Something that I occasionally struggle with is defining what term would classify my system of beliefs. For many people, its quite easy: they associate themselves with their faith. Christians try to live the life of Christ, Muslims emulate the life of Muhammad, followers of Indian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism especially) try to model a life respecting the forces of karma with an eventual goal of reaching nirvana, Shintoists try to live in harmony with spiritual forces in all things. Religion serves as a moral guide, as an explanation for creation, and provides clarity for questions that we cannot or could not answer.I, however, associate myself with atheism: I do not believe in a divine power, a god, nor any spiritual ‘forces’. Atheism is, by the literal definition, the lack of belief in a deity. However, atheism is not a religion: it does not provide answers to any questions, it does not set any moral guidelines, it does not explain how or why we are here like all religions do. Atheism, just as it definition describes, simply discounts the idea that God does. Thus, I find it hard sometimes to classify myself as simply an ‘atheist’, because atheism describes more of what I don’t believe in than what I do. Christians don’t describe themselves as Christians because they don’t believe in Hindu religious tenets, but rather because they follow the life guide that Christianity provides for them. I often long for some term of my own which does the same thing.
In order to understand that term, I have to describe first what it is that I believe in.
I believe that science offers the only reliable, changeable, and rational method we have to understand our place in the universe and its workings. Science offers knowledge and power that before could only be attributed to the gods. I believe that rational inquiry, constant critique and skepticism of provided evidence and answers, and deep investigation is a better way to answer questions about ourselves, our lives, our existence, and our universe than to accept the word of an ancient, primitive society as infallible.
I believe that the universe is so much more vast, more ancient, more complicated, more wondrous, more beautiful, and more weird than any mystic could ever know. I believe that the fact that most of these ancient mystics, and the religions they followed, attribute humanity and the Earth as the center and reason for the universe contrasts so powerfully with our present understanding of the enormity, vastness, and incomprehensible history of the universe that it says much about their validity, or lack thereof.
I believe that humanity have the potential to achieve great things, and that humanity has unrealized power. We are a united species, one which has conquered and dominates the natural world. We are all of the same flesh and blood. We have all developed societies and cultures which, while separate, unite us as being distinctly human. We share a collective responsibility on this Earth and for the future of mankind, regardless of our differences in faith, in political values, in worldview, and in outlook. Together, we’ve defeated smallpox, traveled to the moon, mapped our own genome, and peered back in time to begin to understand the events that occurred billions of years ago in our universe’s infancy. None of these we did with any divine guidance or intervention.
Many people don’t like being defined by what they are not, by what they do not believe. This is why, often, ‘atheist’ isn’t a term I prefer to use, although it is the most mainstream term. Per its definition, it implies that I do not have a worldview, that I do not have a moral code, that I do not have an answer to creation. Even more importantly, it implies that believing in a religion is the default, and that people like me are abnormal, when the opposite is distinctly true: no baby is born a believer, no child comes to believe a faith their parents did not instil in them. I think that we’re getting to a point, globally, where religion isn’t necessarily the default, faith isn’t necessarily the dominant answer to some challenging and contriver questions.
So, what should I call myself? I’ve heard and experimented with a number of terms: secularist, skeptic, freethinker, rationalist.I think the one that stands out more than any however, which really explains my worldview, is the term ‘humanist’.
According to the Institute of Humanist Studies, Humanism is a comprehensive world view which embraces human reason unaided by divine revelation, and one which consciously rejects supernatural claims, theistic faith and religiosity, pseudoscience, and superstition. Humanists derive their moral codes from a philosophy utilitarianism, ethical naturalism or evolutionary ethics, and some advocate a science of morality.
In short, Humanists put faith into human reason and rationality, as opposed to superstition, to answer questions. Science, to me, is the most powerful example of the application of human reason and rationality: when science is wrong, it gradually gets corrected, when things don’t make sense, new answers are developed. Moral codes are derived not from a supernatural source, but instead from the natural world: utilitarianism and ethical naturalism are one in the same: species follow ‘good’ morals because they will evolve stronger and society will function better if they do so. A society which steals, cheats, and murders will die out long before one which shares, cares, and respects another.
I feel that the time when I can suppliant the term atheist with humanist is still a ways away: people still equate atheism to religion, and people aren’t familiar with the term humanist. Perhaps this is why I still call myself, when asked, an atheist as opposed to a humanist. But slowly I believe, and I hope, that perceptions on the terms and misunderstandings will gradually fade away and the two terms will blend together. I feel that those who don’t believe in god need a term to describe their worldview just as much as those who do believe in a god do.