I thought it’s about high time I wrote a little about something that’s been on my mind for a few months and which ought to be said, though I’m not sure if I’m the right person to be saying it. The problem as I see it is essentially a loose understanding of precise terminology. In particular, there are 3 words that banded about (by both christians and opponents of christianity) and often intermingled, which often leads to unnecessary upset, nitpicking and a general diversion away from the key issues being discussed; something which I fear is more often less than fruitful and which leaves neither side with a high opinion of the other. So what are these 3 words? Secular, humanist and atheist.
One of the reasons why I feel personally involved in this is because, of these 3 words (when considered as adjectives), I would like to describe myself by 2 of them. However, I am hesitant to do so, for fear of being misunderstood and needlessly ostracised. I shall attempt to deal with them one by one where I shall, out of necessity and brevity, omit some discussion before going on to look at the links between them that cause so many misunderstandings and arguments. To aid the discussion, I would like to draw your attention to two additional words that I think help and which have helped me a lot since I came across them. They are emic and etic. When describing characteristics and behaviours of groups of people, emic is a self-description (i.e. a way that the given set of people tend to talk about themselves). Etic is effectively a third party description used by those who are not part of that group to describe and characterise it.
So, in alphabetical order:
The most common definition I hear put forward by Christians is that atheists believe there is no God; in other words this is an etic description. However, this is a positive assertion which is not emically asserted by many atheists that I have come across. They prefer to consider themselves as a-theists; that is, via a negation of the term theist. However, I have then heard many different versions of what defines and characterises a theist. If you want a good laugh, then read through the introduction to John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, in which his extremely narrow-viewed definition rules out, inter alia, Jews, Catholics and Muslims who are all classified as atheists. I wouldn’t recommend the rest of the book, as it is largely full of creationist rubbish.
So while it may all be very good and acceptable to define oneself as the negative of something, it helps if the thing you are negating is itself well defined, otherwise you’ve made no real progress at all. The way to get around this is for atheists to posit that a theist is someone who believes there is at least one God. The negation of this is then someone who does not believe that there is at least one God. As a side note, I do not agree with this definition as it seems to incorporate deists, pantheists and panentheists, which I regard as belonging to a rather different school of thought to theists. Where people get confused is by equating this definition of atheism to the first statement at the start of this section. But they are not equivalent and for the simple reason of the existence of one further group of individuals: agnostics.
Agnosticism is probably the best defined term, even if it is also the most unsatisfactory philosophical worldview. It is simply the admission that one has not made up their mind on the question of the existence of God. It is this group of people that the atheists want to bring under their ‘envelope’ by definition via negation, thus rendering agnostics a subset of atheists. Under the etic description of atheists as those who believe there is no God, agnostics and atheists are distinguished and the former can no longer be considered a subset of the latter. So it would seem most fair to me to ask this group who is being tussled over whether they prefer to be considered atheists or whether they want to inhabit a space of their own. Now I must confess that I have not had the opportunity to commission any significant research on this matter, so the only evidence I have to hand is my own personal experience and a selection of relevant writings that I have read. Yet of what I have been exposed to in this respect, there is an overwhelming agreement that agnostics do not consider themselves to be atheists and often view atheists and theists with equal contempt, being as they both make assertions which are not backed up by naturalistic evidence. So it is on this basis that, in spite of likely objection, that I believe that defining an atheist as simply someone who lacks a belief in God is not particularly helpful or suitably precise. This would incorporate not only agnostics but also a large swathe of people who just don’t care or think it about it that often.
I am often amused on some forums when I see some atheists say that they never think about the issue of God, yet when you look at their posting history, the only threads they post on are those relating to “religion” and very little else. So it seems somewhat ironic (if not a little dishonest) to pretend that matters of religion don’t matter to them if that is all they talk about. So my working definition of an atheist is someone is someone who has considered the possibility and made a firm decision that they do not believe. This then excludes the agnostics and those who don’t care enough to give it a moment’s thought. Anyway, time to move on to something a little more interesting…
This is an area in which I feel there is a lot of confusion, but which could be remedied in part quite simply. The first thing to recognise is that there is a broad school of secularist thought and that secularism is not best described as one absolute thing in and of itself. To that extent, you can get mild secularism, extreme secularism and a variety of ideas in between. Now of course, I don’t mind the term being used as a generality, but in some conversations, there can be cross-purposes if one person has in mind a particularly extreme form of secularism and another has in mind a milder form, yet they continue to use the same language.
