Humanism = Atheism?

As a member of the British Humanist Association I decided to attend their annual conference; though in a personal capacity and not as an official of Atheism UK, as I am interested in the issues relevant to the Atheism and Humanism movements, and was intrigued if any differences between the two movements would be obviously apparent, as I had also recently attended the European Atheist Conference in Cologne. I soon discovered that the differences appeared to be far starker than I had anticipated; skip down the page if you want to read about those rather than the summary of the event.

The BHA 2012 conference commenced on the Friday evening in the very impressive venue of the National Museum in Cardiff; a building of grand architecture similar to the great museums in London. The first session was a useful get-together around a humanism-related pub quiz and comedians. Ivy Lawrence was very amusing but a bit difficult to hear in the dampening acoustics of the Grand Hall. Richard Herring was easier to hear and was deliciously irreverent and crude. The humour of both was aimed at times at the absurdities of religion.

The Saturday sessions began in the lovely Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre with a welcome talk by the BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson.


The first speaker up was Kevin Warwick with The Cyborg Experiments”. He gave a review of some of the experiments carried out at Reading University with some simple human-machine interfaces, as well as some simple autonomous robots which can roam around a controlled environment and avoid walls. It was amusing and interesting but it doesn’t look like Artificial Intelligence has improved much in the 15 years since I was studying AI at university as the level intelligence of the artificial agents still appears to be equivalent only to that of a slug.

Polly Higgins spoke on “Ecocide: Leadership and Law” concerning the endeavours to get Ecocide (the destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystems) to be internationally recognised as a crime alongside genocide and other such crimes.


“Humanism and the Future” in conversation with Greg Claeys and Paul McAuley. Some random musings about the future, with some references to the reduction in religiosity being desirable.

In his talk “Technology and our Inner Life” Ben Hammersley talked about how technology changes fast and how political and social planning must take account of what the state of technology will be in the future.


Roger Martin spoke on “Population Growth: Multiplier of Impacts; Divider of Resources; Provoker of Conflict”. Population is growing and it’s going to be an increasing problem. The main solution is provision of family planning services. Currently the global budget is equal to 10% of the Goldman Sachs bonuses; apparently.


Carole Jahme, “The Better Apes of our Future”. A “performance-art” presentation involving forced audience-participation and humiliation, something to do with empathy that is felt by apes; didn’t really get it.

At the Gala dinner on Saturday evening Richard Dawkins was given the BHA annual award for services to Humanism. There was also a brief but very interesting talk from a probation officer who spoke about her experiences in Winchester prison to get support for non-religious prisoners.

The Sunday morning sessions began with Sir David King, who, in his talk “Human Ingenuity and the New Demand for Collective Action” spoke about the need for collective action to tackle the world’s problems such as climate change, energy security, population growth and the exponential rise in consumption of resources.



Mark Stevenson gave an interesting and amusing talk, “An Optimist’s Tour of the Future”, with an positive look at the future of humanity, with a perspective that it does require innovation and a reboot of the way we think about some of the global issues.

So, that’s about it, the weekend was very interesting with some very impressive speakers raising some very important topics for the future of humankind; and I met lots of extremely nice and intelligent people.

Now have I forgotten anything? Was there anything missing? Well, yes. Can you spot what it was?

The elephant in the room; religion!

I found it distinctly odd, if not extraordinary, that, at a Humanist conference, apart from a few minor references (and the comedians) religion wasn’t mentioned; though those references (criticisms) did get a positive response from the crowd. The topics of presentations and discussions contained virtually no Atheist (or even Humanist) perspective. It was like being at a meeting of the Civil Rights movement where no-one mentioned racism.

The talks were in stark contrast to the European Atheist Conference where the topics concerned the malignant consequences of religion, such as Taslim Nasrin talking about here experiences of the human rights abuses, death threats, physical violence and persecution she has personally experienced, teachers from Germany and Switzerland being sacked for not being believers and the situation within German Catholic-run hospitals and schools which try to control the private lives of employees who can be sacked if they do something of which the church disapproves, such as getting divorced or not going to church.

I can understand that people find it desirable to maintain a positive attitude by exploring how the outlook for humanity can be improved, but, for me at least, one major imperative is to say, to paraphrase the Civil Rights movement, “No to Thesim”, and to explore how that can be achieved in order that the undoubted potential of humankind is not stifled.

