Atheism, agnosticism, and theism: a first glanceAtheism, agnosticism, and theism are all points of view concerning God, gods, and the supernatural. There are three major stances:
- A person believes in the supernatural
- This point of view holds that something exists beyond the natural world. This can be a god, several gods, spirits, a deity, or deities – a stance commonly called theism. It can also be a meta-physical life force, cosmic order, first cause, or reason for existence. Religions are typically centered on the worship of such supernatural entities.
- A person rejects belief in the supernatural
- This stance rejects all belief in supernatural entities and explanations. This position is commonly known as atheism.
- A person takes no specific stance towards the belief in the supernatural
- This point of view is commonly referred to as agnosticism. In its strict definition, agnosticism just says that the existence of the supernatural cannot be known.
What about other definitions of these terms?The notions of “atheism”, “theism”, and “agnosticism” are by no means agreed on universally, and definitions vary from source to source. The Pew Research Group, for example, finds that 21% of all American self-declared atheists believe in God 1. Thus, these people use the word “atheist” in a different way than we do in this book.
When we use the word “atheism” in this book, we are speaking of the position that rejects belief in the supernatural. This does not mean, however, that this definition is the only one, let alone the only “true” one. In particular, it does not mean that those who call themselves atheist would have to give up their belief in God. They shall believe whatever they wish, and call themselves whatever they wish — they are just not the people that this book talks about. This book will later argue that words are just arbitrary names, and that what counts is the concept itself, and not the word that we use for it . We just need a word for the phenomenon of disbelief, and “atheism” seems a natural choice.
Currently we are a minority, and as long as we are a minority we need a name.
What is the supernatural?The supernatural is anything existing outside the laws of nature. We will later give a more precise definition of the term. For now, we just enumerate things that are considered supernatural. The supernatural includes gods, spirits, angels, and so-called higher powers. The God of Judaism, of Islam, and of Christianity is also included, as this god is unequivocally considered outside the laws of nature. The supernatural also includes other gods as well as the concepts of the afterlife, a meta-physical cosmic order, any notion of a cycle of rebirth, and the idea of a divine destiny.
Man-made objects such as cars and toothbrushes are not considered supernatural. Feelings, emotions, thoughts, and other abstract things such as the water cycle or numbers are not considered supernatural either. Something can be intangible but still natural.
What is a god?A god or deity is a supernatural being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or the fate of humans 2. This definition includes the God associated with Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but also other gods of other religions, such as a moon god or the Hindu god Vishnu. Those who practice the Wicca faith believe in a male god and a female god; the Bambuti believe in a forest god; and variants of Hinduism believe in an entire pantheon of gods. Deism holds that there is a single god that does not interact with the world. We give a formal definition of gods later, and discuss different gods in today’s religions in the Chapter on Religion.
Who is the Abrahamic God?The Abrahamic God is a particular god, who is revered as the god of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Spiritualism . He is considered the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; in other words the supreme being 2. Common attributes ascribed to the Abrahamic God include omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), omni-benevolence (perfect goodness), divine simplicity, and eternal and necessary existence.
The description of this god as “Abrahamic” stems from the fact that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all trace their roots to the prophet Abraham. For simplicity, we will sometimes refer to the Abrahamic God simply as “God” (with a capital “G”). We will later devote an entire chapter to him.
What is theism?Theism is the belief that there is some supernatural being. In the Western world, theism commonly means belief in God, the supreme being in the Abrahamic religions. Yet, theism can also mean belief in multiple gods, as in some variants of Hinduism.
Theism is just one of the facets of belief in the supernatural. For example, most variants of Buddhism (and related spiritual practices) have no god in the Abrahamic sense. But Buddhists do believe in supernatural concepts such as Samsara (the cycle of birth and death), Karma (the force that drives Samsara), and Nirvana (the liberation from Samsara). The same goes for modern philosophies that posit a supernatural cause or qualities for natural phenomena. For example, one of these philosophies sees “God” as a name for the first cause of the universe. This viewpoint does not postulate a deity, but it posits a supernatural beginning to the world. Atheism rejects not just theism, but all of these supernatual beliefs as well.
What is religion?Religion is the worship of a god or the supernatural 3. Religions usually come with an entire belief system, cultural values, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and moral values. We will define the concept of a religion formally later, in the Chapter on Religion.
Depending on how they are defined, there are about 9 major world religions with more than 10m adherents: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism/Taoism/Chinese folk religion, Judaism, Christianity, Spiritualism, Sikhism, Islam, and Shintoism. We will offer an extensive overview of today’s religions and their history in the Chapter on the World Religions.
By the definitions we are using in this book, every religious person is a believer in the supernatural. However, not everyone who believes in the supernatural necessarily follows the cultural and moral values of a religion. Some people believe in a supernatural power but explicitly reject the framework and validity of organized religion. Examples for such belief systems are Deism, Spirituality, and metaphysical philosophies. And vice versa, some people are “culturally religious” without committing themselves to a belief in the supernatural. This means that they identify with a religious tradition, its cultural values and/or even its moral code, but do not believe in its theological or metaphysical commitments. They can even be atheist.
What is agnosticism?Agnosticism is the stance where one does not take any particular position towards belief in the supernatural. The supernatural could exist, it could not exist, or it could be an ill-defined concept in the first place. An agnostic simply has no particular view regarding the supernatural.
By this definition, everybody who does not actively believe or disbelieve in supernatural beings is an agnostic: babies (because they cannot form active beliefs about abstract concepts like the supernatural), people who do not care, and all those people who never heard of gods or imagined the existence of the supernatural. For the purpose of this book, agnosticism will also refer to the belief system of anyone who would reply “none” when asked for their religious beliefs but who are not atheists.
There is a different, epistemic, definition of agnosticism, which we discuss below. We will also consider later why atheists are not agnostics.
A claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance needs only be confessed.
What is epistemic agnosticism?In common discourse, the word “agnosticism” means that a person has no particular stance towards the belief in the supernatural. However, agnosticism can also mean the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims is unknown or even unknowable. This concerns in particular theological or metaphysical claims regarding the existence of things like gods, the supernatural, or the afterlife 4. We will call this stance “epistemic agnosticism”.
Epistemic agnosticism is a theory about knowledge. It is not actually concerned with the existence of supernatural beings. Epistemic agnosticism says that we cannot know whether such entities exist or not, but it does not say whether we have to believe in them or not. These two things are different: we can still believe in something we can’t know, like believing the light in a refrigerator turns off after the door is closed (even though we can’t know whether it is off).
Similarly, one may acknowledge that it is impossible to prove God’s existence, but nevertheless have faith in his existence. Analogously, one may acknowledge that it is impossible to prove God’s inexistence, but still be an atheist.
What is atheism?In this book we treat atheism as the active rejection of belief in gods specifically and the supernatural in general. This means that atheists do not believe that gods exist, or that any other supernatural entities exist (like angels, good or evil spirits, and the devil). Nor do they more broadly believe that there is life after death, that we are reborn, or that there is some “cosmic” justice in the world other than the one administered by humans.
As noted above, there are a number of other definitions of atheism. One of them says that atheism is the rejection of belief “in gods” instead of “in the supernatural”. This definition is as valid as any other definition. However, some forms of Buddhism also do not believe in gods, and would thus qualify as atheist under this definition. This is indeed a possible view point. However, in this book, we use the word “atheist” in a different sense: when we talk about “atheism”, we will mean the rejection of the supernatural in general. Under this definition, Buddhism is not atheist, because it incorporates the belief in a supernatural world order and the concepts of rebirth and Karma.
Another definition says that atheism is the “lack of belief in the supernatural” instead of the rejection of belief in it. This is a more sweeping definition of atheism, which would also include all those who have not made up their mind about God. We will not use this definition because it collapses the distinction between agnosticism and atheism (indeed, it would reduce all agnostics to atheists). For example, on this definition babies would also be atheists, because they lack beliefs about the supernatural. However, newborns lack belief in gods not because they actively reject the supernatural but because they cannot yet form beliefs about abstract concepts. In order to distinguish babies (and other people who have not come to a definite conclusion) from the people who actively reject the belief in God, in this book we call the former “agnostics” and the latter “atheists”.
