Humanism Not Atheism

Four HorsemenI came upon a short video conversation from a couple of years ago between Andrew Brown and Daniel Dennett. They are both atheists. But Dennett is a New Atheist and Brown is what I’ve always called an old atheist. This is what I am too. I’m just not interested in converting anyone. I don’t believe in God in the same way that I don’t believe in fairies. But I don’t especially care that other people do believe in fairies. Where religion becomes dangerous is where it becomes political. And as we know from the history of the anti-choice movement in this country, the religion isn’t really what’s important. It’s just a cultural signifier. The politics come first and the religion is used to justify those politics.

But I learned this New Atheist term for my kind of belief: “atheist but.” This is based upon people like me saying, “I’m an atheist, but I don’t care if other people believe in God.” In the conversation, Dennett is highly presumptuous. He claims that such atheists are saying that the “little people” need the fantasy of God and so should be allowed to have it. Brown counters that this is not his position. Among his Christian friends, everyone knows the arguments for and against God and there is no reason to argue about it.

Dennett then gets into a blatantly bigoted tangent about how good churches do harm by giving cover for the bad churches. Brown harmmers him on the issue by turning it around: does that mean that good atheists are worse than bad atheists because the good atheists give the bad atheists ideological cover? I think it is better to think about it in terms of race. Do African Americans who feed the poor do harm by making it seem like there aren’t African American murderers? What’s most offensive about Dennett’s statement is that he implicitly equates all religions: a Christian is a Muslim is a Jain. This is the kind of ignorant hubris that so defines the New Atheist movement.

Brown wrote an article about the conversation, I’m an Atheist but… I Won’t Try to Deconvert Anyone. And in it, he gets right to the heart of this issue of hubris. Even Richard Dawkins admits when it comes right down to it, he is an agnostic. He doesn’t know that God doesn’t exist. But he is as certain of it as he is of anything. I suspect that Dennett believes the same thing. So why the utter hostility toward religious people?

If atheists are against anyone, it should be those who wish to push their religious doctrine onto our secular society. There certainly are a lot of religious people who want to do just that. But my experience is that most religious people do not want to do this. My main interactions with religious people are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they don’t even believe in voting. I’m really pleased about that! I fear the active aggression of the New Atheists are most likely to make the religious loons more active politically. I don’t think this is offset by more people admitting to their religious doubts — which is all that I think is happening with the growing number of “nones.”

But it isn’t just about organized religion. As I’ve discussed before, there are a lot of New Atheists who are like Tracie Harris. They think that the tepid thinking of New Age people act as some kind of a threat to society. But does it? Isn’t such intolerance toward anyone who isn’t an atheist just another form of tribalism? Whether someone believes in Allah or Yahweh or the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t matter to me. I’m interested in more important matters.

Ultimately, I am a humanist. To me, that implies atheism. It also implies allowing others what I consider their minor delusions. But the interesting thing is that I know “spiritual” and even Christian people who are actually humanist. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is humanist. And I know atheists who are most clearly not humanists. If I’m going to get tribal, I’m going to do it with humanism, not atheism. Last weekend, Ted McLaughlin published some data on religion. And it showed that only 33% of Americans look to religion on issues of right and wrong. That’s in a nation that is roughly 75% Christian. Clearly there are a lot of “religious” Americans who aren’t very religious.

As a tribal identification, atheism is uninspiring. And it isn’t surprising that one of the biggest outgrowths of the New Atheist movement has been Islamophobia. Humanism leads us in a better direction.

17 thoughts on “Humanism Not Atheism

  1. Being religious means ignoring God in my opinion. It is having faith in a structure rather than a divine being. But then again, while I am Christian in my flavor of God, I am not much for paying attention to religion outside of the historical parts of it so for instance I can talk about the break with Rome by Henry VIII, I cannot talk about St. “I got to be a slut but you better behave or else” Augustine’s teachings.

    I think you are right about it being a tribal thing though. Or an “in crowd.” However you want to slice it. It should not make anyone angry that a person believes in God if that person is not being rude about it and trying to convert you. But it does. If someone wants to be angry that a Dominionist like Sam Brownback is forcing his beliefs on others-that makes sense but some random person saying “yes, I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior” should not make anyone so angry that they feel the need to put down that person.

    • There are many atheists who believe that. I was happy to see that Hemant Mehta made a video about that. But then later, he was going on about the same garbage. It isn’t enough to patronize religious people who aren’t evil. I am an atheist, not an antitheist. I really just don’t care. I’m a “skeptic” as well, but it is harder and harder to associate myself with certain kinds of atheism.

  2. “one of the biggest outgrowths of the New Atheist movement has been Islamophobia”

    That’s a broadbrush accusation without any foundation, it seems to me.