On the whole a very enjoyable weekend, but based upon the evidence of these few days, although it’s members might be atheists, Humanism does not do Atheism.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. jayell1932

    Some time ago I was thinking of joining Humanist UK and took the quiz ‘How Humanist are you’ only to fail, seems my anti-religious view were not quite acceptable, I wasn’t too bothered and didn’t join. It looks like AtheismUK may be more in tune with my thinking.

    I used to be a practising RC and a regular Altar Server, I was assisting at a mass one Sunday and suddenly realised I didn’t believe in anything that was going on, I managed to get through what remained of that service but haven’t been inside a church or attended any religious ceremony since 1968.

    So as am a supporter of our constitutional monarchy as it is preferable to a system which can allow someone like Trump to lead a country I am concerned about the predominant role religion is being given in the ceremonies currently going on following death of the Queen. Are there no sceptics in the royal family???

  2. Freedy


    You seem rather disillusioned by what I would refer to as ‘active atheism.’
    I employ you to read ‘Why are you atheists so angry’ by Greta Christina and perhaps you may understand why this atheist polemic you so deplore is vital in today’s world.

    In fact, I am proud to call myself an atheist and can’t see how being one is akin to a fascist.

  3. John Dowdle

    I am not an atheist. I am an ignostic humanist, by which I mean that (like Hume) I base my beliefs on the evidence available to support them. As far as religious claims are concerned, there is absolutely no credible evidence for any of their claims. So why waste time and effort on them? They are utterly irrelevant to my everyday way of life. As a humanist, I believe it is in my personal interests and in everyone else’s interests that I try to be a good person by living a good life and by trying to create a good society; this can nowadays be seen as operating on a global basis and should incorporate all living beings on our planet, as we ultimately rely upon all of them for our survival and happiness. The absolute essence of humanism – to my mind – is that we should all want to see our human society getting better over time so that future generations will have better lives than ourselves. This planet Earth will come to an end one day so we need to encourage scientific research so that our descendants will have the option of leaving our solar system and finding a new home out in deep space. Religion just gets in the way of the future of humankind and that is why I oppose it. Religious beliefs are just plain ridiculous and need to be ended ASAP. In all honesty, I think atheism just leads to arguments with deluded religious people, which can never be won – or, at least, on very rare occasions. Why waste valuable time on these crackpots? They are beyond reasoning. We must focus on the young and make sure they do not grow up with these silly religious ideas.

    1. Richard G

      I too am an ignostic – or, as I prefer to call it, a “theological noncognitivist”.

      But theological noncognitivism (or ignosticism) has nothing to do with evidence, or the absence of it, for the truth of the theistic claim “God exists”. Rather, it is the argument that the noun “God” (or any other symbol), when used to refer to a super-empirical object or process, does not symbolize anything intelligible. Therefore, the mere sentence “God exists” does not express a proposition and is incapable of being either true or false. The theistic assertion (the assertive speech act, with the truth predicate “is true” appended to the mere sentence by implication) “God exists” is shorthand for: ““God exists” is true”. This implies the claim that the sentence “God exists” is capable of being either true or false (and is true), which is false. Theism is invalid.

      Equally, however, the claim, that the mere sentence “God exists” is capable of being either true or false (and is false), is false. Such claim is commonly attributed to atheists, and the standard definition of “atheism” is “disbelief in the existence of God or gods” (Oxford English Dictionary). But the question then arises: what are the God or gods in the existence of which atheism is the disbelief? If the atheistic assertion is ““God exists” is false”, where “God exists” is a mere sentence, atheism is as invalid as theism.

      But, if the atheistic assertion is ““God exists” is false”, where “God exists” is shorthand for: ““God exists” is true”, atheism is not only valid but true, but it can only exist in response to theism.

      Just as I am a theological non-cognitivist, so I am an “ethical non-cognitivist”: ethical sentences do not express propositions and thus cannot be true or false. The adjective “good”, like the noun “God”, does not symbolize anything intelligible. The moral sentence “X is good” is incapable of being either true or false and the moralistic claim, that it is so capable, is false. Therefore, I am an “amoralist” and a “moral skeptic”. Expression, such “a good life” and “a good society”, are meaningless.

  4. bluedog

    I am a mild mannered atheist, whoas a rule, keeps his opinions to himself. This is probably a result of coming from a largely religious family who looked on my gradually emerging schepticism with quiet disaproval.

