B8-MM1
ATHEISM AND HUMANISM
Copyright by Marilyn Mason, Education Officer, British Humanist Association, 2/28/01

  HUMANISM is an ethical life stance based on reason and our common humanity, recognising that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone.  Humanists believe that we should try to live full and happy lives ourselves, and, as part of this, help to make it easier for other people to do the same. Humanists believe that you can be good without gods or religious faith.  They believe that all situations and people deserve to be judged on their own merits by standards of reason and humanity, and that individuality and social co-operation are both important. Humanists look for evidence before they believe things and like to think for themselves; they accept scientific explanations of the existence of the universe and of life on earth as the best available ones; they do not believe that the universe or earth were created; they do not believe in gods, an afterlife or the supernatural.  Because they do not expect justice or happiness in another life, humanists work to make this life a better one.

ARE HUMANISM AND ATHEISM THE SAME?

  They certainly overlap a great deal: many, perhaps most, atheists are humanists, and most humanists are atheists.  But they are not identical. Atheism is neutral as far as a code of moral values goes - by itself, a disbelief in gods commits one to little.  Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator, was an atheist, but seems to have had little understanding of morality, showing scant humanity or respect for the lives and the rights of others.  But most thoughtful atheists are also humanists (even if they don't call themselves humanists), because they realise that living amongst other people necessitates moral values, and have a strong interest in ethics and in trying to lead a good life without god.  This worldview is usually called Humanism because it is centred on humanity, concerned with life on this earth and the promotion of human happiness.  But definitions are further confused by the fact that some religious people also consider themselves to be humanists, because of their acceptance of scientific explanations of the way the world is and their concern for human welfare, or because they decide moral issues on rational humanistic, rather than religious, grounds.
  Some humanists also differ from some atheists in their attitude to religion. Atheists vary in the certainty with which they hold to disbelief in God and in their hostility to religious belief.  Sometimes this is a result of their upbringing, and those who have been subjected to religious indoctrination are often the most hostile, as well as the best informed, critics of religion.  Some non-believers campaign vigorously for an end to religious privilege, or try to argue other people out of irrational beliefs.  Many believe that religion has done more harm than good and that religious codes of behaviour have little to offer humanity.  Others accept that others think differently from them, and work alongside religious believers to alleviate some of the world's problems.  Humanists, who are usually committed to tolerance and to promoting happiness, may have to recognise that religion and a belief in life after death are very comforting to some people, and does in fact make them happier and better.  I definitely fall into this category of humanist - I don't believe in anything supernatural myself but as long as other people's strange beliefs make them happy and don't interfere with me or my rights, or the general welfare, I'm prepared to live and let live.
  Some humanists do not like to call themselves atheists, thinking that the word implies absolute certainty about the non-existence of god, and prefer to call themselves agnostics. Agnosticism is not the wishy-washy "don't know" position that many people think it is, but a firm belief that one cannot have certain knowledge about things for which there is no evidence, and that to admit this is the only honest intellectual position.
  THE BRITISH HUMANIST ASSOCIATION exists to support and represent people who seek to live good and responsible lives with integrity and without religious or superstitious beliefs.  It provides help with ceremonies for those who wish to mark rites of passage, such as births, marriages and deaths, without hypocrisy.  It advises non-religious people, campaigns for their rights, and represents their philosophy and ethical concerns in the media and on government committees and consultations.  It supports members with regular newsletters, a network of local groups, humanist holidays and conferences.
  In education, the BHA campaigns for improvements in Religious Education and reform of the law on collective worship in schools.  Humanists support the objective, fair and balanced study of religion and belief in schools, and would like Humanism to be included.  They oppose compulsory collective worship in schools, considering it an attempt at religious indoctrination.  The BHA provides educational resources to support good inclusive moral education, and offers non-religious perspectives on contemporary ethical questions to teachers and students.  

http://www.humanism.org.uk  for more information about Humanism, or to access our educational resources.  Phone number: 020 7430 0908
Email: info@humanism.org.uk  for specific enquires about ceremonies etc
Email: education@humanism  for specific enquiries about educational matters.(Please include your full address if requesting videos, books or other printed material.)

Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share