A third definition says that atheism is the belief that the supernatural does not exist. Under this definition, atheists believe that gods, angels, spirits, and all other supernatural entities do not exist. However, a considerable portion of atheists consider statements about the existence of the supernatural not wrong, but rather nonsensical. What is meant by nonsensical? Consider the sentence “The current king of France is bald”. This statement is not false but nonsensical, because France has no king at present. Its negation, “The current king of France is not bald”, is just as nonsensical. Some atheists hold that it is the same with statements about the supernatural: the concept of “god” is so ill-defined that one cannot even meaningfully say that a god does (or does not) exist. These atheists just reject supernatural statements outright instead of even trying to say whether they are true or false. To do justice to this viewpoint as well, we define atheism as the rejection of belief in the supernatural. Thus, our definition of atheism includes the stance that supernatural statements are false and the stance that they are nonsensical.
I am an atheist. You claim that a god exists and I don’t believe you. It’s really that simple.
Other definitions of atheismAs we have seen, atheism is the rejection of belief in the supernatural. That rejection can take many forms. But atheism can also be understood as embracing one or more of the following tenets:
- The question of whether there is a god or not is irrelevant to everyday life.
- The existence of a god cannot be formally denied, because there could be an alternate universe with different laws of physics where a god exists.
- There is the possibility that some force created the universe, and that this force appears divine to some individuals.
The Dawkins ScaleWe have seen that some definitions of atheism treat the existence of God as ill-defined or irrelevant. But what about the position that the existence of God is plausible but false? Richard Dawkins developed a “spectrum of theistic probability” 5 to account for varying levels of belief. The spectrum spans seven different levels of probability regarding the truth of atheism (expressed here in terms of the existence of God, but equally applicable to the supernatural generally):
- Level 1: Strong theism. 100% probability God exists. In the words of Carl G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
- Level 2: De facto theism. Very high probability God exists but short of 100%. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that God exists.”
- Level 3: Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50% probability that God exists but not very high. “I am uncertain, but I am inclined to believe God exists.”
- Level 4: Completely impartial. Exactly 50% probability that God exists. “God’s existence and non-existence are equally probable.”
- Level 5: Leaning towards atheism. The probability of God’s existence is lower than 50% but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical regarding God’s existence.”
- Level 6: De facto atheism. Very low probability that God exists, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think the existence of God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God does not exist.”
- Level 7: Strong atheism. 100% probability God does not exist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”
However, if we never make an assertion without a proof, we could never make any statement at all. As J. J. C. Smart has argued, such neutrality would amount to an unreasonable philosophical skepticism that would not allow us to make any claims about the world at all. Armin Navabi gives the following example 6:
What is positive atheism?Positive atheism is the stance that the supernatural most likely does not exist. On the Dawkins Scale, we find positive atheism on Level 6. Positive atheists are the people who are willing to evaluate the truth or falsity of the hypothesis that the supernatural exists, who recognize that there is no proof of the non-existence of the supernatural, and who nevertheless consciously consider this hypothesis implausible or false.
In other words, positive atheists believe that the supernatural realm does not exist. This means that positive atheists believe that the Abrahamic God does not exist; that there are no gods at all; that demons, ghosts, angels, and spirits do not exist; that the universe was not created by God; that there is no Heaven and no Hell; that moral values are not given by God; that prayer has no effect other than psychological; and that all other supernatural claims (such as horoscopes) are nonsense.
In this book we adopt, describe, and defend a positive atheist’s point of view. For most practical purposes, however, there is little difference between positive atheism (the belief that the supernatural does not exist) and the more general variant of atheism (the rejection of belief in the supernatural).
What is New Atheism?New Atheism is the position that instead of tolerating religion it should be subjected to rational scrutiny – and doing so will lead to it being criticized and countered. The concept is commonly associated with individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.
This view can be considered a more militant version of atheism, which actively goes beyond individual belief, and aims to convince people of atheism and oppose religion. New Atheism is particularly opposed to what Stephen Pinker calls “Faitheism”. A faitheist is an atheist who is tolerant of the intellectual and moral excesses of religion — in other words an “atheist accommodationist”. A faitheist may say, “I’m not religious, but we shouldn’t criticize the oppression of women in conservative forms of Islam because it’s a sincere religious belief” 7. New Atheism opposes such an accommodation.
Many atheists will sympathize with the viewpoints of New Atheism. However, the majority of atheists are not as activist as the “New Atheists”. In this book we incorporate the main arguments of New Atheism in the Chapter on Criticism of Religion . We also agree with the New Atheist critiques of “Faitheism”, and take an assertive position against religious ideology whenever it clashes with the human rights. At the same time, we defend the freedom of religion and the freedom of belief, as long as the rights of others are not infringed.
Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.
The grave will provide plenty of time for silence.
Understanding atheism in practiceTo understand what atheism means, consider the religion of the Bambuti Pygmies. The Bambuti are an ethnic group in Africa residing in the Congo region. In their belief system there is a god called Khonvoum. He wields a bow made from two snakes that together appear to humans as a rainbow. After sunset every day, Khonvoum gathers fragments of the stars and throws them into the sun to revitalize it for the next day. He occasionally contacts mortals through Gor (a thunder god who is also an elephant) or a chameleon. According to the Bambuti, Khonvoum created mankind from clay. Black people were made from black clay, white people came from white clay, and the Pygmies themselves came from red clay.
Atheism does not consider these statements true. Positive atheism even holds that they are outright false. Khonvoum does not really gather stars together and throw them at the sun. He does not contact mortals through an elephant, chameleon, or any other animal. Khonvoum does not do this because he does not exist.
But if Khonvoum does not exist, what is he?Put simply, Khonvoum is a character in a story. Some shaman most likely came up with it to explain why the sun rises every day, why there are rainbows, and what happens to the stars. Quite possibly the shaman counted himself among the people whom Khonvoum contacts occasionally. Maybe the shaman used the story also to remind people that people are all ultimately part of nature (“made from clay”).
Since then, the Bambuti keep telling this story of Khonvoum to each other. The story is part of the oral tradition of the Bambuti. But Khonvoum does not exist in the real world. He is just a character in the story that the shaman made up.
How can we be sure?Can we prove that Khonvoum is just made up? We cannot. Khonvoum could indeed be hiding in the Congolese forest at this very moment. But there are a number of reasons that indicate that Khonvoum is indeed made up:
- Magical events
- The story goes that Khonvoum makes snakes appear like a rainbow. But a rainbow is the reflection and refraction of light in water particles and not in any way related to snakes.
- The story of Khonvoum is known exclusively among the Bambuti. No other civilization has heard of Khonvoum, even though every other civilization experiences rainbows and the rising of the sun.
- No other evidence
- Apart from the story, there is no other evidence for Khonvoum. Nobody has ever seen him, he has left no traces, and has spoken to no-one in some verifiable manner. If asked, the Bambuti would cite the rainbow as evidence of Khonvoum. But as noted above, rainbows are not supernatural events.
All of this makes it clear that Khonvoum does not exist. He is just a character in a story that the Bambuti keep telling each other.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
Religions as storiesWe have seen that a key part of the Bambuti religion is believing that Khonvoum gathers the stars to revitalize the sun. We have argued that this and other parts of the narrative about Khonvoum is in fact just a story that the Bambutis have been telling each other for generations.
According to atheism, the same is true for other religions. A religion is just a story that someone made up. It may claim that god gave fire to people (as in the Bambuti myth) or that God created the world (as in the Abrahamic religions), or that the Earth sprang from a lotus flower (as in some variants of Hinduism). In the end, religions are all just stories that someone made up once upon a time and that people keep telling each other. From the point of view of atheism, when you listen to a preacher in the church, an imam in a mosque, or a rabbi in a temple, you are listening to a set of stories.
These stories are not necessarily born out of a bad intention. They may not even be consciously “made up” at all, but rather (as we will discuss later) stem from honest early attempts to explain nature. But according to atheism, they are not factual descriptions of reality.
How can we be sure?As in the case of Khonvoum, we cannot prove that gods do not exist. We can just use the same arguments we have used before:
- Magical events
- The Abrahamic God made a snake speak. But snakes cannot speak. They do not have a sufficiently complex brain to handle language. The speaking snake is thus a magical event. The other major religions all have their own respective magical stories.