    Occasionally however I do feel that we have a duty to decry the absurdities of those preaching religious propaganda. I had one such experience today while walking through town. A man introduced himself to me as a preacher and asked me if I was going to heaven. When I replied no he asked me if I were then going to hell. Again I repeated no and explained that I cannot go to either of these as they do not exist.He, with some conviction shouted (I think mainly for the attention of other passers by) that unless I repent of my sins my soul will be tormented in hell with eternal damnation. Now whilst I find this man’s approach mildly amusing there are other’s who will inevetiably be vulnerable to such medieval threats. I asked him why he needed to resort to such threats and suggested it was due to his inadequacy both as a man and as a representative of an out of date belief system.

    I do not see any point in arguing with a man who thinks the world is 6000 years old (he actually corrected me when I asked if he was one of those who belive the earth is only 4000 years old and to add to the absurdity he claims to work in a petrol station). However don’t we have a duty to condemn the madness they put out? Surely we need to promote our rationale theory based on fact otherwise our silence only adds to the already powerful religious lobby.

  5. Offscaleirony

    Per se, it would be good to imagine a time when religion is not on any agenda, like the muck in the farmers field – we have no need to make mention of it. However, it is so widespread it kinda gate crashes most situations we need to address.

    If humanism can progress absent the need to be derailed by religion, all well and good, though I’m certain it will keep banging at the door ad infinitum.

    What I think the OP is saying is that religion is already way too big to be ignored and the fight against its powers needs further leverage whenever and wherever it can. Hi 5 to that, though crime et al simply adds further to what appears an unending army of enemies to humanism!

  6. Richard G

    Atheists aren’t active just for the sake of being against something but because they are against sexism, misogyny, homophobia, other prejudice and general persecution

    There is nothing self-contradictory in being both an atheist and a sexist, misogynist or homophobe. Conversely, there is nothing self-contradictory in being both a theist and anti-sexism, misogyny or homophobia. There are many such people, of both flavours.

    The real objection to religious faith, and the reason for challenging it, is that it makes people hold as true things that are demonstrably false or self-contradictory. Take, for example, the following official position from the Church of England General Synod:-

    This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms:-

    1. that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship;

    2. that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

    3. that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

    4. that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality; and that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.

    This is a statement of fact, not value. The underlying value, homophobia, is transformed into fact by holding as true the defining statement of theism: “God exists”. Reject that, as atheists do, and the whole statement falls apart.

  7. rupert

    >Why would anyone expect religion to be mentioned at a Humanist conference?

    Because some Humanists claim to speak for Atheists.

    There seems to be some confusion about Atheism being negative, or why atheists want to be active. It is only negative in the same sense that one is against racism. Religion is full of prejudice against women, homosexuals, anyone of a different belief system, etc.

    Atheists aren’t active just for the sake of being against something but because they are against sexism, misogyny, homophobia, other prejudice and general persecution; and that is positive!

    So, perhaps the question should be, why are you NOT against those things?

  8. Alcuin

    Why would anyone expect religion to be mentioned at a Humanist conference? Humanism is about positive philosophies and ideas, not religion.

    That is why I tend to call myself a humanist. Calling myself an atheist defines me only in terms of religion, (rejection of it). It is an essentially negative label. I prefer to be positive.

  9. George

    In many ways I’m reassured by this post: humanism is more than anti-theist. If you are a member of a humanist organisation you are already an acknowledge atheist. What you are asking is like the church preaching the ‘evils’ of atheism at every sermon and gathering. Presumably you in church because you are already signed up to the premise.

    Secularism to me is a live and let live situation where the state should not favour one religious group or non-religious group above another. Many anti-theist statements are often not backed up with science. For example in The God Delusion (Chapter 6) Dawkins demonstrates there is no discernable difference between the average Christian and the average atheist when it comes to moral decision making (this cuts both ways).

    There are biological explanations for religiosity and many of the people who have religious experiences would find it difficult to cope outside a religious framework

    There is no doubt that God is both a socially constructed and neurologically based. But then you believe you are real and a quick look through current neurological research demonstrates that you are a kind of illusion too. Here is our hero DD on this very subject:

    Humanist should fight for the rights of other humanists to practice non religion. However the current BHA polemic sounds a bit narrow. Forget arguing with the religious (apart from a few) they are not listening. Atheism (as I’ve been told many times)is a non belief in God or gods. It doesn’t follow that you then have to spend your life as an anti-theist (another animal altogether).

    Paul Kurtz editor of the book The Humanist Alternative suggests a range of thought around humanism and alternative ways of being. Many in that no mans land between science and art.

    Please don’t let humanism just become a narrow anti-theist polemic -there is more to life than this. I’m not saying where religious people and groups are clearly abusing other people’s rights (or each others) that they shouldn’t be dealt with by the law. That’s different.