    When I look at the US governors or presidential candidates saying “no Muslim immigrants”, they’re not people influenced by New Atheism. They ally themselves with Christian leaders, often fundamentalists. When I argue with people online who say “all Muslims are bad” or “Islam should be abolished in the USA, and it’s not even a religion, just evil”, they’re right wing supporters of other religions.

    I don’t see that Tracie Harris’s cartoon was about “some kind of a threat to society” or “intolerance”, either. Yes, it criticises the use of ‘spiritual’ as tepid, but the leap between that and “a threat to society” seems to be yours, not hers.

    That only 33% of Americans look mostly to religion for ideas of right and wrong is welcome, though that’s up from 29% in 2007 (up for all faiths except Hinduism):

    • I didn’t take that the way you did, as Islamophobia is caused by New Atheism. Rather, that it’s something New Atheists jollily jumped on board with. Which, to me, has always been bizarre. “I hate irrational faith, and the harm it does to society/individuals. However, since Islam is the worst of them, I’ll support American Republicans who are staunch religious extremists, as they promise to properly hate all the Muslims!”

      I mean, that’s the position of Harris and Hitchens. What sense does it make? Even if one finds Islam a global cancer (and if it were, I think we would have seen it sometime in the fifteen centuries before 2001), what exactly do they propose we do about it? They seem to be taking their cue from WWII, where Russia (with important logistical support from the US) defeated Germany. Hooray, Nazism was beaten (although fascism wasn’t, it’s alive and well, and some of its strongest supporters are in the American GOP.) Are we supposed to conquer the entire Middle East and wipe out Islam through sheer force? Should we do Indonesia next? What do we do with people who refuse to reject the faith of their traditional heritage? Kill them?

      It’s not just a mad recipe for geopolitics, it’s also completely impossible. As we’ve seen, America’s efforts as conquering one German-sized country (Iraq) in order to convert them to the liberating, revolutionary magic of capitalism has turned a largely secular nation into a breeding coop for fundamentalist lunatics and millions upon millions of refugees fleeing the lunatics. In terms of sheer stupidity, it’s proved to be maybe the dumbest idea since . . . what can we even compare it to? The Hundred Years’ war seems sensible next to this. It’s going to fuck up two continents (at least) for the foreseeable future. It’s been a strategic and humanitarian disaster.

      And the New Atheists were thrilled by it from the start. Of course, they didn’t create Islamophobia. But, boy, they thought it was brilliant. That joke I made about capitalism being revolutionary, it’s straight from Hitchens. Who thought his new fans in the Bush White House would unleash magic deregulated markets on Iraq and boy, wouldn’t the secularism roll in. Eventually, I suppose he assumed, not only triumphing over all Islam in the Middle East, but showing how Greed Is Good trumps all faiths, thereby delivering the once-and-for-ever knockout blow to religion everywhere.

      How is this any different from ISIS or al-Quida wingnuts believing one coordinated terror attack will somehow start the dominoes falling and create the Great Caliphate? (It is different in one very significant way; we’ve killed hundreds of thousands more people than they have. Although at this point both sets of lunacy feed the other and it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins in terms of moral responsibility, we have more bits of shrapnel in dead bodies than they do. By a huge margin.)

      Sorry to rant so angrily about this, but I’m angry. And no, New Atheists didn’t create it. They did support it, intellectual guns-a-blazin’, and they’ve never said it was a mistake. They still don’t. To me the inability to admit being wrong is a pure sign your philosophy is utter bunk. Maybe the New Atheists have something to say about the worth of religion. I consider their books to be largely puerile tripe, except the bits of Hitchens’s book dealing with his own painful experiences of religion, particularly in childhood. Others may find those books powerful and useful, I won’t argue.

      They’ve been completely on board with our endless wars. This I cannot forgive, especially as none have openly regretted their support. Instead, it’s been a constant stream of “Iraq War II would have worked if we did this or that, blah blah.” Even “well, we had no way of knowing it would be this bad,” although tons of intelligence experts on the region were fired/made to retire for predicting exactly it would be this bad.

      When I look at the New Atheists, I find it hard to see anything but ethnocentrism. Sure, Christian fundamentalists are bad, but we can work with those people, Muslim fundamentalists are far more evil and worse. Since a Christian nation (us) are far, far more responsible than Muslims for murder in this conflict (do we call it Iraq War II or Crusade I-don’t-know-what-the-number-would-even-be?), what can be the possible justification for supporting it besides “one of our important people who died, one of our wealthy people, is worth a hundred of those backward shepherds attending weddings?”

      Although maybe ethnocentrism might be the wrong word. Colonialism might be better. And from the point of view of American fundamentalists or New Atheists, I’m not sure “genocide” is utterly out of line.

      • Surely Richard Dawkins counts as a New Atheist:

        “Anti-war campaigners from Oxford University are handing in a 2,000-name petition to Downing Street.
        More than 700 staff and 1,300 students have signed up, including four current and former college heads, 29 fellows of the Royal Society and British Academy and nearly 80 professors.

