Humanism without Overt Atheism

By | March 2, 2010

The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not

– Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)

“God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.”

—- Nanrei Kabori (late Abbot of the Temple of the Shining Dragon, a Buddhist sanctuary in Kyoto) quoted in Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors, by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

A good way to see humanism is as a philosophy that rejects the god-centered picture of reality, but also rejects the idea that overt atheism should be an essential part of that humanism. Humanism is thus seen as a philosophy whose primary focus is on the human and natural aspects of reality.

We can imagine our preferred humanist to speak as follows: “I don’t believe in a deity, but I don’t dwell on that fact. I focus my attention on science, the arts, literature, philosophy, history, technology and all other achievements of human culture. In the moral sphere, I try to do “godly” work, instead of puzzling over imagined obligation to the will of an imaginary supernatural being.”

Should a humanist espouse atheism? Many do and think that genuine humanism requires that the humanist proudly exhibit his or her atheistic colors, so to speak. Humanists do not need to reject all forms of ‘atheistic activism’ as being inappropriate to humanism; however, a humanist should not dwell on the atheistic issue.

But this should not be understood as implying that my preferred humanist espouses theism, although some do; nor should it be seen as implying that my humanist will be an agnostic concerning the question of deity, although some will be.

My preferred humanist, (call his a “critical humanism”) has moved beyond the question of belief or non-belief in deity. This humanistic perspective has progressed beyond the god-centered perspective of the past.

Much of overt atheism is still in the grip of that god-centered perspective of reality insofar as it remains tied up with the question of deity. This is the case when the primary activity is the effort to deny and disprove the existence of deity.

In religious cultures dominated by monotheistic religion, such as our culture, the idea of God has played a central role, even in periods when pockets of skepticism and non-belief appear. A person’s perspective on reality was characterized as one of belief in deity or a rejection of that belief. A person of faith has traditionally been opposed by an atheist and by the skeptic.

‘Critical humanism’ can work to shift this pivotal point of view from a god-centered, supernatural perspective — whether in affirmation or denial — to a human-centered, naturalistic perspective. A consequence of this shift is that a person’s basic perspective is no longer defined on the basis of belief or disbelief in God.

When we view humanism in this way, it can be seen as bringing about a shift in thought analogous to the Copernican shift in astronomy, which shifted our thinking from an earth-centered planetary system to a solar-centered one. Likewise, humanism can be seen as involving a shift in our thought from a god-centered perspective to a human-centered perspective. Attention shifts from the supernatural, whether in affirming or denying it, in favor of one focusing on human culture, history, human creativity and achievements; and of course, on reason, science, secular morality, mathematics and technology. *

In the context of ‘critical humanism,’ the term “atheist” is a label belonging to the god-centered culture. One could even argue that the active promotion of atheism, as a philosophy, is part of a general promotion of the old division between faith and non-faith of the old culture.

A critical humanist sees all ‘gods’ as supernatural beings invented by religious cultures acting on the religious imagination. There is no rational or moral obligation to believe in any of these imaginary beings. Neglect of the supernatural is the extent of the ‘atheistic’ position of the critical humanist.

* A critical humanist recognizes that this shift in thought takes time and not easily made by many who have lived in the grip of the old perspective. Hence, a critical humanist does not denigrate persons simply because they continue to see things from a god-centered perspective. (Analogy: the shift in paradigm, e.g., the very hard to make transformation in thought from classical physics to quantum physics; even such a genius as Einstein had great trouble with it!)

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