April 30, 2018

Atheism, Skepticism, Freethought, and Humanism

woman identity
Although I am not planning to end this blog in the near future, I have been giving some thought lately to the question of what else I'd like to write about before doing so. For example, I recently asked myself what posts I'd like to write if I knew I was going to stop blogging in a month. To my surprise, all sorts of things came up. For whatever reason, facing that question make me realize that I do still have some things to say in this space.

This post deals with one of them: I'd like to take a stab at briefly expressing my thoughts on atheism, skepticism, freethought, and secular humanism. These are all aspects of my identity, though some are more important than others. This is true even though I have to acknowledge that I am a bit conflicted about one of them.

Atheism

I'm an atheist. That means I don't believe in gods, and that's all it means. It doesn't mean I'm 100% certain that no gods of any sort have ever existed, currently might exist, or could exist at some point in the future. I'm not 100% certain of any of this, and this is why I sometimes refer to myself as an agnostic atheist. I do not claim to know with certainty that gods do not exist; however, I think it is probable that they do not.

Compared to everything else I'll mention below, atheism contributes little to my identity. In fact, I have long suspected that the size of the contribution of atheism to my identity is proportional to the manner in which others treat me because of my atheism. Since I live in a region of the U.S. where evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is the norm, I suspect that atheism is a more important aspect of my identity than it would be if I lived in a marginally religious region or country.

Skepticism

I'm a skeptic, not in any absolute sense that might be interpreted as being equally skeptical of everything at all times but in the sense that I approach claims with a degree of skepticism and doubt proportionate to the nature of the claims. When presented with a claim about the nature of reality, I seek evidence sufficient to support the claim. If I find none, I assume that the claim is unlikely to be true. If sufficient evidence is later presented, I change my position.

Compared to atheism, which can be thought of as one consequence of my skepticism, skepticism is more difficult and requires an ongoing commitment to recognize and work against my biases. There are times when I am too skeptical and times when I am not skeptical enough. This inevitably leads to mistakes. And I am certainly not free from the sort of errors and lapses of rationality that plague others. Thus, skepticism is more of an aspirational thing than something I could ever claim to have mastered. For this reason, it rarely troubles me to discover that many atheists are not skeptics outside of religious matters.

Freethought

I strive to be a freethinker; however, I am quick to acknowledge that this is even more difficult and more aspirational than skepticism. The part of freethought I find somewhat easier is the notion that we should evaluate truth claims through evidence and reason rather than all the classic alternatives (e.g., authority, dogma, gut feelings). The part I find far more challenging is the rejection of tribalism, the refusal to go along to get along, and the resulting isolation. But perhaps the most difficult part of all is that freethought requires even more of a commitment to constantly examining one's beliefs in a critical manner and resisting the pull of various ideologies. This is something I have to work on every day.

As much as I might wish that more atheists would pursue freethought, I recognize that this is not realistic. Freethought is difficult for many of the same reasons skepticism is difficult, but it adds its own challenges with regard to tribalism and the social consequences for rejecting blind conformity and refusing to go along with various tribes.

Secular Humanism

Of all these labels, this is the one I am most conflicted about. We can get the easy part out of the way quickly, however. I am secular in two ways. Most obviously, I am secular in that I am not religious. Most importantly, I am secular in the sense that I am deeply committed to not just preserving the separation of church and state but to expanding it. That is, I want a taller and thicker wall between the two (and I'd like Mexico to pay for it).

The humanist part is where the conflict arises. On one hand, I've yet to see a definition of humanism that I didn't think applied to me. There are parts of many definitions I'm not crazy about, but I'm far more likely to recognize myself in these definitions than not. Some of you might guess that the source of my conflict has something to do with the inclusion of social justice in many definitions of humanism, but this is not the case. I support social justice, and this is why I object to social justice warriorism, which I see undermining social justice and turning people away from social justice goals.

The source of my conflict with humanism comes down to two things. First, I am not a happy, positive person who is "in love with life" in the way some definitions of humanism describe. That just isn't me, and I don't think it ever has been. I'm far more of a pessimist, and remaining positive is often a struggle even when things are going reasonably well. Second, I often think that I'm a bit too much of a misanthrope to be a humanist. I don't really hate people, but I don't seem to like most of them very much either. Humanism fits me fairly well in an abstract sense, and it is impossible to deny that I am most fulfilled when I am helping others and working for the good of humanity. And yet, I can't pretend that I genuinely enjoy being around others most of the time.

I suppose I'm an ambivalent humanist. While that might not fit my sense of what a humanist is supposed to be very well, I do see myself in the definitions. This may be one of those cases where I need to accept this fit because to refuse to do so would involve the denial of reality. At least, that is what the freethinker in me would probably say.