Less Atheism, More Humanism

24/12/2012 15:53 | Updated 23 February 2013

Atheism is a dirty word. But not as dirty, apparently, as humanism.

Recently published census data shows that the number of non-religious people in England and Wales has risen from 15 to 25% in the past ten years. Never mind that the actual figure is probably a good deal higher than that (the leading question 'What is your religion?' causes many non-believing cultural Anglicans to self-identify as Christian), six million more people ticking the 'no religion' box is still a huge number. If you were one of them, and you're someone who goes about their life trying hard to 'do the right thing', welcome along - you're a humanist.

Humanists are broadly defined as non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They believe that this life is the only one we have, trust in the scientific method and place human welfare at the heart of their ethical decision-making. Put simply, it's about being 'good without God'. Sounds like something we can all get on board with, right? To judge by the census data, 'humanism' is a word we'll be hearing a lot more in the coming years. But to judge by the frequency with which the so-called New Atheists use it on the book tour and lecture circuit, identifying as a humanist is about as cool as admitting to being a Trekkie.

One of the things I enjoy doing most in my spare time is listening to or attending debates in which rationalists dismantle the arguments of religious apologists. Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens did a particularly fine job on the Catholic Church a few years back; earlier this month Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer gave Dinesh D'Souza and Ian Hutchinson a similar drubbing on the subject of science and God; and on a recent trip to Australia, Richard Dawkins summarily dispensed with the confused and self-contradictory ramblings of the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell. It's compelling viewing, and I must say it's very sporting of the religious to keep jumping into the barrel for Fry and friends to start shooting.

Early in the Q and A session with Cardinal Pell, Dawkins concedes that the word 'atheism' carries negative connotations, especially in parts of the US, where atheism and paedophilia are viewed as being more or less morally equivalent. He goes on to list a number of other labels - non-theist, secularist, non-believer and so on - which might more helpfully describe his position. Sadly 'humanist' wasn't one of them. I really wish it had been.

In some respects I can understand why. Dawkins is a scientist and values semantic precision in public discourse. Atheism and humanism aren't synonymous and can't be used interchangeably. Not unlike being a Catholic, it's just as possible for an atheist to be a paedophile as an aid-worker. Knowing that someone is atheist tells you nothing else about her values, political views, dietary habits or propensity for recidivism. But Dawkins and his Horsemen friends are humanists, and you don't need to check their entries on the distinguished supporters section of the BHA website for proof. I just wish they would say so a little more often.

Renowned faith-baiter Sam Harris famously neglected to use the word 'atheism' once in his book The End of Faith, an excoriating, laser-precise attack on the pernicious effects of religion. Interestingly though, the only instance of the word 'humanism' in the book is in the opening pages instructing booksellers where to file it. Christopher Hitchens, an exemplar of humanism if ever there was one, does slightly better in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (seven mentions of 'humanism' or 'humanist'), and did occasionally profess his own humanism publicly, but being the contrarian lover of language that he was, always preferred his own coinage 'anti-theist'.

Concerns among the non-religious over the utility of the word 'atheism' aren't new. Jonathan Miller holds that, just as he needs no word to describe his non-belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, any word to specifically convey unbelief in a supernatural creator of the universe is similarly redundant. Hitchens rightly retorted that since 'fairyists' do not threaten eternal damnation for children who do not believe in the tooth fairy, or demand equal billing for their fairyist beliefs in school science lessons, 'atheism' was a useful - indeed necessary - flag around which opponents of religious superstition could gather.

But there's another, more pressing reason why humanism must emerge from the fringes as an 'alternative' to atheism. Some of the six million people now identifying as non-religious since 2001 will want a 'flag' to gather around, and if we wish to continue the upward trend we must give them one. Religion has been that flag for thousands of years. It has always done community much better than secularism, and not just because it has had a lot more practice. But atheism is a denial of something, not an affirmation. If we unbelievers - we humanists - want to bring new friends on board, we need to offer people something to gravitate towards, not away from. Put another way, anyone who lists only their dislikes on a dating website isn't going on many dates.

And it's a specifically moral flag, I think, that galvanizes people in this way. As a journalist, outgoing BHA president Polly Toynbee has been a powerful and very natural voice for the positive ethical stance of humanism. Through her writing she has repeatedly stated the case for the 'good' part of 'good without God'. I'm delighted that the renowned science broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili is taking over from her; along with Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris et al, he is doing much to communicate the awe and wonder the universe inspires in us without the need for a supernatural creator. I just hope that, being a scientist, he won't confine himself to scientific concerns - that is, keep the 'good' part squarely on the agenda. He's very qualified to do so.

Chris' book Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America can be purchased from his Amazon page.