Atheists, Humanists, and Theists - Can't We All Just Get Along?

I have often been asked what the difference is between humanism and atheism.  I think what people really want to know is if I am hiding behind a word they do not know, humanism, because I don’t want to admit I’m an atheist.  So the answer to that question is no, I’m not doing that. The words mean two different things, both of which can be accurately applied to me, and neither of which I find particularly offensive.   Maybe you just need to learn a new word.  I’ll help you.

Let us go to Urban Dictionary.  It makes me look hip. The UD says an atheist is a person who lacks belief in a god or gods.  That’s easy, right?  A humanist subscribes to the doctrine that people's duty is to promote human welfare [while] emphasizing a person's capacity for self-realization through reason [and] rejects religion and the supernatural.  That’s where Good without a God comes from.  

I do prefer the term humanist because it tells you a whole lot more about who I am and what I believe instead of what I don’t believe from the perspective of the dominant paradigm.  Critics often say that atheists believe in nothing.  This is bullshit, of course.  We believe in all sorts of things; contradictory things, sometimes, but many things.   Atheism is not a cohesive belief system, nor does it hold an umbrella over a united group of people, but we often talk about it as if it does, especially when issues of church and state are involved.  

I recently came across an article about a Canadian couple who sued their daughter’s Montessori preschool over their multi-cultural curriculum which included observance of various Western religious holidays including decorating ornaments with elf figures.  The father suggested ornaments with the Twin Towers and “atheists do not fly planes into buildings” would be more appropriate.  It escalated from there.  There were dreidels and Nazi salutes involved, and the poor kid got kicked out of school. You have to be a true purist to pull off the argument that elves (and somehow not ornaments) are religious symbols, but more to the point, this family (who won by the way), has interpreted Canada’s version of the Separation of Church and State  to mean their daughter should not be exposed to any religion in any way.  Neither the definition of atheism nor the definition of humanism, or for that matter, the Establishment Clause supports this conclusion. And I’d like you to know if this was done in the name of atheism, these people do not speak for me.

I’d personally like to separate myself from the anti-religious. I don’t see myself that way, although it’s not always easy.  Here in the Bible Belt, I’ve often felt excluded from political events that opened up with Christian prayers and ignored by elected political officials who vote according to their interpretation of one particular Holy Book.  But I have no ill-will towards other people’s personal relationships with whichever deity or deities they’re into just like I don’t care if you like Brussels sprouts, kinky threesomes, or root for the Saints.  I really don’t care.  I’d love to live and let live, as long as others do the same.  I fear that there are many who cannot separate their religious beliefs from the rest of their daily lives and their interactions with the public sphere, and that creates a problem.  However, it is never my intention to prevent people from their own religious experiences.

Canada is also currently facing a proposal which would ban public servants from wearing religious symbols of any kind at work. This would apply to gold crosses, Jewish yarmulkes, and Sikh turbans, but it is clearly aimed at Muslim women in hijabs in an increasingly anti-immigrant political climate.  Hijabs are more than just cultural icons or symbols of faith, they are intertwined with a whole culture’s concept of modesty.  For many women, uncovering their hair in public is unthinkable and violates their deepest feelings of privacy.  This proposal would be like telling your child’s fourth grade teacher she could only keep her job if she showed up for first period topless.

Canada’s proposal, which is expected to pass, has been backed by at least one atheist group, but lest you think this is really about overly–enthusiastic atheism like it’s being portrayed, keep in mind it was introduced not by secularists, but by Quebec’s Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness who really should go by some other name.  You are being used, Atheist Freethinkers.

The mis-named minister may not actually believe in inclusiveness, but I do. I think my humanist principles direct me to see equal value in all people, even those who I don’t happen to agree with. I do not expect nor require religious people to hide their belief systems from me. I’m not sure people understand that about me when I tell them I am atheist. I had to explain to several of my kids’ teachers in the much-sued North West Rankin School District that I was perfectly ok with them wearing a gold cross or keeping a bible in a desk drawer for personal use.  It was the crosses on the wall and the distribution of bibles that had me calling the ACLU.  It’s not personal beliefs that are the problem.  It’s government entities morphing these beliefs into policy that is unacceptable.

Not everyone understands that distinction. Based on the recent comments on various threads we’ve had regarding the American Humanist Association’s request for an alternate license plate so that we non-believers are not required to express In God We Trust on our personal vehicles, many Mississippians assume that speaking up for our rights in some way violates theirs. 

It’s not pie.

There is plenty for everyone.

You put whatever you want on the back of your car.  That’s your right.  I am not forced by my government to profess a faith.  That’s mine. It’s not rocket surgery.

If you believe freedom of religion means there is room for everyone, you need to say so.  We need to take responsibility for educating our families, our friends, our neighbors, that humanism is not anti-religious.  That our rights are not violated by personal belief systems, only by legislated religion. In the absence of divine intervention, let us all take care of each other.  There’s room.