Humanism vs. Atheism

A couple of days ago, a 21 year-old student asked me: “Is it a contradiction of terms to be a Humanist but not an Atheist?” I replied approximately as follows:

It depends on how you define your terms. I believe that the essence of humanism is a sense that humanity as a whole is more important than any of its subgroups. Basic to humanism is an attitude that starts with a sense of togetherness, a sympathy and a sharing, accompanied by a sense that you as an individual share responsibility for our collective future with all the rest of humanity.

If you believe there is a God specifically dedicated to the protection or care of the group you happen to belong to, whether that group is defined by religion or race or whatever, and that your god supports your group as opposed to other groups, I don’t think you can properly be considered a true humanist.

If you believe that there is a God up there someplace that you can invoke to alter specific things that are going to happen, you are not a true humanist. You are in effect passing the buck to an entity whose existence is unverifiable. The humanist says, in effect, the buck stops here.

If you don’t submit to either of those two beliefs, however, you can be a humanist in practice even if you choose to believe in some higher power. Some atheists might dispute this, but I believe they are being unnecessarily exclusive, and underrate the need for all of us to work together to combat the pernicious forces of the conservative religious types. Issues like the separation of church and state are very important, and non-believers need to work together with sensible believers to make sure we suffer no return to theocratic tyranny.

To put it in technical terms, there is a great gap between theists and deists, where deists believe there is a power up there but basically we are on our own. That gap is far more important, in practical terms, than the gap in belief between deists and atheists. As long as you recognize that human destiny is made here on earth, by us humans, and that we are solely responsible for what happens, whether you believe in God (the deist approach) or don’t (atheism) is a matter of choice, and an individual seriously concerned with the future of humanity can go either way. A deist with strong humanist leanings is likely to be a person that makes a positive contribution to humanity as a whole. I am a humanist who prefers not to believe in any superior power, but I welcome humanism wherever I find it. We need each other.

CSC 7/16/00

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44 Responses to Humanism vs. Atheism

  1. Anthony Cook says:

    Hi Carl thanks for your info. My sister’s a humanist and I was just wanting to get a bit of background to her beliefs. You seem to be a very reasonable and pleasant bunch. I like your “the buck stops here” attitude. I considered myself an atheist for many years but it didn’t occur to me to pursue humanism. Too late now tho, I’m a theist – a christian. But I hope I’m the sort of theist who is humanist-friendly, certainly my sister and I get on very well together and I love her to bits. I don’t try to change her views either tho I have to admit I’d like it if she did; but I don’t see that happening soon, she’s pretty pragmatic. She recommended the movie “Paul” to me recently which was very funny. I could laugh because I don’t really fit the stereotype of the christians in it too well (tho I could relate to some extent, without the hysteria).
    Anyway, nice chatting with you. I live in Australia btw, in a small country township up in the hills where the weather is wintry at the moment – sunny but cold. I assume you’re in the USA, right?

    • Olivia says:

      I am a whole-hearted Christian who grew up in a small, local baptist church. However, I am friends with many humanist and two athiest. As it turns out, a girl, who now lives in my household and is legally considersed my sister, has claimed that she is an athiest. She a nice and kind person and I love her death as if she really were my sister, but I am having a hard time trying to understand her way of thinking. Thank you for these posts! They help explain a lot.
      Ps. I’m a Texan!

  2. Carl Coon says:

    One difference between atheists and humanists is that atheists tend toward confrontation with true believers while humanists are willing to discuss the god question in a more relaxed way. As for me, I work it out this way: we don’t know what we don’t know and as long as we don’t know everything we cannot logically assert that such-and-such does not exist. We can, however, assert with some confidence that on the basis of what we do know, the existence of such-and-such has not been proven. We can go further and assert that on the basis of what we know, it appears highly improbable that we shall ever find proof that such-and-such exists. If you can accept the validity of this line of reasoning, why fight over whether such-and-such is highly improbable or whether it is truly non-existent?
    I am of course willing to argue about whether the existence of God has actually been proven. It has not.

    • lola says:

      Some atheists are humanists, so your comment should read “one difference between atheists who are not humanists…”
      Even then, I suppose I defy the parameters you set.
      My atheism is not to replace humanism. My humanism is to fill in the void that atheism was never designed to fill. Life, philosophy, human interaction and perception.

