There is a universal misconception of the similar yet distinct nature of atheism and secular humanism, more so in Nigeria where these terms – and, to some extent, the concepts they denote – are relatively new. This is not surprising, given the correspondence between the most elementary essences of the two ideologies.
Needless to say, theists believe in God or gods. Almost all religions are theistic, and these include the popular ones such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and many African traditional religions. Atheists, however, do not believe in any god or in supernatural occurrences. They are in many respects no different from the anti-theists who actively oppose theism or belief in any deity, whether there is any evidence which purportedly proves the existence of a god or not. The deist lies finely at the borderline. He, like the theist, believes in a Creator-God, yet, like the atheists, does not believe in supernatural occurrences or in a personal God that hears prayers and intervenes in people’s lives.
These arguments do not bother a humanist, and in this lies the difference between humanism and atheism – and even theism and deism for that matter. Theism, deism, and atheism are concerned with matters of faith – the first two in varying degrees believe in the existence of deity, the latter does not. This is where they stop, for the most part. Humanism, on the other hand, goes further than this. Humanists, regardless of their religion or irreligion, deem it unfitting, especially to common or shared human ethics, for fellow humans, regardless, as well, of their religion or irreligion, to be treated purely on the grounds of religious or irreligious beliefs, whether fairly or unfairly. In other words, humanists deem the human life to be more important than any supernatural and extraterrestrial life, or any claims about or beliefs in them. Therefore, humanism is not just a belief system; it is also an ethical system, a social movement and practical philosophy.
Humanists, in general, are neither religious fundamentalists nor anti-religious extremists. They are liberal and support individual liberty. They centre their moral outlook on humans and their values, dignity, equality, needs, interests, abilities, autonomy and freedom. They are human-loving. They respect and uphold human rights. They consider all humans to be equal, regardless of sex, nationality, race or religion. Since human lives are sacred to them, they uphold peace, pacifism, and never recourse to violence. They hold that human life, this very life that we share, is more important than religious or irreligious beliefs, rituals or traditions, therefore, they do not discriminate against anyone on these grounds.
This is the more usual connotation of the word humanism today. Now, when any individual integrates his religious or irreligious beliefs with his humanistic approach to life, an adjective denoting such beliefs is added before the term humanism. Thus, for example, a Christian or Muslim who upholds humanistic values is called a Christian humanist or Muslim humanist, respectively.
From the foregoing, it follows that a Muslim humanist, for example
1. Cannot kill or persecute a fellow human in the name of his religion or for the sake of some religious reasons
2. Respects the rights of other people to hold whatever religious or secular beliefs, so long as they do not impinge on other people’s rights and freedom
3. Respects the sexual preferences and activities between two or more consenting adults
4. Respects the rights of others to voluntary euthanasia and abortion
5. Does not indoctrinate his little child, which is a form of child abuse
6. Understands that his child has the right to hold whatever religious or secular views
7. Recognizes that women are equal, fellow human beings possessing equal rights and privileges as the men in the society
8. Upholds human rights, in general
Many religious people today may find it hard to accept this, because they erroneously believe that the humanist approach is, by definition, anti-religious. Yet for most of its history, humanism developed within the framework of religious thought, not outside of it! What early humanism objected to was a certain image of an all-powerful, inaccessible God, indifferent to human suffering, who had determined the personal fate of each and every person for eternity, and who demanded barbaric and inhumane rituals.
Humanists who do not believe in god(s) – atheists – or who are uncertain about the existence of god(s) – agnostics – are both secular humanists. Although secular humanists have an atheistic view about god(s), many do not want this one aspect to be regarded as definitive of their view of the world. Atheism, just like agnosticism, simply defines them in terms of what they do not believe rather than by what they do believe in. Therefore, the terms humanism and atheism are not and cannot be interchangeable, much less can humanism be a fancy word for atheism as popularly misconstrued. Truly, secular humanists, like the atheists
1. Consciously reject supernatural claims, theistic faith, religiosity, pseudoscience, and superstition
2. See the world as a natural place, and look to science and reason to make sense of it
3. Believe that this is the one life we have
4. Recognize altruistic morality without religion
However, unlike the atheists, they
1. Put human beings at the centre of their moral outlook
2. Are concerned primarily with the fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general, promoting human flourishing across all frontiers
1. Are in search of viable individual, social and political principles of ethics, and judge them on their ability to enhance human well-being
2. Have an interest in securing justice and fairness in society, and in eliminating discrimination and intolerance
3. Have a conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and posterity
In recent times, there has been an increasing tendency to refer to secular humanism simply as Humanism, with a capital H and no qualifying adjective added before it. This is so because Humanism and Humanist movements today are typically aligned with secularism. Notwithstanding this, secularism and atheism do not necessarily subscribe to Humanism.
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