It is not uncommon for people to use atheism and secular humanism interchangeably. Both are vociferously condemned by the faithful; it is not clear that they know the difference. Atheism has little philosophical content. We humans come into the world as atheists; newborns are atheists until taught something else. Some atheists don’t really care about the philosophical fine points; they just haven’t developed a belief. But among adults who arrive at atheism through thought, atheism is born out of extensive philosophical inquiry.
Atheists as individuals have a multitude of philosophical positions, including political and social ones. They are united only in their failure to believe there to be a supernatural force that can, in whatever varieties, be called a god or gods. “Atheism” announces not what one believes, but what one does not. Arguably, it is a silly practice to define oneself by what one is not—just as if we all proclaimed we are a-Easterbunnyists and a-Toothfairyists. Well, it would be unnecessary except in an environment where the majority is adamantly theistic, sometimes militantly so.
Secular humanism, on the other hand, does have specific content. It is normally combined with atheism, but its “soul” is a belief in human beings as their own “salvation,” resulting in an ethics-centered “dogma” free of the foolishness contained in all religious moral codes. Its thesis goes something like this:
We have no reason to believe in supernatural forces that dictate how we should live and what mysteries explain the universe. We are, so far as we now know, alone and dependent on ourselves, not on some guessed-at power in the sky, and certainly not on ancient texts with questionable provenance. Therefore, as responsible beings, we must develop ethical principles to guide how we live and especially how we treat each other. We abhor what religion has repeatedly enabled religious people to do to others in the name of their faiths. We despair over the detrimental effect religion has had, and continues to have, on morality. (I will back up that statement in a later blog post.)
That is the core of secular humanism. Its very name is self-explanatory. It is not essentially a campaign against other beliefs and it is not a product of the devil. If it is flawed, we secular humanists are to blame, not somebody’s Beelzebub. If from time to time it appears to war with religion, it is because religion seems constitutionally driven to denigrate secular humanism just as it belittles any philosophy or religion outside itself, even by minor variations.
Of course, secular humanists are as intrigued by what makes our reality work as anyone, we just don’t have the fallback position that “God did it,” a position that resolves nothing while clothing our ignorance in what appears to be an answer. We find no evidence for a God, much less the extensively described characteristics which religions spell out in detail. We are enthusiastic supporters of the scientific method.
The value of secular humanism is its stark honesty about our human position in the universe—at least as much of our position as evidence reveals—and its equally unadorned acceptance of our responsibility in the matter. Like atheism, it does not claim to know there is no supernatural, just that should there be a supernatural, it is just that, supernatural and for now unattainable to us natural beings. We’ve no excuse to blame our condition on the phantasms of ancient peoples nor to await divine solution from the imagined beyond.
Secular humanism is not religion, but it is a philosophy of life with more carefully defined ethics/morality, less superstitious contamination, and a more responsible interpersonal and intercultural approach to human beings living together on an increasingly crowded planet.
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