      Unfortunately, those who also identify themselves as “atheists” and who enjoy honest and direct communication are often seen as aggressors by those who have baggage with the term “atheist”.
      That’s a shame, because when it all comes down to it, if one is without belief in god concepts, then one is an atheist, regardless of whether they dislike the term and choose another.

      If one believes that the concept of “god” cannot be known by the human animal, then one is more traditionally a Huxley agnostic.
      By all means, call yourself whatever you like, I support that sincerely, but do not put negative baggage upon those who embrace the term simply because we see things differently.

      I personally am without any belief in god concepts and await one shred of proof for the claims. There are no gods in my or this world…however, I am always open to change my mind should proof of one appear.
      I understand mythology gods, supernatural deities and demons. I understand anthropology and the material/natural world.
      There are no such creatures as “gods” outside of lore and human mythology and until it is proven that a creature worthy of being called “god” exists, I cannot pretend I hold a reserve that is not there. Further, if a creature of the Old Testament appeared, I’d hope my courage held to be smote to hell rather than bend a knee to such a thing. I’d hope….yes….

      I choose the term “atheist” to take a stand against the legislation and historic revisionism of this country, but aside from my political reasoning for the term, I am a secular humanist, a person who falls soundly under the Humanist umbrella.
      I choose the term to let others who question KNOW there are reasonable and kind people who are atheists.
      I choose the term because I am a woman and I can accept none of the patriarchal god concepts as rational.
      I choose the term because to pretend there is some form of as of yet undefined, unrevealed “god” is a bit nonsensical, it’s homage only to our “god” conditioning….it’s not good science to hold reserve for biblical/theistic comic book characters.
      Despite all of the above, if a god should appear, I’d consider it, and its dogma very carefully and should it be legit, I would recognize it, though I might not adhere to the dogma. Again, I’d hope my humanistic ethics would keep me strong enough to face any consequences. ;)

      Atheism itself is insufficient to encompass a worldview, but it does efficiently state my stance where god claims reside. I’m very comfortable with that.

      That said, I have no wish to kick any intellectual sand on any other form of nonbeliever, and prefer they keep their damning broader classifications on who and what (they believe) I am – because I embrace the term “atheist”, to themselves lest they look like they are too eager to stereotype and I lose a bit of respect for them.
      Sigh…I guess even I like to keep some illusions, Carl.

      In real life, I am non-imposing. I am often assumed to be a christian and only when pressed do I note I am an atheist. I do not declare or challenge.
      Online, in proper debate rooms, I debate.
      I find a lot of atheists are quite like me. Yes, there are some aggressive atheists, and given the numbers of aggressive theists and what they have done to women’s and human rights re: equality, I must say, bravo/brava to them. It’s not my cuppa, but I support them excepting the most obnoxious fringe, which in the scheme of numbers is really sort of unmentionably small, isn’t it?

      These are reasonable distinctions that I find all too often become blurred by someone who may have some aversion to either the term “atheist” or some limited interaction with atheists they reacted strongly to…..and I wonder why it’s so comfortable for otherwise very logical folk to make such a broad statement.

      Atheists deserve the right to be comfortable in their own skin as long as they do no harm to others. Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way and this creates anger —> activism, which creates reactive responses from folks who have not experienced some of the same life tribulations of being atheist in a strongly theistic environment.
      I know…I know….it’s hard not to judge when you think people should be this or that based on one’s feelings to certain personality traits.

      • Aviator says:


        Do you mean to say that without Humanism you wouldn’t be able to enjoy “Life, philosophy, human interaction, and perception”? Is there some kind of rule that says Atheists don’t enjoy or participate in these activities?


      • Justin says:


        After a couple years of trying to define exactly how I felt about religion as a whole, you hit the proverbial nail on the head. What you said is 100% what I thought. Even though this was posted a year ago, I felt compelled to reply to it.

    • atheist says:

      good shit man gooood shit!!!!! hahaha

    • atheist says:

      carl coon is right!

    • Adjel says:

      I’m sorry, but I have to call you out on the “atheists tend toward confrontation with true believers.” As there are always a few zealots in any group of people who feel a certain way, I find this a gross generalization. Yes, as an atheist, I am confrontational if the situation merits. I call bulls**t when I hear it. Otherwise, I, as well as countless other atheists, are perfectly willing to “discuss the god question in a more relaxed way,” provided the other party is willing to “discuss” and not just proselytize, otherwise there is no discussion. Also, I see humanism as being completely compatible with atheism, but is not compatible with “true” Christianity. Christianity, like pretty much all religions, is a religion of exclusion. It was constructed by men, meant to exclude women and control them, as well as to exclude groups who “aren’t like them,” like homosexuals, or people of other beliefs, or people of color, or perhaps just people of certain regions. Humanism, in my understanding, is a “live and let live” doctrine, that relishes and embraces the differences in humans.