        Among them are Richard Dawkins, Oxford University’s professor of the public understanding of science and author of The Selfish Gene, and Andrew Graham, master of Balliol College.

        Professor Dawkins said that while the first Gulf War was prompted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, there was no “specific aggressive act” this time.

        He added: “Bush is the aggressor. Britain has no business following the lead of this unelected bully.””

        “The obvious objections to the execution of Saddam Hussein are valid and well aired. His death will provoke violent strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and between Iraqis in general and the American occupation forces. This was an opportunity to set the world a good example of civilized behaviour in dealing with a barbarically uncivilized man. In any case, revenge is an ignoble motive. The usual arguments against the death penalty in general apply. If Bush and Blair are eventually put on trial for war crimes, I shall not be among those pressing for them to be hanged. ”

        And I don’t think ‘hate all Muslims’ is an accurate representation of Harris, either; he has, after all, just co-written a book with a Muslim, Islam & the Future of Tolerance: see

    • I wasn’t blaming Islamophobia on the New Atheism. I was stating that that it was one of the big things that has come out of it. There have also been good things like allowing nonbelievers to feel more comfortable about speaking up. But if you look at the four horsemen, you see a whole lot of Islamophobia. I’ve been saying for a while that the movement needs to take control away from these guys — most especially Sam Harris.

  3. It’s said that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Given the existence of in-your-face Christianity, I can’t imagine the non-existence of in-your-face atheism. Not being (usually) an in-your-face type, I’m not part of it, but part of me is secretly glad that at least a few atheists are in-your-face about it. Take the Republic of France, for example. Some of their legislation in recent years crosses the line from disrespect for the non-secular population to discrimination against it; likewise in the wannabee France called Quebec with their Charter of Values. Obviously I’m one of those ACLU types and therefore opposed in principle to such legislation, but every now and then I hear about the mayor of some American city incorporating Bibles or Commandments or other sectarian paraphernalia into the machinery of government and I think thank God there are at least a few countries like France and Quebec in the world, maybe to balance the scales or something.

    Another thing is dichotomous thinking. I have a hard time thinking dichotomously, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The in-your-face Christians seem to think humanity neatly divides into exactly two categories; those being the saved and the damned. For some atheists it seems to be superstitious and non-superstitious. So the former group reacts by using the considerable media channels at its disposal to demonize “materialism,” sometimes using “dialectical materialism” as if it’s one word, to get in some red-baiting while they’re at it.

    Then there’s the Islamophobic tendencies of new atheists. If anything, I’m somewhat Islamophilic out of a sense of solidarity among religious minority groups. Then there’s the Christian version of Islamophobic that chides “liberals” for being such “Christianity-haters” for certain Christians’ mere belief that ho-mo-sex-uality is a sin, when “Islamists” are persecuting and slaughtering “homosexuals.” If I have more problems with Christians it’s because Christians create more problems for me personally than do Muslims. Just because no Viet-Cong called Mohammed Ali “N-word” doesn’t mean they’re unicorns or something. Sometimes it’s about the devil you know.

    • I don’t really have a problem with “in your face” atheism. I don’t have a problem with tribalism. I have a problem with people claiming they are above tribalism and that they are simply in possession of The Truth™. It really bugs me that the New Atheists fetishize science without knowing much about it. I’m glad that they’ve decided to listen to scientists and not clerics, but still. The main issue is the Islamophobia. Why is there no embarrassment that two of the Four Horsemen were at least apologists for the Iraq War?

      I’m totally with you on Christians though: they bug me the most because they are the ones who are swarming around me. They are the ones who come to my door wanting to “witness” to me. But just like with Muslims, I know some very nice Christians who stand on the street holding candles to stop war. For Americans, it is much safer to have problems with Christians, because they know them and don’t treat them as monolithic.

  4. Deep discussions! And Dennett receives a drubbing. I read several of his books a good number of years ago, from which I remember the “sky hook” thing and the fact that he put his footnotes at the bottom of each page, something rarely done in the books I read. No having to flip to the back of book constantly; I could have kissed him!

    Anyway, speaking of Dennett, I thought you might appreciate this picture from the Annals of Improbable Research (Volume 6, Issue 5, Sept/Oct 2000): The Evolutionary War!!, a “Survival of the Fittest Cage Match” between Richard “The Ultimate Gene” Dawkins (managed by Daniel “The Lapdog” Dennett) and Steve “The Punctuator” Gould!

    Gould says, “It’s gonna take a bizarre contingency for me to lose to Dawkins”, to which Dawkins replies, “Gould can’t adapt to what I’m gonna do”! (I’ve long been a big Gould fan, but never really paid attention to his differences with Dawkins, so I can’t speak knowledgeably about their arguments.)

