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Critiquing humanism and normalising atheism

By Roger O'Brien

Roger is a solicitor. He grew up on a council estate in Hull, and studied politics and modern history at Manchester University. He was actively involved in the Liberal Democrats and helped set up the Liberal Democrat Humanist & Secularist Group. He now lives in West Yorkshire with his partner Jane. In this article, he presents a critique of humanism from a particular political perspective.

What follows started out as a presentation to Northern Atheists UK, prompted simply by me saying that I was an atheist but not a humanist. I can’t remember precisely when I became an atheist. It was certainly before I started university. I was politically aware even earlier. I just assumed that I was a humanist. However, after taking part in the Greater Manchester Humanists Exploring Humanism course in 2015, I concluded that I was not. For around 15 years I was very active in the Liberal Democrats. Now I describe myself as a progressive, rather than a liberal. Key points to bear in mind:

  1. Social justice: For me, humanism is insufficiently committed to social justice because it’s too tolerant of political conservatism and conservative social attitudes. And when I refer to social justice/injustice I am not just referring to socio-economic inequality, but also to gender inequality.

  2. Timescale: My views on political progress should be seen as part of a continuing long-term project, not a manifesto for the next 5-10 years! It’s about continuing a direction of travel.

Political and personal disagreements with humanism

1. Humanism lacks a theory of historical development

I share the view that ideas are a function of the historical socio-economic conditions from which they emerge. Humanism lacks an overarching theory of historical development to explain the function that religion has served, and the forms that it has taken in different phases of economic development throughout history (feudalism, capitalism etc.). Humanism says, “Think for yourself”, which is good, but to understand your place in history is the vital first step in that process. Without some kind of theory of historical development, that is much harder. Humanism appears to accept that religion will go on indefinitely. I don’t agree, because I share a view of history in which religion clearly belongs in the past.

2. Humanism fails to criticise religion's function as a mechanism of social control

The most effective (normal?) way to exercise power over people is to persuade them to want to do what you want them to do!

Subject to important exceptions (to which I will return), religions have a long track-record of surviving (prospering!) by supporting the prevailing social order. Humanism does not ask:

• Why has religion been so persistent historically?

• What function has religion served historically?

• Which groups in society benefitted from this the most?

Religions get people to acquiesce by persuading them to adopt attitudes which are demonstrably contrary to their own self-interest ("false consciousness”). That applies not just to economic injustice, but also gender inequality. I am not saying that religion is the only component of ideology which does that, it’s just that “divine authority” makes it harder to challenge!

Any belief system which persuades people that we have an existence beyond this life will inevitably tend to mute criticism (to a greater or lesser extent) of social/gender injustice in this life. Any belief system which causes those with less wealth and power to be more likely to put up with it, seems to me to be inherently conservative.

To put it another way, for those familiar with Dawkins’ Meme Theory, religion can be understood as an example of successful meme replication: belief systems which tend to underpin economic and political elites are more likely to replicate successfully. Groups which “rock the boat”, socially or politically, tend to be at a disadvantage (at the very least!). There are benefits to making yourself “acceptable” to established opinion. Such “trimming” often happens without even realising it. Early Christians did this. In my opinion humanism has also done so. No-one is immune.

3. Unquestioning adherence to a dated human rights regime

Humanism has unnecessarily tied itself to a dated, conservative, human rights regime as a whole. A more selective approach would be more appropriate. Just like religious texts, declarations of human rights reflect the values acceptable at the time they were produced. They’re a product of the economic and social conditions within which they arise. There are no eternal universal rights because there are no eternal universal values.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) dates from 1948 and the European Convention (EHCR) from 1950. There’s lots of good stuff in them, but there’s also a lot which now seems dated, to put it politely. Some things were even controversial at the time, e.g. the right to own property in the UDHR (Note 1).

4. Religious education

Both the UDHR and the ECHR defend the right of parents to have their children educated in accordance with the parents’ religious convictions (Notes 2 &3). By unselectively advocating “Human Rights” as a whole, humanism effectively endorses this position. Education is for the benefit of wider society and the child, not the parent. The role of education in this area should be to put children (especially girls) in a position to make an informed decision about religion when they’re old enough. At the very least, governments should not be facilitating or funding the indoctrination of children into historic, disproven and dysfunctional belief systems.

