Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Agnostic about Humanism

I don't really like labels.

Why do I have to be "a Liberal" rather than "a Tory", "an atheist" rather than "a Christian?" I prefer to think in terms of my stance on individual issues - politically I usually agree with the Greens, and often with the Socialists, but I disagree with both platforms in some cases, and sometimes even (gasp!) agree with a right winger. So my vote goes to whichever party in a given election best represents my attitude towards the issues I deem most important at that time. (It's a shame, because other than effectively having to be part of a specific political party, politics sounds like a decent career option for me).

Labels can sometimes be useful though. (Even the "anti-label" label doesn't fit me all the time). They're a short-cut, a way to describe the essence of my views without spending too much time on lengthy explanations.

As I've written before, I've labelled myself in the past as an agnostic, and then later as an atheist. People (well, most people) understand what both those terms mean. If the conversation develops, then you can get into more detail, but often it's just a brief question and answer from a casual acquaintance (e.g. at a recent baby shower: "How about you? Do you go to church?" "No, I'm an atheist." "Oh...." (lengthy pause) "these mini quiches are great, aren't they?"). However, the term that fits me best is the mixed-label "agnostic atheist". What I mean by this is that in the absence of any evidence for the existence of gods, I'm fairly convinced that they don't exist; but I accept that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, that I can't ever know for certain, and that I will change my mind if evidence arises. Try dropping that into casual conversation though.

More recently, I've started reading a little about Humanism. It's come up in conversation a couple of times recently with agnostic/atheist friends who self-identify as Humanists, so I thought I'd better investigate.

From Wikipedia:

Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appealing to universal human qualities, particularly rationality, without resorting to the supernatural or alleged divine authority from religious texts. It is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems. Humanism can be considered as a process by which truth and morality is sought through human investigation and as such views on morals can change when new knowledge and information is discovered. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.
From the British Humanist Association:

Humanism is an approach to life based on humanity and reason – humanists recognise that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone and that the aims of morality should be human welfare, happiness and fulfillment. Our decisions are based on the available evidence and our assessment of the outcomes of our actions, not on any dogma or sacred text.

Humanism is a naturalistic view, encompassing atheism and agnosticism as responses to theistic claims, but is an active and ethical philosophy far greater than these reactions to religion.
Humanists believe in individual rights and freedoms, but believe that individual responsibility, social cooperation and mutual respect are just as important.
Humanists believe that people can and will continue to find solutions to the world's problems, so that quality of life can be improved for everyone.
Humanists are positive, gaining inspiration from our lives, art and culture, and a rich natural world.

The difficulty for me is that while I agree with all of the above, it's hitting me on a purely intellectual level. It makes perfect sense to me. BUT it's not reaching out of the page and grabbing me by the throat, it's not punching me in the gut and making me shout "YES! This is what I've been looking for my whole life!"

So am I a Humanist? (And does that word require capitalisation? Usage differs...) Luckily the British Humanist Association website has a quiz, imaginatively titled "Are you a Humanist?"

I took it. I got about 60-70% Ds, the rest were Cs. For some questions, I agreed with answers C and D equally.

From the answer key:

All or mostly Cs: Your answers are fairly neutral, perhaps a bit dependent on authority or other people or pure emotion. Humanists try to think, and to think for themselves. You may be an agnostic or a humanist or vaguely religious, depending on what your other answers were.

All or mostly Ds: You are a humanist or very close to humanist thinking. Many people are, often without even knowing it! Humanists don't agree about everything, and you may have collected some other answers too, though if they include As and Bs you’re unlikely to be a humanist.

So... I guess I might be a Humanist. But then again, I might not.

Yeah, I know, it doesn't matter. It's just another label. I'm not planning to join any groups or attend any meetings anyway. But for some reason, I'd like to know.

I'm only human, after all, even if I'm not (necessarily) a Humanist.


  1. I got the same result as you. Not my fault I think animals are cute, fluffy and nicer than people. Dr R's promised me a trip to see lambs at the weekend, can't get more adorable than that now can you.

