Should Humanists Avoid the Word “Atheist”?

Introduction

Some Humanists don’t hesitate to identify themselves as atheists, even to religionists. They seem proud of the label.

But often those same Humanists are opposed to attacking religion. They say the attacks are offensive to religionists and build walls between people. Claiming to espouse civility, they urge respect for the feelings of others.

In their view, Humanists and religionists should avoid discussing religion and instead work together in addressing other human problems. As for any contributions religion makes to causing the problems, they also consider that a taboo subject in dealings with religionists.

Their idea is that if Humanists are seen as nice, inoffensive, and concerned about improving the world, the public will view Humanism favorably. More people will therefore be inclined to examine the philosophy and become Humanists.

Whether or not that’s the best way to promote Humanism, those who advocate it may be undermining their position by calling themselves atheists. This is because in almost all of American society – and in modern dictionaries – an atheist is considered someone who says there is no God.

To many people, that statement is far more offensive than attacks on harmful or nonsensical religious doctrines.

The meaning of atheist

In an attempt to avoid problems stemming from the public’s understanding of atheism, some professed atheists say the commonly understood meaning and the dictionary definition are wrong. They claim that atheism does not necessarily include an assertion that there is no God.

They look to the etymology of the word to obtain a different meaning. The word derives from the Greek a (without) and theos (God).

Based on those origins, they say an atheist is someone who is without a God, not necessarily someone who denies there is a God. The person remains open to the possibility of God’s existence. But in the absence of proof, the person is without a God and thus an atheist.

A problem with this method of defining atheism is that the etymological meanings of words can differ drastically from the modern meanings. In dictionaries, the etymologies are given as aids to understanding the meanings and nuances of words, not as the meanings themselves. Although etymology and modern meaning sometimes jibe, they often do not.

Because of those differences in meaning, using words in their etymological sense – instead of their modern sense – is sure to cause miscommunication and confusion.

Another problem is that modern usage and dictionaries have a different word for someone who is without a God but unsure whether God exists. This word is agnostic, which derives from the Greek a (without) and gnosis (knowledge).

The etymological and current meanings of agnostic remain close. In regard to religion, though, the meaning is narrower and refers to a person who professes to be without knowledge of whether God exists.

A useful purpose is served by the evolution of atheist and agnostic into their modern meanings. The language needs a term for those who say there is no God, and atheist has come to fill the need. A word is also needed for people who are unsure whether God exists, and agnostic serves the purpose.

Many atheists strenuously oppose these modern distinctions between the two terms. But resisting the evolution of language can cause problems, especially when the changes are useful and unlikely to be reversed.

Skunked terms

In Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003), Bryan Garner describes how the meanings of words can change over time and become controversial. He lists a number of words that have gone through the process.

When a word starts being used in a new way, some people may oppose the change. These traditionalists are often members of the literati. They denounce the new meaning, consider those who accept it as unsophisticated or uneducated, and view the use of it as indicating the communicator lacks credibility. They maintain this position even after the newer meaning has become widely accepted in society.

The new usage, however, is more readily adopted by those who are not so fastidious about retaining traditional meanings of words. They might not know or care about the traditional meaning, might see the new meaning as filling a need in the language, or might view the change as making the language more interesting by adding novelty, color, or variety to it.

Garner explains how these controversies usually play out. Over time, the traditionalists opposing the change become fewer and fewer. And those who use the word in the newer sense increase in number. In this way, the change eventually gains acceptance throughout virtually all of society.

The process, however, can take many years or decades – sometimes even a century. During this middle period, the word’s meaning is subject to dispute and misunderstanding. To traditionalists, the new meaning seems illiterate. To modernists, the old meaning seems odd – if they are even aware of it in the first place.

According to Garner, at that point the word has become “skunked.” He says such words should be avoided by people who are concerned about precision, clarity, and credibility. Because traditionalists and modernists attach different meanings to the word, the use of it can cause one of the groups to miss the intended meaning or be distracted from the substance of the message.

Either way, the word is likely to undermine the usual purposes of communication: to inform, persuade, or entertain.

Atheist as a skunked term

The word atheist is going through the process described by Garner. That is why there is so much controversy and confusion over its meaning.

In insisting that the word simply means someone who is without a God, many traditionalists consider those who don’t use it that way as ignorant – at least in regard to philosophy. One traditionalist passionately denounced such a writer as having “probably never picked up a philosophy book in his life.”

The writer, however, did not deserve to have his intellect and credibility attacked. He is quite knowledgeable about philosophy and was merely using atheist in its modern sense of being someone who says there is no God.

Moreover, if the roles of those two persons were reversed, the traditionalist writer’s intended meaning would likely have been missed by the modernist reader.