  3. mary says:

    The proof is in the pudding as “they” say…I suppose both you and I will find out when our spirits leave our bodies. Unfortunately for you, if I, a believer turn out to be right, you are in for a rather unhappy surprise.

    • Robert S says:

      Well actually it should be “The proof is in the eating…” “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” – is the actual phrase, so a shorthand should be “the proof is in the eating”

    • atheist says:

      but we have no spirits? We are buried in the ground forever…black….forever…there is no satan , there is no hell, no heaven and no “GOD”……HAIL SCIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…..where would this “heaven” be?…not in space……..where there is proof of science everywhere up there……..and where might this hell be??……not under us!! ill tell you that much!! the earth’s layers and core……and those places and “GODS”……are most likely to be imagination just something for the god freaks to believe in……………….ERROR 404…GOD NOT FOUND!

      • hazar says:

        how you know there is no heaven or no hell or no god relying on science which is proven by a week human not a super one. whatever facts have been proven still week to believe them either because the human mind is not perfect and if it is perfect, it is still complicated. so whoever you are(atheist, humanitarian, muslim, christian, …), you still ignorant and you know nothing and you are unable to know even if you are the cleverest in this world. whatever the human being is trying to prove is still unproven in a way so how you could rely on a such proof from a weak mind in a weak being. everything seems doubtful and hard to assume its existence or its truth. if you believe in something in particular, it is just to be in a kind of peace within yourself, even while you are not sure of what thing you believe in or accept to be your guidance. everyone of us is trying to rely on something to prove something else which is not proven itself. it looks complicated but it is acceptable if it is not even true.

        • Born again Atheist says:

          Excuse me, my claim is I am a Super Hero I can fly, turn invisible, have wicked super strength and read minds…. No I don’t have to prove that I can, YOU have to prove I can’t. That is the exact logic theists throw our way so I figure time for you to accept your own theory and prove I’m wrong, until you do, well I’m a freaking super hero

      • Himynameisgod says:

        “ERROR 404…GOD NOT FOUND!”

        Brilliant – atheist

  4. Dawn says:

    and unfortunately for you Mary, if you turn out to be wrong, you’re in for a hell of a shock. :)

  5. Big D says:

    If you believe that being a human is all there is then God(cannot be defined so let’s not go there) will not be available to you. The reason no man can prove the existence of God is because man exists apart from God. A divine eternal being seperated from his own essence through the insertion of a false ego concept and thus a false will. Once seen for what it is a man can remove himself from the false perception of seperateness and return to the unified wholeness of his own nature. That’s why it’s said(in so many words) that man must surrender unto God. (his own true nature) So the humanist is correct in regards to being a human being but not neccessarily correct in his understanding of the fundamental nature of his being. He’ll never be able to prove anything. It does require dissolution of the entire concept of ego. Can any man achieve that through his own effort? Perhaps you’ll answer why would he want to. Well, there you go.

  6. Justin says:

    You would serve the Humanist movement more effectively if you would not refer to religious types as “conservative”. There are plenty of liberal/progressive religious types that do not agree with the Humanist or Atheist way of thinking.

    • lola says:

      Having been on atheist lists for 15 years, having attended conventions, I can only wonder, outside of the def. “without belief in god” (concepts), what this “atheist way of thinking” is, for we are surely so diverse that we agree on very little most of the time.
      Goodness, I’d hoped to find more open minded discourse here.
      Oh well, status quo is an accepted behavior.
      Bully for the species.

  7. Alan S says:

    That’s a good interpretation of humanism. I looked it up to see what is the difference between humanism and atheism (hell of a word to spell – can’t we come up with something else?). I know what I believe, disbelieve and am open minded about. However people always want to label you and can’t wait half an hour while you explain all of this to them. I could happily call myself an atheist, agnostic or humanist for all the value there is in a term whose definition is not carved in stone or that means the same to all people. for example the word Christian can mean someone who treats their fellow man as they’d like to be treated. It also applies to someone who wages war on another simply because their definitions of God are different. This is why atheists are becoming more vocal – because we’re fed up with hypocrisy.

