I’m reading ‘Farewell to God’ by Charles Templeton (don’t buy it, it’s rubbish), and one of the first things he does is point out that he is an agnostic, and then describes his position, that he’s not sitting on the fence, it’s just that he cannot prove there is no god, so he cannot be absolutely sure there is no god, therefore he cannot be an atheist.

This got me thinking. His is very similar to my own perspective (and I think the majority of non-religious people would put themselves there too), but when people ask, I call myself an atheist, not an agnostic. It’s not that I’m absolutely certain there is no god, but I have no reason whatsoever to believe there is a god, so I live my life assuming that there isn’t.

The reason I don’t call myself an agnostic is because to many people it implies that I’m 50/50, sitting on the fence, with no idea whether there is a god or not. This is not the case. In my own mind I’m fairly sure that there’s no god, I just can’t prove it.

Of course, as widely pointed out, ‘atheist’ is a term that should not exist. All it means is that you don’t believe in a god. We don’t have terms like ‘non-socialist’ or ‘non-racist’, or ‘non-postman’. It’s a negative term that doesn’t really mean very much at all.

When people ask me to define humanism, one thing that I invariably bring up is that, in a way, it is ‘positive atheism’, in that saying you’re an atheist is saying what you don’t believe, whereas saying you’re a humanist is saying what you do believe (skeptical inquiry, rationalism, objective morality etc). I think this illustrates that humanism is not just another word for atheism to escape the stereotyping often associated with the term. In fact in the strictest sense you don’t even have to be an atheist to be a humanist. I’ve yet to meet a single religious humanist, but I imagine there are some.


5 Responses to Labels

  1. Jon Mountjoy says:

    I agree – all these labels are so confusing. Even more so as the meaning of the terms change over time. (See Bertrand Russel’s definition here: ).

    As for religious humanists, they apparently do exist. I was once asked to explain the difference between humanist and secular humanist, and after scratching my head looked up a definition. Apparently “Humanism clearly rejects deference to supernatural beliefs in resolving human affairs but not necessarily the beliefs themselves; indeed some strains of Humanism are compatible with some religions.” Secular humanists reject theistic belief.

  2. grammarking says:

    Thanks for reading, Jon.

    I am firmly of the belief that what a word means is not what is written in the dictionary, but the way it is commonly used and interpreted by real people in the real world. So although my beliefs are the dictionary definition of agnosticism, if I went around calling myself an agnostic, the majority of people would think I meant something else. Whereas the term ‘atheist’ no longer means atheist as in ‘absolutely certain there is no god’, and is more commonly used for someone who just doesn’t believe in god, which is very close to my beliefs. So it’s more clear for others what I believe if I describe myself as an atheist than as an agnostic.

    Maybe labels wouldn’t be quite so confusing if people used them in the right way, heh.

    The way I look at it, humanism doesn’t specifically say you can’t have a religion, it’s just that following the humanist traits of skeptical enqiry would lead most people to disbelief. It must be rare, but I don’t see why, if someone had a genuinely good reason for believing in their religion (perhaps difficult for us to think of), they couldn’t think skeptically about religion and still come to the conclusion that their religion is true. This would make them both religious and humanist.

  3. Stuart Ritchie says:

    The other day I bought the ‘Very Short Introduction’ to Atheism, by Julian Baggini. I thought it might be quite good as a short primer to give to religious friends – and it is!

    Baggini coins the term ‘Etymological Fallacy’ to refer to what people do with the word ‘Atheism’. His reasoning is something like this:
    -‘Atheism’ literally means ‘no belief in God(s)’.
    -‘Tagliatelle’ literally means ‘little boot laces’.
    Neither of these really tell you much about the thing we now refer to, though they are literally true etymologically. I think this is rather cool! And for this reason, Sam Harris et al. can piss right off when they say we shouldn’t use terms like ‘Atheist’ or Humanist.

    Baggini uses ‘Atheism’ to encompass a rational, evidence-based worldview, which I rather like. However, later on he says this is really the same definition as Humanism (which he doesn’t use for various reasons, including the fact not many people know what it means) – how are we ever going to take over the world if we can’t even decide on a bloody name?!

    Jon – the plot thickens: surely ‘Secular’ doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting religious belief but just believing in the separation of church and state? You could be a religious secularist, as indeed many people are.

    Nice blog, by the way Mike. I’ll try and comment more often!

  4. grammarking says:

    Cheers Stuart!

    Those Very Short Introductions are really good, I’ve referenced them in politics essays. The tagliatelle comparison is very illuminating, too, it’s a nice way of articulating what I had floating around in that big empty space I call my head.

    The meaning of ‘secular’ is almost as confusing as the meaning of ‘atheist’, because although when you use the word ‘secularist’, you know it means someone who advocates the separation of church and state, the word ‘secular’ on its own isn’t so clear, and it could mean that, but it is also widely interpreted as just “non-religious”. I don’t think anyone would describe a secular humanist as a humanist who wants the separation of church and state. They might want that anyway, but most people would define the term as a non-religious humanist. So it’s just as ambiguous.

  5. Tim Maguire says:

    And on the subject, you might find this interview with Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein worth a look

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