April 16, 2007

Secular Humanist First, Atheist Second

English: Happy human, a secular humanist logo ...
English: Happy human, a secular humanist logo made in blender quick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am an atheist, but I am also a secular humanist. In fact, I sometimes feel like I am an atheist in part because this is where secular humanism led me. Technically, I suppose that would not be a correct assertion. I realized I did not believe in gods prior to learning about secular humanism. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that my connection to atheism is largely rational while my connection to secular humanism is both rational and emotional. That is, I have a certain fondness for secular humanism that I do not have for atheism. Does that make sense?

I focus this blog on criticizing religion and other forms of irrational belief, with Christian extremism spending the most time in my crosshairs. And while I do focus on atheism more than humanism, it is time to give secular humanism more of the attention it deserves.

What is Secular Humanism?

Secular humanism is much broader than atheism and entails many things that atheism does not. This will be easy to grasp if you remember that atheism refers to nothing more than the lack of belief in any sort of gods. So what is secular humanism?
 

According to Paul Kurtz, "Humanism is an ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook" which can be traced "back to the philosophers and poets of ancient Greece and Rome, Confucian China, and the Charvaka movement in classical India." Humanism is an optimistic stance, entailing "confidence in the power of human beings to solve their own problems and conquer uncharted frontiers." We humanists believe that reason, science, and technology can benefit humanity and seek to promote their growth.

Secular humanism also entails scientific naturalism. That is, secular humanists are naturalists who reject the existence spiritual/supernatural entities because there is no evidence for any such entities. We maintain that reason is the path to knowledge and that faith has absolutely nothing to do with knowledge. It is not a different way of knowing because it is not a way of knowing at all - it has no bearing on knowledge.

Ethically, secular humanism has something important to offer too. Our ethics are derived from reason rather than superstition. We recognize that some of the core ethical precepts (e.g., the "Golden Rule") predate Christianity, and we do not see this as a problem. We apply reason and science in evaluating and shaping our vales.

In the political realm, secular humanists seek to foster democracy. We value human rights and believe that such rights apply to all humans. Thus, we are committed to humanity and are unlikely to get caught up in the idiocy of patriotism to the point that it blinds us to global issues. We strive to promote human dignity and respect, and we find that inherently divisive religious dogma is more of a hindrance here than an asset.

Why Does Secular Humanism Come First?

If you ask me why I am an atheist, the core of any response I will give you is that my application of reason and science gives me no reason whatsoever to accept the theistic belief claim (i.e., that any sort of god or gods exist). But why do I believe that reason and science are valid ways of acquiring knowledge while blind faith is not? This takes us to secular humanism.

Even if I respond by telling you that I do not believe because belief is harmful, skillful questioning will inevitably lead me to stating the value that I believe that it is healthier to embrace reality rather than superstition. Again, this is secular humanism. In this way, I am an atheist because I am a secular humanist. Applying the principles of secular humanism leads me to atheism.

This does not diminish the value of atheism in any way; however, it does highlight the need for recognition that atheism alone is not a sufficient worldview. This should come as no surprise to anyone who recognizes that atheism really isn't a worldview or a belief system at all. Secular humanism is a belief system and a worldview, one that includes atheism.

The Real Value of Secular Humanism

Secular humanism is optimistic, but this optimism is rooted in reality. Unlike the naive optimism associated with some religions, secular humanists are optimistic about human capabilities and realize that the responsibility rests solely with us to improve our world. We wait for no rapture, nirvana, or 72 virgins (not that I'd turn down 72 virgins, mind you). We take on the problems facing humanity ourselves and realize that our successes or failures will determine the outcome. This is both humbling and empowering at the same time.

We have reason and science on our side. We have common sense and education on our side. We are secular because this is where reason takes us. We welcome an interaction between science and values and have no need to constrain progress or discriminate against others based on the ambiguous words in some ancient book. We are vibrant, passionate, and living in harmony with reality. Secular humanism is to be celebrated. It is time to get the word out.

To learn more about secular humanism, visit the Council for Secular Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

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