Have atheists hijacked the word “humanist”?

God's Philosophers, by James HannamI’ve just started reading God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, inspired by this superb review by Tim O’Neill.

In the review, O’Neill (himself an atheist) applauds Hannam for dismantling “the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland” – a myth popular among (but by no means confined to) atheists, and whose roots lie in a “festering melange of Enlightenment bigotry, Protestant papism-bashing, French anti-clericalism, and Classicist snobbery”.

Even if you don’t read Hannam’s book, you should read O’Neill’s review – I learnt a lot from it, and am looking forward to learning more from the book itself. But I just wanted to respond to one of Hannam’s “quibbles” about the book, where he writes:

On a rather more personal note, as a humanist and atheist myself, there is a rather snippy little aside on page 212 where Hannam sneers that “non-believers have further muddied the waters by hijacking the word ‘humanist’ to mean a softer version of ‘atheist’.” Sorry, but just as not all humanists are atheists (as Hannam himself well knows) so not all atheists are humanists (as anyone hanging around on some of the more vitriolically anti-theist sites and forums will quickly realize). So there is no “non-believer” plot to “hijack” the word “humanist”. Those of us who are humanists are humanists – end of story. And “atheism” does not need any “softening” anyway.

It is heartening to find a secular humanist asserting so clearly that “humanism” does not imply, or require, atheism. I’ve written before on Clive James’s vision of humanism as a preference for the eclecticism of human intellect and creativity over the rigours of ideology, and Terry Eagleton’s preference for a “tragic humanism” (within which he includes Christianity, especially Catholicism) over the “liberal humanism” of capitalist modernity. In short, I would happily describe myself as a humanist in these senses – and I’m glad that O’Neill would agree that “Christian humanist” is no oxymoron.

However, someone really ought to tell O’Neill’s fellow humanists, many of whom do seem to see humanism as a strict subset of atheism. The British Humanist Association’s “Are you a humanist?” quiz has this as its opening question:

BHA "Are you a humanist?" quiz question 1

I’d previously attempted this quiz but found myself unable to complete it, as almost every “theistic” answer was a wild caricature of what Christians, and those of other religious faiths, actually believe. However, I decided to give it another crack just now, and got this result (itself “rather snippy”, I’d say):

Humanist quiz result

Charmed, I’m sure!

The BHA’s “What is humanism?” page starts as follows:

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.

Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called Humanism.

In the light of that, I don’t think Hannam’s claim that the word “humanist” has been “hijacked” by atheists is altogether unfair. I repeat, though, that I am glad to find an atheist humanist who would presumably agree with me that the BHA has failed to capture the true meaning of humanism. I’d go further, and suggest that the BHA’s approach risks turning humanism into precisely the sort of ideology that Clive James sees as the antithesis of true humanism.

4 thoughts on “Have atheists hijacked the word “humanist”?

  1. Humanists reject superstition and the supernatural. Religions by definition rely on both. Yes, Buddhism too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s