A Misanthropic, Pessimistic Humanist?

I've sometimes wondered whether it's truly possible for a misanthrope and a pessimist such as myself to be considered a Humanist, but after some reflection, I've concluded that these mental and emotional tendencies are irrelevant to the question and that it's only my principles, words and actions that are relevant. Here is the International Humanist and Ethical Union's Minimum Statement on Humanism:

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.
There is nothing in this statement suggesting I must have any positive feelings toward or confidence in humanity in order to call myself a Humanist.

It doesn't matter that almost everyone angers me from time to time with their irrationality, ignorance, selfishness and outright malice, that many people constantly disappoint me, or that I have a very low opinion of “the average person.” It only matters that I recognize that I, too, have numerous personal flaws, that I believe I'll be happier if I treat them sympathetically rather than disdainfully, and that I at least try to do so.

I don't know whether morality can be said to objectively exist, but I think a secular morality based on human needs and desires rather than a religious morality based on divine revelation is the most conducive to human happiness and can be universally applied.

I don't think humans are free in the sense that we instinctively imagine, but that doesn't mean that our lives have no meaning and that the illusion of free will isn't useful. An appreciation of determinism has greater potential to increase our power than it does to decrease it.

I don't think science can answer every question, but I know it can answer many and that religions can answer none.

I don't think democratic institutions regularly make decisions in the best interest of the governed, but I do think they make them much more often than any alternative, and I don't expect anything better to ever be developed.

I'm not at all confident humanity can solve most of its own problems, but I'm very confident that if any problems are solved, it will be our reason and compassion that save us rather than supernatural beings.

I'm not necessarily optimistic that civilization will avoid destroying itself, whether by global environmental degradation, nuclear holocaust, technological disaster or any other means, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to build sustainable societies and even eventually try to branch out into different worlds.

In my last entry I settled on “atheist” as my preferred label (without at all disclaiming the other candidates), but perhaps I should change once more to “Humanist,” having now determined that it suits me well despite the necessity of making the above qualifications to clarify my exact opinion. I have a tendency to be react belligerently, at least mentally, toward any mention of religion, and this does nothing but make me tense and angry, so a stronger identification with Humanism rather than atheism may serve me well. We'll see how it goes.



What Kind of Atheist Am I?

After vacillating for quite some time between the terms atheist, naturalist and Humanist as my preferred label, I've settled on “atheist” because it's minimalist, unambiguous, and the most recognizable. Now I'm debating with myself whether in certain contexts I should add an adjective in order to indicate that I take an real interest in atheism and that it's an important part of my identity. I want people to understand it's something I actually care about rather than just another fact about me, like my height or my eye color. I'm going to consider a few adjectives commonly paired with “atheist” and see whether they fit the bill.

Militant atheist — I rather like this one because it suggests that I'm always ready and willing to stand up and defend my viewpoint at any moment and that I'm willing to accept the negative label of my critics in order to weaken it, but unfortunately it's misleading in that I never advocate physical violence as do militant religionists. I don't want to give people the wrong impression; atheists have enough misperceptions to combat already.

Fundamentalist atheist — The term isn't exactly meaningless, but it doesn't correspond to anything in reality. That is, it's technically possible to accept the non-existence of deities as an axiom of one's worldview (or a “properly basic belief,” as Plantinga might call it), but I've never actually encountered anyone who does. Weak atheism isn't even a belief, and strong atheism is always argued for with evidence and logic, never dogmatically asserted as unquestionably true.

Devout atheist — I've occasionally referred to myself as this because it's ironic and it actually describes my strong commitment to the idea, but it's also misleading in that it suggests that atheism is a religion. We have no dogma, no sacred texts, no moral code, no holidays, no priests, no saints, no temples, nor anything else that almost every religion has.

Committed atheist — This is similar to the previous option but with less religious baggage. Unfortunately, I wouldn't really say that I was committed to atheism; I'm not even personally committed to promoting it.

Happy atheist — This could indicate that I'm a happy person and that I'm happy to be an atheist. Unfortunately, it seems to imply that many atheists are unhappy and that I need to distinguish myself from them; this is simply false.

Friendly atheist — This has similar problems as the previous option, and it might be even registered or trademarked by Hemant Mehta, who writes a very popular blog with this title. Even if not, it might lead to confusion if I used it.

Serious atheist — Since many atheists aren't serious about their atheism, this is a distinction that actually makes sense. It could mean, I suppose, that I have no sense of humor, but this isn't really likely since I've never encountered any atheist who was reluctant to laugh about both religion and atheism.

Active atheist — I don't know whether I qualify as one since my activity is currently limited to reading books, listening to podcasts, blogging and discussing atheism on a couple of internet forums. I used to attend some meetings of local atheist group, but as a married law student, I really don't have the time, and I'm also not a member of any non-theist organization. I'm certainly not nearly as involved as a lot of others are. I really want to indicate something other than my activity level with the description, but this is the least misleading of the group.

Of course, there's even less of a need or desire to use an adjective in addition to a label. If any readers have a suggestion which I haven't considered here, please post it as comment.



First Mass in Almost Five Years

On 1 August, my wife and I served as bridesmaid and groomsman respectively at my younger sister's wedding. It was the first time I had attended a mass in almost five years and, I think, only the second time ever for my wife, whose family is at most nominally Buddhist. Though I remembered all of the responses during the ceremony, of course, I didn't repeat them and I didn't otherwise participate except for standing when everyone else did and for shaking hands and saying, “Peace be with you,” since it would have been very difficult to refuse politely and since the phrase itself is secular anyway. While the wedding itself interested me, the mass was rather unremarkable. It didn't really stir any feelings, either positive or negative, other than the general frustration I feel whenever people express their irrational belief in the supernatural. I don't plan on returning until I have to for another wedding or perhaps a funeral.

This morning my wife commented on her disgust at the cannibalism of communion and at the authoritarianism of the requirement to believe in Jesus or be condemned to hell. She also somewhat mockingly made the sign of the cross at breakfast after having seen it so often this weekend. Not long after we got married, when she saw my family pray before every meal, she wanted to start our own tradition, so we always kiss each other before we eat together. If one of us forgets and starts eating without doing so, the “penalty” is an extra kiss. It's so much better than praying!