  8. Robert S says:

    In how many dimensions do we exist? I think that question may be more meaningful to us today than asking “is there a Heaven”, or “is there an afterlife”.

    One could also as: “Is there life before death?”

    Yep, one could ask that alrighty.

  9. Lisa says:

    I decided to look into humanism after seeing an ad on the bus this weekend. As a Christian, I didn’t understand the difference between humanism and atheism and it seemed odd to advocate a disbelief in something, namely God. This article was helpful in helping me to understand that Humanism, at least, is a positive belief and is not just based on a disbelief in something else. For the record, I believe that Christianity is simply the belief, based on faith, that God (Jesus) exists and died for my sins because of His grace. It’s funny that my pursuit of philosophy brought me back to Christianity.

    • atheist says:

      honestly lisa… not trying to bag on your belief but… mom is a christan and all she does is read the bible and watch church on tv and she goes to church every freakin sunday… and all me and her do is debate aboutif there is a god…..she tells me there is ……but that is just to unrealistic …there could never be a superior being in the regular life ….. if there was a “god”…there would have been proof by now seriously!!..think about it….where could he even be????………..exactly..nowhere.

  10. Jan Birch says:

    Jesus Christ is the greatest humanist that ever lived. Please for those of you who don’t know what this incredible human did for his fellow humans and huwomans for that matter ( he had to work with the culture of his time) please I implore you to take a few minutes to read about it and then think, as a humanist, do you serve yourselves or every human/woman on this beautiful planet.
    Thank you.

    • Chase says:

      There is less proof of the existence of Jesus Christ than there is of a god. Of the 33 historians living in the Roman Empire(that encompassed Jerusalem), not one historian bothered to mention the man. At least not until the first Council of Nicaea. Then three, inherently Christian historians finally did. To be honest, having read on most world religions and mythologies, The New Testament is an overtly obvious attempt at converting the same old sun cult that made it’s rounds in the ancient world. It is essentially a re-telling with different names of numerous other god-kings, namely Horus, or varyingly Osiris.

      The name Jesus Christ is actually not a name at all, but a title, meaning, “Annointed One”. The same title used a hundred times over, only this time in Hebraic, by archetypal messianic figures.

      • Lisa F says:

        I don’t believe in god or that jesus was a son of god born of a virgin, but there was a Jesus… and he was a carpenter and he also had siblings and his own family… the person is true… the rest was a really good novel…. like twilight…

    • JLong says:

      Jesus is the greatest humanist that ever lived … ? Are you sure about that? How many people did he help when he was alive? More than Mandela, more than MLK, more than Chavez, more than Ghandi? I am just throwing out some of the more well known names in the ‘good works’ department. I have a bone to pick with the ‘Give all the credit to Jesus’ crowd. Why are all humans born with original sin but Jesus gets all the credit for any good that we do? Are we spiritual slaves? Indoctrinated as children that we are incapable of good or moral acts without God and that good and moral acts when they occur are akin to spiritual currency which God then gets to invest while we go on earning it for him. God a humanist … ? Anyone saying that needs to do some remedial Bible study.

  11. Lisa F says:

    Uggg…. I guess I am a secular humanist… but when some people of faith choose to be so ignorant and close minded and just unwilling to hear, it makes it hard… look, I am a person who does not believe in any gods or spirits or myths… I will admit, that for comfort, I do talk to family or friends that have passed away… but it is merely a comforting feeling.. I do NOT believe they are “looking down and listening”. I truely believe in just doing the right thing, all the time… help out people in need… and any other people… I believe in my own self conciense… if something makes me feel bad… I know it is wrong and I try to make up for that… I don’t need the guilt of a church or god. it’s common sense and we are all born with that… with the exception of a few true sociopaths… ok, off subject… what got me to write was, I think her name was Mary, saying that to non-believers, that when we die we will be unhappy… ok.. well going with your religion… if I do die and there is a good and loving god, as you say, I think he looks at peoples merits in life… how they lived their life, not what they called themselves… so IF there is a magic god… I think I’ll be ok… but I’m not worried, because I will be dead and not have the capacity to worry anymore, lol…..

    • aniccia says:

      Hi Lisa
      ‘ if something makes me feel bad…’ nobody ever makes you feel bad – you are CHOOSING to feel bad!!!

  12. Craig says:

    Is it then a contradiction that Richard Dawkins is a Vice President of the British Humanist Association. He has quite strong views about religion. We he sit along well with a Deist or a well meaning and liberal christian?