    Because of the current new atheist polemic I am reluctant to (a) say that I’m an atheist (due to all the current baggage associated with the term) and (b) I’ve resigned (since 2011) from all the atheist, humanist, skeptic and rationalist organisations that I’ve been a member of for the forseeable future. I find the current anti-theist diatribe boring, pointless and repetative. Yawn. In fact it is a little
    fascistic from my perspective.

  10. rupert


    You are probably right that there are more urgent threats. However, can you really segregate religion when most of the world think the answer to such threats is prayer!?

    Who are the main deniers of climate change? It is the religious right in America. Consider also the dominionists (same people?) who, based upon biblical tracts, believe that the resources of the world are theirs to consume at will. What about the rapturists who seem to openly welcome, if not actively seek, Armageddon, whether it be by global warming or war.

    More generally, is it not a waste, and exacerbating the threats, if people are focusing their thoughts and time on delusions rather than facing up to reality and the real threats that need to be addressed?

    The key, you may agree, is education; to move to critical thinking whereby people are able to evaluate and assess reality.

    By default this means moving away from faith-based thinking, which seems to currently be all-pervading and even promoted as a virtue.

    To me challenging faith is vital as it touches all other parts of global society.

  11. crabsallover

    Jemza666 said ‘the person presenting it to him [Andrew Copson] specifically mentioned that he was receiving this award for his work promoting atheism, science and reason.’

    NB. BHA Press release does not mention atheism or atheist except in context of Atheist Bus Campaign:

  12. David Flint

    Sure Rupert, Humanism is not the same as atheism – that’s why we have different words. As a humanist I see religion’s supernaturalist claims as false – where they aren’t simply meaningless. I’m an atheist (though not all humanists are).

    But I’m more than an atheist. I’m a writer, a consultant, an environmentalist, a politician – maybe some other things. The BHA stands for the view that religion is NOT the only threat to humanity and our world and atheism not the only test of rightness. In my view religion is not the biggest and most urgent threat. The biggest threats are climate change and an economic system that has claimed a near-sacred status for itself. Though I wasn’t there I see that BHA conference did address the former but not, I think, the latter.

  13. rupert

    jemza666 wrote:

    > I’m guessing it was deliberate that you left out….

    I am interested in what you mean here, would you clarify?

  14. Greyhound1405

    I agree with you. How to neuter religion is my personal goal, whilst they follow their so-called holy book full of bronze-age and stone-age morals.

    I have no problem with people meeting together for discussion and music, but you only have to listen to the words of most of the hymns to realise that religion is a system of self abasement. The most famous example being ‘Amazing Grace’ … that saved a wretch like me!

    All the good stuff that Religion does can be done without the need of a supernatural influence.

  15. Richard G

    Humanism = Atheism?

    On the face of it, no. While “atheism” (Greek atheos, from a –“without” + theos “god”) more or less literally captures its intended meaning, “humanism” does no such thing. The uninitiated, on reading the word, can have no idea that it had anything to do with atheism at all. As H.W. Fowler wrote, in “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage”:-

    Humanist: the word is apt to puzzle or mislead, first, because it is applied to different things and a doubt of which is in question is often possible, and secondly because in two of these senses its relation to its parent word human is clear only to those who are acquainted with a long-past chapter in history.

    If humanism = atheism, why call it “humanism”? Atheism would do!

  16. jemza666

    I was at the conference and I don’t agree with your point about atheism etc.

    I’m guessing it was deliberate that you left out from your report that the guest of honour at the conference was Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s best known atheist and Vice President of the BHA, who was presented with an award at the Saturday dinner, and that the person presenting it to him specifically mentioned that he was receiving this award for his work promoting atheism, science and reason.

    I was also at the conference last year that was themed on the meaning of life. Religion and atheism were discussed a lot – but because they were relevant, not gratuitously.

    The reason religion wasn’t mentioned in some of the speeches at the conference was, erm, because they were about other topics! To continually mention religion in a talk about future technology would seem more like Tourette’s syndrome than relevance.

  17. crabsallover

    I also attended the 3 day Cardiff conference as a member of Dorset Humanists and not as a member of AtheismUK council. The conference was titled ‘Beyond Tomorrow, Visions of the Future’.

    It would have been interesting to hear a talk about the vision of the future based around different scenario projections of the religiosity of the world.

    BHA do not generally ‘challenge religious faith’ but there are exceptions. For instance, in the past few months the BHA has stood up against Catholic persecution in India, questioned the legality of non-stunned religious slaughter and commented on Collective Worship in schools:

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