    I find that people are very disagreeable when it comes to labels that they do not understand or agree with. I'm still trying to explain to the folks why it was not appropriate for me to send my cousins baby a christening present gift but they don't 'get it'. I've just given up answering any question that seeks to determine my religion or lack thereof because it is no one's business and the only reason they want that information is to judge me so they can sod off!

  2. hm, I am not sure that I am that adverse to Humanism myself... although I do believe in God so I guess I am out of there? (maybe Cs?)

    Seriously though, I don't think the church question is that interesting (apart from here in the South where it seems to be a fairly common question since"eveyone" goes to church - if not in the scientific world and more females than male).

    Anyhow, I would say that the key thing is to ask "do you believe in something apart from ourselves?" and/or "what do you belive happens after death" - but then again, I am interested in discussing things and hearing other peoples' views. That might not be the case at baby showers ( or other less private conversations) ;)

  3. Propter, I think that was one of the questions where I agreed with C and D about equally ;)

    Yep, it's a touchy subject, I totally understand why you would want to avoid it. I've been lucky enough not to have had any major issues (most of my friends are family are, at most, very weakly religious), and I have to admit it can sometimes be quite fun to ruffle someone's feathers IF I'm pretty sure they're not going to freak out or go off on me. It's surprisingly rare to hear people I know to be agnostic/atheist actually use either A word when meeting new acquaintances - most people I know use "I'm not really religious", but I think that people (especially religious people) need to know that we exist and are just normal human beings who go to baby showers, rather than eating babies.

    Chall, the life after death question on the quiz was one where I was quite strongly D (I will live on in people's memories or because of the work I have done or through my children) rather than C (that will be the end of me). I know it sounds tragic and geeky, but I like the idea of my papers living on in the records long after I'm gone, and even after all my friends and family and anyone else who remembers me are gone too... (not that I think anyone will be reading my papers by then, but at least they'll be there).

    The other "big one" - something more than ourselves - if you mean something supernatural, then, no. But if you mean a collective spirit / accomplishments / achievement, something like that (tribal memory...?) then, yeah, I guess so... I do think that humans are capable of some quite amazing things, and that any individual's achievements reflect in some small way on the whole species. But likewise the propensity of individuals and groups of humans for violence and cruelty.

    The one thing that I really didn't like about the quiz was the answer key for "mostly Cs", specifically "Your answers are fairly neutral, perhaps a bit dependent on authority or other people or pure emotion. Humanists try to think, and to think for themselves."

    There's nothing wrong with mixing a bit of emotion into your thinking, IMO... some of my most important decisions (moving to Vancouver, for example) were mostly gut (emotional) decisions rather than cerebral ones.

    Does any of this make any sense?!!

  4. Short version: one problem I have with Humanism is that they seem to hold a rather utopian ideal of what it is to be human. Our species has some very positive characteristics, but also some very negative ones too.

    Maybe I'm a Bonoboist.

  5. I don't like _any_ of these labels. I mostly say "I'm not religious", because I didn't even learn the word "atheist" until I was 15 or so and thought "Oh! It has a NAME!". As a kid I thought I had a religion that was called "public" because I went to "public school" and the "public library".
    But sometimes there are check boxes and there is no "no religion" or "n/a" (or "public") and I have to pick between "atheist" and "agnostic" and "humanist" and I just don't quite know. It isn't really any of those either. The entire question is just not applicable to my life at all.

    I like "secular", ever since I found out that the guy who coined it (Holyoake) did not mean to imply absense of religion but just that some issues and questions are completely unrelated to religion. Like my entire life. Or like when someone says "Science Minister, what do you think of evolution?" - but that's a whole different story...

  6. OK, I'm gonna call myself a Public from now on. It's better than saying "agnostic atheist with some humanist sympathies, but then again maybe not".

    THe science minister is just a national embarrassment.

