I don’t really like labels.
Why do I have to be “a Liberal” rather than “a Tory”, “an atheist” rather than “a Christian?” I prefer to think in terms of my stance on individual issues – politically I usually agree with the Greens, and often with the Socialists, but I disagree with both platforms in some cases, and sometimes even (gasp!) agree with a right winger. So my vote goes to whichever party in a given election best represents my attitude towards the issues I deem most important at that time. (It’s a shame, because other than effectively having to be part of a specific political party, politics sounds like a decent career option for me).
Labels can sometimes be useful though. (Even the “anti-label” label doesn’t fit me all the time). They’re a short-cut, a way to describe the essence of my views without spending too much time on lengthy explanations.
As I’ve written before, I’ve labelled myself in the past as an agnostic, and then later as an atheist. People (well, most people) understand what both those terms mean. If the conversation develops, then you can get into more detail, but often it’s just a brief question and answer from a casual acquaintance (e.g. at a recent baby shower: “How about you? Do you go to church?” “No, I’m an atheist.” “Oh….” (lengthy pause) “these mini quiches are great, aren’t they?”). However, the term that fits me best is the mixed-label “agnostic atheist”. What I mean by this is that in the absence of any evidence for the existence of gods, I’m fairly convinced that they don’t exist; but I accept that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, that I can’t ever know for certain, and that I will change my mind if evidence arises. Try dropping that into casual conversation though.
More recently, I’ve started reading a little about Humanism. It’s come up in conversation a couple of times recently with agnostic/atheist friends who self-identify as Humanists, so I thought I’d better investigate.
Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appealing to universal human qualities, particularly rationality, without resorting to the supernatural or alleged divine authority from religious texts. It is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems. Humanism can be considered as a process by which truth and morality is sought through human investigation and as such views on morals can change when new knowledge and information is discovered. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.
From the British Humanist Association:
Humanism is an approach to life based on humanity and reason – humanists recognise that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone and that the aims of morality should be human welfare, happiness and fulfillment. Our decisions are based on the available evidence and our assessment of the outcomes of our actions, not on any dogma or sacred text.
Humanism is a naturalistic view, encompassing atheism and agnosticism as responses to theistic claims, but is an active and ethical philosophy far greater than these reactions to religion.
Humanists believe in individual rights and freedoms, but believe that individual responsibility, social cooperation and mutual respect are just as important.
Humanists believe that people can and will continue to find solutions to the world’s problems, so that quality of life can be improved for everyone.
Humanists are positive, gaining inspiration from our lives, art and culture, and a rich natural world.
The difficulty for me is that while I agree with all of the above, it’s hitting me on a purely intellectual level. It makes perfect sense to me. BUT it’s not reaching out of the page and grabbing me by the throat, it’s not punching me in the gut and making me shout “YES! This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life!”
So am I a Humanist? (And does that word require capitalisation? Usage differs…) Luckily the British Humanist Association website has a quiz, imaginatively titled “Are you a Humanist?“
I took it. I got about 60-70% Ds, the rest were Cs. For some questions, I agreed with answers C and D equally.
From the answer key:
All or mostly Cs: Your answers are fairly neutral, perhaps a bit dependent on authority or other people or pure emotion. Humanists try to think, and to think for themselves. You may be an agnostic or a humanist or vaguely religious, depending on what your other answers were.
All or mostly Ds: You are a humanist or very close to humanist thinking. Many people are, often without even knowing it! Humanists don’t agree about everything, and you may have collected some other answers too, though if they include As and Bs you’re unlikely to be a humanist.
So… I guess I might be a Humanist. But then again, I might not.
Yeah, I know, it doesn’t matter. It’s just another label. I’m not planning to join any groups or attend any meetings anyway. But for some reason, I’d like to know.
I’m only human, after all, even if I’m not (necessarily) a Humanist.