So what I shall aim to do here is to lay out what I understand by secularism, what is extreme, what is mild and whereabouts I stand. For in general, I would describe myself as a secularist, however I would not consider ever joining or contributing to an organisation such as the National Secular Society (NSS) as their practical mandate seems to overstep the bounds of my own point of view. By practical mandate, what I mean is how their actions, publications and public statements reflect the collective thinking of the organisation. This is distinct from any written statement of principles, articles of incorporation or similar such foundational writings, since the day-to-day realities do not always bear these out. The difference is akin to a company whose motto may be to serve their customers, but whose practice is to extract as much profit from their customers as possible.
In fairly broad terms, I would say that “mild” secularism simply does not invoke any religious maxims in public life. In other words, it’s a case of “carry on as you were,” where no religious institutions or persons are given special prominence solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. One particular proponent of this form of secularism was the German pastor, Martin Luther. His variety was largely a reaction against the political power and deference given to the highly corrupt catholic church. Unfortunately, this particular institution seems not to have learnt any lessons from the Reformation and still today it harbours criminals in its ranks and protects them in what has become a shame that is felt by association by Christians worldwide. A more “extreme” form of secularism is that which attempts to deliberately exclude anything religious from public life, with the subtext “out of sight, out of mind.”
Probably nowhere are the problems associated with a misunderstanding of secularism more apparent than with the multiple-mindedness prevalent in American society. Leaving aside the cranks of the Tea Party and their ilk for a moment, the formalised structure of the US constitution has caused little but trouble since it was first codified. Given that it starts “We hold these truths to be self-evident” it seems ironic that the president has to formally appoint a judge whose job it is to instruct the government as to the interpretation of this document. Anyway, I could go on about how daft the constitution has become but I shall try and restrain myself. What I want to focus on is the 2nd amendment which dictates the separation of church and state. From my perspective, on the east side of the Atlantic, it appears that the Americans have lost touch with the reason this was put in place. At the time, it was state interference in the church that caused the pilgrim fathers to flee England and seek a freer place to worship. Many modern proponents of secularism seem to have forgotten this and act and speak as though it the main worry was church interference in the matters of state. Views of this kind tend to view secularism as the complete opposite of theocracy. Now, I am no advocate of theocracy, on purely practical grounds. Governments have to be administered by people, whether it is in the name of the people they govern (as in democracy) or in the name of God (as in theocracy). The trouble comes with the fact that either way, you are still relying on fallible people – and don’t let anyone you tell you that the pope’s infallible, the evidence simply disproves that!
Lastly, we can come on to the term which is probably the least common in terms of modern usage, though I stand to be corrected on that; I speak only from the evidence of my own experience. Similar to the preceding section, there are a variety of different meanings that people hold when they hear the term humanism or humanist. For a brief illustration, please see this, taken from Wikipedia:
Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. The term can mean several things, for example:
1. A historical movement associated especially with the Italian Renaissance.
2. An approach to education that uses literary means or a focus on the humanities to inform students.
3. A variety of perspectives in philosophy and social science which affirm some notion of ‘human nature’ (by contrast with anti-humanism).
4. A secular ideology which espouses reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making.
When many Christians hear the term humanist, I think it is fair to say that they jump to the 4th definition. Unfortunately, this version is the most misleading. One of the clues as to why is the fact that the description of it as a “secular ideology” which, given the discussion above, makes it quite hazy and non-specific. It also smacks of not being humanism at all, but is rather more akin to a Randian Objectivism. Now definitions 1 and 2 are quite specific, but are specialised to particular fields of interest which are not the point of our current discussion. Probably the most accurate would be definition 3, although I still have issues with it. What is a far more fitting view of the heart of humanism is this:
“To recognise that humans occupy a special place within the world, and to celebrate and protect that position, valuing all humans and human life.”
So, for me, to be a humanist is to ensure that human beings are not placed second to anything else within the world. So I do not agree that we should promote animal rights over and above human rights, nor should humans be exploited for profiteering purposes. Now you might think I am being anti-environmentalist, but I am not. The environment is that in which we live, so we have a duty to look after it in order to ensure our long-term survival.
In fact, all of humanism can be summed up in two very short motifs: “Love other people just as you love yourself” and “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
I just wonder if the British Humanist Association would be willing to recognise this or whether they would reject these two statements, given that they would probably be aware of their origin. The fact is, Christianity is a humanist religion. People are at the heart of it, whichever way you look at the matter. So when I see a definition like def 4 from Wikipedia, it is plainly obvious that this definition of humanism has been hijacked.
