Toward the end of a recent phone visit with my youngest brother, I asked him (totally out of context and with this essay in mind), “What is a secular humanist?” Now, he is an articulate and experienced man of the world with a very broad background, but he was at a loss for words for several seconds. What followed showed that he had only a vague, though generally correct, grasp of the concept of secular humanism. Then, when I asked him, “What is an atheist?” it was like turning on a light: ah, yes, that is really what I was trying to say.
At the end of a lecture on atheist ethics before an American Humanist Association crowd, one questioner asked me, “Why do you prefer to call yourself an atheist rather than a secular humanist?” My response was and remains: “Because it makes my position clear in a couple of seconds whereas ‘secular humanist’ needs its own extensive clarification.” There was really no argument about the near equation of the two concepts, either for this questioner or for my brother.
As the conversation with my brother continued, he reminded me that the softer, less confrontational approach to helping others see our point of view causes less resistance and allows for further conversation, whereas the more forthright approach can be a real turnoff. I agree that the more vague approach allows for extended conversation. (If you want vagueness and extensive conversation, just examine the characteristically contorted verbal concoctions of modern theologians trying to explain their mysterious God-and why they believe in him.) But for how many more decades should we plan to extend this public conversation so brilliantly advanced years ago by the great secular humanist Paul Kurtz? (It is politically and culturally meaningful that recent Pew research into various groups’ knowledge of religions, while highlighting atheists and agnostics for their superior knowledge about religions, failed to mention secular humanists.)
Thanks to the past extensive efforts of secular humanists, our “Christian” society should be quite ready to hear the bold admission of what secular humanism is trying to bring about: a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Atheism, the reasoned loss of superstition, is foundational to a truly secular and humanely rational society. Is it not high time for leading secular humanists to join with the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s OUT campaign and come out of the closet as bravely as the gays have so successfully and efficiently done within one generation? How many more generations of secular humanists will invite the descriptor “atheists without balls”?
I am fed up with the use of the term atheism as a negative epithet. And I am irritated with how we generally fail to challenge eminent humanist writers holding, almost as ultraconservatives do, that atheism is a negative concept. It may look like a negative word, but it is not a negative concept: it is a non-negative concept.
As for the actual concept of “a-theism” being negative, I assert that two negatives make a positive. We atheists are (like secular humanists) nonbelievers, nontheists, nonsuperstitionists, nonbullshitters! Are these really negative concepts? If something is nonscientific, that is, indeed, negative; if something is nonfalse, that is positive. In just the same way is nontheism-atheism-positive.
So it is time for all of us secular humanists to “quit hiding our light under a bushel.” Sadly the term secular humanism is not understood as positively in its uplifting and realistic meaning as is the term atheism. When we atheists admit who we are and call ourselves by our right name, believers are positively impressed; they know where we stand. And when our “Christian” politicians learn that we are a large and fast-growing segment of the electorate, we will become much more effective in our efforts to counteract the current threatening thrust toward theocracy in our society.
The accusation that atheism does not point toward any unifying set of positive principles is patently false-and especially insulting when it comes from secular humanist writers. Most sincere atheists (and secular humanists) are convinced that this natural, a-superstitious life is the only real, positive source of consistent human happiness. And to be true to ourselves, we atheists (and secular humanists) should embrace the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as we work to make this the best possible life for ourselves and our planetary neighbors.
Would that all of our freethinking sympaticos and secular humanists admit to the positively clear posture of atheism and let all the world know clearly (indubitably!) that we are a bunch of friendly kin trying to make our common planetary neighborhood better. “By their fruits you shall know who they are.” Finally, consider that if you examine a room full of courageous secular humanists and logical atheists, you will rarely find a practical difference. Secular humanism is atheism.