  13. Jimmy says:

    Secular humanism sounds all nice and worthy, but its essentially an offshoot of atheism and therefore inherently contradictory by attempting to define moral principles and ways of acting to which we should adhere. If atheism is true, all thought, rationality and moral decisions are the consequence of physical processes beyond out control. Why even bother trying to be a good person when you know any thoughts you have are a result of physical factors outside your control. The whole thing seems absurd. And how can you criticise conservative theists when they can’t control their acts and beliefs. The best one can say is that you have no choice but to think you’re free. Hitches said something similar and frankly it’s laughable, feel free to disagree but be kind as I have no power over what I type, those damn particles and neural juices compel me to do it, I wish they would rattle the chain of causation a different way then I could be a progressive atheist.

  14. Carl Coon says:

    Jimmy, you seem to think atheism must involve determinism, and it doesn’t. In the free will versus determinism argument, we non-believers are on the side of free will. We believe a person can live a good and moral life without believing in god. We try at least as hard to live up to that conviction as god-fearing types do. Harder, usually, as we don’t have any system of confession and penance that lets you off the hook.

    • JLong says:

      Well said Carl Coon. The theist struggle to understand what the word atheist means is very strange from the perspective of an atheist. As though there is some disconnect, some spiritual circuit breaker overload and ‘pop’: all further comprehension stops. It is the simplest of words that only exists in reference to a time when everyone was required to ‘believe’ in God else there were dire consequences. It just means you don’t believe in God, any of them. The assumption that somehow there must be something within atheism that replaces God and religion is wrong. Humanism is not a replacement of religion or God but it is more than a non-belief like atheism. Humanism is something whole and real and full of the belief that people are the source and the focus of love. The important distinction for me is that humanism is independent of atheism and vice versa. One can exist without the other. One does not imply or justify or create the other. There are some obvious voluntary connections between them but these connections are not compulsory for either to exist on it’s own.

  15. Quite simply, if you in any way at all put the needs of your god(s) before the needs of human beings then you are not a Humanist. Since no religion does this it’d be very hard to claim to be both a theist and a Humanist simultaneously.

  16. Denise Wilson says:

    I would be interested in the views of humanists here regarding their attitude towards non human animals as property.
    Apart from the many wars throughout history that have had their origins at least in part or at least backed by a belief that their gods are on their side it seems that humans of all cultures and religions hold an implicit belief that our fellow species must be dominated or exterminated. Religious rituals invariably throughout the ages take the form of animal torture, sacrifice, domination . As a global species humans have moved very little from this position. Bull fighting, rodeos, are just two well known examples in the west and there are still unspeakably cruel religious ritual mass slaughter of animals in a number of countries involving horses, dogs, sheep and other species. Phillip Wollen said famously of the 10 000 terrified animals slaughtered globally every minute ..” If slaughter houses had glass walls we would all be vegetarians” . But I wonder if there would be many converts whilst people blandly accept the inferiority of other species and the “god given” right to use animals as property. …..Genesis 9.2 “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth…”
    Neuroscience and other scientific studies shows that non human animals feel pain as we humans do, feel grief and fear and mother love, have social bonds and protective instincts, have a similar imperative to be free and contented. Humans are supposedly the only animals that have developed a moral code. As a past humanist I have come to dislike my species as greedy, arrogant, lacking in emotional intelligence and moral integrity.
    I would be interested in responses from people on this site.

    • Tyler Roler says:

      Very interesting discussion and you raise a very important question i hadnt considered ,As far as I know a core principal of buddhism is to ease the suffering of any life if possible within reason.However, many buddhists dont consider buddhism to be a religion but more of a way of life or a worldview.

  17. Carl Coon says:

    This is a very interesting issue. My recently completed “A Short History of Evolution” gives me a couple of benchmarks that will help me find answers that to beyond simple opinions that leave me feeling good. I’ll post another essay when I have pulled these answers together. Thanks for weighing in.

  18. fred says:

    just a question from everyone in this forum, what will the proof of the existence of God will do for you as a person, will it make you a better person or worse, will it make you obey or disobey, for that matter when was the last time in this material world that a painting described its Painter ?

  19. Carl Coon says:

    As for proof of God, I’ll cross that bridge in the very unlikely possibility I ever come to it. As for my behavior, it is governed by principles that work either way.
    As for this painter parable, show me a painting that can imagine.

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