- Gods are always local to their culture. The Chinese gods are known only to the Chinese — because they live on in stories that the Chinese have told each other. The Abrahamic God was first known only in the Middle East until the Romans spread the story in Europe, and missionaries later spread it to Africa and the Americas. But what remains consistent is the fact that the god is not known where the story has not been spread.
- No other evidence
- Apart from scripture, there is no evidence for gods. Nobody has ever seen them, they have left no scientifically proven traces, and they have never spoken to anyone in some verifiable manner.
According to atheism, the story of the Abrahamic God is just as much story as is the story of Khonvoum. Neither god exists. It is exciting to read these stories, but once you close the book or stop listening to the narrative, God is gone. The same is true for all other gods, spirits, and supernatural concepts. They appear in stories, fairy tales, and myths, but not in the real world. They are just products of human imagination.
The square of 12 is the same in New York, China, and on Alpha Centauri. But some things are not universal. What you eat for breakfast is very different from one place to the other. The nature of gods is clearly more like breakfast food than like the square of 12.
Why then are there religions?Atheism holds that religions are basically just stories that people tell each other. The gods and the other supernatural entities are then just characters in these stories. This raises a number of questions:
- Why would people create such stories?
- As we will argue in the book, people have come up with religious stories for several reasons: to explain the phenomena of nature; to find hope in the supernatural; to explain and justify the events of life; to establish social stability and identity; or to govern a people. We discuss these reasons in detail in the Chapter on the Founding of Religion.
- Why would people believe such stories?
- By far the most common reason why people believe in these stories is that they have been brought up with this belief and it never occurred to them to question it. Other people believe because their religion gives them a community and peace of mind. And others are pressured into the belief by society. We discuss these reasons in detail in the Chapter on Following Religion. We also discuss the positive effects of religion on a society in the Chapter on the Benefits of Religion.
- How could a fiction survive for so long?
- Over the millennia, religions have developed techniques to keep their adherents loyal and to secure their own survival. These include the encouragement to make many children; the threat of hell and the promise of heaven; the punishment of apostasy; and the ability to adapt to current societal trends. We discuss these factors in detail in the Chapter on Memes.
- Aren’t there proofs for the existence of God?
- People have developed a number of proofs for the existence of their respective gods or supernatural concepts. According to atheism, none of them holds water, as we will examine in the Chapter on Proofs, and (for the Abrahamic God in particular) in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God. We will also discuss proofs for Christianity in the Chapter on Christianity. We discuss proofs for the truth of Islam in the Chapter on Islam.
In short, on an atheistic view of the world, gods are just fictional characters. They are the product of our imagination. They exist only in our heads.
The idea that gods are fictitious characters is actually widely accepted — as long as we talk about the gods of other civilizations. Think about how people talk about the Greek god Zeus. Today most people assume that Zeus does not really exist and that he is nothing more than a fictional character in a myth. Similarly, few Buddhists believe that Jesus is really the son of God. To them Jesus being the son of God is on par with Harry Potter flying on a broom — both are just stories. Atheists apply this logic to all gods – it’s all just stories. We discuss this idea in detail in the Chapter on Gods.
Atheists believe in all gods equally.
Is there a proof against the existence of God?We have conceded that while theism cannot prove that the supernatural exists, atheism cannot prove that it doesn’t. Isn’t it logical then to say that theism (or belief in the supernatural in general) is no worse off than atheism?
Surprisingly, very few theories can be proven. Take the theory of gravity: things fall down if not obstructed. This theory makes lots of true predictions. Yet, how would we prove this theory? A number of things falling down validate that theory — but do not prove it. There could be one thing one day some time in the future that does not fall down. There is no way to actually prove that things always fall down. It can only be proven wrong: if one day, a thing does not fall down, the theory is false. Until that day, the theory is useful, because it makes lots of true predictions.
And it is the same with positive atheism. It cannot be proven right. But it makes lots of true predictions. It predicts that prayer will have no influence on this world. It predicts that no god will ever show up and manifest himself in a scientifically verifiable way. It predicts that miracles do not happen. It tells us that there is no supernatural power to help us take care of this world. These predictions have been true so far. In this sense, positive atheism is like the theory of gravity: it cannot be proven right, but it can be proven wrong. Until that day, the theory is useful, because it makes lots of true predictions.
The belief in the supernatural, in contrast, has no such benefits. Despite assuming the existence of the supernatural, this belief cannot make a single prediction about the physical world that atheism could not make. This entails not only that it cannot be proven right, but that it cannot even be proven wrong.
Neither theism nor atheism can be proven right.
But atheism can at least be proven wrong.
It’s just that it has never been.
Why not believe anyway?As has been noted, positive atheism can be proven wrong, while belief in the supernatural cannot. However, there is no proof for atheism just as there is no proof for the supernatural. The question then arises why atheists do not just believe in God anyway. Why are atheists not religious?
From an atheist point of view, religions are stories that people tell each other. There is no evidence for the truth of religious claims other than the stories themselves. This has the following consequences:
- Religion makes no predictions
- As we have seen, religions do not make any predictions about the physical world. This means that, by adhering to a religion, one does not learn anything about the real world that could not be known otherwise as well. Religion is thus, from the viewpoint of understanding the real world, a useless construction.
- Religion is an ideological trapdoor
- Since a religion does not make any predictions, we can never find out if it is wrong. Thus, religion is an ideological trapdoor: once we start believing in it, we can never find out if we are mistaken. There is nothing that believers would accept as a proof that their belief is wrong. This means that they have left the sphere of rational argument. It also means that, in religious matters, anyone can claim anything.
- Religion promotes questionable moral values
- Tied to that ideological trapdoor are a set of moral values that are benign at best, besides the point in many cases, and sometimes in outright contradiction to the human rights: All major religions (except Taoism and some variants of Protestantism) give less rights to women; all major religions (except the Bahai Faith, Buddhism, and Taoism) oppose interfaith marriage; all major religions (except liberal Christianity and variations of Hinduism) shun homosexuality; and all major religions trivialize or even glorify violence by presenting hell as a solution to human wrong doing.
- Religion cements an “us vs. them” view
- It is no coincidence that religious boundaries coincide with conflict boundaries all over the world. Examples are Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Darfur, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Sudan, the Philippines, and Kashmir. Religions are in many cases a means to separate peoples, and to cement an “us versus them” view. This is but the consequence of the inherent property of religions that they all differ, yet cannot be proven wrong.
Atheism thus holds that we are better off without religion. Humanism (the particular flavor of atheism that we promote in this book) goes further, and offers a constructive alternative to religious ideologies. It envisions a society based on reason and empathy, in which knowledge about the physical world comes from science, ethical rules are derived from empathy, political decisions are taken by democratic means, and people are free to do or believe anything that does not harm someone else.
Some people don’t try bacon because of religion.
I don’t try religion because of bacon.
Who created the universe?Most religions provide a supernatural explanation of how the universe came into existence. Atheism can have no such explanation. Thus, a frequent question is how the world was created in an atheist world view.
The short answer is: Atheists do not know how the universe came into existence. Each year, science tells us a little more about the birth of the universe, but plenty of things are still unknown. We discuss this topic in detail in the Chapter on the Universe.
If we do not know how the universe came into existence, that does not necessarily mean that it was created by God. Just because we do not know the answer, it does not mean that the supernatural answer would be the right one. Atheists hold that it is better to admit that “We do not know” rather than to believe in some explanation without scientific evidence. In particular, the universe may not have come into existence at all. It may have always existed. Until we have more evidence in these matters, we should just not believe anything. This is not just common sense, but an imperative: Only when we admit that we do not know, we will be able to know one day.
If we abandon the requirement for scientific evidence, then everybody can come up with their own belief. This is indeed what happens: There is a plethora of supernatural creation narratives. Everyone believes theirs is the right one, while everyone has as little evidence as everyone else. This makes such explanations meaningless in atheist eyes. We discuss this way of thinking in detail in the Chapter on the God of Gaps.
