Chronicle of Belief: Part 2 – Secular Humanism
It’s time for the second installment of my “Chronicle of Belief” where I attempt to put into words my own world-view and the opinions and positions that help define me. This entry is about my identification with the label Secular Humanist, a particular world-view with which I sympathize and identify strongly. Before I begin explaining secular humanism I should start by clarifying my position on other terms commonly used by those who reject the supernatural and/or demand falsifiable evidence for claims about reality. Of these people some of the most common terms I hear used are skeptics, rationalists, critical thinkers, agnostics, atheists and humanists. I must make clear that this blog entry is not about arguing for or against the existence of divine beings. I am planning on dividing my evaluation of particular arguments for divinity into a series of future blog posts. This is simply about which branch of non-believers I identify with and why. I am also not discussing which particular belief systems I believe are objectively “better” than any other. While I do believe strongly that beliefs in the supernatural range along a spectrum with demonstrably harmful on one side (Jonestown) and perfectly harmless on the other (loose deists) this post is not a discussion on such matters. I shall enter now into a case by case discussion on particular labels associated with a rejection of the supernatural:
Atheism vs Agnosticism
This issue is perhaps one of the strongest and most passionately debated topics dividing non-believers today. At the core of the issue is a true lack of definition for each of the terms. As well as this there are a myriad of sub-divisions and cross-overs between the camps. I couldn’t dream of covering the issue in any real depth, there are hundreds of pages of blog entries and forum threads which have attempted to do that already. Instead I’ll hit on a couple of main points as I see them.
One interpretation of atheism is that it requires an assertion that no gods exists. In this particular strand a truth claim is made that positively argues that there are no gods or divine beings. While this view is an honest interpretation of atheism it is also commonly set up as a straw man by believers in order to characterize the atheistic world-view as dogmatic and unscientific. I reject this view of atheism as there is no scientifically verifiable way to prove a negative. There is an equal amount of proof that the god of Abraham doesn’t exist as there is that a Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t exist. All that can be done scientifically is to prove that any interaction with reality claimed to be divine (like prayer or creationism) actually occurred through natural means. So far this effort has been successful and I’m not aware of any testable divine claim that has turned out to be truly supernatural.
Another definition of atheism is that it only requires a lack of belief in the divine, and not an assertion that no divine beings exist. In this definition atheism is merely a rejection of deism, or the idea that divine beings exist. As this stance makes no truth claim about the existence of god I sympathize with it and consider it intellectually honest. However due to the confusion and mis-interpretations associated with the word atheism I commonly avoid using it. Perhaps the main reason why I do not use the label atheist is that I do not wish to identify myself by what I don’t believe. All other belief systems get to identify themselves by what they do believe and to many this makes atheism seem negative and cold. Christian’s do not identify themselves as “non-Jews” and Muslims do not identify themselves as “non-Hindus”, so why should I identify myself by what I don’t believe in.
At the cross-roads between atheism and agnosticism are those who identify themselves as “Agnostic Atheists” or “Intellectual Agnostics”. Agnostic Atheism is a position that holds that as it is impossible scientifically to falsify god then you cannot rightly say that no god exists, but at the same time should live as if no god does exist. If this sounds remarkably similar to my second definition of atheism that’s because it is. The second Atheistic definition was something akin to “I don’t believe a god exists” and the Agnostic Atheist definition is something like “I don’t know if a god exists so I don’t believe in one”. I find it very hard to separate these positions which further illustrates why I choose other labels over these. In my experience many people who begin by calling themselves atheists will clarify their position into atheistic agnosticism once a discussion is entered into. So while I agree also with the claims made by Agnostic Atheists it doesn’t serve optimally as a label can for me personally.
True agnosticism suffers from an equally divergent definition conundrum. Broadly speaking agnostics argue that answers to questions about the supernatural and divine and unanswerable. Scientifically speaking this argument holds a lot of water and I agree with it. The tricky part comes with where people take the position from there. In my experience the general public’s understanding of “agnosticism” is someone who is noncommittal, they’re sitting on the fence with regard to god and waiting for something to sway them. Indeed I have encountered many such people who are uncertain as to whether they believe in god but are maintaining that such a thing is a real possibility. In my experience though most Agnostics have a belief that is closer to the “Atheist Agnostics” than it is to being non-committal and repeat the same logically sound “you cannot disprove it but there is equal reason to believe in god as flying spaghetti monsters” argument.
If you think this blog is starting to sound a bit like a broken record, I assure you this is only due to the semantics and hair splitting that goes on between the atheist and agnostic arguments. I of course also support the argument just described which so far means I’m an Atheist an Atheist Agnostic and an Agnostic. Starting to see why I generally prefer different labels?