The changing nature of words.
In all this, I am conscious that words change their meaning over time and that some modern definitions may be quite far removed from what they originally mean. For example, one word that is not often used but which does crop up occasionally is “meek.” Today, it is often interpreted as meaning something that it rhymes with: “weak.” Whenever it is used, it is usually in conjunction with the word mild, as in “meek and mild.” To many modern listeners, this is a form of parallelism whereby two words are used to describe broadly the same thing. However, this is quite different from what the word originally meant. The early meaning of the word was as “strength, contained” or “power under control.” So to describe someone as meek was a shorthand way of saying they were very strong of character but at the same time did not lack self-control. So in this context, “meek and mild” is not a parallelism, but rather a much fuller description using two things that do not always seem to go together. The closest analogy I can think of is “sweet and sour,” although maybe my thinking that was influenced by what I had for dinner last night!
So with that said, what can we say are the “real” meanings of our words in question? I know this is semantics but I think it is important as failure to understand one another is probably the main reason for civil discourse to descend into uncivilised (and unnecessary) argument. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that last question simply. I do like referring to original meanings, but at the same time to ignore the modern interpretations seems churlish. So when I speak or write, I shall try and define my terms as best as I can. The one caveat in that is obviously that I am not omniscient, and am therefore on a lifetime of discovery. So where I may use some terms there will be times during which I cannot grasp the full meaning of it (e.g. reality). I hope that you will forgive me for this shortcoming and that it does not impinge too much on your understanding.
The links between the three:
There is a sketch I recall from one particular episode of The Simpsons which demonstrates a particular viewpoint which may, unfortunately, not be uncommon in certain sections of American society. The Flanders’ boys are playing some sort of Bible Cluedo and state that the crime was committed “by the secular humanist in the museum with misinformation.” For secular humanist, they held up a picture of a guy with an open-necked shirt and a short, scruffy beard. Misinformation was represented by a dinosaur and the museum was just a museum front. The point was partly about creationism but what struck me was the equating of the secular humanist with an opponent of Christianity.
So where did the notion come from that secular and/or humanist imply atheism? As shown above, there is no logical reason why this should be so, given the core heart of secularism and humanism. It is perfectly possible to be a mild secularist and at the same time hold true to, say, one of the major monotheistic religions. Take the example of the nation of Turkey as an example. This is a secular state with a Islam as the national religion. It is not a theocracy, but is governed on democratic grounds, where any person of any belief may enter into the national politic. No religion is given special dispensation or is specifically discriminated against by the state.
It seems to me that the answer is that which I mentioned above at the end of the section on humanism: these terms have been hijacked by many, though not all, of our atheist friends. The common usage of the terms secular and humanist have been used in conjunction with atheistic overtones so much that an association is built up in many people’s minds so that there is a meshing of the ideas. It is a little like a rather insidious form of advertising, where a corporation wants to associate it product (in this case atheism) with something virtuous and desirable (e.g. secularism and humanism). The same is true, similarly, of the term free thinker, whose hijacking has been brutal so that it now means almost the opposite of the sum of the words that comprise it. Instead of meaning someone who’s thinking is free, it is now taken as a euphemism for an atheist, and specifically that anyone who indicates that they are in any way religious is ruled out as being a free thinker. But does this stand up scrutiny? Well, the hallmarks of those who think freely is that they are able to come up with their own conclusions. These need not necessarily be different from everyone else’s, but they do not accept on blind trust whatever they are told. (For a further discussion on how blind trust plays no part in christianity, please see my essay, Doubting Thomas And A Scientific Approach To Theology.) But the key is that you will end up with slightly different answers, nuanced by different interpretations of the facts and evidence at hand. So if christians were not free thinkers then what we would expect to see is a uniform belief across Christendom and complete agreement on all matters. Is that what we see? Of course not. A basic opening of the eyes and of looking through history will inform you that people have not always agreed and that people are free to believe and think for themselves. The only exception to this was the catholic church in the middle ages, which was not so much a church as a political body that was intent on clinging onto power in an authoritarian manner. But this was not enough to limit free thought, as the Reformation showed.
So how shall I conclude? The only way to change the usage of words is by repetition and by being as precise as possible. If anyone talks to you and throws about words such as those mentioned above, ask them what they mean by their usage, challenge them. When you use them yourself, check that your audience understand what you mean by them; don’t leave it for them to misinterpret you. So, with all that said: I think I can now safely define myself, without being grossly misunderstood, a secular, humanist christian.