Now atheists do not know the origin of the universe. Believers do not know the origin of God. Does this not put atheists and believers on equal terms? It actually does not: We know for sure that the world exists, and thus it makes sense to search for its origin. The same cannot be said of God. Thus, atheists are one step ahead of the believer, because they know at least that their object of study exists. Believers, in contrast, basically try to solve one mystery by an even bigger mystery.
I don’t know where the universe came from. But I can tell you it was not created in 7 days.
Why are atheists not agnostics?Atheism is the denial of the supernatural, while agnosticism leaves the option that the supernatural exists. Some argue that, in the absence of proof, it is wiser to opt for agnosticism.
From an atheist point of view, agnosticism is an inconsistent stance. This is because, according to agnosticism, it’s not just that God could exist. It is that any supernatural being could exist. Thus, the Hindu god Vishnu or the Roman god Neptune could exist. Likewise, Buddhist reincarnation or Wiccan witchcraft could exist. Even unicorns could exist. It is true that they have not been seen, but their absence has not been proven either. So we have to admit that they could exist. Unicorns were a part of the world view in Ancient Greece much like God is part of the world view in today’s Christianity. The only difference between God and unicorns is that that the believers of the latter have died out. Yet most agnostics reject the existence of unicorns, and claim to be agnostic only about the Christian God. This makes the agnostic position inconsistent in the eyes of atheists.
Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?
Is atheism a belief?Atheism is the rejection of a belief. Positive atheism, in contrast, is the belief that the supernatural does not exist. Hence, it is a belief.
Is atheism a religion?A religion is the service and worship of a god or the supernatural . Hence, atheism is not a religion because it actually rejects the belief in something supernatural.
So atheism is a religion? No more than being completely healthy is just another kind of disease.
Isn’t any belief a religion?“Believing something” means to accept something as true. Believing something does not necessarily have to do with religion. For example, most people believe that the moon orbits around the Earth, but believing that the moon orbits around the Earth is not a religion. We distinguish between ordinary beliefs and beliefs in supernatural beings by calling the latter “religions”.
If religion is a belief concerning the supernatural, does that not make atheism a religion?Religion is sometimes defined as a belief concerning the supernatural. Since positive atheism is the belief that the supernatural does not exist, positive atheism is a religion in this sense. This is, however, just a play with the definition of words. For most practical purposes, a religion is the belief that the supernatural exists, together with a moral system, and associated rites. Atheism has none of this, and is thus not commonly considered a religion.
Doesn’t everyone have to believe in something?The argument goes that everybody believes in something. Some people believe in love, others in power, or in music. Thus, the argument goes, even atheists believe in something, and hence they cannot be atheists. But atheism is just the rejection of belief in the supernatural. Since love, power, and music are not supernatural, a belief in these things (whatever that implies) is not inconsistent with atheism.
- Even atheists believe in something!
- Yes, but not in the supernatural.
Don’t even atheists have to believe in some things?It is sometimes argued that atheists cannot know everything for sure, and therefore even they have to take some things for granted, i.e. believe them. It is then claimed that if atheists believe something they are no longer atheists.
Like all people, atheists may believe things that they cannot verify. But believing something does not imply that atheism is false. Atheism only rejects belief in supernatural beings . Atheists are free to believe anything else, and still be atheists.
Isn’t atheism a belief about the supernatural just like theism?Theists believe that the supernatural exists, and positive atheists believe that it does not, so are both beliefs not equally valid?
The difference in these beliefs is that most atheists would be willing to abandon their belief if they are proven wrong (for example, if a god appears). This distinguishes them from theists: First, a theist’s belief in God cannot be proven wrong. Second, some theists continue to believe certain things after even if they have been proven wrong — as we will discuss in the Chapter on Proofs for Gods.
Do atheists believe only what can be proven?Atheists are critical of the belief in God because the existence of God cannot be proven. This leads to the idea that atheists only believe what can be proven. But this is not true.
Take again the theory of gravity: we cannot prove that things always fall down. Still, we all believe in the theory of gravity, atheists and theists alike, without a proof.
The reason for this belief is that we see that things fall down to Earth. If one day they stop doing that, we would stop believing in the theory of gravity. And it is the same with atheism: atheism sees that there is no evidence for gods, and that the world works just as if gods did not exist. Hence, until a god shows up, atheism holds that gods don’t exist.
Can atheism produce anything positive?Some claim that atheism cannot bring forward anything positive (like an explanation of the origins of the universe) because all atheism entails is the rejection of a belief. But if a belief is harmful, then the rejection of that belief is actually something positive. Consider for example the belief that female genital mutilation purifies the woman spiritually. If we remove this belief, the world actually becomes better. The same goes for other religious beliefs: around half of the world’s most deadly conflicts are nourished by religious differences. If we removed religious differences, people would have one less reason to go to war. The same is true for the controversial values that some religions still defend today: They would be history if people did not believe them. Thus the absence of a belief is not necessarily bad.
Freeing someone from error does not mean depriving him of something. It means giving him something. It means giving him the insight that he was in error — which is in itself a piece of the truth.
Can atheism produce anything positive besides avoiding harm?Atheism rejects belief in the supernatural, and this can actually have constructive effects as well. If God is not used as an answer to the questions of life, then a lot of work is needed to come up with such answers. Therefore, some atheists feel a particular necessity to address the scientific and philosophical mysteries of life. This includes moral thinkers and activists, philosophers, and scientists. Humanism, the particular brand of atheism that this book advocates, is an example to the point: it offers an elaborate positive moral vantage point and proactive political attitude.
Can atheism exist without religion?The concept of atheism would be meaningful even if there were no believers. All atheism implies is rejecting a belief in the supernatural. Even if religion were to die out, atheists would still not believe in the supernatural (i.e. they would reject any new religions).
No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist”. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
The History of Atheism
The history of atheismThroughout the written history of mankind, most people have been religious in some form. We discuss the birth of religions in the Chapter on the Founding of Religion, and the history of religion in the Chapter on the World Religions. People who reject supernaturalism have always been an exception to the norm.
The first life stances found in the written record that rejected theism were in 200 BCE. These were Indian philosophies that originated in opposition to Hinduism. They rejected Hindu claims about gods, though it’s unclear whether they also rejected stories related to spirits, re-incarnation, and unfalsifiable hypotheses about life in general.
The following centuries saw a number of ancient Greek atheist philosophers emerge. Philosophers like Democritus, Critias, and Prodicus explained the world in a purely materialistic way, holding that religious stories were invented by men in order to frighten people — much like we will later argue in the Chapter on Gods and the Chapter on Memes. These views were not widely embraced however, and other Greek philosophers asserted supernatural positions involving Dualism or Metempsychosis. (Interestingly, the early Christians were also labeled atheists by non-Christians because of their disbelief in pagan gods.)
The Golden Age of the Islamic world, likewise, saw a number of atheists in Arab and Persian lands: Muḥammad al-Warrāq (fl. 9th century), Ibn al-Rawandi (827–911), Muḥammad al-Rāzī (854–925), and Aḥmad al-Maʿarrī (973–1058). Al-Maʿarrī wrote and taught that religion itself was a “fable invented by the ancients” and that humans were “of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains”. Like their Greek counterparts, these views were outside the mainstream of accepted beliefs.
In Europe, the Middle Ages saw several philosophers and groups question different aspects of Christian doctrine (often at the risk of their life), but by and large they did not reject a belief in God. It was only with the advent of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when Martin Luther openly questioned the authority of the Catholic Church, that individuals went so far as to begin to question the nature of God. Some people arrived at Deism (the idea that there is a god that does not interfere with the world) or Pantheism (the idea that God is in everything).
The first known atheist of this time was the German critic of religion Matthias Knutzen. He was followed by a number of other European philosophers with atheistic tendencies such as David Hume and Denis Diderot. However, atheism never took hold in Europe at this time — possibly because people had difficulty imagining how the complexity of nature and life could exist without a creator. Only when Charles Darwin discovered the principle of evolution in the 19th century was the necessity of a creator put into doubt 8.
The main catalyst for this line of thinking was the Age of Enlightenment. During this period a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy came to the fore, and led to the advance of ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. These philosophies valued reason, rationalism, and empirical evidence, and from that standpoint critically questioned belief in the Christian God. Inspired by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution dethroned the Catholic Church and permanently reduced its influence in state affairs.
