, and it takes all kinds of non-theists to make non-theism more attractive to the masses. Let everyone do their own part in their own way.


© Institute for Science and Human Values