In sum, the modern meaning of atheist can upset traditionalists and distract them from the substance and credibility of the communication. And the traditional meaning is either unknown or seems strange to modernists, resulting in a miscommunication or distraction.

These problems mean that speakers and writers use atheist at their peril. The word meets the requirements for being a skunked term.

Further, traditionalists have little chance of unskunking it. Because the modern meaning has been adopted by the dictionaries and the public at large, the process has gone too far to be reversed.

Unfortunately for Humanism, almost all the traditionalist users of the word are in today’s Humanist movement. The modernists are just about everyone else.

This means that many Humanists – including those in leadership positions – use the term atheist in the older and etymological sense. But everyone else interprets it in the newer sense. A better prescription for causing the public to misunderstand Humanism would be hard to conceive.

Even worse, as a result of the word being skunked in this way, many people view professed atheists as skunks at the picnic of life.

Results of the misunderstanding

When people consider an atheist as someone who says there is no God, the attractiveness of the Humanist philosophy can be diminished in several ways.

(1) Humanists viewed as arrogant crackpots

To many people, someone who says “There is no God” is making an unreasonable leap in logic and loses credibility. They reason that with the universe being so huge and complex, and human knowledge of it being so small, how can anyone presume to say there definitely is not, somewhere, a God?

They have a point. Earth and the rest of our solar system revolve around the sun, which is one of 100 to 200 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. And there are billions of other galaxies (star systems) in the observable universe. The distances between galaxies are expressed in light-years, with one light-year being about 6 trillion miles.

Because the universe is so enormous, and humankind confined to one minuscule speck in it, many intelligent and knowledgeable people cannot bring themselves to say there definitely is no God.

One of them is Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. In a speech given at a 2003 national conference of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he indicated he does not find sufficient evidence to conclude there is a God. But he could not rule out the possibility of a God existing somewhere in the universe. He explained, “I’m not that smart.”

Another is former congressman Barney Frank. In accepting the 2014 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association, Frank said: “I wouldn’t really describe myself as an atheist. Atheism expresses more certainty than I have. My actual attitude is that if it’s absolutely unknowable, don’t bother me with it.”

A college professor of comparative religion confided that when she would hear someone say “There is no God,” her mental response was often “Who the hell are you?” (She was too polite to say it, though.) She believed that the atheist’s claim went far beyond the limits of human knowledge.

Former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi expressed a similar view when asked whether he believes in God. “I’m not in a position to believe or disbelieve in him,” he said. “You know, the atheists, who not only believe but know there is no God, are just as silly as those who seem to have no doubt that there is.”

With the word atheist – as commonly understood – receiving such negative reactions from brilliant people who otherwise basically agree with Humanism, the term does not appear well-suited for gaining supporters of the philosophy. It turns off not only the religious but also many of the nonreligious.

Ironically, the word even causes some of them to view Humanists as using similar thinking as religious fundamentalists. This may be the strongest reason for Humanists to question the utility of the term.

A Humanist marketing campaign, therefore, would likely be more successful by using terms conveying more humility about the limits of human knowledge.

(2) Humanists viewed as cold and insensitive

Accompanying the statement “There is no God” is the corollary that there is no life after this one. But absent definite knowledge of God’s nonexistence, asserting that there is no afterlife can seem insensitive to the feelings of others.

Tragically, many people’s lives in this world are filled with misery and sometimes seem barely worth living. For instance, they may suffer from a terminal disease at a young age, have a severe disability due to an accident or congenital defect, or could be imprisoned for decades with no hope of release (possibly for a crime they didn’t commit).

In other words, their lives in this world offer little happiness in the present and scant hope for it in the future. They may even be in constant and severe pain.

Additionally, many people suffer great sorrow from the death of a loved one, such as a child, spouse, other family member, or friend. The pain of being forever separated can seem almost unbearable.

For people in such circumstances, the hope for an afterlife – no matter how small – can be one of their few sources of consolation and even happiness. As Shakespeare wrote about the analgesic effects of hope: “If fortune torments me, hope contents me.” Moreover, famed trial attorney Gerry Spence indicated that even the slim hope for an afterlife can be a source of pleasure: “I cherish the fantasy, even the hope, of adventures in other realms to come.”

When people are in dire and virtually hopeless situations in this world, what useful and humane purpose can Humanists serve by saying to them that there is no afterlife, that their miserable lives in this world are all they will ever have, and that their hope for a better life in another world is a pipe dream? Even if Humanists could prove those assertions, it seems rude saying so to persons for whom the hope is one of their few balms.

The great nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll seemed to support that view. He did not criticize the hope for happiness in an afterlife. In fact, he embraced the hope himself, saying it gave him and many others consolation.