Atheism emerged out of the shadows in the latter half of the 19th century. Many prominent German philosophers of this era denied the existence of deities and were critical of religion, including Ludwig Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer, Max Stirner, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. With the diffusion of knowledge about other world religions and translations of their religious texts, this time also saw the rise of comparative studies of different religions. These were likely contributing factors in pushing people towards a descriptive view of religion as an artefact of human thinking . These times also saw the beginning of more wide-spread Humanist thought — first framed as an offshoot and form of Deism, and then later argued for independently of Deism.
State atheismThe 20th century saw the emergence of a new kind of atheism promoted and imposed by the state, oftentimes combined with the suppression of religion. It has its roots in the attempt of the French Revolution to abolish religion and establish an atheist state. Between 1917 and 1940, for example, Mexico violently suppressed religion with thousands of people killed . But the largest wave of State atheism happened in communist countries after the Second World War, including in Albania, China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Korea. The policy of forced atheism was pursued to cement the power of the respective regimes, and led to the suppression of religion, arrests, expulsions, and uncounted numbers of executions. Even with the end of the Cold War, State atheism continues to persist in some communist countries. In China religion is viewed with suspicion by the state 9. As of 2018, the Muslim minority of Uighurs is systematically deported and detained 10111213 — a topic that we will discuss later in more detail. Adherents of the new religious movement Falun Gong are persecuted, detained in labor camps, and subjected to systematic, state sanctioned organ harvesting 14.
Totalitarian regimes are built on dogma and fear, not freedom of speech and free inquiry. In this way, they greatly ressemble religion. In effect, their leaders essentially created religions and put themselves at the top as new deities.
How do atheism and communism relate?Most self-declared communist regimes are atheist, and state atheism is sometimes seen as a proof that atheism is evil. It is therefore worth considering how atheism and communism are related.
The founders of modern communism were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They developed a philosophy that was later called “Dialectic Materialism”. Its main points are:
- Matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and mental phenomena are merely the result of it; and
- The history of society is best understood as a struggle between opposing classes — most notably between workers and capitalists.
In this philosophy, atheism is a by-product of materialism: everything is ultimately physical matter, and thus there is no place for the supernatural. But while communism implies atheism, the reverse is not true. In his “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, Marx states “Communism begins with atheism, but atheism is initially far from being communism” 15. Thus, atheism is an ingredient for Marx’s ideology, but atheism does not imply communism.
The strong association of atheism with communism most likely stems from the attempt to differentiate the West from communism during the Cold War. Communist countries were explicitly demonised as atheist while western countries became more religious, thereby reinforcing the ideological differences between the two worldviews.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are atheists. Do you believe they are communists?
Doesn’t state atheism show how bad atheism is?State atheism is the forced introduction of atheism in a country and historically has led to the persecution, torture, and death of millions of people. Atheism is (understandably) associated with the atrocities of these regimes, and this association suggests that atheism is immoral.
State atheism was mainly pursued by regimes that called themselves communist. As we have seen, while communists are atheists, atheists are not necessarily communist. Even if communist regimes impose atheism, that doesn’t make atheism wrong. To see this, consider a related example: the leaders of the Soviet regime enforced the use of Russian in the Soviet Union. According to most moral frameworks, it is wrong to force people to speak Russian. Still, that does not mean that there would be anything wrong with freely choosing to speak Russian. In similar fashion, while most moral frameworks would argue that it is wrong to force people to become atheists, that does not make it wrong to freely choose to follow atheism.
Atheism, for its part, does not require that other people become atheists. In fact, atheism does not come with any moral imperatives or laws. On the contrary, it is often criticized precisely for not having any laws or rules. There is no book of the “Rules of Atheism”. Atheism is merely the absence of belief in the supernatural. Thus, by its very definition, nothing in the concept of atheism entails that we should force other people to be atheists.
All I share with communist dictators is the number of gods we believe in.
Would you like to be held responsible for the deeds of all the people
who believe in the same number of gods as you?
Atheism in the Western worldIn some ways, state atheism had the effect of making the Western world more religious, as an opposition to the communist atheist world. For example, the United States added “In God We Trust” to its currency during the Cold War and the phrase “One Nation Under God” to its pledge of allegiance.
After the fall of communism, Eastern European countries and Russia saw a resurgence in religious belief. In the US, likewise, religious belief arguably intensified after the end of the Cold War, with the mainstreaming of Evangelical Christianity. Western Europe, in contrast, is slowly becoming less religious and more atheist. The rest of the world has low rates of atheism, in particular in the developing countries, where a variety of religions and religious practices have a strong foothold. We discuss the demographics of atheism in the Chapter on Atheists. Now, we turn to a variant of atheism that is enjoying some popularity in the Western world: Humanism.
The history of HumanismIn ancient times, morality, the purpose of life, and knowledge about the world were almost always derived from or linked to religion. However, also since antiquity, philosophers had started thinking about non-religious sources of morality, of meaning, and of knowledge about the world — first under the assumption that gods existed, and later without that assumption 16. These ideas gave rise to Humanism: the philosophy that it is our fellow humans that matter and not transcendent beings.
Ancient GreeceThe first Humanist ideas were born in Ancient Greece. The philosopher Democritus decoupled morality from punishment, and postulated that “It is not out of fear but out of a feeling for what is right that we should abstain from doing wrong”. His follower Epicurus made this philosophy more concrete: He taught that the goal of human life is happiness, and that this requires the absence of pain. He was also an empiricist, and believed that the senses are the only reliable source of knowledge about the world. He admitted women and slaves into his school, and taught that the key to happiness is friendship. These principles – the avoidance of pain, empiricism, gender equality, and mutual cordiality – would later become cornerstones of Humanism. In China, the philosopher Mencius (Mèngzĭ) taught that humans are inherently good, and formulated the notion of empathy: “All human beings have a constitution which suffers when it sees the suffering of others”.
The Scientific RevolutionHumanism also owes much to Christianity – most importantly the notion of equal human dignity. However, its main catalyst was the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century, which started questioning a religious understanding of the world. The Prussian astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbits around the Sun in his “Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler followed up that discovery with the laws of planetary motion. The English physicist Isaac Newton laid the foundations for classical mechanics in his “Principia Mathematica”, explaining the Law of Gravity and the Laws of Motion. Much later, in the 19th century, the English biologist Charles Darwin revolutionized our understanding of evolution with his “On the Origin of Species”.
On the philosophical side, the English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon advocated gathering knowledge by empirical observation – what is known today as the scientific method. The French philosopher René Descartes taught that people to be open to doubt previous certainties. In Scotland, the philosopher David Hume was instrumental in advancing the notions of empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism, and more generally the idea that knowledge stems from observing the world and generalizing these observations inductively. Much later, in the 20th century, the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper added the concept of falsifiability: a theory is meaningful only if we can imagine it to make a false prediction.
The EnlightenmentThe Enlightenment was a philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th century that emphasized the reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and constitutional government. The Enlightenment advocated the separation of church and state and questioned religion. However, it was not atheistic. Most influential thinkers were inspired by Deism, i.e., the belief in a supreme being with the rejection of institutionalized religion.
The English philosopher John Locke introduced the notion of the “social contract”, the idea that government needs to be with the consent of the governed. He also argued for liberty, religious tolerance, and rights to life and property. The French philosopher Voltaire advocated freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. His compatriot Baron de Montesquieu introduced the idea of the separation of powers. Thomas Paine, an English-born American philosopher, advanced ideas such as liberty and freedom of thought. He rejected institutionalized religion (most notably in his “Age of Reason”), and stated simply that “my religion is to do good”. His writings influence both the American Independence and the French Revolution, and he was involved in both. The Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria condemned torture and the death penalty in his treatise “On Crimes and Punishments”. The Dutch theologian Hugo Grotius laid the foundations for international law in “On the Law of War and Peace”. The French activist Olympe de Gouges campaigned for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, most notably in her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen”. In England, Mary Wollstonecraft advocated women’s rights and argued that society was wasting its assets because it kept women in the role of “convenient domestic slaves”. In her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” she argued women are not naturally inferior to men but only appear to be because they lack education.
