A while ago I decided that what I am could be labeled a hamist. That is, a Humanist-Atheist-Materialist. Here is the definition I wrote:
Humanism refers to the primacy of the well-being of human beings in judging actions. It is a guide for moral choices. Because the basic purpose of a life-stance is a guide to a person's actions, humanism is the most important of the three isms making up hamism.
Materialism is a system of metaphysics. It is the belief that nothing supernatural exists.
Atheism is the least important of the three isms, because it follows directly from materialism. It is stated separately, because it explicitly distinguishes hamists from the large majority of people who believe in gods.
Unfortunately, the words materialism and atheism are somewhat problematic.
The word materialism has been co-opted to mean greed or an attachment to material objects. My American Heritage dictionary still starts with the philosophical definition, but it provides additional meanings that come pretty close to greed also. I think this negative connotation arises from the common, but mistaken, belief that materialists cannot develop a meaningful system of ethics and thus rise above pettiness. For a convincing argument to the contrary, see the book Forbidden Fruit, by Paul Kurtz. Personally, I find this belief quite insulting.
The only problem with the word atheism is that it is entirely negative. Not that atheism has negative consequences, but its meaning is philosophically negative. Atheism has the positive consequence of liberating people from superstition, but this is the undoing of a mistake, not a novel new direction. Atheism is just the belief that no gods exist or the lack of a belief that gods exist, which is really the same thing. If this doesn't seem like the same thing to you, remember that Atheism is really the default for everyone - people are born atheists. At least Christians, Jews, and Muslims are born atheists; all these religions teach that information about God is revealed to mankind by holy books and prophets. Less cynically, imagine a world where everyone is an atheist, and always has been. If someone comes up to you in such a world and says, "God exists," they might as well say, "Blizkilnigwhut exists." The word "god" would simply have no meaning. But in a world where the idea of gods exists, the word atheist always has meaning as a negation of a known concept.
Some time after I wrote my definition of hamism I learned that humanism is often taken to imply atheism as in the third meaning given for humanism in the online Webster's:
hu. man. ism \\ n 1: the revival of classical letters, individualistic and critical spirit, and emphasis on secular concerns characteristic of the Renaissance 2: HUMANITARIANISM 3: a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; esp: a philosophy that asserts the dignity and worth of man and his capacity for self-realization through reason and that often rejects supernaturalism.
But, there are people who call themselves "religious humanists," so I prefer to specify that I am non-spiritual. Recently I realized that "secular humanist" really fits the bill admirably. Secular doesn't have the connotations of greed that materialism does, and it is not negative like atheism. At least, some definitions I have seen say "concerned with the world" rather than "denying the spiritual" as they do for atheism. Some religious people, especially evangelists, use "secular humanist" as an insult, but I don't find it insulting, so let them.
I have been asked questions like, "How can you believe that the universe is only physical things like elementary particles without anything more spiritual guiding or pervading or providing meaning to the world?" Questions like this always have that little word, "only," in there. I don't believe that the universe is "only" particles interacting, I am constantly in awe of this universe that is composed of particles interacting. I think it is very sad to label the universe as being "only" what it is. How distressing that so many people will go to their graves believing that the universe is somehow inadequate unless some fictional entity is conjured up to "give it meaning." This distress is the basic motivation for the active promotion of secular humanism. Unfortunately, secular humanism has been only weakly promoted in the past, and lately seems to be getting weaker, if anything.
I think an appropriate awe for the universe is important as an antidote to theistic fictionalizing. Carl Sagan expresses that awe in his latest book Pale Blue Dot.
Here is a carefully documented account of the war against science perpetrated by Christendom.
Last modified February 19, 1995
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