It seems when people use the term atheist or humanist people are emphasising something about themselves. Atheist that put simply there is no evidence of a god. A humanist that there are values and ethical choices which we can make without resort to the supernatural or superstition. To that end they are both sides of the same coin – it really does depend on what you are emphasising.
So when someone says their ethical system is superior or their belief system self evident because it is sanctioned by divine writ, that it comes from god almighty and is not up for discussion, debate, reason or evaluation of consequences of ancient belief in the modern age then the passion in me rises. Because what they are saying is that even if it could be demonstrated that the belief when practised adds to human misery, causes untold suffering, has no benefit within this life time and the cost outweighs any, that no one is harmed on earth when someone breaks that belief – it still matters because god is offended, and faith matters over impact in the here and now.
People are entitled to have a religion. I would hope that people would put the inquiry that people do when shopping – scrutinize the alternatives on offer; or when listening to a used car salesman – examine the evidence that this car is not a lemon. If you want to believe that your life is worthless save for the agonising torture of a man 2,000 years ago that through the economy of salvation one man saved billions – good luck to you. I can tolerate that you may have this belief, meet up with people that have that belief and break bread, drink wine. You can even tell me about that belief with a view to saving my immortal soul.
However, in public discourse I will challenge your belief system. This may well hurt you. When saying I am an atheist this is nothing compared to when I phrase it I am not a christian in terms of shock on believers. Semantics no doubt, but I do not believe Jesus was the son of god, maybe he did not exist at all, and as for miracles I sincerely doubt it. Despite radical christianity (not the same as fundamentalist christianity) trying to move away from super naturalism (no god hears your pray etc) but use it as fable and allegory for leading an ethical life and jettisoning that which does not the question to ask is – can there be something better?
For me there is – and thank goodness for most religious people being able to cherry pick from their texts so that love, peace and harmony as goals are not affected by calls for slavery, inferiority of women, and death to the non believer. Yet the idea that ethics may be based not on a god or religious text is called into question. The only excuse I can think of is that people are unaware of the long history of moral philosophical thought, and the developments of law, which demonstrate the evidence that this does not need to be the case. Reason through the ages has been the major factor, religion often the style that the discourse has played its part in the historical narrative.
The thing is that the law is in many ways designed to protect citizens – from each other, even from the state. By this measure do we talk about the freedom that exists within a state. The secular state is seen, by some in the USA, as a threat to religion because when laws are framed, public policy is discussed, what god wants and their beliefs are not automatically given precedence.
But they should not be. Religious views have no more precedence than other political views or economic doctrines. Your religious belief should not hold any other citizen to ransom in their choices and behaviour – because the criteria is not that your sensibilities are harmed, or a god we cannot have a two way conversation with is made angry and his wrath is terrible, but whether the individual concerned is actually causing real harm that threatens the public good and needs to be held accountable for their actions.
It is with that view that humanism tries to work out what is the answer to ethical questions. It does not hold truth to be self evident. It does not accept that thinking is tied down, but through discourse and reason we can discover common values which have helped us live together, and that as a community writ large or small the human condition can be improved, and that change can be a good thing.
Do I wish religion would disappear? I just want people to examine, without prejudice, the world and universe in which we live. We only have a short time on this planet, and we hopefully can do more than just survive – we want to have meaning in our lives. Yet religion is not for me the best way – it certainly is not the only way. It should not be an issue to discuss and evaluate the moral claims we make, your life though is your own.