In a eulogy given at a child’s grave, Ingersoll stated: “We cannot say that death is not a good. We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life, or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn.” He also said the mourners standing “with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. . . . There is for them this consolation: The dead do not suffer. If they live again, their lives will surely be as good as ours. . . . We, too, have our religion, and it is this: Help for the living – Hope for the dead.”

Ingersoll made similar remarks on other occasions. “I do not deny the existence of a future state, because I do not know.” “All I have said upon this subject has been to express my hope and confess my lack of knowledge.” “Arched by the bow of hope let the dead sleep.” “I take a little consolation in the ‘perhaps.’” “I would not for the world say anything to take from any mind a hope in which dwells the least comfort.” “And so I say, and always have said, let us hope for the best.”

He also expressed his views in a poem, which ended with these lines:

Is there beyond the silent night
An endless day?
Is death a door that leads to light?
We cannot say.
The tongueless secret locked in fate
We do not know. – We hope and wait.

Because of the consolation the hope gives to people who are suffering, Ingersoll’s approach might be a helpful – and perhaps necessary – part of what some call “The Heart in Humanism.”

(3) Humanists appear to violate their own ethical standards

The Humanist system of ethics holds that acts are ethical if they promote human happiness and unethical if they cause human unhappiness.

As previously noted, the hope for an afterlife can bring consolation and even happiness to many. In evaluating this hope under the Humanist ethical system, then, the next step is to examine possible harms.

Harmful religious beliefs are a major reason why Humanists oppose traditional religions. Among the main harms are that religions teach people to oppose happiness in this world for the sake of a supposed afterlife; frighten them by claiming many will suffer eternal pain; cheapen the value of this life by saying it is only a short prelude to eternal life; and waste time, attention, and resources in the worship and service of a supposed God.

Religions also promote religious wars and persecution by convincing people they are God’s elect and those who disagree with them are God’s enemies; cause people to refrain from working to solve problems and instead rely on God’s assistance and protection; and make them less concerned about justice because they believe God will eventually punish the bad and reward the good.

Further, religions block progress by claiming humans were supernaturally given eternal truths in what were actually ignorant and superstitious times; command people to unquestioningly believe absurd claims based on faith and not require evidence; and encourage them to oppose science, reason, secular education, and independent thinking so that they will be less likely to question religious dogmas.

In view of such harms, no wonder John Lennon’s song “Imagine” encourages people to “Imagine there’s no heaven. . . . No hell below us. . . . And no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

The harms of traditional religions are based on several premises. These are that there is a God who demands worship and obedience, that God communicates to humans and intervenes in the world, and that there is an afterlife in which people will be rewarded or punished.

The hope for an afterlife, however, does not necessarily include those premises. People having the hope can still recognize there is insufficient evidence for God’s existence and no evidence for an afterlife.

As a result, those people conduct their lives in harmony with the principles of Humanism. Because they see no evidence that humans receive supernatural aid, they rely on science and human effort in addressing problems. Additionally, they live in accordance with the evidence that this is their only life. Although their hope for an afterlife brings some pleasure and consolation, they do not count on the actual existence of one.

The fact that hoping for an afterlife can be consistent with Humanism is seen in the lives of two of its greatest champions: Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Paine. They provided exemplary service to humankind and had tremendous success in promoting rationality and opposing superstition.

Ingersoll applied Humanist ethics to the hope for an afterlife. He thought the most important fact was that the hope can produce happiness without causing harm. As long as that was the case, he advocated: “Let us have happiness – well-being. The truth upon these matters is of but little importance compared with the happiness of mankind.”

Paine not only hoped for an afterlife but also believed in God. As a Deist, he thought God had created the universe and the laws of nature, and then stepped away and no longer interferes with the creation. This God does not give revelations to humans or perform miracles. Science and reason – not alleged holy books – are the methods of discovering truths about the world.

As for an afterlife, Paine said in The Age of Reason: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” But he indicated the subject was of little concern to him: “I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence.” Consistent with Humanism, his focus was on human means of solving problems and producing happiness in this life.

Because the hope for an afterlife can promote happiness, alleviate suffering, cause no harm, and be held by great Humanists, a blanket opposition to the hope appears inconsistent with Humanism’s ethical system. In fact, a similar analysis and conclusion may also apply to belief in a deistic God such as Paine’s.

(4) Humanists viewed as misunderstanding human nature

The denial of an afterlife also goes against the widespread human tendency to hope for one. This is another reason why Ingersoll left room for the hope.

When preachers charged that his attacks on religion took away the hope for seeing loved ones in an afterlife, Ingersoll denied the charge. He said no one could take away that hope, because people had always held it and always would.

