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.