Atheist/Humanist concerns

Labelling

Just to state the blindingly obvious:

  • Atheists are defined by what they are not, not by what they are. They are "not theists".
  • Most atheists are confident that they have no need of the god idea to answer the big questions of life.
  • Most atheists don't feel the need for any label beyond this and they feel no need to proselytise or campaign about it.
  • Most atheists are not members of anything merely because they are atheists - many are simply "not joiners".
  • Most atheists are not members of the British Humanist Association - it would have millions of members if they were.
  • Most atheists adopt a "live and let live" approach to religion - though they get annoyed when terrible things are done in the name of religion or when religion tries to poke its nose into people's personal or sexual lives.
  • Most atheists are confident that most young people will reject religion eventually - despite what they are told at school - though they feel uncomfortable with schools which deny children a free and informed choice by promoting a single world view.
  • Most people are apatheists, they don't think about it much (they have probably not thought about it since their last RE lesson!), it has no relevance to their day-to-day lives and they don't label themselves as religious or as atheists.

The "system" can't handle atheists

How do you pigeon-hole someone who says "I am just me" and when asked "do you believe in god(s)?" just says "no"?

The system, (national and local government, institutions, organisations) finds it impossible to deal with people who refuse to be labelled.

The system likes "representative organisations" which it can deal with on an "organisation to organisation" model. It prefers organisations with recognisable hierarchies with "leaders" and "representatives" it can negotiate with. The classic example is national and local government dealing with "community leaders" when those leaders are self-appointed with no democratic structure or mandate behind them.

Here is a simple and true example.

  • X approaches his local SACRE and asks if the SACRE has anyone representing a non-theist world view
  • X is told "no".
  • X asks "can I represent secularism?"
  • X is told "no, because that is a political point of view."
  • X asks "can I represent my fellow non-theists as an atheist?"
  • X is told "no, because there is no atheist world view, there is no such thing as atheism and there is no representative organisation for atheists."
  • X calls the BHA, returns to the SACRE, and asks "can I represent Humanism?"
  • X is told "maybe. Do you have a faith?"
  • X says "no".
  • X is told "this is a problem. Are you sure you don't have faith in anything?"
  • X says "well, I have faith in my fellow human beings to help lead a happy and responsible life without god and religions."
  • X is told "that will do. Welcome to the SACRE."
  • Through the efforts of X, and others, "a non-theist world view, for example, Humanism" becomes part of the local Agreed Syllabus for RE.

X has not changed in all of this but has been forced to adopt a label, "Humanism", so that his non-theist world views can be heard.

 

The problem with organisations

National organisations need a name and a structure and they tend to be centralised, usually in London. Frequently such organisations find themselves laying down a centralised "party line."

This can be particular difficulty when dealing with freethinkers - after all, being an atheist does not define what you believe - individual atheists can think for themselves and derive their own personal moral code.

It has been said that attempting to organise atheists is like attempting to herd cats - it doesn't work because each of them can think for herself.

"Humanism" is an awkward name.

From Erasmus in the 16th Century to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 20th there has been a long tradition of "Christian Humanism" putting the accent on the humanity of Jesus and the need to support people in this life rather than waiting for one after death.

Atheist speakers in schools frequently encounter teachers who tell the class "I am also a humanist" - only to find that the teacher means "Christian Humanist". Speakers soon learn to describe themselves as "atheist humanist" to avoid such confusion.

Humanism: "Christianity without the god bit"

Humanists are frequently told, usually by religious people, that they are "Christians without the god bit."

In part this is true because Humanism grew out of the Christian non-conformist movement in the 19th Century - becoming the Union of Ethical Societies in 1896 and the BHA in 1967.

This is awkward - it places Humanism alongside religions - almost as another religion - after all, Buddhism is also a religion without the god bit.

This can have unfortunate consequences.

Instead of seeing Humanism as an organisation representing atheists and therefore opposed to all religious supernatural beliefs, it becomes labelled as "just another religion, just another set of beliefs."

Humanism on the syllabus

Humanism is often taught in schools as if it was just the "good" bits of Christianity without all the supernatural stuff. So, "this week Islam, next week Jainism, the week after Humanism" becomes the way the topic is covered - if covered at all

Many atheists feel very uncomfortable about this. A non-theist view should be expressed continuously throughout the RE syllabus - "some people believe this, others don't" should be heard repeatedly in every RE lesson.

This confusion would go away if RE became Philosophy and Ethics, of which religion would be a part. In this way pupils could see that there are many approaches towards ethics and morality - only some of which are religious. It would take these important topics in a child's development out of a subject specifically labelled "religious", with its inherent "god assumption", and would enable it to be taught in an inclusive way covering both religious and non-religious world views.

However, it is a good thing that Humanism is on the RE syllabus, that the syllabus is available for all teachers to read and that resources are available to teach it. Teachers can teach about Humanism in the same way they teach about religions. They don't need to be experts in any religion or belief, they can follow the syllabus and use the resources.

Humanist speakers

Speakers are a different matter.

Schools frequently invite speakers to talk to pupils about their world views and how they came by them. It is very much a personal presentation allowing pupils to make their own judgements about the speaker and what is said, Teachers can follow up such talks with future work and discussion if they wish.

This is an opportunity for individuals to express their own views - as atheist humanists - without necessarily toeing a party line.

 

 
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