    • I’m in the Stephen Jay Gould camp. I’ve never heard a reasonable argument from the New Atheists against Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Their rejection of it seems to be based entirely on a complete non-understanding of ontology. This is another thing that bothers me about the New Atheists: their absolute certainty about things they understand at the most facile level. This is perhaps why I so much link New Atheism and libertarianism.

      I agree: footnotes are far better than end notes. But they are harder to typeset and the result doesn’t look as good.

      • Now HERE’s an important issue, foot-v.-end!

        My favorite footnotes are sporadic ones — say, which suggest further reading on the topic. Or, better yet, mention additional interesting/ironic notes about the subject being discussed. When funny/interesting material is buried in back, I will often miss it, since I don’t skip to endnotes for every page.

        Strict citations should be at the end. We don’t need “Ibid” three times a page below the main text. Also, as it’s common to mention a full title once and then only the author’s last name(s), having all citations in the same place makes it easier to keep track of what’s being cited. Not every book has a complete bibliography.

        Here’s where I get religious — and I am 100% sure I’m right.

        Every book’s endnotes should have a header listing “Notes For Pages AAA-BBB.” Since this started becoming more widespread, it infuriates me to death when it’s not used in new books. Because it’s easy to do! Sometimes notes are so extensive they have to be published separately online, as adding them would make the book to big. And some authors do more citations than others. If you do endnotes, though, you MUST have that “Page” header!

        I will not bend on this last and anyone who disagrees is a heretic!

        • Right. Right. And right! These are the kinds of issues we really need to be discussing. (That sounds sarcastic, but isn’t.) I don’t especially mind end notes, because I use two bookmarks. But there really are two kinds of notes: references and asides. The best thing to do is to put the references at the end and the asides on the bottom of the page. I often have the experience of going to the end notes, only to find that it is an reference, even though the text seemed to indicated that there was more to the story.

          An argument can be made that end notes are best because the author clearly meant for them to be read by a small minority of readers. It wasn’t something worth putting in the main text. Now for people in that small minority (TheoLib, you, and me — for starters), we want something different. But even I see that books with lots of footnotes look bad. Often, half a page can be taken up with footnotes — in some cases, over many pages because a footnote is really long. There are no easy answers. It is like The Most Important Question in the World™: do you italicize the colon after italicized text? I have been struggling with this question for 30 years!

          • One I loathe completely (among others) is title references in quotation marks. As in, if Ian Fleming said, ‘”I liked “Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love,” and “Goldfinger.”‘

            Well, prior to Internet hyperlinks or italics — and I’m still not sure how I feel about those — one standard some people used was the triple-apostrophe at the beginning and end of the quote, with double-apostrophes for the titles (the way I went above.) But it wasn’t consistent, and it’s quite confusing as to what is a direct quote and what are the quotation marks around the titles.

            I was trying to help a teenager deal with serious frustration about French recently. I don’t get French, as I don’t get English, and I attempted to help the youngster realize French is no more ridiculous/insensible than English (but it’s possible to get A’s in French by faking it.) I fear that by trying to describe how many irregular verbs and utterly arbitrary conjugation rules we have in English, I made the poor kid more intimidated than before my efforts.

            • I’m not sure I follow. I prefer the British ‘-“-”’ rather than the American “-‘-”’ — which makes no sense at all. But I’m not clear what your complaint is.

              It is usually a bad idea for someone who really likes language to try to help someone struggling…

      • An argument against the ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’ view: most religions claim that prayers can have effects – that gods, or saints, hear the prayers and sometimes answer them with miracles, or by changing the behaviour of other people. The Catholic church, for instance, bases its system of sainthood on this claim.

        Experiments with prayers for patients who do not know whether people are praying for them have been done, and they show no effect. So the idea that typical religions don’t claim real-world measurable effects of their supernatural beings is incorrect, and we know such effects don’t exist. The ‘magisteria’ are overlapping.

        • You show that you don’t even believe your own claim when you say “typical religions.” No one says that religions don’t make all kinds of scientific claims. The idea of NOM is that religion should stay in its own yard. (Gould was more concerned about religion encroaching on science than the other way around.) The claim that the universe is 6,000 years old is a scientific claim. But why the universe exists is not a scientific claim. If you reach for the Big Bang, you are question begging — offering nothing more in an ontological sense than the theists who reach for God. If you reach for Krauss’ fatuous “nothingness is unstable” you are showing that you don’t have a clue what actual nothingness is (that is, nothingness would not have attributes).

          What I expect of atheism is that it will be smart. There are a lot of smart atheists. But the New Atheist movement is filled with a lot of people who are too happy to have arguments with religious demagogues rather than serious thinkers. And if you are trying to build a movement, maybe that’s good. But if that’s the case, you lose the moral high ground and set yourself up for having a movement that is no less dogmatic than the one you overthrow.

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