And then there’s the question of apostasy. Several faith groups make abandoning the faith a sin. In ten countries it’s an offence, and in eight apostasy carries the death penalty. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does include a “fundamental right” to change religion, but what use is that if a child has been indoctrinated to believe that apostasy is a sin? Would it not be an idea to, at least, amend the “right to indoctrinate” to exclude those faith groups which deny humans the right to change their minds?

The appearance of unquestioning support for “Human Rights” by humanism is naive. This is a pretty clear example of why that support should be for specific human rights, not a blanket endorsement.

5. “Rites of Passage”

Apart from humanist funerals, I do not feel comfortable with humanist ceremonies, and consider such ceremonies for children to be inappropriate. I was particularly shocked to see the phrase “Rites of Passage” used to describe them on the Humanists UK website. I view “Rites of Passage” as manifestations of social conformity, historic values, patriarchy and tradition. For example, I share the view that the institution of marriage labels a woman in a way that it cannot label a man. The historical baggage is too great for it ever to be a level playing field.

Distinct but co-operating – humanism within a broader atheist team

There are many different ways to be an atheist. Humanism is just one of them. Even if you disagree with my political perspective, there is a strong argument, distinct from that, for atheists of different persuasions to campaign more effectively. The diverse strands within atheism could co-operate effectively but remain distinct, to facilitate different roles.

1. Humanism: a great “Defender” but a lousy “Striker” – a defensive reaction to monotheism

Humanism should be a valuable member of the atheist team going forward but it’s way too geared around religion. It goes to great lengths to explain how we can be “Good without God”. I agree, but how important is that? It’s an essentially defensive argument designed to defend against the “What is the basis of your morality?” charge from monotheists – but they are not a “target audience”! Also, it implicitly accepts that morality was ever a primary function of religion, which I think is religious propaganda. Morality was, and is, just a “cover story”. More importantly, how important is the “Good without God” approach to what I will call “mainstream atheists” today? (By “mainstream atheists” I mean people who have never been religious – at least not for a long time, perhaps never in their adult lives.) I don’t think they regard moral teaching as a great gap in their lives – it’s monotheists who regard it as a great gap in atheists’ lives!

Humanism is great for engaging with the religious and educational establishments. Also, the humanist approach is ideal for encouraging and supporting people who are considering leaving, or have just left, faith. Somebody does need to do that. But engaging with the religious should be a minor role within the atheist team. The main job is to mobilise those “mainstream atheists” so that we can normalise atheism.

In addition, whilst humanism may reject “supernatural or divine beliefs” as a source of moral guidance, it appears reluctant to say that religion is wrong, either factually or morally. It appears not to think that religion is a thing of the past, but to be content to sit alongside anachronistic religions (provided it gets the same privileges?).

Humanism also urges people to “Think for Yourself”. Again, this sounds good, but it’s not without issues. Humankind undoubtedly can “Think for Itself” without pretending to take external advice. But I’m not sure how well evolution has equipped individuals to do this. One weakness of the human species is a strong tendency to interpret the world by reference to existing preconceptions. This might have been useful in evolutionary terms most of the time. My concern is that in an increasingly complex, globalised, internet connected world trying to deal with new problems such as global warming, people’s existing preconceptions might be part of the problem, rather than a pathway to radical change.

2. Towards a more balanced team – “Normalising Atheism”

Humanism fails to properly target the main audience – the “mainstream atheists” described above. It is way too respectful of religion (probably, in part, because it’s busy trying to engage with them), and that limits humanism’s ability to motivate long-term atheists.

Religion Is Wrong! … Factually Wrong! And someone should shout it from the rooftops.

Humanism does not: it treats religion with kid gloves. As our understanding of the universe has grown, so the credibility of religion has declined, which means that the moral force of religion has also declined. The universe is clearly not "man centred". The idea that god cares about what individual humans get up to declines in credibility as our understanding of the size of the Universe grows.

Frankly, the idea is silly – and we should be prepared to say so … repeatedly!

I believe that:

  • The existence of an “interfering god” has been disproven to the reasonable satisfaction of any reasonable person.

  • Therefore, the prescriptive values which religion espouses were never divinely revealed …

  • Therefore, religions are just the historical values of the men who wrote them down, at the time they wrote them down. Just a bunch of stories to “keep the peasants in line”.