European rulers such as Catherine II of Russia, Joseph II of Austria, and Frederick II of Prussia applied the Enlightenment ideals of religious and political tolerance, which became known as enlightened absolutism. In America, the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison incorporated Enlightenment ideals into the United States Constitution.
A fundamental work of this epoch was the “Encyclopédie”, an encyclopedia that aimed to incorporate all of the world’s knowledge from a secular point of view. This systematic quest for knowledge still inspires Humanists today (and also inspired the modern online encyclopedia Wikipedia). Its main contributor, the French philosopher Denis Diderot, was an atheist.
Good Without GodThe 18th century saw the quest to develop ethics without resorting to religion. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant developed the “categorical imperative”: the paradigm that people should act in such a way that they could want their behavior to become a law by which everyone acts. Based on this, he developed a rational basis of ethics, one that would enable us to work out the right course of action by thinking.
In the 19th century, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that we should judge behavior not by god-given rules but rather whether it hinders or advances “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people” (a philosophy known as utilitarianism). For this reason, he was in favor decriminalising homosexuality. Bentham also advocated making prisons more humane and including animals (who can suffer because they feel pain and pleasure) in our moral thinking. The idea of utilitarianism was further developed by John Stuart Mill. In “On Liberty”, he argued that the state should interfere in our lives only when necessary to prevent harm to others, but that the freedom to choose the path of one’s own life is central to the conception of liberty.
Under the lead of Eleanor Roosevelt, the quest to define morality in a secular way reached a critical juncture in 1948 with the creation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It established the cornerstones of secular morality: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, abolition of slavery, the right to due process, the prohibition of torture, and equality before the law irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or religion. Today these are the defining elements of Humanist ethics. In the decades following the Declaration, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer made Humanism aware of the importance of animal wellbeing, and a responsibility for the natural world was indeed included in later definitions of Humanism. The LGBT+ movements also grew stronger in the late 20th century, and LGBT rights are today considered part of Humanist ethics.
Atheist HumanismIn the 19th century, Humanism became decidedly atheist. The French-German philosopher Baron d’Holbach argued that humankind should strive for truth, reason, and morality, and that religion and belief in the supernatural hindered this quest. In “The System of Nature” he postulated that the universe as nothing more than matter in motion bound by natural laws. The source of morality should not be religion but the search for happiness. The English philosopher George Holyoake coined the term “secularism” as describing a principle that seeks to conduct human affairs based on non-religious considerations. Meanwhile, in France, Auguste Comte developed positivism, the idea that information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, is the only source of certain knowledge. Comte also coined the word “altruism” (the notion of selfless concern for the interests of others) and founded the “Religion of Humanity”, a secular religion that was short-lived but inspired later Humanist associations.
In the 20th century, the British polymath Bertrand Russell developed an atheist view of Christianity in his influential work “Why I am Not a Christian”. He also vocally supported other Humanist ideals such as the decriminalization of homosexuality, world peace, and freedom of opinion. The British writer George Orwell (who is most famous for the warnings against totalitarianism in his novels “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty Four”) also criticised Christianity from an atheist and Humanist perspective. In the 21st century, the “four horsemen of atheism”, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett have advocated “New Atheism”, the idea that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered wherever it exerts undue influence. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie, Armin Navabi, and Sarah Haider are secular Humanist activists with a Muslim background.
Advocates of HumanismIn the 20th century, the philosophy professor Paul Kurtz advanced secular humanism as the “genuine concern for the well-being of other humans”. He founded the Secular Humanist Council (North America’s leading organization for non-religious people), and served as co-chair of Humanists International. In the 21st century, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has become an important advocate of Humanism, arguing that the Enlightenment and Humanism have quantitatively improved human well-being.
Numerous other personalities have advocated Humanist principles. Among them are the science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams, the comedian Rowan Atkinson, the physicists Steven Weinberg and Richard Feynman, the civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the astronomer Carl Sagan, the nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, the philosopher Jean-Paul Satre, the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, and the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Beyond that, hundreds of well-known writers, activists, philosophers, scientists, and politicians identify with Humanism 13. Since 1952, Humanists and Humanist organizations are represented by the umbrella organisation Humanists International.
Humanism — because our fellow humans are more important than fictional beings.
What is Humanism?Today, humanism is mostly understood as a philosophy that is centered on humans, their needs, their dignity, and their capacities. As we have seen, it has its roots in the Enlightenment and was not initially associated with atheism. However, over time the word “humanism” has come to mean “secular humanism”: the combination of the moral and philosophical values of the Enlightenment with atheism. This type of humanism is usually written as “Humanism” with a capital H 17.
In this sense, Humanism is a life stance that affirms the equal dignity of every human being (in the sense of the right to be valued and respected for one’s own sake, and to be treated ethically), aims at the fullest possible development of every individual, and aspires to the greater good of humanity. To this end, Humanism relies on the following tenets 181920212223:
- Humanism holds that the better we know the world, the better we can work towards human well-being. Humanism believes that reliable knowledge of the world arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision. It is committed to the use of the rational methods of inquiry, logic, and evidence in developing knowledge and testing claims to truth. It holds that one should always be open to scrutinize and correct one's principles. We discuss one approach to truth in this spirit in the Chapter on Truth.
- Humanism believes that the scientific method, though imperfect, is the most reliable way of understanding the world. At the same time, the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values: Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends. We discuss a scientific view of the world, life, and the universe in the Chapter on the Universe.
- Humanism is philosophically naturalistic. Until proof of the contrary, Humanism holds that nature (the world of everyday physical experience) is all there is. In a Humanist world view, there are no supernatural entities. Therefore, on a Humanist view, moral rules, knowledge about the physical world, or a meaning of life cannot come from supernatural sources, but have to be developed by humans. Humans have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. This view amounts to atheism, as discussed above.
- Liberal ethics
- Humanists strive toward a world free of cruelty and its consequences. They believe that to this end, ethical rules are needed, and that these are made by humans, not gods. These rules shall respect the equal right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. In this quest, Humanist ethics is consequentialist: it does not aim at retribution, but at the prevention of harm. Beyond the individual, Humanists see also a responsibility to care for the natural world. We discuss a definition of morality along these lines in the Chapter on Morality.
- Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law
- Humanism affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to shape their societies. Humanism holds that the best political system to this end is democracy, because it comes closest to allowing a people to decide their own fate. While all political systems are imperfect, a democratic system at least permits its own improvement. Humanism holds that the rule of law and the civil liberties (as stipulated in the Human Rights) are indispensable for this aim.
- Freedom of expression
- Humanism holds that a society can serve human well-being better if its choices are informed by the truth. Humanism holds that truth is more likely to be discovered in a society that allows all points of view to be heard, and that gives the opportunity for the free exchange of opposing opinions. Therefore, Humanism is committed to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of association, as long as this does not harm others. We will discuss freedom of expression (and its limits) later in the Chapter on Morality.
- While Humanism subscribes to the freedom of religion, it also holds that politics should not be influenced by religious belief. The state should not favor one religion over the other, and should grant all citizens equal rights regardless of their beliefs regarding religion 24. This stance is known as secularism or laïcité. We will discuss religion in the Chapter on Religion, and a Humanist stance on religion in the Conclusion.
While every Humanist is (on this definition) an atheist, not every atheist is a Humanist. However, it is probably fair to say that many atheists in the Western world identify with the principles of Humanism — even if they are unaware of it.
Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishments when you’re dead.
What is rationalism?Rationalism is the reliance on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response 25. The main principles of rationalism are
- to believe what has been shown by evidence
- to not believe something that has been shown to be false
- to not assent to something that cannot be falsified
- and to be open and ready to change one’s beliefs in light of new evidence
Rationalism is part of Humanism, and thus of the life stance advocated in this book. This is because rational thinking has proven to be one of the most reliable methods to arrive at true conclusions. We discuss rational thinking in the Chapter on Truth.
I'd rather wonder than assume.
What is science?Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment 26. The basic method of science is to come up with rules that explain certain phenomena, and to test if these rules also predict future phenomena and do not produce contradictions with past or future phenomena. The sciences include the formal sciences (mathematics, logic, statistics, computer science), the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, Earth sciences), life sciences/biology, social and behavioral sciences, and applied sciences (engineering, healthcare, etc.). Science is directly opposed to superstition.
