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Austin Cline

Humanism vs. Atheism? Misrepresenting Atheism For No Good Reason

By May 27, 2007

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Because some atheists are uninterested in direct, unapologetic criticism of religious theism, they seek to distinguish themselves from atheists who do engage in such criticism. Unfortunately, a common means for doing so involves painting oneself as good and other atheists as bad. Thus we have people who call themselves the "tolerant" atheists, directly implying that others must necessarily be "intolerant" atheists. Some make a point of noting that they have "nuanced" views of religion and therefore that other atheists don't.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with an atheist not being interested in critiques of religion. Even if one agrees that religion is more a force for harm than good and that an end to supernatural, theistic religion would probably lead to long-term improvements, there are still other things in life to worry about. What is unacceptable is to pretend that being interested in other things makes one a better person whether one says so openly or only does so through cleverly framed rhetoric.

Greg Epstein, for example, is continuing to spread the idea that atheists who are more activist and uppity are somehow comparable to religious fundamentalists:

Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein went so far as to use the (other) f-word in describing his unbelieving brethren.

"At times they've made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism," Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. "What we need now is a voice that says, 'That is not all there is to atheism.' "

Source: The Washington Post

Notice that Greg Epstein made the above statement after the 30th anniversary celebration of Harvard's humanist chaplaincy. Before that celebration, he was sharply criticized by many, including myself, for comparing atheist critics of religion to "fundamentalists." It seems that he has learned little from his exchanges with others.

At the time of my previous criticisms of Epstein, I noted that comments like his would be easily used by others for their anti-atheist agenda, and that is another matter where little has changed. In the same article, reporter Benedicta Cipolla provides quotes from three different people who grossly misrepresent atheism:

"Atheists are somewhat focused on the one issue of atheism, not looking at how to move forward," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association. While he appreciates the way the new atheists have raised the profile of nonbelievers, he said humanists differ by their willingness to collaborate with religious leaders on various issues. "Working with religion," he said, "is not what [atheists] are about." ...

Distinguishing between strong opinion and trying to impose atheism on others, Phil Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., also finds "fundamentalist" a misnomer. Instead, he faults atheists for preferring black-and-white simplicity to a more nuanced view of religion. "Religion is a human construction, and as such it will exhibit the best and worst of humanity. They throw the baby out with the bath water in certain instances," he said. ...

"Atheists don't really ask the question, what are the vital needs that religion meets? They give you the sense that religion is the enemy, which is absurd," said Ronald Aronson, professor of humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit. "There are some questions we secularists have to answer: Who am I, what am I, what can I know? Unless we can answer these questions adequately for ourselves and for others, we can't expect people to even begin to be interested in living without God

No atheists are focused on "how to move forward"? No atheists are willing to work "with religion"? All atheists prefer "black-and-white simplicity"? No atheists have a "nuanced view of religion"? No atheists ask what "vital needs that religion meets"? No atheists try to answer questions like "Who am I, what am I, what can I know?" I'm sorry, but that's all just abominably ridiculous. There is no positive spin that can be put on such comments, nor is there any remotely generous interpretation that can be made about them.

If Roy Speckhardt, Phil Zuckerman, and Ronald Aronson were all quoted accurately, then they are laboring under impressive ignorance for men in such positions. Roy Speckhardt's comments seem especially disappointing because, as a humanist leader, he should definitely know better than to generalize about all atheists like that. If he had said that some atheists are not looking at how to move forward, then that would have been true (but trivially true, because it's true about "some" of every group including humanists).

As it is, there are more than a few atheists in the American Humanist Association and I wonder what they think about the fact that the AHA's executive director apparently thinks that they are not looking at how to move forward? Indeed, does he even consider atheists to be "real" humanists, given how he frames the distinction between humanism and atheism? I certainly wouldn't feel welcome in an organization led by a person making such generalizations about atheists.

If you're an atheist who is a member of the AHA, consider writing to Roy Speckhardt and ask him why he is saying such things about you.

To generalize and paint atheists as the intolerant bad guys and humanists as the tolerant, peaceful good guys is completely unacceptable. I'm both an atheist and a humanist a significant majority of humanists are also atheists. while most atheists I've encountered consider themselves humanists. The two categories aren't the same, obviously, but the dichotomy being created in the above quotes is worse than false. Instead, it's a bigoted bit of anti-atheist propaganda that can only have the effect of further marginalizing atheists for no other reason than the fact that they are openly critical of religion.


Update: Vjack at Atheist Revolution responds to this article as well.

May 27, 2007 at 8:47 pm
(1) Cat says:

Coincidentally, right before opening an email with a link to your article, I’d just gotten done reading a refutation of the same article you’re addressing. It’s pretty good, so here’s the address if you’re interested: http://www.allyngibson.net/?p=1153

May 28, 2007 at 12:13 am
(2) Doug Berger says:

Thanks for posting this article. I am an Atheist and a Humanist and I find Speckhardt’s comments very distressing and I am dumbfounded why Epstein didn’t learn from his experience BEFORE the conference when he shot himself in the foot.

May 28, 2007 at 2:26 am
(3) Chuck Rightmire says:

It seems to me that the real difficulty is the it is more likely impossible to be a religious humanist than to be an atheistic one. Personally, I don’t care what anyone believes as long as they keep it out of my schools and my life. But I would always be afraid of a knife in the back from religious humanists if the humanist view crossed the religious view.

May 28, 2007 at 10:19 am
(4) Jonny_eh says:

I was under the impression that humanists were like the host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, and criticize religion constantly. Is there a difference between Humanist and Secular Humanist (which the host describes himself as)?