Unfortunately, humanism is too respectful of religion, and too focused on ethics and ceremonies, to point out the absurdity of religious belief in the modern world.

Humanism is great for:

  • Encouraging and supporting people making the “leap from faith”

  • Getting the message into schools

  • Allowing atheists to use the “religion or belief” argument to fight discrimination.

But it’s not primarily a question of philosophy, it’s primarily a question of mobilisation! What atheism needs is a campaign manager, not a philosopher. It needs a campaigning organisation positioned to go on the offensive.

Engaging with people of faith is not a bad thing … it’s just a distraction. They, after all, are quite easy to find. Long-term atheists may be harder to find, but identifying, engaging with and motivating them is, in my view, the top priority. They should not feel as if their atheism is something to be embarrassed about, but feel free to openly express atheist views. Atheists should be “out and loud” – in the workplace, in the pub, on social media, etc. We want to “normalise atheism” and we can win the public space. It’s religion that should be on the defensive.

3. Those “religious exceptions”

Whilst religions have directly supported the prevailing social and economic order, there have been religious voices which looked to curb its worst excesses (charity/compassion) but without challenging the fundamentals of the system. Thus, they could be regarded as indirectly supporting the prevailing system (“Feudalism with a human face”, “Compassionate capitalism”).

Nowadays, progressive Christians are committed to social justice (both within the developed world, between it and the developing world and between genders). They are also committed to preserving the environment for future generations. However, I believe that progressive people of faith (perhaps like humanists?) are fundamentally misguided about the prime role of religion as ideological apparatus (like having a heavy weight tied to their ankle). Nevertheless, I would probably find more in common with them than with a conservative atheist.

4. Conclusion

In short, you could say that I’m not a humanist because I’m a progressive anti-theist rather than a liberal atheist. My interest in atheism has always been primarily political. I was politically aware before I became an atheist, and my political awareness shaped that process. I wouldn’t be writing this if I wasn’t politically motivated to do so. When I was a Lib Dem I believed in the maximum amount of equality that was compatible with liberty. Now I believe in the maximum amount of liberty that is compatible with social justice. (In the words of Billy Bragg, “Liberty is just privilege extended unless applied to one and all"!)

This is a continuing long-term project. I have benefitted (massively) from the efforts of people who, over centuries, have campaigned for social justice. I want to keep that going for future generations. Atheism and humanism could help to push that project forward. But the priority is to embolden, engage and motivate long-term atheists.


  1. Not in the first draft, which was written by a Canadian socialist. Also fails to distinguish between owning the ‘shirt on your back’ and a large investment portfolio!

  2. 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26-3: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

  3. 1950 ECHR, Protocol 1, Article 2: “No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Editor's note

Humanistically Speaking is aligned with humanism as expressed in the Amsterdam Declaration. Beyond its minimal creed of non-theism/atheism and an ethical commitment to live a good life and contribute to the building of a good society, humanism does not have monolithic positions on anything. We recognise that some people identify as atheists not humanists and we are always interested to listen to, and potentially learn from, their critiques of humanism. If you would like to respond to Roger's article we would be pleased to hear from you.

Thumbnail image is of Percy Shelley who wrote "The Necessity of Atheism" in 1811 while he was a student at the University of Oxford. The pamphlet argued for the irrationality of belief in God. Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia article.

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Nov 10, 2023

I think Roger O'Brien has overlooked the fact that humanists in the past have been heavily involved in establishing organisations like the United Nations and many of its associated organisations.

In the United Kingdom, humanists have been in the vanguard of establishing the NHS, a welfare state, the Open University, legalising abortion, decriminalising homosexuality, gay marriages, etc.

Humanists UK - in alliance with other groups - continues to campaign for medically assisted dying.

As revealed by the latest 2021 census, a clear majority of UK residents are areligious.

These are all highly tangible achievements which I think Mr O'Brien does not understand.

Roger O'Brien
Roger O'Brien
Nov 18, 2023
Replying to

I should perhaps have included reference to humanists historic role in moving forward the progressive arc of history. However now, rather like the British Labour Party and Liberal Democrats, I fear their future role might be as much of a brake on progress as a vehicle for advancing it. The progressive arc of history parts company with the liberal arc.

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