He explained that before Christianity and Moses, belief in an afterlife was widespread in Egypt, India, China, and elsewhere. It was “almost universal.”

In Ingersoll’s view, hoping for an afterlife often naturally results from human love. After a loved one dies, the thought of eternal separation can be excruciatingly painful to the surviving family and friends. The combination of love and grief leads to the consoling hope that perhaps they will somehow meet again.

Ingersoll explained, “As long as men live and love and die, this hope will blossom in the human heart.” For the hope “does not depend upon a book – it depends upon the heart – upon human affection.” Moreover, it’s “a beautiful ideal” and “the greatest dream that ever entered the heart or brain of man – the Dream of Immortality.”

In one of his most famous statements on the subject, Ingersoll said the dream “was not born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death. It is the rainbow Hope, shining upon the tears of grief.”

Ingersoll believed that this hope will continue even after science replaces religion. “The hope of another life was in the heart, long before the ‘sacred books’ were written, and will remain there long after all the ‘sacred books’ are known to be the work of savage and superstitious men.”

If Ingersoll was right, any philosophy that goes against that natural hope is unlikely to be widely accepted.

Agnosticism to the rescue

Because the widely accepted meaning of atheist has connotations that can interfere with the public’s understanding and acceptance of Humanism, the use of a different word may be advisable for successfully marketing the philosophy. The term agnostic appears more suitable for the purpose.

Agnostics maintain that knowledge is limited to what the evidence indicates. To reach conclusions beyond that is to make faith-based claims similar to what religionists do in purporting to answer questions about God, the universe, and humanity.

Agnosticism therefore not only holds that God’s existence can neither be proved nor disproved, but also that ultimate questions about the origin and destiny of the universe are beyond humankind’s ability to answer.

This means agnosticism has more humility than atheism (as the term is commonly understood). Agnosticism is, therefore, less susceptible to the charge of being arrogant and presumptuous about matters that are beyond human knowledge.

Also with its admitted lack of knowledge about ultimate matters, agnosticism makes no dogmatic assertions about what happens after death. As the agnostic Thomas H. Huxley said in the nineteenth century: “I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.”

Agnosticism thus can be consistent with many people’s strong inclination to hope for an afterlife. It does not oppose the consolation and happiness many obtain from the hope. It recognizes that the hope helps them deal with serious difficulties in their lives, such as disease, disability, poverty, loneliness, or the loss of loved ones.

In addition to acknowledging those benefits, agnosticism recognizes that the hope can be harmless. It views the hope as consistent with Humanist ethical standards, which judge the morality of acts based on whether they cause happiness or harm.

On the other hand, because agnosticism asserts that people should believe only in accordance with the evidence, it makes no claim that there is a God or an afterlife. So it espouses reliance on human effort to solve problems and does not look to supernatural aid. And it advocates that people live as though this is the only life they have. These same beliefs are at the foundation of Humanism.

Further, with its lack of dogmatic assertions about the origin, nature, purpose, and destiny of the universe, agnosticism leaves more room for recognizing and appreciating the mysteries of life. Albert Einstein said: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” It’s difficult to experience wonder and awe while claiming to have the answers to the mysteries of life.

In sum, an agnostic Humanism appears to have a better chance of winning widespread approval and support than an atheistic Humanism.

Conclusion

Because most people do not understand the old meaning of atheist, Humanists who use the term in that sense are likely to cause misunderstandings.

Additionally, the modern meaning of atheist carries negative implications that seriously interfere with the attractiveness of Humanism in many people’s eyes. The word can cause them to turn away from the philosophy and not give it a second look.

It’s a futile waste of time and resources to try correcting these problems by changing people’s views about the definition of atheist. As realists, Humanists have to recognize that the meanings of words evolve.

And when a word’s definition has evolved to the point where the dictionaries, media, and general public all accept the new meaning, it’s virtually impossible for proponents of the old meaning to reverse the process. History repeatedly shows they are fighting a losing battle.

This is particularly the case when the new meaning fills a gap in the language by supplying a needed word for a particular concept.

Humanists have far more important work than the almost surely hopeless task of altering the meaning people give to the word atheist. Instead of changing minds, the endeavor would likely confuse many and thus make Humanism even less understandable and appealing to them.

These problems could be avoided if Humanists presented their philosophy in terms of agnosticism instead of atheism. Agnosticism is rarely misunderstood by the public. And it does not have the negative connotations that atheism carries.

Confucius said the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. In today’s world, the dictionaries contain the right names for those who affirm there is no God and those who say we cannot know whether God exists.

Humanism would likely gain greater public understanding and acceptance if Humanists used the right names.