May 28, 2007 at 10:48 am
(5) Austin Cline says:

I was under the impression that humanists were like the host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, and criticize religion constantly. Is there a difference between Humanist and Secular Humanist (which the host describes himself as)?

Yes and no you’re right to be confused, in part because “humanism” is a complex subject and in part because of the language being used by Speckhardt.

I have a number of articles on types of humanism and the historical development of humanism which would probably be helpful.

To be brief: Point of Inquiry is produced by Secular Humanists, who are generally critical of religion, theism, the paranormal, the supernatural, and superstition generally. There are also Religious Humanists who treat their humanist philosophy as a religion (from a functional definition of religion) and who can be more conciliatory towards supernaturalistic, theistic religion. They may be atheists themselves, but regard religion itself as having valuable personal and social functions (and generally want to encourage rational, naturalistic religion over irrational, supernatural religion).

Speckhardt is from the American Humanist Association, which includes both secular and religious humanists and thus it would be entirely appropriate and expected if his attitude toward/treatment of religion were (at least) a bit less sharply critical than what one might see in (for example) Point of Inquiry. That, however, would not justify or explain the dichotomy he tries to create between “humanists” and “atheists.” He generalizes about both in inappropriate ways. There’s no reason that an attempt to argue for a less critical attitude towards religion needs to incorporate such generalizations the first can not only be done without the former, but would in fact be better off for it.

May 28, 2007 at 12:13 pm
(6) Jamie G. says:

I am glad I am not the only one who saw that there seemed to be a line drawing going on.

May 29, 2007 at 4:31 am
(7) Patrick Quigley says:

It is interesting that Point of Inquiry came up. The May 18, 2007 episode features David Koepsell who continues on the “humanists are better than other atheists theme.” I think you will be especially interested in his dismissal of existentialism as mere nihilism, Austin.

June 5, 2007 at 2:27 pm
(8) John Hanks says:

It seems like religious humanists want the best of both worlds, and they try to maintain it by distancing themselves from a straw man “atheist”.

December 15, 2008 at 1:40 am
(9) David Koepsell says:

To be fair, Patrick, I quite like German existentialists for the most part, and I don’t consider them to be mere nihilists.

As I recall, I didn’t say that humanism was better than atheism, just that humanism is a philosophy, and atheism the mere absence of belief.

June 6, 2009 at 12:16 pm
(10) Sean Anderson says:

Humanism and Atheism are both screwed up.
Theism is where it should be at.

June 6, 2009 at 12:22 pm
(11) Austin Cline says:

Humanism and Atheism are both screwed up.

Prove it.

Theism is where it should be at.

Prove it.

I especially look forward to your explanation for why a non-humanistic theism is so much better than a secular humanism.

June 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm
(12) Todd says:

i don’t know, Sean. You ended 2 of 2 sentences with prepositions. Maybe theism makes people stupid.

June 12, 2009 at 3:38 pm
(13) Joan says:

I really wish people like Sean would give reasons for the things they say. Just sounds like he’s repeating what he’s always been told with no real introspection. How original and intelligent!

June 12, 2009 at 3:53 pm
(14) Larian LeQuella says:

Hey Austin,

Why is it that the singularly most inane and downright ignorant statements form these comments get featured on your newsletter? I know that theists are in general very compliant in showing their ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and (dare I say it) downright stupidity, but I get tired of reading their comments all the time. I’m sure you get people who don’t post hate filled filth here as well. Why not feature them?

Just wondering. Peace.

June 12, 2009 at 4:33 pm
(15) Marc says:

Ditto Larian. I have asked the same question. If people have legitimate questions or constructive comments great, otherwise I don’t want to waste my time. The extent of unfounded bigotry that exists is something of which we are all fully aware.

June 13, 2009 at 3:58 am
(16) Lloyd says:

Larian Lequella and Marc,

It’s really quite simple to not read something, no reason for you to be tired of it, just dont do it.I like to hear what the religous people I have to share this planet with are thinking. I am especially interested in their intentions towards people like me. It’s going to be much harder for me to read something that is not there than it would be for you to not read it.

June 14, 2009 at 1:46 pm
(17) AtheistGeophysicistBob says:

Lloyd (16): I agree with you completely. I also agree with Joan (13).

Sean (10) can’t give any reasons for his statements; therefore, he “preaches and runs”.

December 15, 2011 at 9:37 pm
(18) Allen Uribes says:

I don’t think that it’s necessary for atheism and humanism have to be put up against one another.

However, I do represent myself as an atheist before I do so as a humanist. Why? Because to believe in a god/higher power/whatever requires that you have some type of evidence for doing so…so where is it?

August 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm
(19) Roy Speckhardt says:

My comments in the religious news service article from 2007 were taken out of context. As a leader of one of the largest nontheist organizations in the nation, I’m a proud atheist as well as a humanist and would not intentionally suggest that atheism is backward or negatively focused.

Reading the full article you can see that the reporter had an agenda of criticizing atheists and dividing our movement. Please don’t let him succeed by re-posting this and calling for more division. I’m not hard to reach, my contact information is rather public rspeckhardt@americanhumanist.org 202-238-9088. Next time you think I’m slandering atheists, please call me or email me before you publish such rants.

August 2, 2012 at 7:30 pm
(20) Austin Cline says:

My comments in the religious news service article from 2007 were taken out of context.

Yet you don’t offer any context that would change the meaning of the words. Nor do I see where you’ve complained about being misrepresented in that article.

Next time you think I’m slandering atheists, please call me or email me before you publish such rants.

You did notice where I said “If Roy Speckhardt, Phil Zuckerman, and Ronald Aronson were all quoted accurately…”, right? The fact remains, though, that I’m not seeing any sort of context that would substantially change the meaning of your words.

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