Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Why I don't describe myself as an atheist

If I am having a philosophical discussion with someone for the first time, and we are discussing worldviews, I tend not to use the word atheist to describe myself.

It's not that the term is inaccurate - my outlook on life does not include an omnipotent being shaping the affairs the universe - but summarizing my beliefs as an atheist is misleading in two ways: it does not provide any information about how I actually view the world, and it gives an wildly exaggerated prominence to a fictional character that plays little to no role in my life (except where the faith of others propels them to infringe on the rights of those who think or behave differently).

I do not deem atheist to be a pejorative term in any way. As far as it goes, it's accurate. But I strive to describe anything of significance by what it is, rather than what it isn't.

I describe myself as a humanist.

Humanity is subject to numerous constraints, largely determined by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, but within them we can collectively choose our own destiny. For example, we have collectively decided, explicitly or implicitly, to allow millions to starve, including many in wealthy nations, though we produce more than enough food to ensure no human being goes hungry.

We are responsible, as a species, for both the most breathtaking acts of beauty and altruism and the most reprehensible crimes of mass rape and genocide. It is we humans who determine how our societies are structured. Our political and economic institutions are of our making, and in many ways are arbitrary. Good and bad, civilized and barbarous, humans are responsible for how we live our lives and how we treat each other.

It is precisely my belief that human life is fragile and limited to a mere century (at best) that makes every day precious and gives the lives of others value. It is precisely my belief that there are no reprises of existence that I strive to live an examined, informed, and ethical life. It is precisely my belief that only we have constructed our various societies and cultures that informs my sense of responsibility for my words and actions. It is precisely my belief that there is no greater power serving as a safety net to protect us from our self-destructive behaviours that impels me to care about the environment, to improve the world we live in, and raise my children such that they are aware of the community the live in and that their actions have consequences for both good and ill.

There is no fate, no destiny, no universal plan, and no guarantee that anything will turn out a certain way. This is why our decisions and actions matter: they are the only way we can change our world - almost certainly the only world that exists - for the better.

I do not describe myself as a non-astrologer, anti-sorcerer, or a-dragonist, though astrology, sorcery, and dragons play no role in my life beyond history, literature, and entertainment (I am enjoying reading The Hobbit to my children, in which the latter two imaginary creatures play prominent roles). But negative descriptions (what one is not) provide no insight into or understanding about who a person is. Why would I give any sort of theism a prominence in my self-description that it doesn't play in my life?


  1. I describe myself either as a Bokononist (nod to Vonnegut) or a Humanist. My definition of being a humanist is "I try to do the right thing without expectation of reward or punishment at the end."

  2. Is it possible to have a person who is a religious humanist? Eg a person who believes in certain religious worldview while conducts himself in this life base on evidence, reason etc.

    1. Yes, questioner, I do think it's possible. A devout Muslim may abstain from alcohol and an Orthodox Jew may refrain from eating shellfish, and still live in accordance with humanist principles. The two key principles are:

      1) How believers act on the tenets of their faith - whether they feel the rules and strictures of their religion apply only to them personally, or to society overall; and
      2) Whether people outside the faith community are considered to be as equal members of society.

      Being sincerely devout and genuinely humanist in life is rare combination, in my experience.

      What is common are people living effectively as humanists (though they rarely would describe themselves as such) who consider themselves belonging ancestrally, culturally, or as part of the community of a particular religion. Such people tend to embrace those religious precepts that overlap with humanist values (empathy, charity, contribution to the common good) while rejecting edicts based solely on what is written in their holy book (such as evangelizing, demonization of homosexuals, attempting to ban family planning education and access to birth control, etc.). They consider the "important" parts of the faith to be the ones that instruct followers to treat fellow human beings with respect and dignity, while the "unimportant" aspects are cheerfully ignored or discarded. Doing so (i.e, behaving as a humanist would) only enhances their sense of being a good Christian/Hindu/Muslim/Jew.