A few years ago the so-called “new atheists” made headlines attacking belief in God and questioning the value of religion. Some of the books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens even made best seller lists. There is much to commend these works. They have managed quite well to tear down the edifice of traditional supernatural religious belief, but they have failed to offer anything to take its place. They have lumped all religious perspectives together and denounced them all as intellectually invalid and morally reprehensible.
Humanism, however, offers a positive and affirming view of life without a supernatural God. I believe it is not enough to be critical of traditional religion and religious belief unless you can offer something to replace them. This is the difference between mere atheism, which is negative, and Humanism, which is positive and affirming. Humanism is much more than atheism. Atheism means denying the existence of a supernatural deity, but we human beings seek meaning and purpose, and we want to know how to live happy and fulfilling lives. Humanism offers those things, so I talk and write about what Humanism affirms, not what it denies, about Humanism as a morally responsible and joyous way of living.
A positive Humanism is not primarily about the supernatural beliefs we reject; it is about the values we stand FOR, and we stand for human well-being, human flourishing. We stand for social justice and equity for all people, for these affect the quality of life of everyone. Human-ism is about the worth and dignity of every human being. It is about respecting persons and caring about each person’s well-being, and it is opposed to whatever decreases the flourishing of any human being any where at any time.
When it comes to religion, most people, I believe, assume we have only two alternatives: either accept traditional religion or reject it. But there is a third alternative -- humanism, which includes the best values and principles of traditional religion without requiring us to believe in the superstitions, irrational beliefs and dogmas of traditional religions, but not leaving us adrift without meaningful convictions and a reason to live that is the danger of atheism and agnosticism. For those of us for whom the stories and myths of traditional religion have lost their power as well as their believability, and for whom reason and intellectual honesty are central, this third way can make a lot of sense.
Humanism has two branches -- religious Humanism and secular Humanism. They have the same beliefs. The major difference is that religious Humanists find value in being part of a community of people with similar values and beliefs whereas most secular Humanists choose not to be part of such a community. Some religious Humanists prefer to be known as “congregational Humanists” since the word religious has theistic connotations to most people.
So I suggest that Humanism offers a third way, a way that includes the best of the critique of traditional religions of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and the best values of the traditional religions. It is a lifestance that makes sense today in the 21st century, that speaks to our time in a meaningful and powerful way, a perspective grounded in the natural, not in the supernatural; a perspective that emphasizes the worth and dignity of human beings rather than the glory of God; and a perspective that understands living well and social responsibility to be of far greater importance than personal piety.