Science has its limits: For example, science cannot tell us how to behave morally. Even within the scientific domain, some questions may never be answered (think of the question of what initiated the Big Bang). Still, Humanism views science to be the best method to learn about the physical world. This is because science has shown to predict natural phenomena better than any competing method. We discuss a scientific view of the world in the Chapter on the Universe.
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
What is superstition?A superstition is a belief that future events may be influenced by one’s behavior in some magical or mystical way. Common superstitions include the belief that certain things or events (such as the number 13) bring bad luck, or that certain rituals avoid bad luck (such as not walking under a ladder). The common trait of all superstitions is that they do not predict bad or good events any better than chance.
Superstitions are not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, and are thus rejected by Humanists.
Don’t want a silver dollar,
Rabbit’s foot on a string.
The happiness in your warm caress
No rabbit’s foot can bring.
What is liberalism?Liberalism is a worldview founded on the ideas of liberty and equality. Thus, liberal ethics is a system of moral rules that grants everybody equal rights, and asserts that everybody should have maximal possible freedom. In John Stuart Mill’s words, the freedom of a person ends only where the freedom of another person begins. Such a system says that everything is permitted unless it harms someone else.
The difficulty lies, of course, in defining what constitutes “harm to someone else”. Can a conservative family father say that he feels awkward when two people kiss in public, and that public affection should thus be banned? The balance between the freedom of the individual and the right not to be harmed is a difficult trade-off. There is no absolutely right answer here, but liberal ethical frameworks tend to err on the side of personal freedom. They generally allow what does not affect the life, limb, liberty, reputation, or property of someone else. In particular, such systems typically stipulate the right to criticize the government, political parties, and religion, to love and marry whomever one pleases (no matter the gender or faith), and to follow, abandon, or change religions. We discuss liberal moral frameworks in the Chapter on Morality.
Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
What is secularism?Secularism is sometimes equated with a host of other ideas ranging from atheism and naturalism to Humanism and irreligiousness. The word can also mean the separation of religion and politics. We will use the word in the latter sense in this book. This type of secularism is also called laïcité. It advocates that religious belief should not influence public and governmental decisions . This means that religion should be kept out of politics, national identity, law making, and public education. Secularism regards religion as a private matter, which can be practiced by individuals and organizations, but which should not interfere with the government. Secularism is the stance advocated by Humanism — and thus by this book. Humanism holds that religion should take no influence on the state, and that it has to respect the secular law just like all other organizations.
Secularism does not imply atheism. People who believe in God, and who practice their religion, can still find that religion should be kept out of politics.
What is freedom of religion?Freedom of religion means that everybody has the right to practice their religious world view as long as this does not harm other people. In the common understanding of the term it also includes the freedom to not practice any religion at all, or to change one’s religion. Freedom of religion also means that people are free to hold any view on the supernatural, be it in the frame of a religion or not. Naturally, freedom of religion implies that atheists can be atheists and agnostics can be agnostics.
Atheism itself does not take a stance on freedom of religion. Humanism, however, does. Humanism holds that every person or association may hold supernatural beliefs as they please. This is a consequence of the liberal ethics that Humanism proposes. However, this freedom finds its limits when the religion imposes harm on non-consenting people.
Freedom of religion is a difficult concept. If a person is 100% convinced of their religious attitude (or non-religious attitude), then it would not be surprising if this person wanted the rest of humanity to follow the same attitude. Furthermore, there is dispute about how far freedom of religion should go when secular rights and religious duties clash. Humanism is clear on this question: everybody shall be able to live according to their religion, but in the case of a conflict, the secular law has to prevail.
It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
What are human rights?Human rights from a Humanist perspective are a collection of principles that are intended as guidelines for the laws of nations. They typically stipulate that every human being should have the rights to life, liberty, equality before the law, and a fair trial, that slavery and torture should be outlawed, and that everyone should enjoy the freedom of thought. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly is one formulation of human rights 27.
There are different philosophical theories as to whether these rights are “inherent”, “innate” or “natural”, or whether they can be derived from religious sources. From a Humanist point of view, human rights are simply a man-made collection of principles for legal systems. These principles evolved from the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” of 1789. They were formally codified by the United Nations, and still continue evolving today as history advances. Thus, human rights are not any more “natural” than other collections of principles. They have just proven to be a framework that is widely regarded as fair and desirable. Humanism, in particular, considers human rights an important cornerstone for the goal of a just society, because they enshrine the principles of personal liberty, equality before the law, freedom of thought, and freedom from cruelty, which are dear to Humanism.
We are all different.
But with the same rights.
Humanism and humansThe word “Humanism” is clearly related to the word “human”, because Humanism cares about human well-being. Traditional humanist philosophy places the ultimate value in making humans happy, healthy, safe, and in ensuring a just society. In recent decades, the entities that humanism values have been broadened to also include other species and the environment 18. This type of Humanism is sometimes called “Evolutionary Humanism” 28. It is in this sense that we shall use the word “Humanism” in this book.
The Humanist position is that, in what concerns the human society, nothing is more important than the well-being of humans. This sounds as if Humanism were hopelessly individualist — caring more about individual people than about other values. And this is indeed the case. In particular, the following concepts cannot have importance in Humanism 8:
- Some rulers hold that citizens are there to serve their nation or their government. Fascist societies even see the nation as the highest good, and are willing to sacrifice their people for it. Humanism opposes such thinking. In Humanist philosophy, nations and governments are human constructs that exist to serve humans — not vice versa. Therefore, Humanism refuses to lift the concept of “a nation” to the importance it accords to humans. Humanism is international in its spirit.
- Racism is the position that certain ethnicities are superior to others. Nazism has further developed this idea into the concept of “racial purity”, which holds that a race has to be “kept clean” by prohibiting intermarriage — and even by destroying other races. Such ideas are contrary to Humanism. For a Humanist, all people are equally worthy of care, and no race is better than the other. In particular, a race itself cannot be an entity worthy of protection.
- Natural Law
- A “natural law” is a moral principle that is held to exist independently of the positive law of a given political order, society or nation-state — most often considered to be given by a god. Such “laws given by nature” have been used to condemn homosexuality, gender equality, or painkillers during childbirth. For the proponents of such ideas, the “natural laws” are something that humans have to follow, even if it comes at the expense of human well-being. With this, such thinking is opposed to Humanism, which values human well-being above all else. Besides, Humanism is atheist, and thus considers that the “natural laws” do not at all come from nature, but were made by men and then declared to come from nature. In Humanism, it is humans who have to make their own rules.
- Community Laws
- Some communities are governed by their own moral code. Examples can be family clans, or ethnic or religious minorities, if they have rules that dictate which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. Violating these rules is seen as something comparable to treason, and is sanctioned by the particular community. Such “codes of conduct” are contrary to Humanist spirit wherever they limit the freedom of someone against their will. Humanism grants equal dignity and equal rights to all people as individuals — no matter what community they might belong to. In particular, the community itself or its principles cannot be an entity worthy of protection more than the individual human. This sets Humanism apart, in a fundamental way, from most traditional belief systems, which tend to put community before individuals 23.
- The Supernatural
- Religions value the supernatural more than human life — both supernatural beings and supernatural rules. This contradicts Humanist philosophy, which posits that we should care for humans, and not for the supernatural concepts that they came up with. Humanism defends the freedom of religion, but only in so far as the religion does not cause harm to people.
Humanism and ChristianityHumanism believes in the individual rights of each person. This view was arguably inspired by Christianity, which postulated that God created all humans with equal dignity. However, the principle of equal rights is much older than Christianity, and can be found, e.g., in ancient Greece and ancient China already. Even in Christianity, Humanists would argue, the principle does not stem from God, but was developed by humans and then ascribed to God.
Humanism has departed in other ways from a traditional (pre-20th century) Christian outlook: Humanism affirms equal rights for men and women, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, the rights over one’s own body, and a scientific understanding of human evolution. Furthermore, Humanism also incorporates the elements of science, environment protection, democracy, and freedom of speech, which have no counterpart in Christianity.
Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, and man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
Humanism and the EnlightenmentHumanism traces its history back to the Age of Enlightenment. Yet since that time humanity has gone through several painful periods: industrialization brought distress to millions of workers. Colonialism has subdued entire continents and reduced their inhabitants to workers or slaves. Two world wars devastated large portions of the world and killed humans on an unprecedented scale. The rise of communism on one side of the iron curtain and merciless capitalism on the other both devalued humans as individuals.
These events have nourished the idea that the rise of science and reason has caused humanity more bad than good, calling into question the values of the Enlightenment and therefore Humanism. This pessimism (what Stephen Pinker calls “Second Culture”) considers material and scientific progress (as well as reason) an impediment to human well-being. It holds that things get worse as we drift away from the original sources of meaningfulness, which include religion, the community, a spiritual approach to life, and a mystical appreciation of nature.
While there is no denying the negative impact of the events noted above, a closer look at life since the Enlightenment reveals that by nearly every conceivable measure the quality of life and human well-being have improved 8:
- Trains, airplanes, steam ships, running water, air conditioning, dishwashers, electrical light, photography, recorded music, central heating, computers, the Internet — basically every appliance that we rely on today to do work on our behalf did not exist 300 years ago. Hans Rosling has argued that the washing machine alone has freed mankind (and women in particular) from thousands of hours of work per life time 29. Technology has also become safer: Over the course of the 20th century, Americans became 96% less likely to be killed in a car accident, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, and 95% less likely to be killed on the job.
- Even critics of the Enlightenment admit that in terms of health, humanity has made impressive advances: Average life expectancy has doubled from 30 years in the year 1760 to 70 years in the year 2000 — globally. In 1750, one in 3 children would not make it to their 5th birthday in Sweden, one of the richest counties in the world. Today, child mortality is down to 10% in the poorest countries on Earth. That is still too high, but those gains correspond to billions of lives saved. Furthermore, we can now vaccinate against illnesses. Smallpox alone disfigured and killed hundreds of millions of people. It has been eradicated and no longer exists today.
- Contrary to a public opinion, material equality has improved drastically over the past 200 years. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty (i.e., with less than 2 USD per day) has fallen from 90% before the Enlightenment to 10% now and continues to fall. This holds true even though the world population has increased sevenfold over this time. The working conditions that we deplore today in certain corners of the world were the norm before the Enlightenment. In Europe, people would sell themselves as slaves to get through the winter. Today, rich countries spend 10%-30% of GDP on social welfare, up from less than 1% in 1900.
- The environment has taken a hard hit as a result of all these developments. Nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs of progress: Chlorofluorocarbon is being phased out globally, and the ozone layer is coming back. 195 countries signed a pact to reduce the effects of climate change30 — a rare global agreement that has no precedent. However, it is clear that we have only just begun to address the damage that we have created.
- Not so long ago, war was idealized as a romantic duty for the fatherland. There was nothing bad in attacking some country in order to enlarge one’s own. It was the Enlightenment that proposed that humanity should aim for peace (without domination by one power). It took the world’s nations two hundred years, and the two deadliest wars in history, to finally begin subscribing to this ideal. In 1945 war became illegal in the UN Charter 31. This decision was part of a larger change in the public perception of war, in which the horrors of the Second World War, global economic interests, and the mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons all play a role. Since then, wars of conquest have become rare: Before 1928, every country had been (statistically speaking) conquered about once every human lifetime 32. Since the Second World War, however, only very few territories have changed hands by conquest. The number of battle deaths has been decreasing, too. Even the deplorable conflict in Syria at the time of this writing kills nowhere as many million people as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the wars in India, in China, in Sudan, in Uganda, in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, and in Mozambique did — in the 20th century alone. The number of people killed in war each year today is almost 1/20th of what it was in the 1950’s. It may be astonishing, but in terms of number of deaths, humanity has entered what is called the “Long Peace” after the Second World War. In the first decades of the 21st century, human violence has killed fewer people than suicide, fewer people than car accidents, and fewer people than obesity-related diseases 33. Quantifying the misery in cold numbers is by no means intended to be indifferent to the suffering of today’s victims — on the contrary, as Steven Pinker noted, it ensures that the suffering of each victim is honored equally.
- The Enlightenment has brought us the moral milestones that are the foundation of our Western culture today: the abolition of slavery, the rule of law and the equality of all people before it, the banning of torture, tolerance towards other creeds, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the arts, freedom in the choice of a partner, and freedom in general (as long as the freedom of others is not compromised). While we consider these rights foundational today (and while we are still a long way from achieving them globally), the very existence of these ideas is thanks to the Enlightenment. Indeed, the insight that we have to develop these moral concepts ourselves in the first place (rather than obtaining them from some god or king) is a child of the Enlightenment.
- Before the Enlightenment, barely 20% of the population could read — even in the richest countries. Now, literacy is at 80% globally and on the rise. Before the Enlightenment, we had very little knowledge about the genesis of the universe, the functioning of a cell, the diversity of the animal kingdom, the operation of chemical elements, or the laws of physics. Today, while questions remain, the physical laws that govern our everyday life are known. The genesis of the universe and life has been traced back all the way to the Big Bang. And for all our current irrationality, few influential people today believe in werewolves, unicorns, witches, alchemy, astrology, bloodletting, miasmas, animal sacrifices, the divine right of the kings, or supernatural omens in rainbows and eclipses. Beliefs such as these were ubiquitous in pre-Enlightenment times.
- Happiness is difficult to measure . However, by and large, the different studies show that happiness correlates with health, GDP per capita, more freedom, higher life expectancy, low violence, and the rule of law. These factors by themselves do not bring about happiness, to be sure. However, their absence increases unhappiness. In this sense, and contrary to a popular opinion, the factors that abet happiness are by and large the factors that we have already discussed.
Humanism says that if we want to push this positive development further, we should not condemn science and progress, and embrace in a mystic appreciation of nature — let alone seek earthly betterment in more religiousness. Rather, we should appreciate the ideas of the Enlightenment: reason, science, freedom, education, and by extension human rights. We should value these principles, teach them, and develop them. Only when we pledge ourselves to the principles that have brought us so many good things we can continue to produce more good things for more people.
If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be – what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into – you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now.
- Pew Research Group: “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey ”, 2008
- Oxford Dictionary: “God”, 2015
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “Religion”, 2015
- Oxford Dictionary: “Agnosticism”, 2015
- Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, 2008
- Armin Navabi: Why there is no god, 2014
- Urban Dictionary: “Faitheism”, 2021
- Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
- The Economist: “Religion in China”, 2014-11-01
- International Consortium of Investigative Journalists: “Exposed: China’s Operating Manuals for Mass Internment and Arrest by Algorithm”, 2019-11-24
- New York Times: “The Xinjiang Papers: ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims”, 2019-11-16
- Human Rights Watch: “China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims”, 2021-04-19
- BBC: “Inside China’s thought transformation camps”, 2019-06-18
- European Parliament: Resolution on organ harvesting in China (2013/2981(RSP)), 2012-12-13
- Karl Marx: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts/3rd Manuscript/Private Property and Labour, 1844
- Humanists UK: The Humanist Tradition, 2021
- American Humanist Association: “Humanism With A Capital H” , 2020
- Humanists International: “Amsterdam Declaration”, 2002
- Council for Secular Humanism: “A Secular Humanist Declaration”, 1980
- American Humanist Association: “Humanism and its Aspirations”, 2003
- Humanists UK: “Humanism”, 2020
- Humanists International: “Minimum Statement on Humanism”, 1996
- Humanists International/Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics: Good without God - an illustrated guide to humanism, 2021
- Humanists International: “IHEU defends separation of religion and state at the Council of Europe”, 2007
- Oxford Dictionary: “Rationalism”, 2015
- Oxford Dictionary: “Science”, 2015
- United Nations General Assembly: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
- Giordano Bruno Stiftung: “Evolutionary Humanism”, 2020
- Hans Rosling: “The Magic Washing Machine”, 2010
- United Nations Treaty Collection: Paris Agreement, 2015-12-05
- Charter of the United Nations
- The Guardian: “Making war illegal changed the world. But it’s becoming too easy to break the law”, 2017-09-14
- The Economist: “Yuval Noah Harari argues that what’s at stake in Ukraine is the direction of human history”, 2022-02-11