The other side of Agnosticism is Agnostic Theism, the belief that a divine being does exist, but his nature is unknowable. To me this is remarkably similar to the aforementioned Deism, the belief that something divine exists within any claims to it’s nature. As I see no reason both ethically and scientifically to believe in any such deity this is the point of the atheism vs agnosticism train-car that I depart. In a way I hope that this discussion has confused you a little, in that way you’ll get a sense of the kind of confusion and frustration that people of all of the above beliefs feel when they argue with one another. Nearly every point along that spectrum is admirable and rational and nearly all of those positions manifest in practically indistinguishable ways. I’ll continue this blog post with a much shorter discussion of some of the other labels I mentioned above.
I touched on my opinion of the label skeptic in the following reply to a comment received on my first chronicle of belief post:
I also don’t really care for the label “skeptic” for the same reasons as you. In a future post I’ll be explaining why I do and don’t associate myself with certain labels. As can be seen throughout this blog however I do tend to refer to myself as a “skeptic” and am affiliated with skeptical organisations like “Perth skeptics”, “young Australian skeptics”, “skeptics guide to the universe”. This is more from convenience, like what I wrote about in this blog entry with regards to labels being able to unify people and explain a lot with a little. “Skeptic” is the banner that many critical thinkers and rationalists rally beneath so that’s where I’ll stay for now.
That quote actually sums up my feelings for the term Skeptic pretty well. Skeptic is a very useful label and one I am proud to associate with. There is far less confusion and baggage surrounding the term skeptic than there is atheist or agnostic and I’d always reach for the term skeptic first if pressed. Even still if asked personally to clarify my belief outside of this trichotomy I’d choose Secular Humanist. But for now skeptic is a perfectly worthy banner to rally beneath.
Rationalism is a general belief that “the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive”. This means that useful truths are obtained through scientific and logical means, rather than relying on flawed senses and cultural belief. Rationalism makes no direct claim about the nature of the supernatural and one can easily be a rationalist most of the time and still maintain some supernatural beliefs or “sacred cows“. I openly identify with rationalism but do not think it the best possible label for me personally. I believe declaring ones self a “rationalist” can sometimes hinder discussions as it can be seen to imply that all other beliefs are inherently “irrational”, a needlessly inflammatory point even when it’s true.
Critical thinkers fit almost the exact same definition of rationalists. I feel the same way about critical thinkers as I do rationalists. It is one of the labels that most closely fits myself but is not the absolute most suited.
Humanism is the first of these labels which has a core set of beliefs as part of it’s definition, rather than a lack of belief or support of a general process (i.e. reason). Humanism is well defined as follows:
Humanism is a moral philosophy that considers humans to be of primary importance. It is a perspective common to a wide range of ethical stances that attaches importance to human dignity, concerns, and capabilities, particularly rationality. Although the word has many senses, its current philosophical meaning comes into focus when contrasted to the supernatural or to appeals to higher authority.
Finally a label which has an immediately positive belief system attached to it! The sentiment that human dignity and well being is of greater importance than any concerns about higher authority or the supernatural resonates strongly with me personally. An example of a non-humanistic attitude would be the Catholic Church’s stance that contraception is sinful. This supernatural belief causes direct harm to human beings by spreading disease, causing unwanted pregnancies and attempting to suppress a healthy human desire to engage in non-procreational sexual activity. I firmly belief that any view such as this, that places any supernatural or higher authorities (i.e. a monarchs or head of states) concerns above those of human beings is immoral, unethical, dangerous and worth speaking out against. To delve further into the specifics of my humanistic belief I’ll step into the specific subset of humanists I subscribe to, the secular humanists.
Secular Humanism only separates from general humanism in that it specifically rejects any supernatural or religious dogma as the basis for morality. An example of this difference is with that of the bible. General humanists might argue that if you strip the divine references out of the New Testament then you are left with a positive set of teaching for the betterment of humanity. Even if such a thing is true a secular humanist would prefer to take those moral teachings from the bible and reform them into a non-religious secular based moral code. Secular humanism does not argue that nothing from religion can have humanistic benefits but that there is no real world need for religion to be a part of our moral code. A summary of secular humanistic beliefs is as follows:
Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
To me that set of beliefs is so admirable and healthy that I proudly call myself a Secular Humanist. Such a list of virtues speaks to a deep desire in me to seek the best for all humans and a firm belief that progress through science and free inquiry is the best tool to achieve it. Secular humanism manages to weave together all the best parts of the skeptical, rational and atheistic viewpoints into an inspiring code of ethics and ideals.
If you’ve managed to read this far then I truly thank you. I suspected that when I began this blog entry it would end up being longer than I envisaged and that turned out to be true. Despite this lengthy entry I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what it means to be an atheist or a humanist. Such concepts have occupied the minds of the world’s philosophers and scientists since written history began. The search for ultimate truth is in all probability forever beyond our grasp though our species quest for it is enlightening and inspiring. As I have repeated ad nauseum elsewhere I of course do not pretend to be an authority on such lofty subjects. In another chronicle of belief installment I will touch on how my secular humanist views gel with my views of the intrinsic value of the natural world that I hold as a Conservation Biologist. The conflict between the advancement of the human species and caring for the environment is an intellectual battlefield almost the equal of the atheism vs agnosticism debate.