  7. You may never find the definition that you are looking for. I think any label sooner or later becomes restrictive. I sort of like the idea underlying that simplistic facebook application (the "political compass"), where we are all identified as points in an n-dimensional space (for drawing purposes only two axes are used, but maybe more of them would be necessary).
    Point is, each person is unique -- we may overlap to some extent but eventually differences come out. This is why the notion of a political party in which everyone thinks the same way and votes the same way is so distasteful to many of us.

  8. Very wise words, Massimo! I'll stick with "godless lefty", which encompasses a whole heap of diversity on just about any issue.

    A political version of the pie-chart-esque personality test would indeed be very interesting.

  9. A very interesting post, and here's my late disjointed comment.

    I've also hated labels most of my life, and still seem to straddle many labels, political and otherwise. Even so, I labeled myself an atheist a long time ago just because I found it would shut people up from trying to convert me to their religion. My actual, current views are too complicated and personal, though, to discuss on blogs.

    I score B's, C's, and D's, more C's and D's. Some of the answers are a little strange. I like this one in particular: When I look at a beautiful view I think that …
    B) it would be a nice place for a motorway.


  10. I hope you didn't score a B on that one!

    Like you say, a label can serve a useful purpose. Sometimes.

  11. "Your request could not be processed. Please try again."

    Why not?

    J. Nernoff III

  12. No idea. What were you trying to do?

  13. Personaly I hate the term humanist. It feels so small, so local. I mean the things I care about are larger/more universal then that. Truth and Beauty, and I would give up my humanity for them in a heart beet. I guess in some ways its my same critasism of trans-humanism. The universe is a big diverse place and where we are right now is just one spall piece. No less beautiful for that but just one piece. I guess I feel that the night sky would still be beautiful if no was there to watch, and that seeing the world as it is *more* important then happyness or satifaction, or any other emotion.

  14. nolrai, thank you for that - it's the best argument against (or indeed about) humanism that I've heard or read so far!

    Universalism, anyone?

  15. while reading the March 17 - 31, 2009 post and comments about Humanism I recognized some of the same concerns and questions I had when I first
    became interested in Humanism.
    It should be pointed out that any Humanist holds a very large umbrella, and under that umbrella you will, in addition to Humanism, find Naturalism, Materialism, Atheism, Skepticism, and Freethought. Other ism's can probably be added to the list! In addition there are Christian Humanists who do not believe in God, but believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ.
    It is important that Humanism stands on it's own and not just as the negation of something else. A Humanist should express why he or she is for Humanism, not why he or she is against, as an example, Christianity.
    I'm recommending some books covering each of the ism's above. I have read all of these books several times and have lost count of the times I have opened them to check chapters and passages.
    1. Embracing the Power of Humanism
    by Paul Kurtz (Philosopher and founder of Council for
    Secular Humanism)
    2. Encountering Naturalism
    by Thomas W. Clark (His websites: naturalism.org and centerfornaturalism.org are great. Many very good articles)
    3. Materialism
    by Richard C. Vitzthum
    4. Atheist Manifesto
    by Michel Onfray (France's leading philosopher and the founder of the Free University of Caen)
    5. Spirituality for the Skeptic
    by Robert C. Solomon (Late professor of philosophy at the University of Texas)
    6. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
    by Andre Comte-Sponville (French philosopher).
    This little book has three chapters: Can we do without religion? Does God exist? and Can there be an Atheist Spirituality? You might read
    something similar to the first two chapters in other books or articles. The third chapter will definitely get your attention. It is just magnificent!!!
    7. Freethinkers
    by Susan Jacoby (Author of many other books and a Pulitzer Prize finalist)

    Please also read Humanist Manifesto I (1933), II (1973) and III (2003). Reading all three will aid in understanding the changing thoughts about exactly what Humanism is and should be. All are available, for free, on americanhumanist.org (American Humanist Association).
    In addition Paul Kurtz drafted Humanist Manifesto 2000. A call for a new Planetary Humanism. (76 page booklet).

    I hope this short list will be of help. In my humble opinion they are the best of the many I have read. Please share your thoughts with me.

    Be well.

  16. Thanks for that - a lot of reading there! I'll see what my library has in stock and try to work my way through as many as possible!


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